While the rest of us are lamenting the ignorance of the electorate, the North Dakota Council on the Humanities and the North Dakota Newspaper Association are taking remedial action.
They have been sponsoring a series of writings by President David Adler of the Alturas Institute in which he discusses the basics of the United State national government. Adler is well equipped to explain government, having written six books and 100 scholarly articles in the leading journals in his field.
As a colleague in political science, I find Adler's writing outstanding, giving clarity to the provisions of the Constitution. A number of North Dakota newspapers have been carrying his work.
Ominously, Adler alleges that “without a broader public understanding of the Constitution and deeper appreciation of the virtues and values of American Constitutionalism, there is little reason to believe that the nation’s founding document will long endure.”
Many polls and surveys have verified time after time the ignorance of the electorate.
Citing one poll, Adler notes that one in three native-born citizens fail the civic literacy tests while over 97% of immigrants pass. Only 25% of the people can name the three branches of government, while 70% do not know that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
Without a clear understanding of the implications of every article of the Constitution, “civic illiteracy casts a dark and foreboding shadow over the future of our Democracy,” Adler asserts.
At present, most citizens depend on hearsay for their opinions. Practically none have read the Constitution, yet they expound on it as though they graduated from the Yale Law School. Because they haven’t taken time to learn basic civics, they are easy prey for the rumormongers and deceivers. The media on the left and the right are happy to provide fodder for the gullible.
In North Dakota, we have saddled citizens with an impossible task of responsible voting.
We are so election-happy that we require intelligent votes for school districts, park districts, townships, counties and the state, something like 2,500 governments in all.
North Dakota has more state-elected officials than all other states except South Carolina. And do our voters know the qualifications of each candidate and the track record of each incumbent? At your leisure, go down a city street and ask people at random, "Who is the state treasurer? Or the agriculture commissioner?"
If most states can get by with five elected officials, why does North Dakota need a dozen? Those with only administrative duties should be appointed and only those with policy-making powers should be elected.
Then we expect intelligent voting on ballot measures. In most cases, voters go into the polls blind and play “eenie, meenie, minie moe” with their decisions. From personal experience, it’s the language of the first 15 words that make a difference. Some use the rule “if you don’t know, vote no”. Good measures have been defeated and bad measures have passed because ballots were cast by voters who didn’t have a clue about the consequences.
So the North Dakota Newspaper Association and the Council on Humanities are bringing a partial cure for ignorance with Adler's writings, but there is a major problem underlying all of the ignorance. Even though provided with critical information for every citizen, we are confronted with the old adage that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
I have never had any illusions about the number of readers of editorial pages. Consequently, I wonder how many readers are pouring over Adler’s wisdom. Because an uninformed electorate slows decision-making, we may dally too long to save the republic in this fast-moving era. It is the Achilles' heel of our democracy.
Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email email@example.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.