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Striving For A More Educated Electorate

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
“We can’t afford to lose this as a teaching moment,” President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas, who served in the George H.W., Bush Administration, said of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S Capitol. “Countries need history. We need narratives. We need stories.”

He also said those words in response to a comment made by Pennsylvania’s Washington County Republican Chair Dave Ball who was angered by his U.S. Senator’s vote for impeaching former President Donald Trump. Pat Toomey was one of seven Republican senators who voted in favor of impeachment. The vote was 57 to 43, 10 short of the required 67. Toomey voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and voted for his proposals 87 percent of the time.

“His betrayal of the Constitution and his oath of office required conviction,” Toomey said after the vote. “Had he accepted the outcome of the election, acknowledged defeat, and cooperated with a peaceful transfer, then he’d be celebrated for a lot of the accomplishments that he deserves credit for. Instead, he’ll be remembered throughout history as the president who resorted to nonlegal steps to try to hold on to power. I did what I thought was right.”

“We did not send him there to vote his conscience,” Ball said of Toomey’s vote. “We did not send him there to do the right thing.’” Many in Toomey’s state Republican Party want him censured.

As Haas said, this is a teachable moment about American politics and the responsibilities of elected officials. The first lesson can start with the 247-year-old words of British statesman Edmund Burke.

An elected official owes his constituents “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience,” he said in 1774. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

More recently, Lee Hamilton, who served in the U.S. House for 34 years, said:

“Most members of Congress, I think, would agree with Burke. Their jobs, after all, consist — or, at least, ought to consist — of studying the issues before them, weighing the alternatives, and thinking through the consequences of each.

 “I know, from my own experience and that of others, that at the end of a career on Capitol Hill, a member feels proudest of those votes, speeches, and times he or she has acted according to conscience and done the right thing in the face of countervailing pressures.”

There are two other faults with Ball’s statement. First, it implies that an elected official only represents those who voted for him or her. Elected officials represent all those in their community, school district, state legislative district, congressional district, or nation when he or she swears the oath of office.

Secondly, that oath is to the U.S. Constitution, a sense of duty, and of morality. None of these three should be abandoned in blind loyalty to party.

“We have a civics deficit in this country,” Haas said. “That people would take matters into their own hands to use violence to pursue their political agenda. We send people to Washington to do what they think is right. We don’t ask them to poll their constituents constantly. We ask them to use their judgment.”

Ball’s comments are a warning that the essence at the heart of our representative American democracy is being lost, he said. Civics education must become a national priority if we are to avoid a repeat of Jan. 6.

One key element of that education also has to be that core beliefs, whether conservative or liberal, are legitimate and the foundation of our democratic system in a diverse nation.

Demonizing and instilling hatred toward the opposing party is not democratic behavior. It is the tool of despots and dictators. It is not the work of those who would build an inclusive nation but of those who would rip it apart by pitting neighbors, friends, and family bitterly against one another.

We live in a poisonous information world. It has infected not just people at the fringes of society but many people who think they represent middle America. If you can say that all Democrats are socialists or communists who will destroy America, you’re over the edge. If you say all Republicans are looking to follow a new Adolph Hitler, you have gone over the edge. Yet, we hear those words from people we once thought were moderates in their parties.

Unless and until we see each other as having equal worth striving to make America a better place, we will have failed at educating our youth and all citizens about the basics of what makes government work. We need to teach acceptance of diverse thoughts, not just that there are three branches of government, who was the first president and when was the Bill of Rights adopted.

We can provide our children with a solid civic education but how do we inoculate them against the pervasive disinformation flooding the airwaves, print, and internet? All our high-minded principles are of little value if they are discarded in favor of party propaganda and slanted news that nurtures grievances, fears and hatred. Though it will be challenging, we must also teach the American public, not just our children, how to separate fact from fiction.

Not all the reading we do is for work. We often read for escape and entertainment, but even in these books there are words that make us think.

“Men…are capable of great atrocities if they can do it in the name of another, be it gods or kings. Duty can give you courage and a sense of honour, but it can give you cause to act without thought,” Philip C. Quantrell writes in his book “Rise of the Ranger.” His words echo Voltaire’s. We saw their warnings come to life Jan. 6.

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