Last year, CNN contributor LZ Granderson authored a commentary that struck a chord with my view of the American electoral process. The piece was titled “Don’t let ignorant people vote.” As we quickly approach the Nov. 6 election, I find Granderson’s perspective that Americans are politically ignorant resonating more and more with each passing day.
Advisedly, Granderson took pains to point out that he was not using the word “ignorant” to cast aspersions on the intelligence of Americans. Rather, he was concerned that too many of us have a “lack of knowledge” when it comes to our government and the major political issues of the day. Given that definition, can anyone honestly argue that Granderson is wrong?
Every time I read the comments on a political blog or newspaper website, I conclude that the political IQ of our nation is so low that we have a significant number of voters — perhaps even a majority — who are ill-prepared to vote with any meaningful knowledge of the issues that face our nation or even a basic understanding of the way our government operates. Given the range of economic and national security dangers threatening the well-being of the United States — foreign and domestic — I’m shocked at how few citizens are conversant on the issues that will determine the path of our country in these perilous times.
And, lest there be any doubt that the dominant political parties know they are trying to win votes from folks who have little understanding of the major issues, just look at the political discourse and advertisements that assault us daily. As Granderson observed, “In an effort to win over ignorant voters, political campaigns are no longer targeting the movable middle as much as the easily misled. Instead of intelligent debates about important topics such as health care reform and cash-strapped states, we have an exchange of easy to remember catchphrases such as ‘Obamacare’ and ‘War on Unions’ — all in the race to pander to people who can’t explain what Congress does.”
Here’s the paradox. As a nation, we profess value of civic knowledge as a crucial aspect of citizenship. After all, we require immigrants desirous of becoming naturalized citizens to pass a test designed to determine if they have rudimentary knowledge of our political system and government. Yet we don’t require similar proficiency from those who are natural citizens by accident of birth. Granderson’s solution? “Weed out some of the ignorant by making people who want to vote first pass a test modeled on the one given to those who want to become citizens.”
What would that test look like? Here is a sample of the questions immigrants must answer as part of the naturalization test:
■ What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?
■ If the president and the vice president no longer can serve, who becomes president?
■ The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
■ Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
■ When was the Constitution written?
■ What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
■ Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
■ Who did the United States fight in World War II?
■ What did Susan B. Anthony do?
■ We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?
Is Granderson correct? Should all citizens — including birthright citizens — have to pass a test to demonstrate a requisite level of political and civic knowledge before voting? Of course not. To require such a test would be tantamount to eviscerating the heart and soul of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Still, we should recognize that being a citizen of the United States is a sacred gift. And, as with any precious gift, we should demonstrate that we cherish our citizenship by taking the time to refresh the civic lessons of our youth and educate ourselves about the issues and candidates that will be on the ballot this November.
To not do so would be ignorant.
Since 1998, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.