It would be much easier to sleep at night if you could believe that we’re in such a mess of misinformation simply because Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million people on Facebook.
The Russians also uploaded a thousand videos to YouTube and published more than 130,000 messages on Twitter about last year’s election. As recent congressional hearings showed, the arteries of our democracy were clogged with toxins from a hostile foreign power.
But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.
As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency last Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.
We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.
Nearly 1 in 3 Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.
Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.
But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.
Lost in the news grind over Roy Moore, the lawbreaking Senate candidate from Alabama, is how often he has tried to violate the Constitution. As a judge, he was removed from the bench — twice — for lawless acts that follow his theocratic view of governance.
Shariah law has been justifiably criticized as a dangerous injection of religion into the public space. Now imagine if a judge insisted on keeping a monument to the Quran in a state judicial building. Or that he said “homosexual conduct” should be illegal because his sacred book tells him so. That is exactly what Moore has done, though he substitutes the Bible for the Quran.
I don’t blame Moore. I blame his followers, and the press, which doesn’t seem to know that the First Amendment specifically aims to keep government from siding with one religion — the so-called establishment clause.
My colleagues at the opinion shop a few Sunday’s ago used a full page to print the Bill of Rights, and urge Trump to “Please Read the Constitution.” Yes, it’s come to this. On press freedom, due process, exercise of religion and other areas, Trump has repeatedly gone into Roy Moore territory — dismissing the principles he has sworn to uphold.
Suppose we treated citizenship like getting a driver’s license. People would have to pass a simple test on American values, history and geography before they were allowed to have a say in the system. We do that for immigrants, and 97 percent of them pass, according to one study.
Yet 1 in 3 Americans fail the immigrant citizenship test. This is not an elitist barrier. The test includes questions like, “What major event happened on 9/11?” and “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?”
One reason that public schools were established across the land was to produce an informed citizenry. And up until the 1960s, it was common for students to take three separate courses in civics and government before they got out of high school.
Now only a handful of states require proficiency in civics as a condition of high school graduation. Students are hungry, in this turbulent era, for discussion of politics and government. But the educators are failing them. Civics has fallen to the side, in part because of the standardized test mania.
A related concern is historical ignorance. By a 48 percent to 38 percent margin Americans think states’ rights, rather than slavery, caused the Civil War. So Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, can say something demonstrably false about the war, because most people are just as clueless as he is.
There’s hope — and there are many ways — to shed light on the cave of American democracy. More than a dozen states now require high school students to pass the immigrant citizenship test. We should also teach kids how to tell fake news from real, as some schools in Europe are doing.
But those initiatives will mean little if people still insist on believing what they want to believe, living in digital safe spaces closed off from anything that intrudes on their worldview.
Tim Egan is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2017 New York Times News Service