“A democracy cannot exist without an educated citizenry.”
So says the mission statement on our masthead. And that has been on my mind a great deal lately. Exactly what constitutes sufficient education to acquire, enable and preserve a democracy?
The Founding Fathers restricted the franchise rather sharply, obviously feeling that the ‘average’ citizen was not educated enough to vote. They feared democracy and were quite open about their mistrust of the Common Man. It wasn’t until Jackson’s time that The People began to flex their muscle and by the middle of the 19th century, most white males could vote, although several states established a literacy test. In the South, these tests were intended to disenfranchise blacks and poor whites; in the North, to disenfranchise the Irish & Catholic immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. And women were disenfranchised through most of recorded history in most cultures.
Today the very idea of ‘political literacy’ would raise a storm of protest, particularly from those who feei their ignorant opinion is as valid as another person’s educated opinion. Yet nobody is agitating for a return to requiring some minimal knowledge. Even the disenfranchising activities we see today target those who are presumed to vote Democrat not those who are too ignorant to make an informed vote.
How many people can truthfully say they understand all the issues involved well enough to make an ‘informed’ choice? Who among us is competent to manage the financial world and the domestic economy and direct foreign policy and has the necessary political skills and has a workable and desirable vision of what the future should be? (Note that the last is the only issue which is open to opinion. The other items are situations which must be dealt with, well or poorly).
We might trust X to handle finances, Y to handle politics, Z to cope with the Middle East, Q to relate to BRICS, R to deal with the EU, etc. The fact is we don’t know enough about all the subjects. We don’t know enough to accurately judge whether the candidates know enough about all the issues on the table.
The ‘education’ of the citizenry cannot possibly consist of a mastery of the relevant facts about government. In reality, people seldom vote on facts. We vote on feelings. By that I do not mean we vote based on feelings of anger, hatred, bigotry, fear; although many may so vote. I mean that we vote based on feelings about the candidates. Those feelings may be influenced by the politician’s positions on various issues, particularly issues of individual concern to each of us, but when it comes right down to it, we vote based on our judgment of what kind of person a candidate really is. Who are they when the cameras are gone and the candidate kicks off his/her shoes and settles back with a sigh of relief and a stiff drink. Who they will tell to fuck off and who they will invite to the table.
If you’re sitting at a bar and pop into the men’s room, leaving your wallet on the bar beside your drink, does that mean you trust the bartender and your drinking companion? Nope. It means you trust your judgment of them as honest people.
I can vote for someone I disagree with. I’ve worked closely and well with people I argued vociferously with. I can even vote for someone I dislike. But I cannot vote for someone I do not respect. And in that regard, it’s not formal education or extensive reading that calls the shots. It’s my experience dealing with many different sorts of people over many years under many different circumstances. I don’t give a damn what Donald Trump says because my experience with people tells me that he is a narcissist, windbag, con-man asshole. I don’t care what positions Ted Cruz espouses, because my experience with people tells me he’s a delusional religious fanatic who would do and say anything to achieve the power to enact his warped religious views. You can go right down the line, mutatis mutandis with the rest of the politicians.
When I find a great writer, whatever the genre or story might be, I always learn a little something about the author. It’s not that the writer expresses his own views necessarily, but the choice of words, the way a writer phrases an idea can tell me something about the author. Similarly, it’s not always a politician’s ‘platform’ that informs me. It’s the way he/she speaks of it, how he/she tries to connect with (or manipulate) me. I don’t vote solely for ideas since those may change in changed circumstances. I don’t vote solely for professed plans since the best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men gang aft agley (particularly when the other party controls Congress). I totally ignore ‘charisma’ and ‘personality’. I vote on my judgment of a person’s character.
Am I always right? Of course not. I have in fact been sometimes surprised to discover someone was better than I expected, that someone I considered ‘meh’ could turn out to have redeeming virtues (Nixon, for instance). But I have never been wrong in my judgment of bastards. I strongly disliked Reagan, Bush Sr, Dubya and Slick Willie and have never found reason to change my mind about them.
One can judge a passed presidency because the past consists of facts rather than options, opportunities, choices. What’s done is done, for better or worse. Judging before the fact is a different matter. If you think you vote completely on rational grounds, ask yourself if you are well enough educated in all relevant areas to be a successful President yourself. If not, ask yourself if you’re qualified to judge others. And when you vote, recognize where the vote’s really coming from.