Land of the free; home of the dumb?

Winston Churchill has been quoted as saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Churchill’s droll remark may have stemmed for the irony of having lost the election of July 1945, just three months after Nazi Germany capitulated. You might think that the British people would have re-elected the great leader ad infinitum, if only because of his foresight and wartime leadership, but you would be wrong.

I’m frequently reminded of Churchill’s quote when I watch our own government in action. Though we are not intended to be a democracy in its purest form, we are supposed to be a democratic constitutional republic. We don’t always live up to that ideal, as we witnessed this June when our state legislature refused to allow the citizens of Massachusetts to vote on same-sex “marriage.” Nonetheless, that should always be the goal.

I get a little worried when I meet Americans who don’t understand the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, or can’t distinguish Teddy Roosevelt from Franklin Roosevelt. How did these people pass the eighth grade? I don’t want to sound elitist, but should these people be voting?

On the one hand, voting is a cornerstone of our nation and universal suffrage is something that we struggled to obtain. On the other hand, if someone is too apathetic to pay attention to what’s going on, then I hope that person is also apathetic enough not to vote. I won’t deny anyone suffrage, but if some people choose not to exercise that right, that’s fine with me.

Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments are great entertainment if you enjoy laughing at ignoramuses. In one such “Jaywalking” segment, Leno visited Washington, D.C., and posed some pretty basic questions to real citizens. He interviewed Bethany, a University of Nebraska student. “Bethany, how many senators for the state of Nebraska?” asked Leno. “One,” she replied. Leno cringed at this answer. “Two?” she said. “Two. Can you name your two senators?” Leno asked. “No, I cannot.”

James, a schoolteacher from Atlanta, was asked how many senators Georgia has. He answered that Georgia has 30 senators. So Bethany thinks her state has one senator, and James thinks his state has 30. Astounding.

When liberals talk about “informed democracy,” it’s usually a ruse to browbeat the already liberal media into moving further to the left. They claim that the press is doing a poor job of informing the citizenry — which it is — but then complain that the press isn’t doing a good enough job of disseminating the liberal talking points.

I have another idea as to how we can have an informed democracy. Let’s require every voter to pass a basic test of civics and American history.

Am I making this proposal in all seriousness? No. It seems vaguely un-American, and I’m sure that the Democrats and perhaps also the Republicans would oppose it. Politicians are generally satisfied to keep the electorate dumb. Someone would certainly also argue that such a test would be too similar to the literacy tests that were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So this is never going to happen.

But let’s be hypothetical for a moment. Imagine having to pass a test in order to vote. Nothing too difficult, of course, only the things we should have learned in our primary education, but probably didn’t learn because our teachers were too busy presenting “Heather has Two Mommies” and various other liberal pet causes. I wouldn’t expect anyone to write an essay explaining the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, or to identify who wrote the majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut. Basic questions might include: “Who represents you in Congress?” (For me, that would be John Olver, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy.) “Who is the Chief Justice of the United States?” (John Roberts.) “Which amendment contains the words ‘separation of church and state?'” (Trick question, none of them do.)

Actually, some Americans did have to pass a test in order to vote. They’re called naturalized citizens. I’m sometimes embarrassed that naturalized citizens seem to know more about this country than the native-born. My boss, for example, is a Greek-born American citizen. One day last semester, he started to quiz the people in the kitchen about the Constitution. Many people were appallingly uneducated. “What are the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment?” he asked. There was a lot of head-shaking and mumbling, “Uh… freedom of… uh.” But my boss knew. That’s because he was once a young man just off the boat from Greece who wanted to become an American so badly that he learned enough civics and American history to earn citizenship.

Having an “informed democracy” is easier said than done. If we really want an informed democracy, it might be necessary to tell some people that they can’t vote. No one’s really prepared to do that, but it might be an interesting experiment. How many people would be able to vote if testing were required? How many Americans would fail miserably? It’s a little scary to ponder.

Ben Duffy Massachusetts Daily Collegian University of Massachusetts U-Wire