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Beyond civic literacy

At some point in every election cycle, often related to discussions of voter turnout, the question of civic literacy is raised. We gnash our teeth and question our failure to educate (or be educated) on the working of our governmental institutions.

My colleague Evan Hu suggested in his Calgary Speaking blog that we should expect more of our new citizens than of our students. He’s right, we should do better. No one should disagree that a basic understanding of history, of the political system, and of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are essential to the working of a healthy democracy. But civics is not enough. The modern citizen needs to needs to know far more than the history of the constitution, path of a bill through the house and the names of those old guys in that famous painting of Charlottetown.

As our election progresses, with platforms declared and debates completed, it's clear that all the parties are playing politics as usual. They promise, in no particular order: tax cuts, increased program spending, regional development and somehow a reduction in the deficit between what the government takes in in taxes and spends on programs. All three national parties have promised to maintain an increase in health care spending at a clip far greater than the rate of inflation. But there is no mention of how health care might be reformed to avoid an unsustainable run up in cost.

Once elected, one of two things will have to happen (as has happened in previous elections). Either the government will under-deliver on spending promises and tax cuts and take the deficit seriously, or they will overspend as compared to revenue and continue to borrow against the future. Spending promises may be delivered, or they may be “deferred” based on the “economic reality”. Smart voters know this. They have seen it before. 

And yet, knowing that we know, the parties continue to behave as if we don’t know. There is an almost cliché absence of truthfulness in political campaigns. Are they all underestimating our intelligence? This is popular fantasy – the idea that, if some political candidate just had the courage to tell the truth, they would be elected in a landslide and democracy would be restored.

It would be unwise to hold out for this to come true.

Political machines are very sophisticated and the backrooms are well-stocked with public relations and marketing specialists who have learned from more than a century of mass-market consumer capitalism how to craft a message that will deliver the desired results from the public. People, even smart educated people, respond to the easy message. We want to be told all is well with health, at least for now. We can’t stand the thought of our taxes going up. We care about government debt but are willing to be bought off with the most casual assurances that it will be OK. On the other hand, if a policy is proposed that has real long-term potential for good but places the required cost or compromise directly before us, we are outraged (think carbon tax or HST).

It is not our intelligence that is in question. Rather, marketers and PR experts understand human nature. No matter how smart, the research suggests that people are notoriously bad evaluators of risk and reward beyond the obvious and immediate. Our brains appear hardwired to value the immediate (tax cuts) over the long term (lower debt), to fear surprises (crime) more than persistent threats (environmental damage).

In short, our evolution favoured traits that would allow us to survive on the savannah or in the forest, but we now live in a complex, wealthy, technological society where the decisions we are asked to make outstrip the horizons of our biological drivers. And those drivers are well understood and exploited by those who advise our politicians.

But biology is not destiny. We have a prefrontal cortex. We can reason. We can learn. We can develop culture. To that end, a healthy democracy needs to educate citizens to understand not only history and the process of government, but economics, human biology and the very levers that the marketers and spin masters exploit. This might be a tough sell in an era of “back to basics” and standardized testing. But, if we are in fact doomed to get the government we deserve, there seems little recourse but to invest in in our children so that they might deserve a government just a little better than the one we have now.

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