In a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:
I was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from those people. If we are ignorant of civics, we are at risk of peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside. Like Augustus, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, Donald Trump has come forward seeking power, assuring the public that he’ll solve our problems, exploiting fears and civic ignorance. Trump will not make American great again. He is an outgrowth of our civic ignorance. Trump really just wants to make his name great.
I was thinking about this in the context of Noah, this week’s Torah portion, where we learn about the Tower of Babel. There is says:
And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ (Genesis 11: 3-4)
Modeled on his gauche Trump Towers his campaign is built on the disturbing idea of building a wall on the Mexican border. Trump is not offering solutions to real problems, rather he is offering the confused ( read here mivubal) masses a just a place to ” let us make us a name”.
In Souter ‘s remarks he references a quote from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson said:
If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.
I think we need to reflect on this before we vote on Tuesday. We need to vote against the bigoted anti-Intellectualism of Trump. I am not saying that Hillary is beyond critique, but she is no Augustus. To save our republic we need to elect Hillary and bring down this Tower of Babel on which Trump is trying to put his name. On Wednesday we will have to do the hard work of dealing with our widespread civic ignorance.