|Remarks of John A. Lawrence, April 30, 2012|
John A. Lawrence delivered the following remarks on April 30, 2012, during the awards ceremony for the 25th Anniversary We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution National Finals at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Lawrence spoke before a group of roughly 1,400 high school students and their teachers on the final day of the We the People National Finals, an annual national competition where student testify before panels of judges on the principles of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The competition involved classes from 47 states, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. For more information about We the People program, please visit the We the People homepage.
Remarks of John A. Lawrence, Chief of Staff, Democratic Leader, U.S. House of Representatives
Thank you, Chuck Quigley, Derek Dubose, Senator Flores, Mark Molli, I am very honored to participate in closing this 25th anniversary competition. Let me begin by offering my congratulations to all participants and winners, and also by recognizing the Center for Civic Education and the parents and teachers who have done such a great job in supporting this program and these outstanding scholars.
You are not only serious students of our system of government; you are genuine scholars of the Constitution and newly minted ambassadors of democracy as you return to your schools and communities across the nation. Through your study of our political and constitutional history, and by your involvement in public life in the years to come, you are helping to strengthen our democracy and preserve our nation at a crucial time in our "great experiment" in self-government. And as young people, you surely have the most at stake.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as a member of a congressional delegation reviewing the situation in North Africa one year after the "Arab Spring" revolutions. In each country, we met with young people who had been on the front lines, playing a leading role in toppling dictatorships. These young men and women—who had been largely shut out of the political process, as had their parents for decades—were willing to risk attacks from secret police, arrest, torture, prison, and worse, for simply doing what our Constitution guarantees every single American: the right to question and criticize their leaders without fear of retribution; the right to organize political parties and choose candidates; the right to vote in free and fair elections
For these young people, involvement in politics was not simply an exercise in civics: it was deadly serious, with the severest of consequences should their protests falter. Even as the post-revolutionary governments are struggling to sustain the democratic ideal which young people brought to the streets, the youth of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya do not have the option of becoming cynical if the practice of democracy proves less than completely satisfying. And neither can America's young people.
Here, in the birthplace of modern democracy, we face serious challenges to the continued success of citizen-led government: widespread cynicism about what government can or should do; weak citizen participation in government and voting; and the skyrocketing influence of secret money in elections, which undermines public confidence and distorts the basic precepts of open, fair, and honest elections.
Many Americans question the utility of entering public service or participating in the political system at all. Earlier this year, the approval rating for Congress reached 10%—the lowest level in four decades. It is troubling but true to note that the degree of confidence in Congress was half the percentage of people who believe that aliens walk among us disguised as humans. Little wonder that the distinguished political scientist, Professor Jacob Hacker of Yale University, has concluded, "America's great democratic experiment is under assault."
Even many of us who work in the Congress share a high degree of disapproval at its recent record in addressing the great challenges facing America. In the wake of major challenges going unaddressed, partisan deadlocks, contrived crises, it is little wonder that there is such widespread skepticism and disdain. Many question if a democratic system can successfully function in a large, diverse, and modern nation, or in a world where decisions must often be made in real time.
It is certainly true that the current 112th Congress has been remarkably unproductive and indifferent to serious national and international challenges. But let us remember that only 16 months ago, we concluded what Dr. Norman Ornstein, a distinguished congressional analyst, called "one of the most productive Congresses in history."
Now, divided government—the presidency in the hands of one party, and control of the House in the other—certainly provides a unique challenge, but it does not preclude bipartisan achievements. Under President George W. Bush we also had divided government, and yet we found common ground to enact sweeping legislation in the controversial areas of national security, education, energy, and economic stabilization.
So why the dangerous levels of public skepticism about the workability of our political system and the trustworthiness of our public officials?
One reason, it seems to me, is that so many Americans do not understand the basic design of our democratic system of government; they do not know the functions and responsibilities of each of the three branches, and they have little tolerance for the complexity of process and the time it takes to find consensus.
Our system of government depends upon an informed electorate that understands issues, demands action from officeholders, and insists upon accountability. And yet—
But the problem does not exist among students only.
Xavier University's Center for the Study of the American Dream recently asked native- born Americans to take the naturalization test given to immigrants who are seeking to become citizens. The results bear out my concern about the absence of a sophisticated understanding of our political system by many Americans:
That is a failure rate for U.S. citizens ten times that of those seeking to become U.S. citizens. And while some would argue the comparison was unfair because immigrants studied civics to pass the test, my question would be: why haven't our schools devoted more effort to educating our own citizens about the organization and functions of government?
Now, we aren't talking about trick questions here. Nearly six in ten citizens—59%—could not name a single power of the federal government. Not one. Nearly three quarters—71%—were unable to identify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land." And 62% couldn't name the Speaker of the House, which must be a disappointment to Speaker Boehner, since he is both Speaker and a graduate of Xavier.
The problem is not only attributable to education level, for although 82% of college graduates passed the civics section, that is still 15 points lower than immigrant applicants!
And the problem is not limited to the general population only. Just last week, a Member of Congress justified massive cuts in domestic priorities, but not the military budget, by incorrectly asserting that the Constitution requires that Congress fund defense but not other, so-called "lower priorities." In fact, as I am sure "We the People" students know, the Preamble gives equal weight to both responsibilities: to "provide for the common defence" and "to promote the general Welfare."
Absence of historic and civic knowledge makes voters easy targets for the demagogues and cynics who denigrate the legitimate role of government
Now, to be fair, most people do not have the time or motivation to learn as much about the Constitution and the government as "We the People" participants or those of us who work in government. They are busy with work, with their families, with volunteer activities. One might hope that advances in communication technology would have made it easier to stay informed and to secure accurate knowledge about public affairs. But in fact, changes in the delivery of news and information have increased reliance on news sources that is often alarmist, simplistic, and partisan.
Today, millions of Americans—and especially younger people—expect an answer to any question to be delivered within 0.3 seconds; they depend for answers on online sources that have little filter for accuracy; increasingly, thoughtful analysis of complex issues is being replaced with answers of 140 characters or less; and millions more, who don't Google or Tweet, rely on increasingly partisan, pseudo-news programs that incite rather than educate.
There is a value to each of these methods of communication. But none of them bears the challenge and the responsibility imposed on those 535 slower moving individuals in Congress who must address complex problems, make tough governing decisions, craft consensus-based, effective results—and do so with an eye on the political ramifications in a nation that is often deeply divided.
Try it with 535 of your best friends! And be sure they are all Type A personalities.
No one said self-governance was easy; isn't that right, Senator? In fact, democracy is difficult; it can be frustrating, disappointing, and time-consuming. Maybe that helps explain why half of the eligible voters won't vote.
But the #1 reason (38%) that people give for not voting is a lack of knowledge or interest in politics. We cannot afford that indifference in a democratic society that is predicated on citizen involvement which legitimizes the actions and decisions of government.
Even among those who want to participate, we are seeing a very dangerous trend towards the creation of barriers to voting. In the last year, some 38 states were considering legislation to require special identification cards, reduce same-day registration, or otherwise complicate the ability of citizens to cast their ballots. Some wrongly assert such restrictions are necessary to combat a tide of illegal voting. But under President Bush, out of 300 million votes cast in 2002-2007, the Justice Department convicted just 86 people! You are far more likely to be struck by lightning than to find a proven case of voter fraud.
This is an especially important consideration for younger voters in this election year, because students often do not have the kinds of identification and proof of residency some of these proposed state laws would require. That is why voting experts predict the greatest burden of these restrictive voting laws will fall on young people, as well on the elderly, the disabled, naturalized citizens, the poor, and rural voters who lack identification, who are more easily intimidated, or who depend on early and absentee voting.
You have a lot at stake. If young people fall prey to cynicism, indifference, or intimidation, they will pay the price, and so will our democracy. You in the "We the People" program are among our very best guarantees that will not happen.
At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked to define the type of government the Constitution was creating. Franklin answered, "A republic, if you can keep it."
Your presence here tonight, and your achievements in this competition, give me renewed confidence that the next generation of Americans will be able to keep—and improve—our democracy for the future. Congratulations, and best of luck.