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A Drop of Ink: Dangers For Democracy Taking Root

Swift County Monitor - Staff Photo -

By Reed Anfinson

A recent study by Wall Street Journal-NORC shows disturbing trends evolving in the United States, trends that demand a new focus on civic education and valuing trusted sources of local news.

“Patriotism, religious faith, having children and other priorities that helped define the national character for generations are receding in importance to Americans, a new poll finds,” Aaron Zitner of the Wall Street Journal reports. The Journal’s survey was conducted with NORC at the nonpartisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

“These differences are so dramatic, it paints a new and surprising portrait of a changing America,” Bill McInturff, a pollster who worked on a previous Journal survey that measured these attitudes along with NBC News, said.

In 1998, when the Journal first conducted its survey, it found that 70% of those responding said patriotism was very important to them. However, in a recent poll, that percentage had dropped to 38%.

In 1998, 62% of those surveyed said religion was very important in their lives, while in the latest poll, just 39% said it was.

Among those surveyed, the percentage who said having children was important dropped from 59% to 30%. Earlier surveys had also shown that young people were delaying having families, but now that delay is turning into a definite no to having children for some.

One more troubling finding is the American public’s attitude toward community involvement. Back in 1998, 47% said that it was very important for citizens to be involved in their communities. Today that percentage has fallen to 27.

We’ve seen this decline for years in the struggle of our communities to get people to serve on boards and commissions, volunteer on community celebration committees, and serve in fire departments and as emergency medical services.

All these weakened values that show a decline have something in common. They are qualities that demand cooperation and compromise, those that require being inclusive rather than exclusive, and those characteristics that require sacrifice over self-involvement.

As we become more isolated in our lives and interests, we develop another undesirable characteristic - intolerance. Just four years ago, 80% of the public thought that being tolerant of the views of others was very important. Now that percentage is down to 58. It is a sign of a more polarized society.

We’ve been reading what lies at the heart of our increasing self-involvement over community, family, and church for a couple of decades.

“From early childhood, Americans learned to be citizens by creating, joining, and participating in democratic organizations. But in recent decades, Americans have fallen out of practice, or even failed to acquire the habit of democracy in the first place,” Yoni Appelbaum wrote in an article for The Atlantic Magazine.

She quotes historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. who wrote in 1944, “Rubbing minds as well as elbows, they have been trained from youth to take common counsel, choose leaders, harmonize differences, and obey the expressed will of the majority. In mastering the associative way they have mastered the democratic way.”

In his book “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam wrote about the continued decay of our education to be participants in representative democracy 56 years later. “We’ve stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers, and stopped going to meetings…. In short, Americans have been dropping out in droves, not merely from political life, but from organized community life generally,” he wrote. “Year after year, fewer and fewer of us (take) part in the everyday deliberations that constitute grassroots democracy.”

What is the consequence of our dropping out?

A World Values Survey showed a drop across several American generational age groups that rank it as “essential” to live in a democratically governed country, Eleesha Tucker, a civic research fellow with the Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, writes.

“Less than a third of Americans born in the 1980s think democracy is vital. Where did we go wrong?” she asks.

What is disturbing about the survey is that among younger age groups born after 1980 is that 52% said they would rather see a strong leader, unfettered by a Congress or elections, in charge. 

For too many today, it seems that participatory democracy is too much trouble. For generations that have never experienced the cruelty and oppression of dictatorial rule or seen a nation mobilized to fight it, it is apparently easy to imagine a benevolent, all-powerful leader who will look out for their interests. They assume theirs will always be the dominant, ruling point of view. 

Civility has left politics as we’ve become more polarized and less tolerant. As we become less tolerant, people’s beliefs that violence or suppression of opposite points is justified are taking root.

Tucker lays the blame for this willing acceptance of dictatorial leadership on our schools’ lack of civics education. She says the focus on teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses in our schools in past decades has left a young generation disconnected from the importance of civic involvement. Their disconnect and continuing to fail to teach civics today in our schools endangers the foundations of democracy in America.

At the local level, we have so much more in common as we work to meet housing needs, solve the challenge of providing adequate daycare, fix streets, ensure enough recreation opportunities to attract and keep young people, and fund our schools.

As the source of information about how much we all have in common weakens and disappears, we become more polarized. Rather than reading about what we need at home, we are listening to the bitter and polarizing news on cable television about issues that most have little to do with the quality of life in our communities.

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