In a recent Washington Post column, “We must weed out ignorant Americans from the electorate,” I argued that voters should have to take the civics test portion of the citizenship exam before being allowed to vote.
As you can probably imagine, the headline alone incited some histrionic criticisms. Most of them inadvertently confirming just how little many in the media really think about the American electorate and our democratic institutions.
What we do know is that nearly every study conducted on voter knowledge finds a big chunk of the electorate understands next to nothing about American governance. To varying degrees, this is what allows Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and other platitude-spewing populists to lean on identity, anger, grievances, empathy, and jealousy rather than policy.
A democracy without knowledge corrodes the republic. And that’s exactly how elites like it.
If you dare blame the voters for the state of the union, you will be accused of harboring racist or elitist feelings, depending on whether you’re talking to a liberal or a Trump supporter. Neither makes sense.
Me: Ignorant people shouldn’t vote!
Them: I can’t believe you’re saying African Americans shouldn’t be able to vote, racist!
Do all the snarky critics who contend I was being implicitly racist realize they’re arguing blacks are less capable than whites of passing a simple civics test? Are they saying the citizenship test is racist, as well? If so, which questions are problematic? And how did millions of poor non-white prospective citizens pass the same test?
Do they really believe that asking voters to name one right protected under the First Amendment is only a small step away from advocating for the return of Jim Crow?
Despite the best effort of Byron York — and many others — to conflate a civics test with a poll tax, there is no Bull Conner barring the in Internet door, prohibiting Americans from taking a couple of hours out of their lives to learn that we have three branches of government. This development should be celebrated, not muffled with cheap historical analogies.
If we do concede that the average African American or white working-class voter can’t pass such a test, or that such a test will have consequentially disparate outcomes (and I don’t know if any of that’s true), then we have a serious problem. It isn’t a test problem, it’s a knowledge problem. In this golden age of information, 32 percent of Americans can’t identify the Supreme Court as one of the three branches of the federal government, yet we’re advocating they Rock the Vote. It’s irresponsible.
It was amusing, however, to see liberals argue that nothing should ever inhibit an American from exercising his constitutional rights. Now, of course, many of them have no reservations about inhibiting gun ownership or demanding political groups register with the IRS and meet a whole list of demands before practicing their right of free expression. But advocating for a simple civics test — that you can take as many times as necessary — is tantamount to a military junta.
Me: Ignorant people shouldn’t vote!
Them: I can’t believe you’re saying the working class is too dumb to vote, you elitist!
When I wrote the piece, I was thinking about those who cheered on Barack Obama’s executive abuse. I was also thinking about Hillary Clinton’s corruption. I was thinking about everything Bernie Sanders says. I was thinking about George Bush’s attacks on federalism. Mostly, though, I was thinking about the cult of Trump — the people who applaud his attacks on free speech and separation of powers and embrace his identity politics.
Trump fans have assured me that his voters are the smartest and best educated in America, so I’m unsure why they were offended by the piece. It’s not elitism, after all.
Being well-informed about government doesn’t necessarily make you smarter than your neighbor. You may have gone to better schools, had more attentive parents, etc., but there are working-class Americans who have a keen understanding of their vocations, communities, and faith. Some possess an intuitive feel for the world or an emotional IQ that gives them greater insight into the human condition than an educated, aristocratic voter.
But so what? If they’re willing to support a candidate who promises to deport 11 million people for contaminating the purity of American citizenship, they should be able to pass a simple civics test.
Now, with that said, there’s something I didn’t mention in The Washington Post article that I thought was pretty obvious: It’s not going to happen.
There will never be a voting test in our lifetime. Never. So yes, James Taranto, it’s unlikely such a proposal would pass judicial scrutiny. A person can argue that abortion is immoral, even if he knows abortion is protected by the courts. And a person can genuinely believe that instituting a basic, unalterable civics exam for voters is a good idea and simultaneously understand it is improbable. Others can sidestep that debate.
If there were a voting test, political organizations might be incentivized to spend billions teaching prospective voters the answers to the test. And when the next swindler promises them a shiny new object, voters might be just a little better equipped to recognize the absurdity of it all. Or maybe a test wouldn’t substantively change the dynamics of the electorate at all. I’m willing to concede that there are plenty of good arguments against it that go beyond vacuous accusations of elitism and racism.
Noah Rothman at Commentary offered a thoughtful pushback. Ilya Somin — whose book “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter” along with Bryan Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies” are must reads for anyone interested contemporary democracy — also makes a strong case:
While I am sympathetic to Harsanyi’s idea, I ultimately cannot support it because I doubt that a real-world government can be trusted to implement it without bias. … Even if the test can be structured in such a way as to avoid racial or ethnic bias (which is by no means certain), it is unlikely to avoid bias against the opponents of those in power.
I’m unsure why the test would ever need to be changed. The Constitution does not change. History does not change. I’ve can’t find any substantive complaints about the test being biased. It is true that the powerful will typically find a way to manipulate the system. They manipulate it best when people have no clue how it works. And the today’s political class — right and left — seems very comfortable with this arrangement.