howardnlby Howard Stephenson
What if they held an election and nobody voted? If present trends continue, that could actually become a reality. The apathy of the American public toward civic involvement has never been more prevalent than it is today.

I recently attended the First Annual Congressional Conference on Civic Education in Washington, D.C., with the five-member Utah delegation, where I learned the shocking news of American’s disengagement from representative democracy, and what we can do about it.

More young Americans know the name of the reigning American Idol (64%, Reuben Studdard) and the city where the cartoon Simpsons live (82%, Springfield) than know the political party of their state’s governor (40%), or the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (10%, Hastert).

That’s one of the more troubling findings detailed in the new report, “Citizenship: A Challenge for All Generations,” released during the conference by the Representative Democracy in America Project. The report is based on the results of a national survey, which found that 15- to 26-year-olds don’t understand the ideals of citizenship; they are disengaged from the political process; they lack the knowledge necessary for effective self-government; and they have limited appreciation of American democracy.

When asked to identify the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, neither young Americans nor adults over 26 fared well. Only 22% of older adults and 10% of young people chose Denny Hastert from a list of names. Surprisingly, 27% of adults and 20% of young people identified Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay as Speaker of the House and 17% of adults and 19% of young people identified former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as current speaker even though he’s been gone from congress for nearly 5 years.

One of the most disturbing things I found in the poll was the fact that 62% of respondents feel that businesses, of all groups which wield influence in the government process, have too much power. This suggests to me that our low level of civic learning has also produced a jaundiced view of America’s free enterprise system. At the same time, a majority of the young people in the survey said that they intended to get into business as a livlihood.

It’s clear, based on these and other findings showing low participation rates in representative democracy, that parents, policymakers and teachers must devote new energy to civic education. The report presents evidence that courses in civics and government pique young people’s interest in and aid their understanding of the American system.

The study shows that:

  • Only 66 percent of members of this younger generation believe it’s necessary to vote in order to be a good citizen, compared with 83 percent of Americans over age 26.
  • Half of those 18 to 26 claim to have voted in the last election, compared with three-fourths of those over 26. (In actuality, only half of the total population is registered to vote, and only half of those vote.)
  • Half of those 26 or younger regularly or sometimes follow government news, and believe you should, in order to be a good citizen, compared with three-fourths of those over 26.

Karl Kurtz, director of state services at the National Conference of State Legislatures and co-author of the report spoke at the conference. He said, “The generational gaps in civic knowledge, attitudes and participation are greater than they have ever been, at least since we have public opinion polls to document. The baby boomers, the World War II generation and our schools have failed to teach the ideals of citizenship to young people.”

By definition, the strength of representative democracy in the United States depends on the involvement of citizens, the report explains. To ensure the continued prosperity of our country, citizens must understand, appreciate and take part in the political process. Those in attendance at the conference agreed that more civic education is an antidote to indifference.

The study found that:

  • Members of the younger generation who have taken a course in American government or civics are more likely to see themselves as personally responsible for improving society, and they have a broader concept of the qualities of a good citizen. For example, 71 percent of teens and adults in their early 20s who have taken a government course believe voting is a necessary component of good citizenship, compared with 57 percent of those who have not taken civics.
  • Two out of five Americans between 15 and 26 years old who have taken a civics class say their interest in government increased as a result.
  • Young people who have taken a civics course are two to three times more likely to vote, follow government news and contact a public official about an issue that concerns them.

Today, 39 states require a course in civics or government before high school graduation. Sixty-four percent of young respondents to the project’s survey said they had taken such a course. But the report results show more must be done.

In a written statement to the conference, Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens, who is president of NCSL said, “This is a pivotal time in our country’s history. We can’t let apathy and ignorance become the status quo. I challenge all states to examine their civic education requirements, to make sure their schools are turning out informed citizens who don’t take for granted the freedoms America provides.”

The first year of a five-year congressional project, the Congressional Conference on Civic Education will work to institute more civic learning and experience in America’s K-12 schools.

A copy of the report can be found online at .

The Representative Democracy in America Project is a collaboration among NCSL’s Trust for Representative Democracy, the Center on Congress at Indiana University and the Center for Civic Education. The project is designed to reinvigorate and educate Americans on the critical relationship between government and the people it serves. The project introduces citizens, particularly young people, to the representatives, institutions, and processes that serve to realize the goal of a government of, by, and for the people.