After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing, last month America celebrated its 245th birthday with vigor. More than 132 million people took to trains, planes and automobiles to hit the beaches, grill some meat and watch the fireworks this past Fourth of July.
And while the enthusiastic embrace of the holiday is certainly a welcome sign the world is getting back to normal, how many people knew exactly why we were celebrating?
A number of surveys suggest many Americans are confused about the meaning behind the holiday. For example, nearly one-in-four can’t name the country from which the United States won its liberty, according to Marist. (Guesses included Afghanistan, Brazil and Canada.)
According to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, this type of ignorance about America’s founding is “a bit scary.”
“You can’t save our democracy unless you understand it. Have knowledge about it. And know what you can do,” said Sotomayor during a recent webinar entitled, “Civics as a National Security Imperative,” hosted by The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the National Security Institute (NSI) at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
Fellow Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch also participated in the discussion and was dismayed by the lack of understanding many Americans have about the country’s origin story and our role as citizens in protecting the republic.
Noting that only one-in-three Americans can name all three branches of government, Gorsuch said, “I don’t know how you effect change if you don’t know how the system works.”
The April CSIS/NSI webinar covered a wide range of topics, including the state of civics education, the role of the courts in maintaining public trust, the lack of civility in public discourse, civics and national security. Below are some highlights.
On the level of discord in politics:
“These are the scariest of times and the most exciting of times,” Justice Sotomayor said in her opening remarks, pointing to the record levels of voting, but also noting the partisan rancor infecting civil discourse.
“[We need to] learn how to talk to each other. How to discuss things with each other. And how to change things in a positive rather than in a negative way. And that’s what civic participation is about. It’s about teaching people about our institutions, about their importance, their strengths and their fragility. And engaging people in being active participants in change with knowledge and with passion but without hatred.”
According to Justice Gorsuch, democracy can only function when we “disagree kindly with respect for one another’s differences and different points of view,” using the High Court as a model.
“I think our Court is a pretty good example of how democracy is supposed to work. You have people from all across the country with radically different experiences. And different points of view. But all of whom share a love for this country and a love for our Constitution. And more than that really love one another, and respect one another, and listen to one another.”
On the state of civics education and literacy…
Justice Sotomayor cited some “scary” statistics, including the fact that a quarter of young people don’t think democracy is a good thing, and criticized the education system for falling “very short of what we need to do.”
“Right now, on every student we spend $50 in teaching STEM courses. We spend a nickel … on teaching civics. Now, I don’t know if the disparity should be that large, or how much closer we should come to equalizing the two, but the disparity given the reports about how little our students know about civics, should be a point of concern for everyone.”
Justice Gorsuch also shared his concerns with the state of civic education but expressed optimism for the future: “I’m fundamentally positive about our country because whatever our problems are they are problems that are solvable by people of good will. And there are so many people out there trying to do something about this.”
On what fundamental elements of our democracy should be taught…
Justice Gorsuch said he would like for young people to “understand … they can be part of a system to make change.”
He then told the story of Gregory Watson, who wrote a paper when in college about a constitutional amendment written by James Madison that never made it into the Bill of Rights. A 19-year old sophomore at the time, Watson argued in his paper the amendment should be ratified today. After receiving a C grade for his work, Watson was so upset he wrote to state legislators around the country lobbying for Madison’s Amendment to be ratified. In 1992, the Madison Amendment became the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.
“That’s what I’d like young people to understand … it’s their democracy.”
Justice Sotomayor focused on imparting to young people a sense of their civic responsibility: “We don’t have a right to be bystanders,” she said. “If that’s what you choose to become in our society, it’s by your choice. Because things shouldn’t just happen to us. You don’t stand on a street corner and let a bus hit you. You try to get out of the way. For me, that’s what civics education should be focused on. You need knowledge about what the system is. What its purpose is about. How it fits together. What it’s trying to accomplish. Those are the sort of basics, ABC, that kids have to learn in civic education.”
On the impact of civics education on our national security…
Justice Sotomayor mentioned a recent survey indicating that 18% of Americans believe Army rule in our country would be a good thing, which she called a “frightening” threat to our national security. “Unless we know about our democracy, understand its importance, then we can’t appreciate the threats to it,” she said. Justice Sotomayor also cited falsehoods spread by social media as a “domestic threat” to our Constitution.
Justice Gorsuch followed up on this point, noting that much of the disinformation is “spread by our enemies to sow disagreement internally in the country.”
“If you look back through history. How did democracies die? They don’t tend to last long in history. And they don’t tend to fall apart because they’ve been subject to invasion. They fall apart from within. They crumble,” Gorsuch said. “[We must] tend the garden of democracy and the conditions that make it ripe. It’s not an automatic thing. And our enemies know this even if we don’t.”
On what ordinary folks can do to address the problem?
Justice Gorsuch called on people to engage their better selves, and to listen to other people with curiosity and respect, again using the Supreme Court as an example. “I think we all have to become critical consumers of information and realize a lot of the information received is aimed at making us angry and engaging our emotions,” Gorsuch said.
“Justice Sotomayor and I spend all of our time reading briefs from both points of view. And then coming to a decision. Take this approach,” he suggested.
Justice Sotomayor also focused on the approach to disagreement taken by the High Court. “One of the reasons I think the Supreme Court functions as it does, and in the way that it promotes disagreement, in an agreeable way, is because we all fundamentally respect each other. I know that every one of my colleagues loves the Constitution, laws and our system of government, as much as I do.”
She said public discourse focuses too much on “impugning” the other side’s motives instead of assuming people have arrived at their points of view “in good faith.”
On the role of the courts…
Justice Sotomayor said a lack of understanding of the proper role of the courts leads people to deep anger and disappointment when a court rules against their wishes.
“When cases come to us it’s an all or nothing generally. There’s a winner and … there’s a loser. And in that kind of adjudication, all we can say is ‘This is the law that was passed. This situation sits on this side of the line or that side of the line.’ But we’re not making a moral judgment about whether that line is in the right place. That moral judgment is made by the society. By its participants. By the people who make laws and the citizens who inform that process.”
Justice Gorsuch followed up on this point. “If you don’t like our answer – and often we don’t like our answer – it is just what the law requires … the right way to fix it is through the ‘we the people’ legislative process.”
Gorsuch then provided statistics to “paint the picture” of the true state of the rule of law:
- The Supreme Court of the United States only hears about 70 cases per year.
- Within those 70 cases the High Court manages to reach unanimous agreement 40% of the time, despite being nominated by five different presidents.
- The 5-4 decisions that receive so much press represent about 25% of our docket every year.
- These decisions, the associate justice noted, are not all one side or the other. There were 10 different 5-4 combinations the year before last.
- These statistics: 40% cases decided with unanimity and 5-4 decisions representing 25% of the Court’s decisions, are the same figures in place in 1945 when President Roosevelt had appointed eight of the nine justices.
“I think if we are doing as well as they did then, we ought to be pretty proud of our rule of law in this country,” he concluded.
On judges making decisions based on politics over rule of law.
Justice Sotomayor said she believes too much attention is given to the outcome, without enough consideration given to the judicial approach.
“What people react to is bottom lines,” she said. “Has the judge ruled in a particular way I like … [focusing] on the outcome rather than the reasoning. And I invite people not to get sucked up into that assumption.”
Justice Sotomayor then suggested if people read the dissenting opinions on decisions with which they disagreed, they would pause to recognize both sides have good arguments.
Justice Gorsuch followed up on that point.
“If there’s a dissent, it might be really good. And it might just turn out to be right later, too. Often years later the Supreme Court will decide that dissent was the wise view of the law and the right view of the law. And maybe we acted too hastily. Maybe we missed something. The notion that because we disagree, we’re doing it politically or for any other reason than we think this is the best view of the law I just think is belied by history, belied by what we do every day. The disagreements we have are legal disagreements.”
On their message to young people…
Justice Sotomayor hoped the next generations would not be discouraged by the state of the world as it exists now.
“We adults have not done a very good job in the world we’re leaving you,” she said. “As you look at it you probably could get discouraged thinking of all the problems that abound. … So, what is it that gives us hope? For me, it’s you! We’ve messed it up. We haven’t found the solutions to these problems. I have confidence that you can do a better job than we could do.”
Justice Gorsuch encouraged young people to find their passions and seek the American dream. “I just say to you, figure out what your passion is and then don’t let anyone stop you. If all of us do that and try to be our best selves, we raise the ship. It helps the country. It helps our families. And it’s good for us. And that is the American dream. So, I encourage you to grab it and make it happen.”