America has been Facebookified. You need look no further than the rash of people poisoning themselves using livestock dewormer to see the reach of the self-identified experts spouting conspiracy theories and quackery—not just on Facebook, but through all the channels and social media available. Distrust in the establishment has become so entrenched that they’ll turn to someone their aunt’s choir director’s cousin talked to for medical advice.
There’s a substantial segment of society that has so much distrust in government, they’ll elect an orange-hued bargain basement Mussolini to the highest elected office in the land. They’ll send Louie Gohmert to Congress—repeatedly—and give him Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene as reinforcements. We’re here because Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to Grover Norquist made it the focus of their lives: reducing government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
That meant, of course, making it unpopular by doing things like starving the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service, two of the government agencies that have the most public interaction and have to provide customer service. Republicans, with way too much help from Democrats who bought into the whole idea that the deficit is a real thing that matters more than anything else, made certain that every interaction citizens had with federal agencies would take forever and be difficult and miserable. All the better, in the long run, to steal everything for the super rich.
Like Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg! Funny how that worked out for him.
So here we are in a global pandemic that has killed more than 636,000 Americans with a death toll rising despite the fact that the very effective vaccine is free. People will spend money on dangerous quack remedies and forged vaccine cards rather than just getting the damned free shot. That’s fine for them if they want to poison themselves. But the fact is they’re endangering everyone around them who can’t be vaccinated, like children and the immunocompromised.
We’re not just having a COVID-19 pandemic, we’re having a selfishness pandemic. It’s everywhere—all those viral videos of people having full-on meltdowns and temper tantrums over the suggestion that they put a scrap of cloth over their face. On airplanes, where a pandemic of violent stupidity has resulted in more than $1 million in fines levied against horrible people in just this year alone.
We’re not just seeing some of the lowest levels of trust in government we’ve ever seen, we’re seeing breakdown of the social contract, where in-person social interaction is become more and more rare, causing “civic deserts.” Participation in social organizations like churches and unions is declining, and people—particularly on the right—seem to be forgetting how to conduct themselves in society.
However, there’s one social institution left in every community across the nation where people do still come together: schools. Or at least, it is where the pandemic hasn’t forced the schools to close. Schools could be a big part of solving this larger problem with a relatively simple solution: Teach civics again.
At the risk of sounding like a total fogey, that’s one of the basics education needs to return to. Consider that just half of Americans could name the three branches of government in a 2020 survey—23% couldn’t name any of the three. That’s a big improvement from just a few years earlier when only about a quarter of respondents could name all the branches. Annenberg Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson, whose organization conducts this annual survey, attributes increased knowledge to “Divided government, the impeachment process, and the number of times political leaders have turned to the courts … for increasing awareness of the three branches.”
That’s just one part of civics education—knowing how government works. The part of it that’s essential is the part about how the social contract works. Like why we pay taxes—where that money goes at every level and what it means for our lives. Like how our actions in the larger world actually have an impact on other people. Like how we really are all in this together because that’s just how life works unless you’re a hermit, and how in functioning societies even real hermits get vaccinated because that’s just the right thing to do.