The Perilous State of Our Union, and How We Got Here

The Perilous State of Our Union, and How We Got Here
(Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via AP)
The Perilous State of Our Union, and How We Got Here
(Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via AP)
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The coronavirus epidemic has shed a glaring light on weaknesses in the American public health care system, as well as structural fault lines in our economy. The crisis is particularly lethal where those weaknesses and fault lines intersect -- among racial/ethnic minorities and the poor. It has also brought to light a host of other problems.

An article slated for publication in the June issue of The Atlantic (but already available online) by prominent journalist and author George Packer is headlined “We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.” Packer’s powerful essay begins:

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills -- a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public -- had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity -- to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

It only grows more damning from there. I found myself agreeing with every word Packer wrote, and fault him only for what he didn’t say. Certainly, our leaders have failed us, and several institutions of government that we count on to protect us have not been up to the challenge. That seems non-debatable. But it is time to face another uncomfortable fact: We citizens aren’t innocent victims; we have been co-conspirators in the crime. In the context of the spread of COVID-19 and the economic collapse it has triggered, it is not too harsh to suggest that Americans are getting exactly what they deserve.

To support that indictment, I turn to RealClearPolitics’ Washington Bureau Chief Carl M. Cannon, who in early April, after citing a few damning facts about Americans’ lack of historical knowledge and basic civic awareness, wrote:

The peril of such historical ignorance should be obvious, but it’s worth spelling it out: A generation that lacks the facts of America’s founding will not know its narrative either. This is not a theoretical concern: It’s a real one – at a hinge point in our nation’s history. When the pandemic subsides, “We the People” will face the task of repairing our economy and addressing the shortcomings in our political culture that made dealing with an exotic new virus even more contentious and difficult than was necessary. We will need to rethink our relations with the other nations of the world. This will take confidence and strength -- and no small measure of grace. We will need a new “greatest generation. 

Cannon’s buildup to that conclusion rested on various assessments of Americans’ civic literacy, some of which were contained in a 2019 national survey of citizens sponsored by the American Bar Association, which revealed that fewer than half the respondents recognized John Roberts as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly one-fourth thought it was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

He also cited annual surveys by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation that “have been even more disheartening” They have shown that only slightly more than a third of Americans could pass the examination administered to immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens. In fact:

In [the] 2018 version of the Woodrow Wilson foundation test, only 13% of Americans could accurately tell you when the Constitution was ratified, 60% didn’t know who the U.S. fought in World War II, and only 24% correctly identified a single thing Ben Franklin was famous for. (Some 37% believed he invented the lightbulb.) In the 2019 version of the survey, only 43% knew that President Wilson was the U.S. commander-in-chief during World War I, which was particularly galling to the poll sponsors. 

Unbelievably, the situation Cannon described in his essay, which tracks with Packer’s even more dystopian view, seems likely to get even worse as today’s youth reach adulthood and secure the franchise -- and that is truly galling to someone like me, who helped organize the national campaign for the 18-year-old-vote in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As reported recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that rather than making progress, as a people we are going in entirely the wrong direction. Education Week summarized the 2018 report of eighth graders performance as follows: 

  • Eighth graders’ grasp of key topics in history have plummeted, national test scores released this morning show — an alarming result at a time of deep political polarization, economic uncertainty, and public upheaval in the United States.
  • Except for the very top-performing students, scores fell among nearly all grade 8 students in history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, since the last history administration, in 2014.
  • The decline of four points overall erased fully half of the overall gains made in the subject since 1994, the first year the exam was given. Federal officials described themselves as “disappointed” and the results as “pervasive” and “disturbing.”
  • Scores fell in geography, too. In that subject, the overall decline of three points since 2014 was largely due to a downturn in the performance of the lowest-performing students — those at the 25th percentile and below.
  • Only in civics, the third subject tested, did students’ scores remain flat. Learning in that subject has historically proved difficult to budge: Since its first administration, in 1998, scores in that assessment have increased by only three points.

Ben Franklin’s 1787 admonition, quoted by Carl Cannon, rings more prescient today than ever before: What have the Founders created, Franklin was asked. “A Republic if you can keep it,” he replied. Trouble is, after more than two centuries of trying to live up to it, “We, the People” seem to have forgotten it completely.

Les Francis served as Rep. Norman Mineta’s first congressional chief of staff before moving to Jimmy Carter’s White House as deputy assistant to the president and eventually deputy White House chief of staff. He remained active in national politics and public affairs from offices in Washington, D.C., for four decades before returning to his native California in 2016.

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