August 24, 2009 — When tolerance and respect for others are forgotten, Americans are at risk of losing the civic virtues that undergird their very rights, a longtime political observer warns in the current issue of the Virginia News Letter, published online by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
As the nation faces complex issues such as health care reform, a citizenry that is poorly informed about the processes of democracy is a key contributor to this risk, writes political analyst Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, a nonpartisan organization based at U.Va. and dedicated to improving political leadership.
With news media losing readership and viewership and cutting balanced news coverage, "a toxic recipe exists for citizens who know little about government and politics," added Gibson, a member of the Virginia Commission on Civics Education, charged by the General Assembly to educate the public that democracy requires reasoned debate and good-faith negotiation.
A growing segment of the population is in danger of being even less informed about public policy issues, actions and choices, he warned. "An educational system that has de-emphasized history and government is part of a national trend that tends to leave young people less than fully prepared to participate in a democracy that thrives best on citizen involvement."
Reversing the loss of an informed electorate should be a top national and state priority, Gibson asserted.
Surveys show that Virginia, with a rapidly changing demographic make-up and many foreign-born residents, is typical of the declining awareness of how government works. Many students can't name the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial) or explain such concepts as separation of powers and check and balances.
Improving civic education in schools and communities is a necessary first step. Lively discussions and debates about rights can often make it a strong exercise for students, Gibson writes.
While many students know little about democratic processes or the early history of the nation, today's television programs and the Internet highlight vitriolic shouting matches about complicated national issues.
Meanwhile, noted Gibson, "our system of representative democracy depends upon reasoned debate, negotiation and compromise. Success depends on the involvement of individuals who choose to participate in a political process that can bring about changes if enough people have the faith and understanding to make it work.
"Virginia and the nation have enough problems to solve without the misunderstanding and paralysis that can result when people lack the faith or knowledge to make government work."