Testing Can Save Democracy

We should require that people take a basic civics test -- along the lines of a citizenship exam -- as a prerequisite for holding public office, argues Harvey J. Graff.

October 21, 2021
 
 
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/getty images

Several months ago, conservative Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming slammed some of her colleagues, declaring, “We’ve got people we’ve entrusted with the perpetuation of the republic who don’t know what the rule of law is.” She continued, “We probably need to do Constitution boot camps for newly sworn-in members of Congress. Clearly.”

In my view, Cheney’s proposal is too little and too late.

Recent controversies in Congress and across the nation -- the culmination of decades of assaults on facts, objectivity, science, expertise and government -- demand a broader response. I propose requiring a basic civics test -- along the lines of a citizenship exam -- as a prerequisite for holding public office. The test should include reading and arithmetic. My recommendation is not radical or frivolous -- consider how many professions have mandatory competency examinations and licensing requirements.

Statements made in Congress, bills in many state legislatures and numerous lawsuits by state attorneys general prompt this proposal. U.S. senators, like Tommy Tuberville from Alabama, who do not know the three branches of government also alarm me. And, almost daily, governors and state attorneys general reveal themselves to be ignorant of federal and sometimes state laws.

Consider these present dangers to American democracy. Most problematic is ignorance of the U.S. Constitution. Objectors to Donald Trump’s second impeachment have typically claimed its unconstitutionality. Yet by my reading, the Constitution clearly allows for impeachment, removal and barring from future office of a sitting or former president. The objectors refuse to recognize historical precedents. They also refuse to read the legal opinions and commentary across the ideological spectrum that have overwhelmingly supported impeachment.

Similarly, arguments against the For the People Act of 2019 on voting rights assert that it is a violation of states’ rights. These claims ignore the elections clause and, according to my count, at least four amendments to the Constitution as well as the history of voting legislation in court cases. Ohio Republican senator Rob Portman regularly makes these claims, which are contradicted by Article I and the 14th, 15th, 17th and 19th Amendments. And he’s joined by most Republicans in Congress.

The arguments against gun safety legislation reflect an inability to read the Constitution as written and interpreted by the courts. The Second Amendment does not guarantee the unrestricted right to individual ownership of guns, prohibit regulation of their sales or promise access to military-grade weapons. The amendment, written to protect “well-regulated militias,” does not mandate completely unlimited rights in its text, either. Nor have U.S. Supreme Court rulings -- even by conservatives, as in Justice Antonin Scalia’s famous ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller -- upheld that concept.

Arguments about freedom of speech and religion reflect similar ignorance. Nowhere is there protection of unfettered rights to dangerous or malicious speech, or of religious rights trumping individual speech and freedom from discrimination. Recognizing this does not lead to “cancel culture” or censorship.

A reading and arithmetic test for office holding would promote the understanding of legislation as written. For example, critics of the American Rescue Act assert that only 9 percent of its spending addresses pandemic relief. This misreading denies any basic concept of public health and well-being. The often-repeated 9 percent figure is a failure in elementary arithmetic.

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Am I asking too much or not enough? This is a minimum proposal. Impartial boards in each state, with the advice of a bipartisan independent commission, could develop and administer the specific mechanisms to make it happen. We might also test for logic, communication skills and knowledge of history if we have the will to meet this imperative. Simply put, it’s time to stop allowing our government leaders to flunk American democracy.

Bio

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history.

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