If recent history demonstrates anything, it is the old truth that American democracy is a work in progress, and that it can suffer reversals as well as advances. The teaching of civics in our schools should convey the complex and fluid character of American government, and the concurrent responsibility of citizens to be actively involved in politics in order to defend and expand the rights and freedoms of American democracy. At a moment of great risk for democracy, both in the United States and abroad, it is especially important for young people to understand that the moral arc of history does not bend on its own, but only by the active intervention of ordinary people. We may still have a republic, even in this moment of dangerous turmoil, but—as Benjamin Franklin famously opined—only if the citizenry can keep it.
Seen in this light, the crash course on how to teach civics offered by the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn is an exemplar of what NOT to do. In an age of the rise of authoritarian and racist populisms of the far right, including that found at the pinnacle of American government, Finn is exercised about the emergence of an embryonic democratic socialist current in American politics. Of particular concern is what he sees as an “appalling” New York Times op-ed by two young editors of the socialist journal Jacobin, which argued that “subversion of democracy was the explicit intent of the framers” of the Constitution, and advocated constitutional reform to make the American system more democratic.
The idea that the 1789 Constitution contained significant anti-democratic elements seems to be anathema to Finn. Armed with an exegesis of Federalist Paper 10 which misses the essence of James Madison’s argument, he asserts that the purpose of the Constitution was the promotion and defense of democracy, full stop, and that is how it must be taught in civics courses.