This has been an incredibly strange semester as a professor teaching college-level government courses. Because I research the success or failure of democratic institutions, I feel an increased sense of urgency to explain the workings of government to my students and to convey explicitly that the current political situation is not normal.
At the same time, the shift to online college education in the middle of a pandemic feels paradoxically trivial. I teach at a community college and most of my students’ lives are in chaos. Many are the frontline workers — caretakers and grocery store cashiers — pulling double shifts as their coworkers fall sick from COVID-19.
In this environment, it seems almost unfair to demand that they turn in any work at all.
The competing demands of civics education in the midst of crisis are a microcosm of the political challenges Americans will face in a post-Trump era. The transition to a Biden administration has already proven unusually rocky; the General Services Administration waited a full two weeks before agreeing to recognize the transition and release government funds. The Trump administration’s continued unwillingness to fully concede defeat puts lives at risk by slowing down the processes of distributing a vaccine.
Weeks earlier, in his acceptance speech, President-elect Joe Biden emphasized that he wants to work to heal partisan divides. However, if Americans cannot agree on the basic rules of democratic competition or the proper functions of our government institutions, this task will be much harder than his optimistic rhetoric implies.
Much of the current White House political propaganda relies on obscuring how government actually works, from the president’s erroneous claims that the election was rigged, to his conspiracy-mongering about the “deep state” to his overreliance on toothless executive orders.
Given the administration’s reliance on misleading information over the last four years, it can be tempting to proclaim that Americans simply need a better civics education.
Surveys by public policy institutes have long chronicled the deficiencies in American political knowledge. For example, a 2019 survey by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found that only 40 percent of Americans nationwide could pass a citizenship test.
Recently, Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville (R-Alabama) seemed to exemplify the failures of existing civics education when he incorrectly identified the three branches of government.
However, focusing on a simple lack of political knowledge underestimates the challenges facing educators and the public.
In my job to teach students both the basic values of U.S. democracy and the correct function of U.S. political institutions, I work to keep my own views out of the classroom. Instead, I try to give students the information and tools to think critically about politics because I want them to form their own opinions on political issues.
But those in and around this White House have made my traditional teaching approach all but impossible. In this political environment, even facts about the basic workings of government are politicized.
During his impeachment hearings, President Donald Trump raved that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff had “committed treason” and should be “impeached.”
When my students asked about the tweet, I explained that congressional representatives could not be impeached. Most of my students come from rural Texas, and many of their parents support Trump.
“Why would the president say something so completely untrue?” many of them asked.
I struggled for an honest response that would not alienate half my class.
The course textbook, published in 2017, already belongs to a different era. The first chapter teaches that Americans all share a common political culture centered around the values of equality, liberty and democracy.
Meanwhile, the president of the United States embraces white nationalists and Republican leaders in the Senate refuse to recognize the results of a legitimate democratic election.
The textbook states that one of the primary functions of political parties is to adopt platforms that reflect the policy goals of the organization. This year, the national Republican Party failed to put together a platform and instead pledged to “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”
My class’s textbook chapter on the “Powers of the Presidency” is littered with landmines. The Senate’s power to confirm cabinet appointments is meaningless if presidents can simply install “acting directors.”
President Trump demonstrated that the congressional power of the purse can be overridden via a national emergency declaration. The Emoluments Clause has proven to be no more than a parchment barrier to presidential corruption.
Most of the students I teach were 14 or 15 when Trump was elected, and have come of age during a “post-truth” presidency.
It is difficult to convey to them that today’s presidential and Republican behavior is not normal, when for them it is the norm. It is becoming farcical to teach how U.S. political institutions are designed to function when government has strayed so far from its purported ideal.
Even as the project of reimagining civics education becomes more urgent, the circumstances of my students’ lives make it so much harder to concentrate.
One student asked for an extension on assignments because her boss had pressured her to work while ill, and she was having a hard time recovering. Multiple students have lost loved ones or currently have family in the intensive care unit due to COVID. Another asked to take an “incomplete” mark because she was working extra hours to help her unemployed parents make mortgage payments.
Biden is facing the twin catastrophes of widespread economic hardship and an out-of-control pandemic, and now may seem like an inopportune time to rehash the ways that the White House and Republican leadership have violated numerous constitutional norms.
Indeed, Biden has signaled that he doesn’t want the first part of his presidency to be consumed with investigations of the Trump administration. However, Trump has so thoroughly strained U.S. institutions that news outlets are now asking whether his refusal to accept the election results technically qualifies as an attempted coup. Rather than focus on the danger Trump’s maneuverings pose to democracy, Biden waved them off as simply “an embarrassment.”
While it may be difficult to quantify the damage the Trump administration has done to our democratic norms and institutions — and while it may be tempting to simply try and move on — the Biden administration should make it clear exactly how far U.S. institutions have degraded.
The national conversation on how our government should function and how those in power should be held accountable cannot be confined to struggling civics classrooms.
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