by Jeremy Fassler
My Mom is a badass in many regards – award-winning screenwriter, philanthropist, mother of two kids who didn’t grow up to be deadbeats – but one of the many things I respect her for is her commitment to teaching civics in the form of staging mock elections. Attending middle school in New Canaan, Connecticut amidst the 1972 presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, she arranged her school's election and cast the only vote for McGovern of her entire 300-person student body (and one of the 299 Nixon voters was Ann Coulter!) Twenty-eight years later, when I was a fifth grader during the 2000 election, she staged my elementary school’s mock election, teaching the students what a ballot is, how you support down-ballot candidates, and even the little stuff about local propositions found its way into our plebiscite. We didn’t understand everything that happened in the recount that followed, but thanks to her, we understood the way voting should proceed in a two-party system. I worry that today’s students, and particularly my generation, may not have this same understanding.
In a poll released this week by NBC News, 71% of millennials believe that a third party is needed to break the tensions between Republicans and Democrats. They disapprove of Republicans at a rate of 59% and Trump at 65%, but view Democrats unfavorably at a rate of 42%, and overwhelmingly think that neither major party cares about people like them. And while I’d love to write this off as just a white male thing fetish and move on, it holds consistent over racial and gender lines too. African-Americans and Asian American millennials approve of a third party at rates of 69%, and Latin millennials at 64%. Women across gender lines approve at 69%.
It's important to take these poll numbers with a grain of salt, and it's reasonable to assume that some millennials are civically and historically knowledgable, and believe that a third party, if it starts on the local level and builds from there, could be a good thing. But I can't put too much faith in that. If millennials believe a third party will solve the problems that ail this democracy, they need to get the facts about the history of third parties in this country, and why we are unable to support them.
Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1955, “Third parties are like bees – once they have stung, they die.” In order for them to succeed, they have to usurp existing power structures, the way the Republicans usurped the Whigs in 1854, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Since then, just about every attempt at building one has gone awry, leading to vote splitting along major party lines. Sometimes the results divide Republicans, like Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose coalition handing the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson; other times they go after Democrats, as Ralph Nader did when he cost Al Gore the White House in 2000. They need not spoil things on a presidential level either: two-time gubernatorial candidate Elliot Cutler cost Democrats the governorship in Maine twice in a row now, sticking them with Paul LePage, one of the most racist governors currently in office. Third parties in this country like to jump into major races rather than start from the grassroots and build their way up, and by doing this, they usually bring severe consequences.
“But Europe does OK with third parties!” I hear. “If we had one, couldn't we form coalitions like they do?” Well, you might want to check on Europe, because those haven’t been working out lately. In England, this past summer’s snap election led to major losses for Theresa May’s Conservative Party, who have since allied with the Democratic Unionist Party, an extremist group from Northern Ireland who deny climate change, are anti-gay marriage, and anti-abortion. And although she recently won re-election in Germany, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are no closer to forming a coalition in parliament than they were a month ago, putting the future of her chancellorship in jeopardy. The worst example of this was in Belgium, where a year-and-a-half-long feud between the country's two major parties led to the longest span of time a major country had gone without a functioning government since post-Hussein Iraq, so this system isn't as foolproof as we'd like to believe.
Historically, young people gravitate towards third parties, as I’ve learned from speaking to older voters who cast their first ballots for candidates like Henry Wallace in 1948 (in the case of my grandfather), or John Anderson in 1980. No doubt they were motivated by the desire to “send a message” to the politicos in Washington D.C. who didn’t care about “ordinary Americans.” In that sense, I can’t be too hard on millennials, since some of them will grow out of this way of thinking, and again, a lot of them probably have strong reasons for supporting them that aren't just, "everyone sucks, man" - but I can’t be too sure, either. At least previous generations could fall back on their civics education as they grew out of their old ways of thinking. Mine is not so lucky.
Millennials cannot practice what they are not taught, and over the last twenty years, middle school and high school civics classes have fallen at disturbing rates. Schools are less and less interested in courses like Civics, Government, and Problems of Democracy, and more interested in their students being “college and career ready,” having good test scores for college applications and preparing them for the ultra-competitive job market. Much of this stems from No Child Left Behind, which forced many public schools to cut down on social studies to emphasize literacy and mathematics, which appear more frequently on state-mandated exams. When social studies and civics are taught, it’s usually because it will appear on a test, so the subjects are reduced to rote memorization of facts and figures. Twelfth-grade history teacher Timothy J. Tuttle wrote in 2003 about this new method’s effects:
“The social studies curriculum cannot be adapted to tests that require a single answer…Social studies demands that the students be able to gather information and then extrapolate an answer based on the facts of the event being studied. The tests that ask for only one answer focus on the facts; they do not indicate whether a student has learned anything from these facts.”
It will take radical changes to make this situation better, and not just because Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants to cut nine billion dollars from public schools. In a recent study documented in the Illinois State-Journal Register, 17% of Americans now believe democracy is a “very bad” way to run a country, with millennials accounting for one-fourth of those responses. They believe it’s “unimportant” for people to choose their leaders in free elections at 26%, and only 32% believe civil rights are necessary. Most horrifyingly, millennials are more likely than their elders to believe that military rule would be a good thing. Americans have not believed this in such numbers since the Great Depression.
How did we get here as a country? The Founding Fathers would be horrified. They, and the generations that followed, believed that public education could instill democratic values and teach young men and women how to spot a demagogue when they saw one. This has been true since the beginning of the American Experiment, when the Puritans first passed a law in 1642 requiring all Massachusetts children to receive public education. Education is not a privilege, it is a right, and if Republicans continue to treat it as such, then we will lose a generation to a nihilistic mentality that sends our country further down the road to ruin.
I hope that when this shameful period in our history ends, we reassess our public school system and instate changes that remove the emphasis on test scores and more on teaching young adults to have faith in the American idea, no matter their skin color or gender. For millennials to be this cynical about our country is unacceptable. The United States may represent a lot of the worst aspects of human nature, but we also represent a lot of the best ones, one of which is a need to constantly better our ideals, including more and more people under the umbrella of "all men are created equal." When we downplay what we do well, or don't teach it at all, we wind up with Trump and his cronies. If we want to never relive this era again, we’d better start at the school level, and that begins by making civics as a mandatory requirement. Otherwise, history will repeat itself – and it will star someone even worse than Donald Trump.