Civics And The Rights of Citizenship

There is nothing, but nothing, that isn’t flagrantly unconstitutional about the proposal that American citizens should be required to pass a basic civics test of the sort required of aliens seeking citizenship in order to enjoy the rights of citizenship or hold public office. And yet, it’s still a pretty good idea, not to exclude citizens from participation, but to compensate for the ubiquitous ignorance of American civics.

For more than 100 years, the United States has used a civics test as a gentle screen for naturalizing new citizens. The idea behind the brief exam is straightforward: To participate fully in the life of the republic, newcomers must first evince some knowledge of the values and mechanics of that republic.

Why not deploy a civics test more widely — as a modest hurdle other Americans must surmount before enjoying some of the many privileges of U.S. citizenship?

It’s long been an irony that a naturalized citizen is required to know more about the United States, its history, government and founding principles, than is required of those of us born here. It’s not that we’re not taught history in school, or at least supposed to be taught, but the failure to learn the lesson either impairs one’s citizenship or affects one’s right to participate.

Ilya Somin made a compelling argument years ago about politically ignorant voters, those citizens who possess the right to vote but lack the knowledge necessary to vote thoughtfully. To anyone who spends any time on social media or watching cable news, it becomes painfully clear that far too many Americans either grasp little about their nation or how it functions.

It allows manipulators and demagogues to spin and twist them because they don’t have the foundational knowledge to call bullshit. They have the right to play their constitutionally protected role in society, but not the ability to do so in a way that contributes to the welfare of the union, however they see that welfare to be best achieved. We keep hearing that more people voting is better for democracy, but is it? If they are knowledgeable about civics and interested enough in governance, then it is. But what if they aren’t? What do the civically ignorant add to the body politic?

For example, every year, about 3.5 million Americans graduate from high school, crossing the threshold into adulthood. Why not require a civics test for graduation, as some states already do, to remind young people that their new status brings both opportunities and obligations? Goodman would go further and ask graduates to take the oath of citizenship as an additional rite of passage and a signal of their fresh civic responsibilities.

Or consider another domain, like naturalization, where the bureaucratic and the patriotic briefly twine. Today, a record 48 percent of Americans have a passport, according to the State Department. Why not offer a voluntary civics test as part of the application process — with the incentive that the applications of those who pass will be expedited? After all, when Americans travel abroad, we act as citizen ambassadors, representing Americanness overseas.

Of course, the Fourteenth Amendment establishes that anyone born on American soil is a citizen, and every citizen is entitled to the rights of citizenship no matter how smart or dumb. But they aren’t entitled to a high school diploma if they can’t pass a civics test. And a passport isn’t a constitutional right any more than the annual pilgrimage to Paris for dinner. Is it too much to ask of Americans to name the three branches of government?

Then what about those few who believe they are worthy of being elected to public office? Shouldn’t they, at the minimum, be capable of passing a civics test?

We could also install the test as a speed bump on the road to public office. We already require senators, House members, judges, military personnel and many others to repeat an oath of fealty to the U.S. Constitution. Why not ask people running for office, from county auditor to U.S. president, to sit for a test that verifies their understanding of that foundational document?

The Constitution already prescribes the qualifications for federal public office, and nowhere does it require officials to have read, or even have a passing familiarity, with the Constitution. Heck, it doesn’t even require that they be able to read. But how does a congressman write laws, or even vote for laws, when he doesn’t know what is or isn’t constitutional? Article II, Section 3, requires that the president “take care” to faithfully execute the laws. Is it too much to expect a president to be aware of this limitation on his authority to do whatever the hell he pleases?

Citizenship is a concept rich with meaning. It confers rights, imposes responsibilities, establishes identity and promotes belonging. But most Americans seldom stop and think about it. For us, citizenship is automated. A ritual like a civics test might animate it.

And if a lot more people experience this ritual, a few more might tackle topics that now are easier to sidestep.

It’s not that every American should know the law as well as a lawyer, itself a dubious proposition given how many bad legal takes come from lawyers, but would it be too much to expect that citizens have the most basic functional understanding of their government, their nation’s geography, their national history and the people who are seeking their vote before they executed the rights of citizenship? The answer, of course, is yes. Yes it would. To be knowledgeable and informed is unAmerican, and that’s a shame.

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