Civic Education

  • Voter Suppression: An American Political Tradition

    In her new book, The Politics of Voter Suppression Defending and Expanding Americans' Right to Vote, Tova Andrea Wang tells readers that voter suppression is one of our nation’s political “traditions," arguing that the U.S. has “an election system that’s exquisitely designed for low rates of participation."

    And Wang has reason to know – a fellow at Demos and The Century Foundation, she worked as a consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission established by Congress in the aftermath of the “2000 Florida election debacle”. Mandated “by law to study voter fraud and intimidation," the commission hired bipartisan consultants and charged them with investigating both and writing a draft report. According to this 2007 article by Wang, little evidence of fraud was found, but there was lots of evidence of persistent intimidation – findings that were later turned on their head by the political interplay of Congress and George Bush’s Justice Department.

    So, it’s not really a huge surprise to find that a big story in the 2012 election cycle is “voter suppression” – meaning attempts to intimidate and deny the franchise to citizens who are legally eligible to vote – presented under the guise of a defense against virtually nonexistent incidents of voter fraud.

  • Jobs And Freedom: Why Labor Organizing Should Be A Civil Right

    Our guest authors today are Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill. Norman Hill, staff coordinator of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Hill, a former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is also the former civil and human rights director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They are currently working on a memoir, entitled Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain.

    Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit have done a great service by writing Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice, an important work with the potential to become the basis for a strong coalition on behalf of civil rights, racial equality and economic justice.

    In the United States, worker rights and civil rights have a deep and historic connection. What is slavery, after all, if not the abuse of worker rights taken to its ultimate extreme? A. Philip Randolph, the founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, recognized this link and, as far back as the 1920s, spoke passionately about the need for a black-labor alliance. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s protégé and an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., joined his mentor as a forceful, early advocate for a black-labor coalition.

  • Public Schools Create Citizens In A Democratic Society

    Our guest author today is Jeffrey Mirel, Professor of Education and History at the University of Michigan.  His book, Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants, published in 2010 by Harvard University Press, is available in bookstores and online.

    How do you get people who hate each other learn to resolve their differences democratically? How do you get them to believe in ballots not bullets?

    What if the answer is “public schools” and the evidence for it is in our own history during the first half of the twentieth century?

    In the years spanning about 1890-1930, two institutions—public schools and the foreign language press—helped generate this trust among the massive wave of eastern and southern European immigrants who came to the U.S. during that time. This is not a traditional “melting pot” story but rather an examination of a dynamic educational process.

  • Collective Bargaining Teaches Democratic Values, Activism

    Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy."

    Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed.

  • Labor In High School Textbooks: Bias, Neglect And Invisibility

    The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.

    This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, "American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks," consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are "misrepresented, downplayed or ignored." Students—and all Americans—deserve better.

    Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, "spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage" of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially "taken sides" in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.

    The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.

  • Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

    A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

    It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

    In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?

  • Suppressing Democracy

    At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

    It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

    There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

    Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.

  • New Teaching Resource Highlights Voices Of Leading Pro-Democracy Muslims

    The Albert Shanker Institute has released "Muslim Voices on Democracy: A Reader"—a free, downloadable publication that highlights the speeches, articles, and ideals of pro-democracy Muslims. It is designed as a resource for high school teachers to use in American classrooms, as they seek to help students make sense of the complex forces at work in the Muslim world.

    You can download the publication (PDF) here.

    The individuals featured in this collection include intellectuals, union activists, dissidents, and journalists. Although the voices of women are featured throughout the publication, it contains a special section devoted to their unique challenges and contributions to the democratic political dialogue. The publication also features a glossary of terms and a list of resources for further study.

  • A Call For Democracy And Human Rights In The Arab States

    On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world," they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.

    Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.

    The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.

  • Standing Up For The Rights Of Others

    "...part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others..."   - President Barack Obama

    In an extraordinary speech at the United Nations last Thursday, President Obama asserted his leadership and the leadership of the U.S. in the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. Think that’s a "no news" story? You’d be wrong. The Bush administration’s effort to frame the Iraq invasion as an effort to bring democracy to the region has had the effect of linking traditional U.S. democracy promotion to military intervention in the minds of many people, in the U.S and abroad. And, although Mr. Obama campaigned in support of democracy promotion, his administration has approached the issue cautiously. In fact, the administration has been criticized for backing away from a tough democracy and human rights line in its bilateral relations, especially in the Middle East and China. Moreover, although he promised to increase the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy, in his first budget, the President actually proposed a funding reduction, but in the subsequent compromise legislation, signed off on a small increase.

    In this context, apparently anticipating a skeptical reaction to the speech, the White House released a "fact sheet" outlining activities and initiatives to illustrate its commitment to promoting democratic ideals.