Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: This democracy won’t survive ignorance, lies and disinformation | COMMENTARY

FILE - Supporters of President Donald Trump hold signs parroting the former president's baseless claims of election fraud.  (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

There is an echo of Benjamin Franklin in the quotes I am about to share from Horace Mann, the great champion of public education who believed American democracy would only last if Americans understood how it worked, participated in elections and took citizenship seriously.

It’s worth going over, especially this election week. I no longer assume that everybody gets it — the “it” being the overriding value of democracy and what it takes to keep it alive.


First, a familiar Franklin quote: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

That is believed to have been the wise man’s response to a question following the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Someone asked what kind of government had been formed. Franklin’s pithy answer has been widely referenced in recent years — the Trump years — as Americans ponder the future of this divided, wounded nation in a way not experienced since the Civil War.


In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, with so many Republican candidates in midterm elections (including the GOP’s candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of Maryland) having doubted or denied Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, there are reasons for concern.

If you caught Jordan Klepper’s most recent report on election deniers on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” you’d think half the country had never had a class in American government, had never developed the ability to think critically, had never grown up.

Klepper travels among the Make America Great Again crowd, so his man-in-the-street samplings of opinion are skewed, and they are meant to be comical. Still, listening to men and women explain on camera their continued support of Donald Trump and their embrace of his big lies, you would certainly fear that a disregard for facts and obsessions with conspiracy theories had reached critical mass, a development poisonous to democracy.

Horace Mann began his career as a lawyer and legislator, but later became known for his devotion to public education.

Now here’s the first Horace Mann quote, with its Franklinesque echoes: “It may be an easy thing to make a republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness and passion.”

I regarded that statement as if it were a fine 19th Century painting.

You can’t have a sustainable democracy, Mann argued, without an educated citizenry — voters who were informed and rational, and who acted if not always selflessly then at least for the common good.

Mann, who was born in the Massachusetts in 1796, became an advocate of public education, later a member of Congress. In 1848, he argued that public schools for all were necessary for democracy to thrive.

Another quote: “The establishment of a republican government, without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people, is the most rash and foolhardy experiment ever tried by man.”


And another: “Such a Republic may grow in numbers and in wealth. … It may possess every capacity and opportunity of being great, and of doing good. But if such a Republic be devoid of intelligence, it will only more closely resemble an obscene giant who has waxed strong in his youth and grown wanton in his strength; whose brain has been developed only in the region of the appetites and passions, and not in the organs of reason and conscience.”

One more: “Such a Republic, with all its noble capacities for beneficence, will rush with the speed of a whirlwind to an ignominious end; and all good men of after-times would weep over its downfall.”

So, like Franklin before him — but with far more words — Mann issued an ominous warning: Smarten up, be engaged, be informed, or lose your democracy. The system will fail, and an ignorant, disengaged citizenry will get what it deserves — likely an authoritarian government that calls all the shots.

Advocates for civic education have used Mann’s arguments. They’re wise to do so, and now more than ever. This is quickly becoming an urgent matter. Given the amount of crackpot talk that infests the nation’s political culture — and not just on Comedy Central, but in all public forums, especially those on the right — you get a sense that too many Americans have no idea how the government works or what it does. In that void, it’s easy for people to become suspicious, angry, even violent.

The National Conference of State Legislatures and other organizations have documented the shortcomings of civics education across the country. Surveys have asked Americans some basic questions — identify the three branches of government, for instance — and the results have been mediocre.

A few years ago, the League of Women Voters of Maryland conducted a review of civics education in Baltimore and 12 counties and found that social studies specialists had developed a strong curriculum. But there were concerns — a low student pass rate for the high school assessment in American government and a lack of civics before high school. It’s not as high a priority as math and science.


Still, at least it’s still taught.

But let’s face it: There’s a lot working against even the best foundation in government and democratic principles, a phenomenon neither Franklin nor Mann could have anticipated. Maybe it’s not more civics education that’s needed as much as more critical thinking, more acceptance of agreed-upon facts. Ugly ideas, conspiracy theories and the political disinformation that get into heads after high school, when people are supposedly grown up, constitute the greater problem.