I just finished "We’re Doomed: Now What?" by Roy Scranton. Catchy title, sobering read—I’d recommend a dram of scotch to go with. The author is both an Iraq War veteran and a journalist. Here’s a snippet of what he says about our existential situation: "The time we've been thrown into is one of alarming and bewildering change - the breakup of the post-1945 global order, a multispecies mass extinction, and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. Not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe." Now what?
Scranton’s answers are noteworthy, but I want to segue to a narrower subject, the worldwide demise of democracy. Analyzing, cataloguing, and loudly lamenting the rapid decline in democratic norms has become a cottage industry for publishers. Consider these titles: "How Democracies Die;" "Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America;" "National Populism: The Revolt against Liberal Democracy;" "How Democracy Ends." That’s just a sampling.
There’s more bad news. The Eurasia Group’s latest annual report asserts that “Nearly all the geopolitical developments that matter are now trending in the wrong direction.” The encroachments of techno-authoritarian models of governance—in China, Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, Venezuela, and elsewhere—are fueled in part by design flaws in democracy itself. Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment points to short-termism (elections are always in progress), pain aversion (elected officials are constantly coddling voters), elite capture (the wealthy own and control the state), divisive politics (threatening to shatter all semblance of unity) and “chronic voter ignorance.”
What to make of this, viewing it from seemingly safe home ground here in Montana? By many accounts, in this community and across the state, representative democracy is thriving. Voter turnout reached record levels in the 2018 mid-term elections. People are engaged and making their voices heard. Independent journalism is resurgent. Protest rallies are rambunctious but peaceful. Stalwart and undaunted women representing multiple generations are on the march for democracy and equality. 4-H is going strong. Service clubs are active. Our local and state governments are remarkably transparent, thanks in large part to televised proceedings. In sum, civil society is in full bloom around here. There are scores of hyperlocal examples of a vibrant political culture that is pervasive in Montana, guided by respectable leaders and the most progressive state constitution in the country. We seem to be doing okay. Still, all is not well.
The Montana Non-Profit Association recently teamed up with Humanities Montana, Leadership Montana and Philanthropy Northwest to host a seminar on how best to strengthen civic culture in our state. Lots of themes and ideas emerged from the day-long conversation among several dozen participants. This was my primary take-away: Montanans are not immune from the polarization of politics in America. Normal divisions of outlook and opinion have become chasms that are getting deeper and wider by the day--in households, workplaces, and even in churches. At the root of this divisiveness is ignorance.
I think it’s important to not confuse ignorance with intelligence. This state and the country at large are gifted with smart people — in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. The problem lies in too many citizens not knowing important things, and not learning them in school. Overcoming ignorance is the essential goal of civics education, and it’s sorely lacking. Recent surveys show that only a third of Americans under 35 say that its vital that they live in a democracy. An even greater proportion of millennials would be hard pressed to locate Afghanistan on a map, even after 17 years of war and more to come. Young people are increasingly cynical about government, and they are having difficulty distinguishing between “fake news” and reliable sources of fact-based information. Aren’t we all?
I’d like to pitch a partial antidote, Global Civics, a fresh blend of history, geography, geopolitics, political economy, international law and media literacy intended to help students understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in the 21st century. This approach is designed to upgrade traditional civics instruction so that it’s modern, relevant, and compelling; it provides a means of re-vitalizing big picture thinking in a place that is prone to isolationist sentiment. We are all citizens of our community, our country, and the world. As such, we have an obligation to ourselves and others to know and understand how the global economy functions, how local, regional and planetary ecologies interact, how the media shapes opinion, where countries are located (and why location matters), how cultures are differentiated, and how things have come to be the way they are, for good and ill. As an elective for 2-and 4-year colleges alike, Global Civics can serve as an accessible common lens through which to perceive the world and our place in it, as individuals and in community.
Global competencies are not just for students. The course can also serve as a template for Chautauqua-like public gatherings, moderated, televised, and open to diverse strands of opinion. Being well informed is the standard hallmark of good citizenship. We all need to avoid being an ignoramus!
Stephen Maly manages special projects for Helena Civic Television. He has been pitching Global Civics for several years, and just won’t quit.