Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Is America ready for Democracy?

There are those in the United States who are enthusiastic about the project of supporting democracy in various parts of the world. Supporting democracy is a project about which I can muster some enthusiasm, but only if the circumstances are right. A democratic government is only as good as the general electorate is informed. At the very least, a voting citizen should be informed about the laws of her land, the historical circumstances that led to the making of those laws, and the geographical features of the nation in which she is casting a vote. If one is a voter in a nation that has ambitions of becoming the center of an empire, as the United States does, then a voter is obligated to be well informed about the geography of the world as a whole, and the histories of the many nations with which there is interaction.

There is mounting evidence that many of the people eligible to vote in the United States since the passing of the 26th amendment to the Constitution in 1971 (the amendment that gave the right to vote to every citizen of the United States who is 18 years of age or older) are not sufficiently well informed to make informed decisions about those who represent them and preside over them. It has been well documented for years that young Americans consistently get among the lowest scores in the world in internationally adjudicated math and science tests. More recently there have been stories about the astonishingly poor knowledge of geography that young men and women in the 18–24 age group have.

One such story can be found on the CNN Education site. On this site we learn, among other things, that 44% of Americans in the 18–24 range were unable to locate on a map even one of the countries Iraq, Iran, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Some 57% of Americans in that age range were unable to locate the state of Ohio on a map, and only 50% could find the state of New York. These results did not surprise me much. I recently asked a group of students who were taking an upper-level undergraduate course on Buddhism how many of them could find India, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea on a map of Asia; the majority said they would be unable to find Korea, Japan and Vietnam, but most thought they would be able to find China or India. It is reassuring to know that these American students could find the two most populated countries on the planet, countries in which about 36% of the world's population lives, but I wonder how many would know that India and China together have a population about seven times that of the United States. And how many would know that most college students in those countries know far more than the average American college student knows about world geography, world history, math, science, and quite possibly American geography and history.

While I have not seen any statistics recently on how many young American adults could pass a citizenship test if they were required to, my guess is that many could not. This raises the question: if the United States does not allow immigrants to vote in US elections until they have passed a citizenship test, why are citizens allowed to vote before they can pass the same citizenship test? Never shy of recommending adjustments that might be made in US law, let me suggest the following policies that might be tried out:

  • Make periodic citizenship mandatory tests for everyone. If people must pass tests before they are entitled to drive an automobile or a truck or motorcycle, it seems quite reasonable that they should pass tests periodically to prove they are fit to cast a vote in a municipal, state or federal election.
  • Allow people from every country in the world to vote in US federal elections, provided they can pass a citizenship test. After all, just about everyone in the world is affected by policies made by US presidents and by the US Congress. It seems unreasonable to deprive them of a voice in their own destinies, provided they are knowledgeable enough about world events and current affairs.

Normally, I would suggest a policy of improving America's domestic educational system, but it is unlikely that Americans will ever be smart enough to elect people who will make education a priority, rather than waging aggressive wars around the world and trying to achieve regime change in “developing” countries. While it might seem like a good idea to divert some of the $400,000,000,000 the United States spends on the military every year to the education budget, which is about 10% as large as the military budget, there are probably not enough American voters sufficiently educated to insist on voting only for presidential and congressional candidates who value books more than guns and who realize that the best possible way to have a safe and secure country is to contribute to the well-being of people around the world rather than terrorizing them with knowledge that an unfriendly giant has the capacity to obliterate them.

If you have not yet seen it, check out the Oreo cookie demonstration that puts all this into perspective. It is reminiscent of the classical BB demonstration that Ben Cohen gave to give some idea of how large the nuclear arsenal of the United States is.

If you are a US citizen, please write to your senators and congressional representatives right away and insist that they support legislation to require citizenship tests of all voters, not just those who were born outside the country. But first, why not try your hand on some questions from the citizenship test that is given to people seeking US citizenship?


Anonymous said...

"No Taxation without Representation" ...this article, as witty and interesting as it is, seems to forget the fundamentals of a society and its relationship with its government. Democracy is imperfect because there are a lot of dumb people out there...that's why we can only change the world one dumb person at a time :)

Good luck