Strengthening America’s democracy is a high priority after its recent turbulence and discord.
Congress is responding with big proposals to boost civics education and upgrade election systems. It should simultaneously strengthen the third leg of that stool, by helping sustain the nation’s local free press system.
Call it the Infrastructure of Democracy Plan.
The current infrastructure worked for 245 years, but we’ve seen cracks forming. New technologies make it more vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation.
We can’t afford even a temporary failure, so it’s time to shore things up for the next 250 years.
Nationally, schools disinvested in civics for years, and it’s showing up in test scores, as well as Americans’ vulnerability to being misled about elections and how they’re validated.
Three of four eighth-graders lack proficiency in civics, and four of five lack history proficiency, according to Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit advocating for civics education.
The Jan. 6 insurrection should be a Sputnik moment, spurring investment to better prepare future voters, similar to the surge of investment in science education after the Soviet Union’s 1957 Sputnik launch showed America it was trailing in the space race.
Dubé said iCivics polling found broad, bipartisan support for civics education.
“Americans really believe in our systems of government, and there are so many people trying to do the right thing and ensure our elections are fair, we have representative government, it’s still a country where you’re self-governed and ‘we the people’ matters,” she said.
Strengthening voting systems is less straightforward but no less important.
Although the 2020 presidential election turned out to be the most secure in American history, millions still doubted results because Donald Trump and allies sowed doubt and uncertainty about the system and outcome.
Voting reforms, electoral college revisions and campaign-finance changes are all being discussed.
Strengthening democracy is the focus of a Senate bill being introduced in the new Congress, by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.
Their For the People Act would make it easier to register to vote, require states to use paper ballots and authorize grants to upgrade voting equipment, among other things.
Perhaps the bill should be linked to the Educating for Democracy Act, sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Their proposal, expected to be reintroduced in a few weeks, would authorize $1 billion a year for civics and history education. It would provide grants to states, universities and education groups.
“Civic engagement is crucial for the health of our democracy,” Coons said in the announcement, adding that the bill would “equip new generations of Americans with deeper understanding of their responsibilities as citizens and how to exercise their cherished rights.”
These bills should go further, and incorporate measures to sustain local news organizations.
One such proposal is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Introduced last year by U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., it calls for tax credits to sustain local newspapers and employment of journalists.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is also exploring ways to address the local news crisis she documented in October.
These efforts are all promising. The education bill in particular is likely to be well received by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a longtime civics supporter now chairing the Senate Education Committee.
But they’ll fall short, and democracy will still suffer, if voters don’t have news organizations keeping them informed about local government and civic issues.
Consider the new social-studies learning standard for fourth-graders in Washington state, adopted in 2019. The first item listed:
“Recognize that civic participation involves being informed about public issues, taking action and voting in elections.”
Being informed about public issues largely requires newspapers.
A 2019 study found local newspapers account for nearly 60% of local news stories, more than all other types of news outlets combined. A 2018 study found that declining local political news coverage is reducing citizen engagement.
Civics teaches voters how to participate in government. They can attend meetings of city and county councils, school boards and legislatures, then scrutinize budgets, ballot measures and outcomes.
But few have the time or inclination. Most rely on news organizations to do those things, then deliver a concise report. Local news reporting, particularly by newspapers, is the essential app for civic engagement and self governance.
So even if Congress spends billions to better prepare voters and make it easier to cast ballots, democracy still suffers if those voters are less informed because local newspapers are gone.
If you’re going to teach kids to play basketball, and build nicer courts, you better make sure there are balls, too.
Congress appears poised to make tremendous investments to strengthen the infrastructure of democracy. To succeed, it must sustain America’s local news system as well.