This morning CBC radio aired a sound bite of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking at a 2012 UNH (University of New Hampshire ) open forum. Souter was asked to comment on declining civics education and what effect that has on government. His answer runs almost 8 minutes. For those short on time, patience or inclination skip to 4:00 or read the transcript below.
“But the reason I said I think it is the most significant problem that we’ve got is that I think some of the aspects of current American government that people on both sides find frustrating are in part a function of the inability of people to understand how government can and should function.
It is a product of civic ignorance.
What I worry about is a remark that Benjamin Franklin made and Susan Leahy quoted Jefferson at the beginning about how “an ignorant people can never remain a free people.”
Democracy cannot survive too much ignorance.
Franklin, in effect, had a comment to which the Jefferson comment is a kind of an answer or a response. You’ve probably heard this but it bears repeating.
Franklin was asked by someone I think on the streets of Philadelphia shortly after the 1787 convention adjourned in what kind of government the constitution would give us if it was adopted. Franklin’s famous answer was “a republic, if you can keep it.” (edited)
You can’t keep it in ignorance. I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some other places.
What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, “Give me total power and I will solve this problem.”
That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor not because he arrested the Roman senate. He became emperor because he promised he would solve problems that were not being solved.
If we know who is responsible, I have enough faith in the American people to demand performance from those responsible.
If we don’t know, we will stay away from the polls. We will not demand it. And the day will come when somebody will come forward and and we and the government will in effect say, “take the ball and run with it.”
“Do what you have to do.”
That is the way democracy dies. And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”