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Think about it — did you ever think for a moment that we would have an American president that not only would ignore and fail to observe our democratic norms and values, but openly flaunted not abiding by them? Further, did you ever imagine that thousands of angry Americans would descend on our Capitol, vandalizing it, assaulting and injuring police officers, as well as breeching the Capitol chambers in an attempt to apprehend the Vice President and stop members of Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results? Above all, did you ever imagine that this insurrection was based on a Big Lie, promulgated by a former president, and promoted by a large portion of his political party? Probably not.

Unprecedented Words

On July 21, 2016, then candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Donald Trump ascended to the podium at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to accept his party’s nomination. The words of his words of acceptance speech were, in part:

“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, (dramatic pause with audience laughter), which is why I alone can fix it.” [1] (emphasis mine)

Contrast those words with those of President Joe Biden spoken on July 13, 2021 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:

“…We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War…I’m not saying this to alarm you; I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.” [2] (emphasis mine)


These are not the words of a president of a fledgling democracy, or the president of a nation that is viewed as still experimenting with democracy. These are the words of the President of the United States, one of the oldest continuously operating democracies in the world, one that had been held out to the rest of the world as a stalwart example of democratic principles and democratic responsibilities. But, in one day, on January 6, 2021, “chinks in our democratic armor” were laid bare for all Americans to see- and for all the world to see as we watched Americans, at the urging of a sitting U.S. president, storm and assault their own Capitol attempting to thwart Congress’ ratification of the 2020 presidential election results.



Many signs of weakness in American democracy were on display long before January 6, 2021. We simply chose to ignore them or pretend they did not exist.  Carl Sagan saw it coming over twenty-five years ago when he wrote these words in his book, The Demon- Haunted World:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time —when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantiative content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.” [3] (emphasis mine)


Prophetic words, are they not?  And now these signs are manifesting themselves in “alternate truths”, conspiracy theories, gas lighting, big lies, and radicalization of a significant part of a major American political party.  Since Sagan wrote these words, various causes of these consequences from weaknesses in our democracy have been identified by historians and political scientists.  Historian Heather Cox Richardson describes our struggles as a democracy as a “vision conflict”.


“Throughout our history, adherents of these two different visions of what constitutes the best government for the U.S. have struggled. On the one hand are those who say that the country operates best when the government is controlled by a few wealthy, educated, well-connected, and usually white and male leaders. The argument goes that they are the only ones with the skills, the insight, and the experience to make good decisions about national policy, particularly economic policy. On the other side are those like Lincoln, who believe that government should reflect the will of the majority, not simply on principle, but because a wide range of voices means the government has a better chance of getting things right than when only a few people rule.” [4] (emphasis mine)


Author Michael Tomasky takes this diagnosis of the condition of American democracy today a step further saying:

“…We are in trouble. Our political culture is broken, but it is not broken for the reasons that you read that it is broken — because “Washington is dysfunctional”, or because politicians have no “will”. No. It’s broken because some people broke it. It was broken by people who pushed an economic theory on the rest of us that has driven trillions of dollars that were once in middle-class pockets to a comparative few at the top. Who refused to invest in the country anymore. Who will not even negotiate real investment. Who have been telling us for years that the market will take care of our needs…” [5] (emphasis mine)


Democracy scholar and Stanford political science Professor Larry Diamond points to the low speed that a democracy’s downward trajectory can take before our very eyes saying:

 “Slow descents have a way of lulling us into complacency. Things aren’t so bad, we tell ourselves, they’re just slipping a bit. But we ignore gradual decay to our peril. In Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the freewheeling, hard-drinking Mike Campbell is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he says. “Gradually and then suddenly.” The demise of democracy is often like that too.” [6] (emphasis mine)


These problems with our democracy, while not new, are multi-causal. Other reasons for our current struggles with American democracy are structural with, for example, the Electoral College, while others are systemic like gerrymandering of federal and state election districts. Another causal factor weakening our democracy has been Americans’ shift away from thinking of themselves first in their role as citizens, with citizenship’s attendant civic duties and responsibilities, to an identity of viewing themselves first and foremost as “customers and consumers” of governmental services.


All these societal forces, and likely more, have weakened American democracy. Arguably, perhaps one of the most important causes of our democracy’s struggles is our civic literacy.  Or more accurately, our lack of civic literacy — our civic illiteracy.  Our founders knew from the outset of our democracy that citizens’ civic knowledge is learned, and that it is essential for a democracy’s survival.

Yet, our nation’s civic literacy has been on a steady decline.  But, it is not for lack of being told that this decline was occurring. To their credit, perhaps some of most important monitors of American civic literacy have been members of our non-profit and educational sectors. They have been sounding the alarm about Americans’ civic knowledge for some time now, but few champions have emerged able to create the shared sense of alarm we all should have about this. Examples of these “watchman on the wall” regarding our civic literacy decline include educator E.D. Hirsch, Jr. who demonstrates how the change in how we educate our children away from a shared knowledge-based approach to a child centered, constructivist approach (where the child identifies what they are interested in learning) has eroded teachers’ ability to create a sound approach to citizen building. As Hirsch points out, “…Schooling in a democracy is not just schooling. It’s also citizen making…” [7]  At least it was, as Hirsch contends, until the late 1940s. Until then, the American public school was at the vanguard of our “citizen making” with our teachers leading the way, but today our education system is more focused on equipping our youth to function in an economy focused on math and technology. Civics education is for the most part, an afterthought for us.

Others sounding the alarm are task forces that have been formed of experts in civic education and government by such esteemed organizations as the Annenberg Foundation, Brookings Institute, and others. Their reports all show Americans’ civic knowledge is not only abysmal, but cannot sustain a democracy effectively. Some of these same organizations regularly administer surveys of Americans which confirm this American deficit in civic knowledge for citizens of a democratic republic. In many cases, these surveys show that native-born Americans cannot pass the same citizenship test required of those immigrants who wish to become naturalized American citizens.

At the same time, our practice of democracy at the grassroots, local level has decreased as Americans have steadily turned away from their practice of democracy by no longer involving themselves in civic organizations as Robert Putnam has demonstrated in his classic work, Bowling Alone. By contrast, Yoni Applebaum stresses that our history shows that practice of democracy at the local level in civic and church organizations had been prevalent saying, “…For two centuries, the United States was distinguished by its mania for democracy…” [8]  That practice has been usurped by other interests and activities, most of which do not involve interacting with our fellow community members.


The former practice of democracy by Americans in their everyday life does not seem to be prevalent anymore.  Instead, it has been replaced by a “counterfeit”.  It is a counterfeit “supposed civic knowledge” of American democracy formed on false realities and false narratives, “alternate facts”, cynicism, mistrust, lies, misinformation, op ed news media disguised as news, economic inequities, and low expectations of autocratic leaders who have no interest in or desire to adhere to our democratic norms and values. This leaves us unable to critically think, detect lies, and recognize major change in the public square. All of these elements of counterfeit civic knowledge combine to make us civically illiterate and unable to handle the complexities of American democracy in the 21st century. That is a dangerous place for Americans to find themselves in a world that increasingly gravitates toward fascism and strong man rulers rather than democracy and consent of the governed.

We can recite cartoon character Pogo’s mantra, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”, as the base cause of our civic illiteracy, but the real enemy is ignorance born out of poor civic education. [9]  Kentucky’s former Poet Laureate Richard Taylor describes the January 6th insurrectionists being “…as much victims as perpetrators. They are victims of a national complacency about educating an informed citizenry, a sustaining element in any democracy.” [10] Our national civic ignorance can only be addressed through education.
One cannot learn what they have not been taught.  And, there is much we do not teach today in civics curriculum across this country that is foundational to maintaining democracy in the 21st century.  

There is no way around the fact that our civic education platform needs to be totally overhauled.  The shared skills and knowledge necessary for Americans to be effective 21st century citizens in our democracy are far more complex than they were even ten years ago.  Equally important, the forces attacking democracy here and abroad are more sophisticated and as relentless as they have ever been.  Understanding what those attacks are and how they undermine democracy must be taught and understood by Americans as well.  Make no mistake, our country is at a critical moment.  As Diamond puts it: 

            “This is an existential moment for American democracy. We could rescue it from the howling gales of bigotry, fear, nativism, prejudice, and misinformation. But we could   also lose it.” [11]


Yet, we can “fix this” civic knowledge gap.  It is a solvable problem. However, we cannot address this problem until we recognize and declare that we have a problem. But, if we can come to the point that we recognize the danger civic illiteracy puts us in, and the futility of continuing to try to address our civic illiteracy only with learning approaches that do not reflect our current civic reality, it is at that point that we can come together with a “new civics” for American citizens of all ages.  

We must construct a new civics that not only teaches the structure of American democratic government, but covers many other topics that will help sustain our democracy in the 21st century including truth, trust, and freedom. Topics such as critical thinking and understanding that there is far more to learn when it comes to American history than what is presently taught. Topics such as leadership, democratic norms, and values, as well as how to recognize autocratic, fascist leadership from true servant leadership. Subjects such as critical thinking so we can avoid manipulation, “alternative facts”, gas lighting, conspiracy thinking, lies, and radicalization by our political leaders and parties. Topics such as restoring a high view of public service and the criticality of restoring our news media to being an arbiter of truth as opposed to what we have today which in many instances amounts to de facto “state TV”. All these topics, and more, must be included in our “new civics”.

It is with enhanced civic literacy that we can exercise the most important role of citizens in a representative democracy — constructive civic awareness and engagement. It is the vital democratic role of “We the People”-— utilized with discernment in the public square along with the concept of “the consent of the governed”. Without the adequately informed consent of the governed exercised thoughtfully and with the common good in mind, our democracy is in peril. Yet, American democracy does not have to be at risk peril if we come together to see our collect duty as American citizens- to be civically educated to function in a 21st century representative democracy.  

We alone, We the People, can fix it.

[1] Excerpt from Donald Trump 2016 Republican Nomination Acceptance Speech, July 21, 2016, Politico,

[2] Remarks by President Biden on Protecting the Sacred, Constitutional Right to Vote, July 13, 2021, National Constitutional Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, www.whitehouse.gove/brief-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/13/remarks-by-president-biden-on-protecting-the-sacred-constituional-right-to-vote

[3] “Carl Sagan Saw Today’s ‘Demon-Haunted’ America Coming Over 20 Years Ago”, by Shawn Langlois, August 13, 2017, 12:02 p.m. ET, 

[4] Letters from an American, by Heather Cox Richardson, April 7, 2021, All Rights Reserved

[5] If We Can Keep It, How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved, by Michael Tomasky, pp 235-236, Ibid

[6] Ill Winds, Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, by Larry Diamond, Copyright 2019, pg. 288, Ibid

[7] How to Educate a Citizen, The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., pg. 9, Copyright 2020, HarperCollins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, NY  10007

[8] “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy”, by Yoni Applebaum, The Atlantic, October 2018, pg. of 10,


[10] “Ignorance In All Its Strains’ Is Another U.S. Pandemic. It Must Be Overcome”, by Richard Taylor, Lexington Herald Leader, January 21, 2021, 5:13 PM, https: 248662175.html

[11] Ill Winds, Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, by Larry Diamond, pg. 305, Ibid


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There are some good books and studies available for those who want to dive deeper to get an even better sense of the assault our democracy is undergoing and all that is behind it. Many of these books are available at local public libraries, while the studies referenced are available online. “Hats off” to all these authors and organizations for calling our attention to all the topics that ultimately must be addressed if we intend for our democracy to not only survive, but thrive.


As you read their works, you will see how they have significantly impacted Fighting for Democracy. I heartily recommend their work for your perusal.

  • Guardian of Democracy, The Civic Mission of Schools, Leornore Annenberg Institute for Civics, Annenberg Public Policy Center

  • Putting Democracy Back Into Public Education by Kahlenberg and Janney

  • The Democracy Fund, This is an excellent organization that exists to promote and strengthen democracy. Pay special attention to their democratic framework map and systems thinking.

  • How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson

  • If We Can Keep It, How the Republic Collapsed and How We Can Keep It by Michael Tomasky

  • Strongmen, How they Succeed, How they Fail by Ruth Ben-Ghiat

  • Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire, A 500 Year History by Kurt Andersen

  • Love Your Enemies, How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt by Arthur C. Brooks

  • How Democracies Die by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

  • Gaslighting America, Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us by Amanda Carpenter

  • Ill Winds, Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency by Larry Diamond

  • Hiding in Plain Sight, The Invention of Donald Trump, and the Erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior

  • How to Educate a Citizen, The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

  • Lies My Teacher Told Me, Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen

  • It Was All a Lie, How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump by Stuart Stevens

  • The Soul of America, The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meachum 

  • Fascism, A Warning by Madelaine Albright

  • Twilight of Democracy, the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

  • The Constitution, The Essential User’s Guide, Introduction by Sandra Day O’Connor

  • 4th Dimension Leadership: A Radical Strategy for Creating an Authentic Servant Leadership Culture by Ron Holifield

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