The Public Debate Is Reduced to Misology

February 17, 2014

by Andrea Neal

It’s little wonder that today’s political discourse is polarized. The folks doing most of the arguing know so little about the past that they cannot justify their views with historical evidence or data. So they appeal to emotion, name calling, stereotypes and hyperbole.

A few recent examples: MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry described the word ObamaCare as a racist label “conceived of by a group of wealthy white men who needed a way to put themselves above and apart from a black man.” Did she offer proof to support her accusation? Of course not.

Closer to home, State Sen. Mike Delph used his Twitter account to debate HJR 3, a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman. He was immediately attacked by fellow Tweeters as a hater, a bigot and “delusional.” If he’d been hoping for a healthy exchange of views about the history of marriage or the effects of family structure on child well-being, he was surely disappointed.

Name-calling isn’t new. Look at accounts of the election of 1800, and you’ll find nasty rhetoric from supporters of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams weren’t very nice in 1828 either. What’s new is the complete lack of historic perspective on the part of the name-callers.

In a speech last year, the historian Gary W. Gallagher said, “Ignorance about the American past gets in the way of fruitful public debate about current issues of surpassing importance. This ignorance affects what passes for discussion of politics and other issues on the 24-hour news channels, on the Internet and in newspapers. A shrill tone often dominates in all of these settings, frequently set up by ‘analysis’ that is strikingly uninformed.”

The immigration debate is one such example, he said. On one side, opponents argue that illegal immigrants are an economic drain, on the other side that they are an economic contributor. One side says they take jobs no one else wants; the other side says that they take jobs away from U.S. citizens.

The issue is typically painted as a crisis — “the immigration crisis” — but history suggests it is not.

“Often lost is awareness that percentages of foreign-born residents are not remarkably high right now,” Gallagher said. During the 1890s, about 15 percent of the U.S. population was born outside the United States. Today the percentage is 12.9. Throughout American history, there have been periods of heavy immigration (the early 1900s, 1910s and 1990s), but, over time, numbers rise and fall somewhat cyclically.

This is the kind of knowledge that makes for informed and scholarly debate, but few Americans can claim anything close to historic or civic literacy.

In 2011, when Newsweek magazine asked 1,000 adult citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president, 73 percent couldn’t explain the Cold War and 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests student knowledge in various subjects every few years. In 2010, only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors were considered grade-level proficient in American history.

Sad to say, both American history and civics education are losing ground in our nation’s schools because neither subject is considered essential by policymakers. Math and language arts increasingly dominate curricula because those are the subjects on which schools are graded and teachers are evaluated. A few states have instituted statewide, high-stakes tests in civics and history, but Indiana is not one of them.

The historian David McCullough made headlines in 2012 when he said in a 60 Minutes interview, “We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate.”

An informed public is the best antidote to polarized and uncivil discourse, yet as McCullough, Gallagher and so many others have warned, we are moving in the wrong direction.

Andrea Neal, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis.

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