December 17, 2021
In a famous speech delivered aboard the ship Arabella in 1630, John Winthrop spoke to his fellow Puritans about the gravity of their undertaking: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” From the earliest days of European settlement on the North American continent, a unique sense of purpose has permeated the people, events, and ideas of America. This concept has come to be known as American exceptionalism. This essay is the second in a series exploring the meaning of American exceptionalism and its relevance today.
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“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
“A share in the sovereignty of the state, which is exercised by the citizens at large, in voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law.”
— Alexander Hamilton
In an 1801 letter to the citizens of Columbia, South Carolina, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a constitution dictated by the wisdom, & resting on the will of the people.” Jefferson’s estimation of the voting rights of American citizens knew no bounds. He considered it “the only legitimate foundation of any government,” and he passionately argued that “to protect it’s [sic] free expression should be our first object.”
As Jefferson comprehended, the power to vote is not only the most fundamental democratic institution, but it’s also the most significant power available to citizens in shaping the destiny of their communities and nation. Yet many Americans simply do not see Jefferson’s vision about this cherished right. Since the 1960s, voter turnout among eligible voters in presidential election years has largely remained below 60%, while midterm election turnout has hovered around 40%. For a democracy whose prosperity and continuity are dependent on the engagement of the people in the electoral process and other civic duties, these numbers give real cause for concern.
What factors might influence such large numbers of voting eligible citizens to relinquish the power that U.S. citizenship affords them? Perhaps Americans do not understand the power their vote wields or how to go about exercising their voting rights.
Addressing this very question, a 2018 national survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that a paltry “one in three Americans (36 percent) can actually pass a multiple choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test, which has a passing score of 60.” The survey included the following alarming results:
- Only 24% knew the correct answer as to why the colonists fought the British;
- 12% incorrectly thought WWII Gen. Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War; 6% thought he was a Vietnam War general; and
- While most knew the cause of the Cold War, 2% said climate change.
If Americans’ knowledge of their basic national history and democratic processes is so severely lacking, then they cannot be expected to be discerning voters who are conversant in America’s past and present issues, and such informed voters are critical to sustained American prosperity.
Addressing American political rancor and cultural conflict earlier this year, Sutherland Institute President and CEO Rick Larsen asked, “Could it be that at least part of the reason we are seeing so much division, bitter partisan politics, and increasing violence in this nation has something to do with the fact that over time, we’ve come to a point where we hardly study or teach how freedom and self-governance work?” To address this challenge, Sutherland launched its Civics Initiative in an effort to better understand and attempt to solve the dearth of civics and history knowledge in America. Reversing the effects of decades of civics education neglect will require tremendous resources and collaboration among individuals and organizations who are committed over the long term to implementing change.
In addition to a lack of understanding about voting and its importance in American history and democracy, another possible explanation for America’s dismal voter turnout is the mistaken belief among voters that their vote will not have an impact on the outcome of a particular election. This notion was spectacularly refuted, however, by the stunning result of a race in the New Jersey State Legislature last month.
Incumbent Stephen J. Sweeney had served in the New Jersey Legislature for 20 years, the last 12 of which included service as the peer-elected senate president. “For nearly a decade,” The New York Times reported, “Stephen M. Sweeney, the second most powerful lawmaker in New Jersey, seemed truly unassailable. He boasted deep ties to the most feared political power broker in the state and unyielding support from the influential building trade unions. Four years ago, the state’s teachers’ union spent more than $5 million to unseat him. He won by 18 points.”
Furthermore, the Times wrote, Mr. Sweeney’s district “has reliably elected a Democrat since its creation in 1973, save for one year when the Democratic incumbent switched parties.”
By contrast, Sweeney’s opponent, Ed Durr, drives a truck for furniture chain Raymour and Flanigan, shot his campaign video on an iPhone, and spent less than $2,500 on his campaign. Durr won by roughly 3,000 votes, upending the New Jersey political establishment and opening the door for new leadership in the New Jersey Senate.
While shocking outcomes like the race between Durr and Sweeney illustrate the dangerous fallacy behind the idea that a person’s vote doesn’t matter, the willingness of American voters to cast informed ballots each election cycle has ramifications far beyond the boundaries of any legislative district. The collective power of American voters also serves as an important buffer and form of rebuttal against the propagandistic pressures of antidemocratic ideologies and authoritarian regimes.
For example, within a matter of hours following the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Chinese state-run media outlets were pumping out anti-American and anti-democratic propaganda. As The Washington Post noted, “[f]or China’s government, the Capitol riot wasn’t just a way to spar with the United States over the merits of democracy. Chinese officials used it to justify their government’s crackdown in Hong Kong and noted that the roundup of protesters in Hong Kong resulted in fewer deaths than the assault on the Capitol.” One of several videos circulating on social media, the Post notes, also refers to the United States as “permanently damaged” and “a failed state.”
With the world order and economic and military supremacy on the line, authoritarian regimes have little to lose and everything to gain by undermining the element that makes America unique – democracy. Yet the best way to combat such propagandistic rhetoric is by using the very same idea – democracy – to show that America remains strong. This is achieved when American citizens enthusiastically and consistently engage in fundamental democratic processes like voting. American democracy is never stronger than when large numbers of Americans turn out to cast votes on issues they understand and for candidates they trust.
Low voter turnout, however, means an outsize share of power wielded by those who do show up to the polls, as well as a diminished ability for America to successfully defend itself against ideological attacks on its democratic institutions. By virtue of those very institutions, the future of America and the notion of its exceptionalism lie in the hands of its voting citizens.
 Winthrop, John, “A Model of Christian Charity,” Teaching American History, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/a-model-of-christian-charity-2/.
 Thomas Jefferson, “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Columbia, South Carolina, Citizens, 23 March 1801,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-33-02-0350.
 “Voter Turnout in the United States,” https://www.fairvote.org/voter_turnout#voter_turnout_101.
 “National Survey Finds Just 1 in 3 Americans Would Pass Citizenship Test,” https://woodrow.org/news/national-survey-finds-just-1-in-3-americans-would-pass-citizenship-test/.
 Nick Corasaniti and Tracy Tully, “Stephen Sweeney, N.J. Senate President, Loses to Republican Truck Driver,” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/04/nyregion/stephen-sweeney-durr-nj-election.html.
 Craig Timberg and Eva Dou, “Pro-China propaganda campaign exploits U.S. divisions in videos emphasizing Capitol attack,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/04/china-propaganda-capitol-videos/.
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