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How we vote: ‘Knowledge will forever govern ignorance’

Written by Jonathan Ammons

March 4, 2022

In the first part of this series the author wrote about the vital, fundamental importance of the vote in American democracy. This essay will explore how we vote, as well as examine the influence of this civic duty in American life.  This essay is the third in a series exploring the meaning of American exceptionalism and its relevance today.

Any views, thoughts, or opinions expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other organization or corporation with which he might be affiliated.

“Let each Citizen remember, at the Moment he is offering his Vote … that he is executing one of the most solemn Trusts in human Society, for which he is accountable to God and his Country.”

—Samuel Adams

 

“The tyranny of a prince is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”

—Montesquieu

It is a generally accepted fact that suffrage is a key component of any democracy, and that in the case of American democracy, universal suffrage is both a unique and defining feature. It can be reasonably concluded, as well, that a nation’s democratic will is more fully expressed the more of its voting-eligible citizens avail themselves of that right. Thus, a democracy in which most or all of its eligible citizens vote is both more democratic and more representative of the people’s will than a democracy in which fewer of its eligible citizens vote.

“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820.[1] Despite Jefferson’s confidence, voter turnout in America has historically been less than ideal, with turnout in presidential elections hovering between 50% and 60% and in midterm elections between 35% and 40%. The 2018 midterm election (50%) and 2020 presidential election (67%), however, saw the highest turnout in decades, perhaps signaling a sustained increase in voter turnout for future elections.

The right to vote in America is much more than a mere game of numbers in which the goal is to increase voter turnout to the highest percentage possible, however. Jefferson understood this concept well: “[I]f we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.”[2] Thus, voting well is just as important as voting at all. Casting a vote, after all, is no casual matter, but a critical exercise in community, state or national decision-making.

As James Madison wrote, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”[3]

To be successful, American voters need both knowledge of candidates and knowledge of issues. I would also argue that, to shape a nation and its communities in healthy ways, voters also need a commitment to moral principles.

Knowledge of Candidates

Madison wrote that “[t]he effect of [a representative democracy is] to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the nation.”[4] The power possessed by such elected representatives can only be properly wielded if they possess the wisdom to represent the will of the people accurately.

An electorate that is both engaged and informed does more than determine the outcome of a single election. Over time, the collective decisions expressed in a vote influence the quality and nature of the candidates who run for office. As an example, consider a community in which its citizens are consistently engaged and informed voters who value the principle of integrity. By repeatedly voting for candidates who embody that trait, potential future candidates will take cues from the electorate and recognize that they will not likely be elected should they not have the reputation of being a person of integrity. Thus, an increasingly informed citizenry consistently engaging in democratic processes will over time produce better elected leaders.

Consistent, informed voting also naturally shapes the laws and policies that govern a community, a state, or a nation, as such laws and policies are influenced by the elected officials who sponsor and draft them. By identifying the traits and political views we want to see in our elected officials and taking the time to learn about candidates for public office, we can make informed decisions and see the effects of those decisions take shape in the policies governing our communities.

Knowledge of Issues

Of equal importance to having a knowledge of candidates is developing familiarity with policy issues being debated in our community, state, and nation. Speaking to the importance of this knowledge, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asserted that “[p]olitics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free men.”[5]

The idea of politics becoming a “part-time profession” of the average citizen may seem like an impossibility, and wholly undesirable to those turned off by our polarized national politics. But Eisenhower’s sentiment is at least somewhat on track. Understanding complex issues like the federal budget, various economic proposals, national security, healthcare, etc. requires more than an occasional dip into the extensive histories and debates around these issues. Citizens need to dedicate consistent allotments of time to understanding the basics of policy debates, current affairs, and the actions of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Of course, the realities of life and human nature virtually prevent citizens from becoming experts in any of these areas – and they don’t need to be. Understanding the basics and knowing where to find the information they need to make informed voting choices is a more achievable aim.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt argued for implementing a systematic foundation of this knowledge in education from a young age:

Our children should learn the general framework of their government and then they should know where they come in contact with the government, where it touches their daily lives and where their influence is exerted on the government. It must not be a distant thing, someone else’s business, but they must see how every cog in the wheel of a democracy is important and bears its share of responsibility for the smooth running of the entire machine.[6]

Basic knowledge about the workings of our government and how to influence its processes continues to be of paramount importance for American citizens, for such knowledge will ensure the continued functioning of democracy and its institutions.

Commitment to Moral Principles

The third principle necessary to effective citizenship and decision-making at the polls is a commitment to moral principles. As George Washington prepared to leave the presidency following his second term, he set out to write the counsel he would give to the fledgling new nation just learning to operate under its eight-year-old Constitution.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” Washington wrote, “religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”[7]

He continues: “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”[8]

A commitment to moral principles gives meaning to citizens’ knowledge of both issues and candidates and enables them to make effective judgments about the issues and candidates they encounter while carrying out their civic responsibilities. In other words, without morality, citizens are bereft of the guiding star that shaped the meaning and force of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and countless other charters that dictate the standards by which we live and are governed.

In his first inaugural address, President George W. Bush said, “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these ideals. Every citizen must uphold them. … I ask you to be citizens. Citizens, not spectators. Citizens, not subjects. Responsible citizens building communities of service and a nation of character.”[9]

Only with knowledge of issues and knowledge of candidates, tempered and colored by our shared commitment to moral principles, can we fulfill the challenge of becoming “citizens building … a nation of character.”[10]

[1] Thomas Jefferson, quoted in “U.S. Founding Fathers on Education, in Their Own Words,” National Association of Scholars,  https://www.nas.org/blogs/article/u_s_founding_fathers_on_education_in_their_own_words

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Madison, Letter to W.T. Barry, 4 August 1822, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mjm.20_0155_0159/?sp=1&st=text

[4] James Madison, “Number 10,” The Federalist Papers, https://billofrightsinstitute.org/primary-sources/federalist-no-10

[5] Dwight D. Eisenhower, quoted in National Conference of State Legislatures, https://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/trust-for-representative-democracy/trust-for-representative-democracy-civic-education-quotes.aspx

[6] Eleanor Roosevelt, quoted in National Conference of State Legislatures, https://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/trust-for-representative-democracy/trust-for-representative-democracy-civic-education-quotes.aspx

[7] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.pdf

[8] Ibid.

[9] George W. Bush, “First Inaugural Address,” https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/inaugural-address.html.

[10] Ibid.

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