Our Elected Officials Are a Threat to Civic Knowledge

Grandstanding politicians are spreading disinformation and making us dumber.

As senators began their opening statements prior to the first hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Democratic Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono was flanked by large posters featuring photographs of individuals with serious diseases. Hirono said that in nominating Barrett, President Donald Trump was using a “hypocritical and illegitimate process” in “keeping his promise” to install the “deciding vote to take health care away from millions of people.”

Minutes later, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker speculated that in Barrett’s America, women who had miscarriages would be investigated to make sure they didn’t have abortions. Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris defended the Supreme Court’s legalization on same-sex marriage by saying “love is love,” a legal principle conspicuously missing from the Federalist Papers.

The entire spectacle—of senators peppering a conservative nominee with questions about whether she would take health care from people or make it harder for minorities to vote—distorts the public perception of the proper role of the legislative and judicial branches. The conflation of judicial opinions with policy preferences is why every Supreme Court nomination fight now resembles the intensity of a presidential election crammed into a few tense weeks.

And most of this disinformation isn’t spread by blogs, or bad social studies teachers, or even Russian Twitter bots. It is spread primarily by elected officials trying to wring votes out of a malleable electorate. In doing so, they are bleeding the public of basic civic knowledge.

In other words, to crib a popular formulation, those who pay little attention to politics are uninformed, but those who listen to politicians are misinformed.

It is this steady stream of misinformation from elected officials that leads to people embarrassing themselves by loudly declaring Barrett’s nomination as “court packing.” It foments a culture where online political observers high-five one another for suggesting Barrett can’t be an “originalist” because she’s a woman and females couldn’t vote at the time of America’s founding. (This sick burn only works if these people assume conservatives are as dim as they are: In reality, the late Justice Antonin Scalia frequently urged the use of constitutional amendments, which is exactly how women earned the right to vote 100 years ago.)

Sadly, the practice of grandstanding elected officials making Americans dumber isn’t limited to matters of the judiciary. After the passage of the ACA, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas pandered to low-information voters by convincing them he could intimidate President Barack Obama into repealing Obamacare if the Senate shut the government down. Cruz’s contention was that previous senators couldn’t get Obama to repeal a massive bill bearing his name simply because other Republicans didn’t want it enough.

"What he did was stood up for Ted and threw the Republican Party under the bus," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) after Cruz’s efforts failed.

What Cruz’s efforts did spawn, however, was the idea that someone with a forceful enough personality could get Obamacare repealed, legislative process be damned. And that person was businessman Donald Trump, a reality television show star who loudly declared he alone could fix what ailed America, as if the Constitution would cower under the weight of his taunts. 

Alas, Trump’s bellicosity was no match for Sen. John McCain’s disdainful thumbs down, and efforts to repeal the ACA were unsuccessful. 

But Trump has permanently changed public perception of the role of the executive. He has many of his acolytes believing a president’s attempts to obstruct justice are legal as long as they call it a “hoax” frequently enough. He convinced all but one Republican U.S. senator that trading away American foreign policy to obtain dirt on a domestic political rival isn’t grounds for impeachment and removal.

As for the judiciary, Trump has done his part to obfuscate the role of the Supreme Court, saying he would appoint only justices who would vote to strike down Obamacare—a statement Barrett has been fending off throughout her hearings this week.

But Trump’s opponents are also writing checks their constitutional powers simply can’t cash. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has declared proudly that on “day one” he would begin to address systemic racism in America, begin removing Trump’s tax cuts, and ameliorating the effects of the coronavirus. Biden himself has called for a national mask mandate, something the president does not have the power to do.

All of this misinformation is laid at the feet of a credulous public that already has a tenuous grasp of American civics. According to a long-running Annenberg poll, only 39 percent of Americans in 2019 could name all three branches of government. Only 55 percent knew Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives and 61 percent knew Republicans controlled the Senate. Barely more than half (55 percent) of Americans knew that a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court ruling must be followed anyway.

As Amy Coney Barrett sits in front of hostile Democrats who insist on pretending a judge’s only role is to uphold desirable policies, millions of American children are sitting at home in quarantine in front of computers. Parents are worried these children will suffer long-term knowledge loss if they can’t soon return to their classrooms. But if these parents want to ensure their children are learning civics, the best thing they can do is keep their kids from watching the Barrett hearings.

Photograph by Erin Schaff/Getty Images.