Dissecting the Civic Language Perception Project

Image design by Vinicius Tavares for DWF
Image design by Vinicius Tavares for DWF

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn from PACE’s Survey on Political Perceptions?

By Sean Fischer and Robert Wilkes

Civics Education Needs to Return Now More Than Ever

By Sean Fischer – Administrator & Adjunct Faculty, Rowan University

The Civic Language Perception Project, conducted by PACE, highlights a number of interesting statistics related to perceptions of civic terminology. Many insights can be teased out in the report, but perhaps the most important discovery is that positive and negative connotations of terms correlate to one’s age and level of civic education. Seemingly at the root of one’s positive or negative perception of various terminology is their having had, or having not had, a civics education. Younger Americans report having less civics education and believe civic engagement is less important than those 35 or over. At the same time, more younger people report obtaining their news and information from social media sources than older people. This suggests that younger Americans are civically handicapped by their (lack of) education and the methods by which they consume information, which has resulted in them holding fewer positive views toward civic terms and engagement. Sadly, this trend does not appear to show signs of improvement.

Without an education in civics, how can one understand the nuances that weave throughout our federal, state, and local systems of government? How can we expect our citizens to understand that being a citizen not only comes with rights but with responsibilities that we must individually uphold? That our system is not simply a pure democracy, but a federal democratic republic, and to know the differences? To gather that our founders developed a government that would protect the rights of individuals but also sought to ensure the success of collective needs such as “Justice… domestic Tranquility… the common defense… and … the general Welfare.”

Evolving Views on Democracy’s Value

One discovery in the report suggests that while a majority of younger Americans (aged 18-34) view the word democracy positively, they do so at a rate that is significantly less than Americans 35 or older. Within that younger demographic, 30% had a neutral view of the word, and 10% have a negative connotation. Yet there is conspicuous bipartisan agreement that in order for democracy to be effective it needs to be nurtured and protected via the participation of those whom it belongs to. Refreshingly, former president Barack Obama, a Democrat, and former Republican presidential candidate and current United States senator, Mitt Romney each recently spoke about this need. Despite the bipartisan understanding, younger people are seemingly growing a cynical view of the value of democracy, which is alarming for the future of the nation and is reflective of the “corrosive” information they consume via social media. 

When we combine the use of social media as the primary vehicle for gathering news and the lack of civics education, we find a demographic group with a limited understanding of civics is being barraged with endless spurious information. Social media feeds individuals information that aligns with what an algorithm indicates they will like. It is not designed to inform or challenge the user but to validate the user so as to keep the user using longer. What is fact, opinion, fiction, or conspiracy is not vetted, and fact-checking for these sites is often lackluster or ignored. Therefore, it is no surprise that while no evidence (other than claims from the disingenuous and conspiratorial) exist that the 2020 election was compromised, a popularly stated reason for why those 18-34 who did not was a nonsensical belief that their “vote wouldn’t be counted.” 

Politicians, political groups, and media pundits exploit this lack of civics education and use of sensationalism for their own purposes. Whether that be to fundraise, manipulate media headlines, gather ratings or views etc., in that effort they, too, are failing to uphold their responsibility to democracy and to educate the citizenry. PACE’s findings suggest that those who do not understand the system feel they have less of a stake in it, are less likely to place importance on civic engagement, or have favorable views of the terms broadly aligned with it. PACE has found indications that there is an erosion of trust in the public system and a noticeable decline in how people feel toward the notion of democracy. The report illustrates how desperately we need to better arm our citizenry with a civics education so as to keep our democracy viable.

Perceptions Mean More Than Reality

By Robert Wilkes – Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall 

Dear Sean: I concur wholeheartedly with your conclusion about the importance of civics education. Why education in America has failed our nation, particularly civics education, is not addressed in the studies but is obviated by cross tabbing to age. If we are to preserve our hallowed ideas that the citizen is sovereign, we must have citizens educated in how our constitutional republic was designed and why it matters.

The survey was devised to measure perceptions. Perceptions matter more than reality. This is true when choosing a car or filling out a ballot. Our car choices are driven by absurd amounts of advertising and our politics by our choice of cable channel or social media outlet. We are easily directed and conformist. We care how others perceive us if we drive up in a Ford or reveal that we voted Republican.  

In politics, perceptions are molded by people who want our donations and votes. While we flatter ourselves by thinking our decisions are rational, enormous amounts of technology, time, and money are expended to foster narratives, create associations, and define terms to manipulate our emotions and win our loyalty.  

But the game is up. Our “information” is so obviously shaped, distorted, cherry-picked, falsified, invented, or omitted. People see power-hungry politicians and deceptive, profit-centered media for what they are. Confidence in television news is now at 11%, and trust in a wide range of American institutions fell from 40% to 27% from 1998 to 2021. Confidence in Congress is at 7%, so low it reflects only the opinions of their mothers.

It’s worse for phone-addicted young people. As a mechanism for social cohesion and civil discourse, social media is a disaster. Social media manipulates us with our own data. It uses algorithms to hyper-amplify our existing perceptions and sharpen its emotional impact, often leading to stress, anger, and erratic behavior.

Only a strong education in civics can overcome these powerful voices and make us fully functioning citizens with independently derived viewpoints. But the level of civics education required is a lot to ask of a 300+ million diverse population. Albert J. Nock, in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, made a convincing (and depressing) argument that the “mass-man” is ineducable. But education is the only hope we have, other than enduring ever-rising levels of strident propaganda.

The Meaning of “Citizen”

In the survey, conservatives are associated with “citizen,” “patriotism,” and “civility,” while liberals or progressives are associated with “activism,” “common good,” and “social justice.” PACE does not attach values or interpretations, but I will offer mine. If preservation of our national identity, traditions, and culture is a value, then “citizen” is the key to the rest of the survey. “Activism” may be good or bad depending on the cause, which are often narrow problems of the moment, but “citizen” speaks to the fundamental health of the Republic.

John F. Kennedy invoked the idea of citizen at the Berlin Wall in June 1963. He said, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of the free, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner.” Cicero wrote that declaring “civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen) would guarantee your safety when traveling across the Roman Empire. It was a measure of the reverence Romans attached to the idea of citizenship. Indeed, the erosion of citizenship brought about the fall of the Roman Empire.

Immigrants who want to become Americans take classes and pass a test on civics. They swear to protect and defend the Constitution, not the king, not the party, not the fatherland. Shouldn’t native-born Americans at least study civics before reaching voting age?

Ronald Dworkin, in First Things magazine, writes, “patriotism, once good, became evil.” Young Americans do not admire middle-class values; they ridicule them. Unlike any other generation, they are less likely to work and form families. Rather than occupy themselves with fulfilling work, they waste time with stupefying technologies like video games. This is, of course, baffling to people in older generations. Clearly, the Overton window has shifted dramatically. The erosion of reverence for citizenship (ominously parallel to Roman history) is evidence of a collapse of not only civics education but education in general.  

Public education became a national objective worthy of community sacrifice to educate citizens for self-government. To my mind, the American education system, from top to bottom, from kindergarten to PhD, has failed us. Conservatives yearn for the day when education is restored to its roots.

Finding Harmony in Perceptions

By Sean Fischer – Administrator & Adjunct Faculty, Rowan University

It does not surprise me to find that when we listen and reflect, we often find harmony. Nevertheless, I must take exception to a few of Mr. Wilkes’s assertions.

Wilkes notes that “conservatives yearn for the day when education is restored to its roots.” A statement that could suggest many things, but one that hardly reflects the current Republican platform, which seems to prioritize diminishing the veracity and quality of public education. We have seen Republicans place laws on the books that ignore the existence of people. We have seen them ban books. We have watched as they erode barriers between church and state in public schools. We have seen them attempt to reduce the truth of our nation’s history in favor of a more savory and insincere version of the past. They have undermined the value of higher education, which nevertheless, and despite Wilkes’s assertion, remains internationally enviable. American higher education drives innovation, and thus it seems a stretch to suggest the entire education system “has failed us.” The root of education is the admission of ignorance and a thirst for knowledge; ideas are considered, not suppressed. At the moment “the root” seems distasteful to Republicans.

Wilkes also suggests that young Americans have abandoned and mocked “middle-class values” in ways that previous generations did not. As that point stands, it reflects a normative determination on the importance of one set of values over others and it candidly offers little more than the old “these kids today” argument that each generation revisits. This generation is under no obligation to revere values they perceive as incongruent with modernity. Questioning values is fundamentally American. In another assertion, Wilkes indicates that younger people are averse to the concept of citizenship altogether (not an illogical assumption, as he correctly points out the terms in the survey were left to the reader to define). Here, I am optimistic that what is actually being teased out is that younger people are suggesting they have issues with being a citizen (perhaps defined merely as someone who lives somewhere) in the United States in these times. Young people are increasingly dissatisfied with government, but I am not yet ready to conclude they are unsatisfied with the concept that legitimacy in government is granted via the consent of the governed.

Finding Common Ground in Improving Education

Refreshingly and more importantly than these noted exceptions, Wilkes and I share much in common regarding the importance of education, the regressive effects of puerile tribalist loyalty, and over-consuming “information” from social media. It is also encouraging to see him devote attention (perhaps less directly than I might do) to the corrosive levels of money that drive American political campaigns and the never-ending horse race-style coverage of the news entertainment industry. We each fundamentally seem to conclude we as a nation need to better educate our citizens to properly steward our democracy and protect our liberty. In this common ground, we each draw inspiration from our politically revolutionary founding, and we also find hope for our future.   

Both Sides Are Valid

By Robert Wilkes – Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall 

Let’s pause for some perspective. Let’s affirm that conservatism and liberalism/progressivism are both valid, coherent philosophies with long and distinguished legacies. Both were instrumental in creating our nation and each deserves respect. Each should be given a voice, even better, welcomed wherever honest debate may put us on the path to a better future.

With that in mind, much of Sean’s response to my rebuke of American education is disingenuous, more appropriate for the caterwauling ladies on The View than our debate. For example, he wrote: “Wilkes notes that, ‘conservatives yearn for the day when education is restored to its roots.’… At the moment, ‘the root’ seems distasteful to Republicans.” The link at “distasteful” will take you to the headline, “Republicans Don’t Want to Reform Public Education. They Want to End It.” That’s so false. I had to refer to my book of logical fallacies to find “jumping to conclusions.” Moreover, it’s mudslinging.

Republicans want to improve public education. They want parents to have a say in what is taught. They want school choice and voucher programs, as do inner city Democrats. They favor merit-based teacher evaluation and pay. These sound like reforms to me. Nothing in Sean’s link proves Republicans what to end public education.

Americans are coming around to the Republican view. In a recent poll, Americans preferred Democrats over Republicans on the issue of education by only 3%, 44% to 41%, within the margin of error. In the mid-2000’s Democrats led by 20%. Obviously, Republicans are not alone in their loss of confidence in American education. Public school enrollment has dropped by 1.3 million students from pre-pandemic numbers. That’s roughly 3% and up to 9% in New York City. If public schools are so attractive, why are so many parents willing to pay more than double (taxes and private school tuition) to keep their children out of them?

You countered my comments on the erosion of citizenship by characterizing them as the “these kids today” chestnut of every generation. Fair point. But what if the older generation has it right this time, frightfully so? What if these trends are truly pernicious and dangerous?

Where Do We Go from Here?

Should we reform, but with caution (conservative view) or should we believe, as you wrote, “This generation is under no obligation to revere values they perceive as incongruent with modernity” (liberal/progressive view)? Like revolutionary France, are we free to make the world anew? See my debate with Divided We Fall’s founder Joseph Schuman in November 2019 on this question. 

I’m a conservative. I believe conservatism is best for building and sustaining a thriving, free nation. Conservative values encourage each citizen to dream; to reach his or her human potential in the “pursuit of happiness.” Patriotism, family, and citizenship are the backbone of American liberty and the best hope to keep America strong. Only a strong, virtuous America can spread the American ideal of liberty and self-government to the rest of the world.

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Sean Fischer
Administrator & Adjunct Faculty, Rowan University | Website

Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D, has taught and currently teaches American History & American Government at a number of colleges. He's previously produced a public affairs radio show (Spotlight on Atlantic City, 96.1 WTTH) and is a veteran of numerous political campaigns.

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Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.

1 comment

Sean M Fischer November 19, 2022 at 12:42 pm

As I review this debate in light of the 2022 midterm election, I am grateful to see that the poll results did not manifest in the election outcome. Contrary to this polling data which suggests a decline in younger voter enthusiasm, engagement, and participation – the actual 2022 election participation data shows us that young voters were particularly engaged and participated at exceptional rates. This is indeed an encouraging outcome, and suggests that polling methodology needs reform (a topic frequently discussed by pundits and prognosticators alike);and or that the topical issues present in 2022 had significantly altered young voter’s attentions from when this polling data set was culled. My guess is the former is more at play, and that obtaining appropriate sampling for the purposes of drawing inferences needs attention. In turn that would suggest that young people had not ever really turned away, but that their opinions are less accurately reflected within the used sample. Nevertheless, the issues on the table in 2022 did speak to younger people: body autonomy and choice, student loans, inflation and economic instability…are all motivating to younger demographics. It would be interesting to dig into this further.


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