Tag Archives: Civics

Monday’s Mtg: The Electoral College and the Problem of Minority Rule

This topic was Penny’s idea and it is not hard to see where it came from. As most of you know, in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections the loser of the popular vote won office because his (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) votes were distributed in a way that filled the inside straight required by the antique Electoral College. That is, both men won bare majorities in a combination of states that, taken together, are where a majority of the electorate lives. No other democratic country selects its chief of state in such a way.

We have discussed anti-democratic features of U.S. political system several times before recently. In April 2017 we discussed undemocratic features of the Constitution, of which the Electoral College is merely one, and in November we debated whether the United States really legitimately can be called a democracy.

What’s left? I think this go around would be a good time to discuss two issues in particular.

  1. The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. This interstate compact would allow the Electoral College to be effectively bypassed, require no congressional or presidential approval, and be perfectly constitutional. And –
  2. Whether the undemocratic features of our entire political system (not just Constitution) have grown to favor a specific type of minority rule: That of a particular political party, the Republican Party.

For the EC/NPV discussion, we can go over the origins and purposes of the Electoral College, the pros and cons of keeping it, and the NPV and other solutions that would modify the Electoral College rather than abolish it altogether. I think progressives sometimes overstate the extent to which our political system puts its thumb on the scale for the GOP. Yet, there are reasons to be concerned, especially if the current Republican leadership can pull off a few more tricks, like further weakening voting rights and eliminating the last vestiges of campaign financing limits. YMMV.

I will start our meeting by explaining the basic pros and cons of the Electoral College and the NPV initiative.


NEXT WEEK:  Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?


Monday’s Mtg: What does “cultural literacy” mean?

Sometimes my topic ideas are not too well thought out. This one came out of several articles I read recently (in the links) that argued we should revive the idea of a shared American cultural literacy.  Cultural literacy is the common knowledge necessary for good citizenship and mutual understanding in a society. Promoting it would involve our educational system focusing on teaching young people a certain set of facts and concepts about history and civics/government, art and literature, religion, geography, and so forth. Adoption of the Common Core and other educational standards spurred this renewed debate over the merits of a common cultural literacy, as have rapid shifts in American demographics, the rise of social media, and other factors. I thought it would be a nice break from our polarizing political topics.


It’s not just that the cultural revanchist Donald Trump got elected president by promising to speak for (some) Americans that feel culturally disrespected and to restore a decidedly pale-hued lost national greatness. I had forgotten that the concept of cultural literacy was controversial when it was first introduced in a book by a British American academic in 1987. Some progressives opposed the idea flat out, arguing that anything that smacked of a state-sanctioned list of approved cultural knowledge would be more oppressive than instructive. Conservatives, already up in arms over the rise of multiculturalism and historical revisionism, pushed back.

We got a taste of how this conflict still rages a few weeks ago when we discussed what U.S. school children should be taught about history.  I am sure that any movement to revive cultural literacy in today’s political climate would get sucked right into the culture wars.

Complicating cultural literacy further is the way we share cultural information (and values and resentments) these days via social media. Maybe cultural norms and changes get transmitted faster or more efficiently. Maybe it’s liberating and promote tolerance. Ha, ha. As those of us that have lost Facebook friends over Trump’s election can attest, the Internet also Balkanizes culture (especially resentments).

Given all of these crosscurrents, I’m not sure yet how Civilized Conversation should approach the idea of a 21st century American cultural literacy. Ponder these discussion questions and I will see you on Monday.


  1. What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
  2. What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
  3. Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
  4. Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
  5. What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?


Next Week (Nov 28):  How do progressives interpret the Constitution?

Monday’s Mtg: How Big a Problem is Public Ignorance Of Politics and Public Affairs?

Gee, the problem of easily-exploitable voter ignorance springs to mind a lot these days, doesn’t it? No matter when or how (if?) Donald Trump’s presidential campaign collapses, many of us think we have learned a hard lesson about the political illiteracy of a significant chunk of the American electorate.

Sure, the American public’s ignorance of public affairs and political issues is as old as the republic. Call it “civic ignorance,” the vast extent of which is a kind of dirty little secret in politics and political science. Surveys going back many decades reveal that few American adults have ever had even a cursory understanding of basic civics and political developments. They don’t know what’s in the Constitution, how govt is structured and functions, how political decisions get made or even who makes them, or what their tax dollars get spent on and why.  “The poor (-ly informed) will be with you always.”  Har.

(Oh, ad I’d like us to discuss Trumpism as a movement next schedule.)

Yet, something sure seems different, doesn’t it? I think a number of factors have converged in recent years to make civic ignorance easier to exploit and even more damaging to the country than it has been in a while. Polarized voters that ache to have their beliefs reinforced. Polarized elites that are happy to do so using new media and technology. Hucksters and grifters posing as political commentators. An angry, slowly declining middle class that’s unsure who to be angry at.  And so forth.

Maybe I’m wrong. I think our first order of business in discussion should be to define what civic ignorance means so we can distinguish it from other motivators of political opinions/actions that we might find bafflingly wrong. Political differences, as we’ve discussed many times, often stem from different political values or worldviews, alternate priorities for what govt should be doing, or different rationally-considered interests. Ideology is not ignorance, frequent appearances to the contrary.


  1. What: How would you define a problematic level of “civic ignorance?” What do peole not know that they should know? How much knowledge is it reasonable to expect regular people to have about this stuff?
  2. Who: How widely does this ignorance vary among Americans; e.g., by education, age, party ID, ideology, etc.? Do people that know more about politics really make better decisions about it (see link)?
  3. When-where-compare: Has civic ignorance gotten worse or better in recent decades? Is the need to be knowledgeable really greater nowadays?
  4. Why: Do people have good reasons for ignorance; e.g., distrust of govt, believing your vote doesn’t matter, lazy/biased news media? à How often do we see ignorance when it’s really something else, like different moral values, priorities, or objective interests?
  5. Harm: What damage all this civic ignorance cause? To your preferred (progressive or conservative) outcomes? To trust in govt? To polarization? To democracy’s health?
  6. Harmers: Who exploits civic ignorance? Which side does it most? Worse than it used to be?
  7. No harm no foul? Some people think public ignorance is NOT really a big source of our problems. What do they argue? Persuasive?


Next Week: Are nations finally starting to cooperate on climate change?

Monday’s Mtg: How Should We Talk To the “Other Side” About Politics?

We all know a bit about why it’s gotten so hard to talk to the other side politically, having discussed polarization and its causes a number of times. I’ll list a few of the main culprits to open the meeting. We’ve also discussed how people are naturally resistant to being persuaded about politics. We’re all predisposed to “bias reinforcement;” i.e., to seek out opinions and facts we already agree with and to avoid or rationalize away any that cause us the trouble and psychic pain of self-examination. Hell, studies show that, among political partisans and those with well-formed ideologies, being exposed to contrary facts actually reinforces their opinions. How screwed does that make our politics?

Still, talking politics with someone from “The Other Side” politically can’t be totally, always futile, can it? I mean, an entire industry exists devoted to finding which rhetoric works best to persuade people in political advertising and in politicians’ speeches. Could we learn from their work and apply their techniques in our personal lives, when we’re in the situation and the mood to do so? Or, does talking politics with the other side just require using basic social skills and common courtesy that our political betters have forgotten in their rush to polarize us?

I’ve had to think about this topic a lot in recent years, from running Civilized Conversation and appearing in the San Diego Debate Club and (as Aaron does) on this ultra-conservative political TV show. So, indulge me for a few minutes on Monday and I’ll start us off with a few insights I think I’ve gathered. Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts, even if you’re one of those dim-witted, evil, ridiculous idiots on the other side.


  1. WHY talk to someone on the other side; i.e., for what purpose? What should one’s goals be when engaging such a person? Like:  Persuasion, Defend your values, Find common ground, Censure or use them as a foil to persuade others within earshot?  How about to learn something about why they think what they think?
  2. What kind of arguments/appeals work in such settings? Like: Facts or logic, Personal stories, Appeals to authority, Appeals to community or patriotism, Citing your/their moral values, Citing public support , Cursing and screaming?
  3. How do the pros do it? Any lessons from politicians or political campaigners (Reagan/FDR, Atwater/Carville) or social scientists (Lakoff, Haight)
  4. Specific issues: Any ideas for talking with an opponent on, say, climate change, Obamacare, taxes, abortion, etc.?
  5. Specific settings: Dealing with family members, colleagues, strangers, very well-informed opponents, etc.


Next Week:  How did the West “beat the rest?”  Was it culturally superior?

Monday’s Mtg: Does the Constitution Need Updating?

The $64,000 question in American politics in the last decade has been, what went wrong?  Why is our political system so gridlocked and unable to address the nation’s problems?  Everybody has their favorite explanation and we’ve talked about a lot of them.  Polarization and voter sorting.  Money in politics.  An extreme and/or dysfunctional Republican Party.  Too many Americans dependent on government spending.  Too much government interference in the economy.  Barack Obama.  People that agree with Bruce.  Or with me.

In case you didn’t know, some experts pin a lot of the blame on the Constitution itself.  They point out that no other nation on earth is governed by a founding document written over 200 years ago and amended barely at all in the last 100 years.  They draw a straight line between the Constitution’s alleged flaws and archaic provisions and many of our longstanding political problems, especially the gridlock.  A lot fo these experts have their own wish list of amendments they say would update the constitution for the 21st century.

None of them are going to be adopted, of course.  It’s almost impossible to amend the Constitution at all, given the need for a 2/3 vote in both House and Senate and ratification by ¾ of the states.  Worse, any amendment that would substantially alter our political system also would upset the current distribution of power within it. I suggested this topic anyway because I think it is illuminating to consider how constitutional restrictions affect our political problems and whether and how a different set of rules might change things.  I also think that where people stand on prominent proposed constitutional amendment reveals a lot about their political values and priorities in our democracy.  Progressives and conservatives have very different ideas on what’s wrong with our Constitution and/or what’s wrong with the way we interpret it.  I’ll explain more what I mean in Monday’s opening.

Lots of links this week.  I tried to highlight the pithiest and best ones.


  1. Why did the founding fathers make the Constitution so hard to amend?  Was this wise or an error?
  2. Can today’s political problems really be laid at the Constitution’s feet, or do they have other origins?  Which are the most problematic parts of the Constitution and why?
  3. What major amendments have been proposed to “update” the constitution?  Do you think any of them would improve the functioning of the system?
  4. What do our opinions about this subject reveal about our political philosophy and political motives?
  5. Workarounds:
    1. Are there ways to “get around” the constitution’s restrictions or archaic parts other than by amendment?
    2. What about calling a constitutional convention of the states?  Would this bypass Washington and the special interests – or be taken over by them and/or by ideological partisans?

LINKS – The Problem (or is it?)-

Solutions –

Next Week:  Why Do Grass Roots Political Movements Succeed or Fail??

Monday’s Mtg: Winners and Warts of Our 2-Party System?

Sixty percent of Americans now say it’s time for a third party.  Dean thought we should talk about why our system seems to be rigged for two parties only.  I’m not sure I would call it rigged, but the obstacles to the emergence of a genuine third party (beyond some billionaire’s quixotic presidential bid, like Perot’s) are pretty large.  I’ll ask Dean if he wants to give any opening remarks and then maybe say a thing or two about what the big obstacles are, according to (I think) the polysci crowd.

In light of the usual howls of laughter from the GOP over the proposals in Obama’s state of the union address, maybe it would be enlightening to discuss whether the two-party system is a part of the paralysis problem – or, as the last links below argue strongly, whether it’s one of our political parties that is broken instead.  Please read these links if you don’t know what I mean.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Why is America’s two-party system so stable?  Is it the Constitution?  The way we structure elections?  Money?  Merely the weight of the two major parties’ long period of dominance?
  2. Could it be public opinion?  The public says it wants a third party, but does it really?  What big segment of the electorate is not being served by the two parties?  To ask another way, what could a third party in America stand for that the other two major parties do not?
  3. Why have third-party presidential candidates in recent years (Perot, Nader) not ever sparked a genuine third party?
  4. What conditions would be necessary to form another major political party?  Are we getting closer?
  5. Hypothetically, what do you think might happen if a third party sprang up that got, say, 20% of the presidential or Senate votes?  Cui bono?

Links –

NEXT WEEK:    The Apocalypse.  I mean, our discussion of it and why many people believe in it.

Monday’s Mtg: Which Values Should Schools Teach?

What role does education play in forming, or at least in reinforcing, our moral values?  What role should it play?  Gale suggested we talk about this, and I want to start the meeting by asking you all which moral values you think your teachers tried to instill in you.  From there, we can discuss this subject further, maybe with the help of the articles below.  Googling around this week, I got a sense of just how complicated – and controversial – the idea of teaching moral character has been and continues to be.

Discussion Questions –  

  1. What moral values do you think YOU were taught in school?  Were these lessons taught explicitly or implicitly; i.e., were your teachers trying to teach values or were they just imparting them in the natural course of teaching?
  2. Is there even such a thing as a values-free education?  If not, how should educators determine which moral values to teach?  Who gets to decide?
  3. What about the problem of church-state separation?  Are there moral values distinct from religious ones?  If so, what are they and how can they be taught?
  4. Conservatives constantly bemoan the lack of moral instruction in schools.  What do they mean, and what do they want schools to teach?
  5. Some schools nowadays teach “character education.”  What is it and what do you think of it?

Links –  


 NEXT WEEK:    Why does U.S. poverty levels keep rising?

Monday’s Mtg: Voting Wars – Protecting Americans’ Right to Vote

Suppressing the other side’s votes is as American as apple pie.  Rigging the rules and fooling or intimidating  voters happened all over the country for much of our history – not just in the South.  In the 21st century, however, we all thought that was largely behind us.

Then came Bush v. Gore.  Florida in 2000 reminded both sides that, in a sharply divided country in which the differences between the two parties are greater than they have ever been, just a few votes can make a huge difference in which direction the country takes.  Discouraging the other side’s voters from casting their ballot counts just as much as encouraging one’s own side.   So, since then, Democrats have tried to make it easier for people to vote, maybe out of the goodness of their hearts, but also because when more people vote, they win.  Democrats have tried to:

  • Make registering to vote easier, including through same day and on-line registration;,
  • Expand early voting opportunities, including by mail; and
  • Extend election day voting hours.

Most of all, Democrats have focused on fighting the GOP’s highly coordinated and dedicated attempts to make voting harder for some people.  Republican efforts (intensified since the 2010 tea party triumphs at the state level) have included:

  • Severe limits on voter-registration drives;
  • Closing early-voting windows;
  • Further limiting voting rights for ex-felons;
  • Strict new limits on absentee ballots;
  • Restrictive voter ID laws that many young, poor, and minority Democratic voters lack; and
  • Trying to prevent Democrats from extending voting hours on election day, even when there are long lines.

This was all done allegedly to prevent voter fraud and improve election integrity.  Almost every GOP-controlled state government put in place some of these tools in time of the 2012 election.   This whole effort largely failed in 2012, in part because courts threw out most of the voter ID laws, but also because Democrats probably were exaggerating their potential to discourage voters in the first place.

I know most of you know all this, so what’s to talk about?  First, this is not over.  As long as bigger turnouts favor one party over the other, the incentives for this kind of thing will remain.  I believe that the voting wars are now a major feature of our political landscape and will be here for a while.  Democrats have to find ways to fight back.  Yet, many Americans support these laws out of common sense:  Why shouldn’t people have to show IDs at the voting booth just like they have to at the grocery store?  Why shouldn’t we try really hard to prevent voter fraud at the polls, since one side says it’s a massive problem?  If SCOTUS overturns the Voting Rights Act, GOP incentives will get even worse.

Second, I think this is about way more than partisan advantage.  To me, the voting wars reveal a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives on the value of a broad-based electorate.  One side believes democracy works best when elections are as widely representative of the general public as possible, and therefore every effort should be made to make it as easy for new and irregular voters to cast their ballots.  Conservatives, I think, believe that it’s up to the individual to take responsibility to vote and that we should not make it particularly easy to vote because then low-information voters will determine the outcome and we should not make it easy for them to do that.  I can’t think of any worse division  in a democracy than one like this.

Lecture:  Since you guys know most of this, I won’t give the full Monty lecture on voter suppression.  Instead, I’ll just:

  1. Remind us all of the full range of tactics that both sides are using – the Democrats to expand voting, the Republicans to restrict it; and
  2. Preview what’s probably coming in the future from both sides (see the links for more on this).

Then, I hope we can talk about the difference in philosophy – and not just bemoan the naked partisanship – that I think undergirds this whole issue.



  1. What tactics is each side using to (a) expand and (2) shrink the electorate?  Why did they not make much difference in 2012?
  2. What’s coming in the future of voting wars, from both sides?  What would happen if the Supreme Court strikes down the Voting Rights Act (as we discussed a few months ago)?
  3. Is this really just cynical, naked partisanship, or is something else at work philosophically? (See fourth link, below)
  4. Why do many regular people support voter restrictions?  What could persuade them otherwise?
  5. Could there really a problem with election integrity?  Are there ways to both expand/protect the right to vote AND ensure integrity?




Vote with your feet and I’ll see you there!

Monday’s Mtg: Presidential Power

Since we’re electing a president, I thought it might be nice to talk a little about the extraordinary scope and reach of the modern presidency.  Everybody knows the powers of the office have expanded dramatically in the past 50 years, and especially in the last ten.  Modern presidents start wars, cross names off of assassinations lists, control a vast surveillance apparatus and internment camps, etc.  Most of the really dramatic changes have been national security-related.

But, what about presidential power over domestic policy, the stuff that most American think they’re voting for?  I’d like to focus on that, as well, so we get the more complete picture of the power of modern presidents.

Constitutional scholars often say the president has three kinds of powers:

  1. Enumerated: Those explicitly to the President in the document.
  2. Delegated:  Powers of Congress that it cedes to the president through law.
  3. Contested:  Given explicitly to neither body and fought over if they want to fight about it.

To this list we could add some other powers that exist in practice in large doses in the modern age:

  1. Expertise and information: in the executive branch in, say, the EPA and DOE.
  2. Secrecy:  CIA, DOD, Homeland Security, et. al.
  3. Persuasion:  Of the public and the other branches.

You don’t need much lecturing from me on this basic stuff, of course.  But, I am going to open with a little bit of explanation of  how presidents and Congress do battle over this stuff.  Congress and the courts can constrain overweening executive power if they really want to do so, and I’ll talk about how that works a little.  It’s only when we understand how the three branches really compete that we can fathom how, say, a President Romney could hold a powerful office and yet be hostage to his GOP base, or how Obama can get so much done despite such dogged opposition.



  1. What types of powers does the president have (a) under the Constitution, and (b) in practice?
  2. How does a president accumulate power not explicitly granted in the Constitution, and how do the other branches take it away?
  3. Is this accumulation of power “natural;” i.e., a result of the needs of the modern state?  Or, is it too much?
  4. Okay, then: What’s the alternative to the imperial president?  Who would solve national problems – Congress?  The states?  No one?
  5. How could the power of the office be restricted in an age when the office is contested by two political parties that disagree so fundamentally that they want all that power whenever it’s their turn to wield it?

LINKS – Not much this week.

  • Madison’s nightmare,” the view that presidential power has gotten way, way out of hand.  Daily Kos same thing.
  • But, presidents must persuade and bargain to get their way, not command.  Power is shared more than it separated.
  • Alternatively, Bush claimed a “unitary executive theory” of the Constitution to claim that a president’s power during wartime was basically unlimited.
  • Conservatives love the non-delegation doctrine, the idea that Congress may not delegate any of its powers to the president.  This theory could be used to eliminate much of the modern regulatory state, since much of it is was not passed into law.

Follow-Up, Part II: Inequality In America – In Pictures!

Actually, in charts.

Fun times.