This election has led to a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the state of the electorate, and I’ve seen a lot of people arguing that the voting population in the United States needs more civics education. In many ways, I agree; I don’t think most voters could explain the mechanisms of our government or the reasons those mechanisms purportedly exist, and it would be great if they could. It would be great if people had more knowledge about “how the government works,” or rather how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t think that’s the solution.
We’re in the middle of this national conversation about what kind of country we want to be. People are thinking a lot about what it means to live in a pluralistic country. They’re thinking about what their vote means to them and to others. They’re thinking about the role the government should play in the economy. They’re thinking about the appropriate balance of power between the federal government and the states. They’re thinking about the importance of civility in political discourse. They’re thinking about gender relations and sexual assault, or trying very hard not to. They’re thinking about whether our government should prioritize the will of the majority or the rights of the minority.
These can be theoretical questions, and we can talk about the general consensus drawn from the values in our founding documents, and we can talk about how we would answer them now. But we don’t have to talk about them just as abstract issues, because they aren’t. And we don’t have to only think about how we would answer them today
This election has also led to a lot of historians freaking out. We’re not freaking out because “history repeats itself” (it doesn’t) or “we should learn history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past” (ehhhh not really), we’re freaking out because we feel the weight of history in this election so acutely. The ability to feel the weight of history in everything you do is kind of exhausting, but weight exists because of gravity, and right now, the weight of history serves as a constant reminder of the gravity of the choices we and others make.
So I don’t think it’s enough to know that we have the right to vote and we should use it. I think it’s important to also know that most of us wouldn’t have had the right to vote in the past. I think it’s important to know how hard those in power have worked to keep new groups from obtaining – and then exercising – the right to vote. Without the history of Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act, Jim Crow, the 19th and 15th Amendments, Dred Scott, Jacksonian democracy, and dozens of other things, the importance of the right to vote is missing so much.
I don’t think it’s enough to know that the electoral college exists and that creates swing states. I think it’s important to know why the electoral college was created – and why states even exist. Without the history of colonies, of the Articles of Confederation, of the Constitutional convention, the 3/5ths clause, the direct election of senators, and the ongoing discussion about federal vs. state power – including a civil war – the importance of the electoral college can’t be fully understood.
I don’t think it’s enough to say that religious liberty is a central right in this country. I think it’s vital to know the earlier drafts of the religious freedom clause, and that non-Protestants were excluded from office holding, and that there was a political party dedicated to keeping Catholics out of power because they were seen as un-American, and that the Klan hanged Jews, and that we’ve only had one non-Protestant president, and that people wanted to burn Warren in effigy over Abington v. Schempp. Without that, it’s easy to glibly say we’re a nation founded on religious liberty; I’d prefer we were realistic about how poorly we’ve lived up to that ideal, or whether that ideal has ever really been the ideal.
It’s certainly not enough to say we’re a nation of immigrants. We are, but Franklin worried about the influence of the German population, and native-born Anglo-Americans worried about the influence of the Irish, and they harassed and killed and banned the Chinese. To say we’re a nation of immigrants and celebrate that without acknowledging Know-Nothingism, anti-colonial activists who raised the specter of Filipino immigrants, the Asiatic Barred Zone, the Johnson-Reed Act, the Klan’s hatred of Italian and Jewish immigrants, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, the bracero program…that is to pointedly ignore the fact that we may be a nation of immigrants but we’ve never really liked it.
And to say this is a landmark election because one of the candidates is a woman…well, you’d stand out, because the gravity of that fact has not been acknowledged or even comprehended. Certainly there’s been celebration of the suffragists, and some mention of Shirley Chisholm, but without an understanding of coverture, of women’s unpaid labor, of anti-suffrage, of the racist and classist divisions within the suffrage movement, of women’s exclusion from jury service, of the use of gendered language to take down male politicians…without all of that, it’s easier to brush off this moment as not that historic. And if you know the history of women in America, you understand that people brushing off women’s excitement in this moment is pretty much par for the course.
This semester, I’ve had a lot of great conversations with students, in and out of class, about how coming to understand how people like them in the past were treated has led to a greater understanding of their place in America today. A Catholic student realizing people like her weren’t always considered American. A black student realizing the contradictions within the idea of paternalistic slaveholding, and the way that myth shapes discussions today. A class full of women realizing the level of physical and emotional violence and exploitation that was visited on women in Early America, and coming to the sickening realization that the way rape was framed at the turn of the 19th century is not too different from the discourse they know. Almost all of my students realizing that they would have been excluded from voting until 1972, even though they were paying taxes and going to war.
Civics education is good, and we should have more of it. It helps you understand how and why – theoretically – the government is set up as it is, and how it’s supposed to function today. History helps you understand how and why – historically – the government has been set up as it has, and how it was supposed to function. But it also tells us who it was supposed to function for, and who it was supposed to exclude, and how liberty and justice have never been for all, and how lots of people liked it that way.
I can admire the theoretical construction of our government, and think “the Founders” were really smart dudes, but I can’t escape the fact that when I go into the voting booth, I am doing something that they couldn’t have dreamed of, something that they would have seen as wrong – not “more perfect” at all. Others can enter the voting booth knowing that people like them have been killed for the right to vote. And many of us should enter the voting booth knowing that people like us have killed to prevent other groups from voting. That is what history provides – an understanding of the weight of the past we’ve been carrying with us, often unknowingly. Perhaps if more of us could feel the weight of history, in time, the burdens would be lighter for us all.
Tl;dr Support history education so Kevin Kruse’s fingers don’t fall off contextualizing everything for us on Twitter.