What Does It Mean To Be An American?

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, this wasn’t the kind of question that you ever had to ask (unless you were a grade school teacher teeing up a history lesson around the Fourth of July).  Depending on where you came from, your answer might have slight variations in the language and some of the details, but for the most part, it was always the same: a jumbled rant that started with America being “the greatest country in the world,” included something about football or baseball, cheeseburgers, and apple pie, and ended with a grand finale about the importance of freedom and democracy.  As a black kid, I was used to hearing family members complain about the President, Republicans, and politicians in general, but their love for America and our way of life was always apparent.  Back then, patriotism would flare up around the country on certain holidays like a bad case of gout.  Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the like were all full of familiar stories about the Founding Fathers, backyard barbecues, and endless platitudes about supporting the troops.  The irony was that even though we all thought we knew what it meant to be American, most of us never really thought about it at all because we didn’t have to.  

I’m not quite sure when it started, but long before I was born, the American people decided to outsource our definition of patriotism to politicians and corporate advertisers.  Instead of learning about and teaching the next generation about all of the complications, nuances, and compromises that gave us American democracy, we decided that all of that was too difficult and too time-consuming to worry about.  It was much easier to dumb it down a little, gloss over the details, and bury any questions under a mountain of red, white, and blue glitter.  We raised our children on a steady diet of national myths, empty rhetoric, and American Exceptionalism.  Until eventually, patriotism was reduced to a cartoon—a meaningless caricature of Uncle Sam as the head cheerleader for Team America, completely disconnected from the true struggles of our nation’s founding.  Our complicated history was oversimplified and whitewashed, and as a consequence, entire generations grew up thinking that America is perfect, and therefore questioning its shortcomings or challenging the nation to live up to its founding ideals must somehow be incompatible with patriotism.

A few decades later, my generation is now in our thirties and forties.  We are the NEW politicians, corporate titans, small business owners, doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.  We are also a major chunk of America’s middle class VOTERS.  In our short lifetimes, my generation has experienced amazing triumphs like technological revolutions in computers and phones, the creation of social media, and the election of our nation’s first African American President.  However, we have also experienced debilitating tragedies like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, devastating natural disasters, and a massive economic recession.  Our eyes have seen the world grow smaller and more connected in some ways, while growing more divided and hostile in others.  The simple America known for its stability and dependability that we learned about as children is nowhere to be found, and so WE FEEL LIED TO.  Our growing uncertainty has given way to a toxic combination of ANGER and FEAR.  We are angry that the world doesn’t work as we were promised it would.  Working hard, staying in school, and the other advice from after school specials has NOT brought us success.  Too many of us are underemployed, overworked, and drowning in debt.  Finding decent, affordable housing is nearly impossible, and a lot of our parents are broke too so they are are in no position to help us.  So many of us are stuck in jobs we hate, but at the same time we are terrified that someone else will come along and take that job, leaving us with no way to support ourselves or our families.  What happened to the America that we grew up learning about?  Who should we blame for our current struggles?  How do we go back to when things were easier and simpler?  This was the state of mind that far too many of us were in before the 2016 Presidential Election.  

We were willing to heap blame and suspicion on the figure that represented the failings of our past, and give the benefit of the doubt to the other guy.  Too many of us were either unwilling or didn’t care enough to go beyond the sound bytes, dig deeper, and ask the tough questions.  We just wanted someone to pay.  The other guy embodied the success that so many of us felt was unfairly out of our reach, so we decided to sit back and watch him give a verbal beat down to the people and institutions we held responsible.  He probably wouldn’t really get elected President.  And even if he did, how much worse could he be?  

Of course, not all of us subscribed to this line of thinking.  Some of us learned all we needed to know about the other guy during his insufferable Birther campaign against the first African American President, and no reality show reputation or relationships with rappers were going to change our minds.  We felt the same anger and fear as other members of our generation for the same reasons, but we expressed these emotions differently.  On one side of the political spectrum, we saw an alarming level of comfort with bigotry in all of its forms and a lack of basic competency that we had to reject.  But on the other side, we didn’t see the future.  We saw far too much of the same old political bullshit and elitism that said all the right things, but never seemed to produce the promised results.  We didn’t see solutions coming from either side, so a lot of us used our votes to protest the system, and a lot more just stayed home.  You already know what happened next.  Now, my generation’s greatest challenge lies before us.  Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of Donald Trump’s Presidency lies an opportunity—no, an imperative—to finally define for ourselves what it means to be an American.  

The first step is to revisit our history.  Ignore the myths and fairy tales, and focus on the details.  In order to hold the government accountable, you have to understand how it functions and why our Founders designed it the way that they did.  You can’t win a game if you don’t know the rules.  Unfortunately, precious few voters know “the rules” of our government, so our ignorance, along with our anger and fear makes us ripe for exploitation by self-serving politicians.  The only way to change that is to teach “the rules” to as many voters and future generations as possible.  We need to make political education a fundamental subject in school and offer it at every level of public education.  The system that our Founders designed works best when citizens are well-informed.  After all, the power lies with us.  We are the ones who elect government officials.  If we start casting our votes based on factual information about candidates and issues instead of sound bytes, political parties, and empty promises, then our government will change, and eventually our lives will change too (or so we hope).

I am so passionate about this message that I decided to practice what I preach and return to teaching.  I am an American Government and African American Studies professor at the College of Charleston, and I truly believe that it is the most important work that I have ever done.  Helping my students make sense of a world that has fallen into such chaos and disarray is a task that I do not take lightly.  I am there to make sure that the next generation is not lied to like mine was.  I am there to teach my students America’s true history, including all of its shortcomings, complications, and compromises.  These are the lessons we need to learn the most in order to make it through today.  I am there to give my students the tools they will need to make better political decisions for our nation’s future so that we can preserve our democracy.   

What does it mean to be an American?  To me, it means loving this country enough to demand that it live up to its Founding ideals.  It means teaching others that while America has never been a “perfect union,” it is far too important to give up on.  What does it mean to you?

NOTE:  If you would like to see some of what my students are learning, take a look at the videos from their group projects at www.YouTube.com/ProfessorNeka.

The Most Important Thing I Have Ever Done: Part 1

Last Summer, when I decided to return to teaching after five years, I wrote a Facebook post that said teaching Political Science at this particular time—in the charged, divisive political climate after the 2016 election—would be “the most important thing I have ever done.” I still feel this way; perhaps NOW MORE THAN EVER.

This week, my students at the College of Charleston are on Spring Break. In our last class meeting, we discussed the Presidential line of succession while we were finishing up the chapter from their textbook on the Presidency. As I explained, if anything ever happens to an American President, we have an established line of succession that dictates who will be next in line for the job. I wrote the first ten positions and their current office holders on the board. First is obviously the Vice President, Mike Pence. However, if something were to happen to him, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, is the next to take over. He is followed by Orrin Hatch, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate…

Up until this point, class was going smoothly. I had gotten to class a little early to begin writing my lecture notes on the board, as usual, so the lesson would move along quickly. However, when we got to the fourth position in the Presidential line of succession, the Secretary of State, my carefully planned lecture veered off the tracks. It started with a low murmuring around the room and more students than usual discreetly checking their cell phones. Finally, one of the students interrupted me, “Professor Matheny,” he said as he pointed to the board, “that’s not right. Rex Tillerson isn’t the Secretary of State anymore. Trump fired him.” Initially, I stated that this could not be the case. As you might imagine, I was a bit overwhelmed. You have to understand, I literally listen to the news every night as I fall asleep and every morning while I’m on my way to work, so I thought that surely I would have heard something about it if it were true. On the other hand, as more and more students received notification of the firing on their cell phones, I realized that it WAS true. Somehow, between the time I walked into my classroom and started writing on the board and the time I started my class lecture, the President of the United States had fired the nation’s Secretary of State and replaced him with the current CIA Director. The Undersecretary of State also got the axe. Within forty-eight hours, the Deputy FBI Director had been fired as well. A few days later, it was the National Security Advisor. Keep in mind that this all came less than two weeks after the Director of the National Economic Council, the Communications Director, and her Deputy had all also resigned or been fired. Talk about disruption!

We are living through a time of unprecedented political instability in the United States of America. I know the word “unprecedented” has been thrown around so much at this point that it has lost most of its meaning, but think about it: I am literally having trouble teaching my Political Science students about the Presidential line of succession because President Trump is firing officials so fast that my students can’t keep up with the name changes. I will have to change my final exam this semester so that it no longer requires them to memorize the names of the top ten current office holders in the line of succession. This all reveals an uncomfortable truth: students in classes like my American Government course at the College of Charleston no longer have the luxury of focusing on frivolous things. Instead, Charlottesville has focused them on the racism and injustice that still exists in America. Parkland has focused them on their fear for their own survival. And the revolving door of employment among our nation’s top officials has focused them on the stability and survival of our democracy.

To Be Continued…

THE PROBLEM: The Social Contract Has Been Broken

The first few weeks of January are the perfect time to reflect upon the year that has passed.  What were your greatest successes and your most challenging defeats?  What have you learned about yourself?  How have you grown as a person?  Personally, I have been doing plenty of reflecting….

Today (January 16th) is the 1st anniversary of Citizenship101.infoand we are a community of over 4,650 users!  

I started this blog last year partly as self-therapy and partly as a way to encourage others and lead them down a positive path in the midst of the chaos that followed President Trump’s election and inauguration.  Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you have to agree that America is headed in a dangerous direction.  Fear, Hate, and Division rule the day, while Truth, Trust, and Compromise are nearly impossible to find among our nation’s leaders.  All day, every day, a never-ending train of political pundits, journalists, and Democratic politicians preach to us about the political APOCALYPSE we are living in, while the President, Republican politicians, and a few talking head groupies simultaneously insist that things have actually never been better.  Meanwhile, everyone in Washington is pointing fingers at each other like a bunch of toddlers.  The whiplash is debilitating.  It’s difficult to know which end is up.  I mean, the last time I checked the sky was still blue, but it feels like there’s no guaranteeing what color it will be tomorrow.

As an average American citizen, this can be a terrifying time.  However, as a Political Scientist, I can still see the outlines of order beneath the chaos.  If I squint really hard, remember everything that I have learned about American political history,  and examine long term causes and effects instead of just looking for someone to blame, I can rise above the mayhem of the moment and see our situation from a bird’s eye view.  I can understand how we got here, and with that knowledge, I can tell YOU exactly what we need to do to get our society back on the right path….

As far as blogs go, you guys may have noticed that my posting is a little infrequent.  I mean, Citizenship101.info is definitely not the place to go for annoying daily blog posts about irrelevant topics.  In a cacophony of minute-by-minute tweets, live streams, podcasts, and the rest, it is easy for truly important messages to get lost.  So I’ve decided to try something different.  What if I were to write a book… in real time… and make it interactive with the readers?  And what if that book leads to the creation of a series of online courses that every day Americans can take to learn more about our political system and how it works?  This is my vision.  I want you to think of each one of my posts like a book chapter.  My goal is to make them meaningful and memorable so that you will learn from them, not to try to become famous by bombarding you with repetitive, endless commentary.

But don’t worry, I do plan to post more frequently in 2018.  In fact, I’ll be posting content from from the American Government class that I’m teaching this semester.  That’s right!  You’ll be learning right alongside my current students at the College of Charleston!  You’ll even have a chance to see my students’ class presentations at the end of this semester when I post them on my YouTube page: www.youtube.com/professorneka.  I left the teaching profession 5 years ago to become the primary caretaker for my terminally ill mother.  I thought that I would never go back, but when I started working on Citizenship101.info last year, I realized that I had no choice.  If you’ve read my earlier posts, then you know that I truly believe civic education is the solution to our nation’s problems.  You also know how passionate I am about it.  I couldn’t just continue sitting on the sidelines.  I had to dust myself off and get back into the game.  I went back to teaching at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC in August, and I am currently teaching American Government and Introduction to African American Studies.

Last week was the first week of the Spring semester.  If you had been listening in on my American Government classes, you would have heard a lot about DEMOCRACY.  The term comes from the Greek word demos, which means people.  Thus, democracy is a form of governance OF, BY, and FOR the people.  Of course, kings and dictators are “people” too, but what makes a democracy special is that the people who are being governed are actually able to PARTICIPATE in the governing process themselves.  This is why we call the people who live in democracies citizens, while we call the people who live under monarchies and dictatorships subjects.  Subjects are helpless individuals at the mercy of their leader, but citizens have a long list of rights that can not be infringed upon.  Along with all of those rights, however, also come responsibilities.

Citizenship is a Social Contract between those who are governing and those who are being governed.  And like any other contract, it represents an agreement between the two sides.  The leaders agree to act in the best interest of their people, and the people consent to the government’s authority.  This doesn’t mean they have to love every statement or policy that their leader makes, but it does mean that they settle disagreements with him by supporting his opponent in the next election instead of by trying to kill him.  Basically, they are are agreeing to endorse the system and play by the rules.  As long as both sides hold up their end of the bargain, the society flourishes.  But what happens when the Social Contract is broken?

If you think about it, America’s Social Contract has been broken for quite some time.  Past Presidents couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain.  Ever since the Vietnam and Watergate era, the majority of Americans have shown a deep suspicion of the motivations of politicians at every level and a mistrust of government in general.  People tend to attribute politicians’ actions more to greed and arrogance than to pursuit of the common good. That may be especially true of this President, but as a whole, politicians tend to be about as popular as lawyers and tax collectors.

However, they are not the only ones who have broken the Social Contract.  American citizens haven’t held up their end of the bargain either.  Over the years, we have become so comfortable with our rights that we have been ignoring our responsibilities.  We have outsourced all of our important decision-making to a group of politicians and then decided not to participate fully in the elections to select those representatives.  Only about half of the American adult population ever votes in national elections, and those that do are often woefully uninformed about the issues being discussed.  This leaves them with no way to hold their representatives accountable once they get into office and makes them highly susceptible to manipulation by political parties.  To add insult to injury, we barely teach our youth anything about our political system and how it works.  Since the Social Contract requires them to “endorse the system and play by the rules,” not knowing the rules puts them at a significant disadvantage.

What we are left with is self-serving greed and arrogance from our leaders and a population where ignorance and political apathy run rampant.  It sounds bad, but our situation is not hopeless.  The institutions that our forefathers established have endured.  To get our society back on the right path, we need to start by increasing civic education.  It is the key to everything.  Of course, we also need more honest politicians that are committed to the common good, but the only way we will get them is by creating an informed and engaged electorate that will vote them into office and hold them accountable once they get there.  As long as uninformed voters are still choosing Presidents based on who their party says would be better to have a beer with, the honest, serious candidates will never win.  Civic education can save our society, but we have to start now.  There is no time to waste.

“My People are Destroyed for Lack of Knowledge”

Six months ago, I started a blog…

The aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election left the nation drowning in anger, frustration, and fear. I couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere. Every time I turned on the television, logged in to Facebook, or even tried to have casual conversations with friends and family, it was all anyone could talk about.

At first, I told myself that the fear was irrational. “Our government has a system of checks and balances,” I told myself. “This system has protected us for the past 230 years,” I said. “Donald Trump is no match for that.” Then came the Executive Orders…hundreds of people detained at airports, thousands marching in the streets in response. And all of a sudden, it seemed that the worst fears of the political Left were beginning to come true. I began watching the news incessantly. This moment in history was too important to miss a single second. I have always considered myself to be a bit of a “politics junkie.” In fact, I’ve been using that phrase to describe myself on Facebook and Twitter for years. After the Election, however, my “condition” grew significantly worse. I found myself checking my phone constantly for news updates; stealing moments whenever I could to watch video clips of my favorite journalists, political pundits and television hosts. I used to wear earplugs at night because my partner snores…loudly, but I decided to start wearing headphones instead so I could squeeze in some extra news clips while falling asleep or if I had to wake up to pee. I know, I know, this behavior sounds pretty obsessive. But I was scared. I was anxious. I had no idea what to do. All I knew was that I had to do SOMETHING.

I taught African American Studies at the College of Charleston from 2008 to 2012, and even though it has been five years since I left, I still keep in touch with plenty of my former students. After the election, I followed their posts on Facebook. I was so moved by their intense emotional responses to the charged political climate. I read along as they tried in vain to explain political facts and realities and reason with people from the opposite end of the political spectrum. I felt their exasperation as they quickly gave up and began blocking and unfriending everyone they disagreed with as the conversations grew more heated. I wept for the death of civil political discourse.

Then I remembered an old Biblical quote that my mother used to tell me when I was growing up every time she wanted to stress the importance of getting my education: “The Bible says that ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” she would always tell me with her finger wagging in my face (Hosea 4:6). At the time, I dismissed it as just another lecture from a mother to a daughter. In January, however, I finally realized that it was the key to EVERYTHING.

President Donald Trump is what you get when most of the people who are playing a game don’t understand the rules. The United States of America is a Democratic Republic. This system of government is a combination of two parts: the DEMOCRACY part means that the people govern themselves instead of being ruled by someone else. The REPUBLIC part means that since there is no practical way for over 300 million people to all have their say on every single issue, we elect representatives to represent our interests and make decisions on our behalf. Now, with this in mind, I have two questions for you:

1. HOW THE HELL CAN WE EXPECT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TO GOVERN THEMSELVES IF THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW OUR GOVERNMENT WORKS???

2. HOW THE HELL CAN WE EXPECT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TO ELECT THE BEST REPRESENTATIVES WHEN SO MANY OF THEM DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND THE ISSUES THAT THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BASE THEIR DECISIONS ON???

After the election, I thought long and hard about just how exactly we as a nation had gotten ourselves into this predicament. I’m not talking about FBI Director James Comey, Bengazi, or Hillary Clinton’s email server. I’m not talking about specific states that should have been visited, or small hands, or “feeling the Bern.” I’m talking about the deep-seated malfunction of our society that allowed us to elect as President of the United States a man who had never before run for any elected office, who clearly lacked a basic understanding of the office that he was running to hold, who has trouble speaking in sentences that would earn a passing grade from a middle school English teacher, and who was literally fending off a line of lawsuits and sexual harassment allegations at the very moment that Americans were entering the ballot box to cast their votes for him. I’m sorry to say that we as a nation have a problem that no Democratic Party listening tour or even organized marches can solve. As a matter of fact, our problem is well beyond partisan politics. It is deep in our bones. It is THE FAILURE OF THE AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM.

The reason Donald Trump can even exist—a 70-year-old wealthy, successful businessman that doesn’t know the most basic facts about politics, the Constitution, or how our government works—is because we haven’t structured our educational system to teach our citizens the basic structures and functions of our government. Somehow we let our arrogance convince us that we do not need an informed citizenry to maintain our democracy. We allowed ourselves to believe that democracy is some sort of birth right guaranteed to us by “American exceptionalism” and requiring nothing from us in return. Donald Trump readily flaunted his ignorance during the Presidential campaign and was rewarded handsomely for it. Have we as a nation considered the possibility that this is because so many voters don’t know the same things that he doesn’t know? I mean, how exactly could they be expected to hold him accountable when so many of them never really understood what they were supposed to be holding him accountable for? It’s hard to call someone stupid for not knowing how to spell a word that you can’t spell either, for example. And of course, in the absence of information, human beings tend to act based on their emotions. So we elected the guy that talked a good game and SEEMED like he would be good at handling important stuff. Unfortunately for us, it turns out that he’s not. Oops!

Once I collected my thoughts, I put them out there for the world to see. I created my blog Citizenship101.info and published my first post “We need a Course on Citizenship—Now More than Ever.” But no one saw it. I tried to advertise the blog on my Facebook and Twitter pages, but at that time the atmosphere was so saturated with amateur political commentary that none of my friends and family could bare to read another post. I was never looking for recognition anyway, so I dropped the mic and decided to go back to living my life.

By this time, I realized that my obsessive news watching was actually a coping mechanism that my brain developed in response to the intense FEAR that I was dealing with. I felt like a puppy fresh from the breeder on the first day in its new home. I was full of doubt and uncertainty, struggling to understand the realities of this new, unfamiliar world that I found myself in. I was afraid of not knowing what was going on in a nation and world where everything was changing so quickly and so dramatically. I was afraid that we as a people had become so divided that we would never be able to work together to rebuild the things that we had destroyed. I was afraid that our President’s next tweet might provide the spark to set the entire world ablaze. The problem with fear, though, is that it can paralyze you. And I didn’t have time for that. I still had a job I had to go to, a partner and a home that I needed to take care of, and a life that I needed to live. So I decided to turn off the news and the social media chatter for a few weeks and live my life. The funniest thing happened: my overwhelming fear subsided, and I was finally able to put things into the proper perspective.

I realized that although I am no longer teaching, my responsibilities as an educator remain. I have always felt that the mark of a good teacher is being able to rise above the malay of the moment and challenge your students to apply the deep thinking, deliberation, and analytical skills that they have learned in the classroom to the world around them. For me, this meant ripping the civics, government, and political science lessons out of our textbooks and breathing life into them right now in 2017. The American government is based on a system of laws, and the Founding Fathers left us incredibly detailed instructions on its various functions in the U.S. Constitution. The complex system of checks and balances that they created is specifically designed to slow down the pace of policy change and prevent any individual from making the kind of sweeping changes that would threaten large portions of the American public. This means that even though President Trump’s agenda may scare some of us, the judicial system has prevented implementation of his travel ban, Congress has failed to authorize funding for his border wall, Obamacare has NOT been repealed, our tax system has NOT been overhauled, and the FBI and several Congressional Committees are investigating EVERYTHING to make sure that no laws are being broken by him or members of his Administration. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the American Presidency has no power, I am saying that President Trump hasn’t figured out how to wield his power effectively yet because, as we all know, he’s new to this. As he learns, the American people must also learn if they expect to be able to hold him accountable. The Constitution doesn’t allow for do-overs, so short of impeachment, we have 3.5 more years to be vigilant and to prepare ourselves for the next Presidential Election.

One day in March, the craziest thing happened to me: I received a notification from WordPress that someone registered as a contributor to my blog. Then I received another notification, and another, and another. Over the weekend, over 250 people signed themselves up as registered contributors to my blog. And it didn’t stop. It continued at a fervent pace, sometimes nearly 50 new contributors a day. The last time I checked, I had reached 1,815! For a brief moment, I thought I was being hacked! Then, I realized that there are a bunch of people out there who are all just like me: confused, angry, scared, knowing that something needs to be done, but not knowing what to do. You all heard my ideas, and you agreed with me: we DO need to educate our citizens—now more than ever. So this is where the hard work begins. Let’s learn together. Let’s DO something.

I am currently building a catalog of courses that I am converting from my days as a college professor to a format that will be easier to disseminate online. I will make each course available to all of you as it is completed. However, just as in a college classroom, interaction with me and with each other is where a lot of the learning will take place. I want to hear from you! I want to know how you feel about what you are seeing on the news every day and what you think we should do about it. What do you think the American people need to learn? What topics do you want my online courses to cover? Nearly 2,000 of you have answered my call. Help me turn this moment in history into something positive. It doesn’t have to be the END of anything, we can make it our NEW BEGINNING.

We ALL Need A Class on Citizenship—Now More than Ever

I only remember two things about my high school government classes: first, we watched Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and second, the final exam was a joke.  All we had to do was copy a list of the US Presidents from our textbooks.  Needless to say, I didn’t learn much in those classes.  Once I got to college, I took an Introduction to Political Science course that taught me the basic information every citizen should know about how our government functions and how our society operates.  But what about the people who didn’t get to go to college and take that political science course?  How are they supposed to learn the same fundamental political information?  If society is depending on classes like the ones I took in high school to provide a civic education for the majority of the American people, then we’re all screwed!

Perhaps this is the reason that we now find ourselves at a point where INTEREST and ENGAGEMENT in politics are at all time highs while basic political KNOWLEDGE and TRUST in government are at all time lows.  Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, this is a recipe for disaster.

So Let’s DO Something!

Like millions of you across the country, the 2016 Presidential Election motivated me to get more engaged in the political process.  I have a Master’s Degree in Political Science from The Ohio State University.  I have taught African American Politics courses at the College of Charleston.  I have served as a consultant for political campaigns.  Yet, I felt that I needed to do more.  I wanted to roll up my sleeves and get directly involved in the election.  As I watched news reports and engaged in political conversations with family and friends, I sensed an overwhelming disgust and distrust of government.  So instead of volunteering for a particular candidate or political party, I decided to go to work for the Charleston County Board of Elections.  My job was to answer questions about voting and registering to vote from the thousands of local citizens that called in during the last few weeks before the election.  This gave me the opportunity to speak directly with members of my community from all walks of life.  I spoke with Democrats, Republicans, young people, old people, people who had voted in every election they were eligible for, and people who were trying to vote for the very first time.  I learned a few things from that experience:

  • First, I have complete confidence in the process and results of any election in Charleston County, South Carolina.  They know what they’re doing, and they’re good at it!
  • Second, there is a deep distrust of our government among both Democrats and Republicans that stems in part from a lack of basic political knowledge.  Callers on both sides, for example, that missed the voter registration deadlines were convinced that the other side was somehow trying to stop them from voting.  Several callers even asked if their votes were going to be thrown away.  Multiple callers wanted to verify that deceased family members’ names had been removed from the voting rolls.  Others invented conspiracy theories about everything from the order that political parties and candidates were listed on the ballot to the color of the “I Voted” stickers.  Many of these callers’ worst fears could have been easily debunked with a basic civics course.
  • Third, we NEED to take political education more seriously in this country!  Questions like “When is the election?” “Do I have to register to vote?” and “How many candidates can I vote for?” demonstrate that some everyday Americans could use a refresher course on the basics.  But it’s deeper than that.  The more you learn about politics, the more you begin to appreciate the RIGHTS and RESPONSIBILITIES of your citizenship.  Ever wonder what happened to our sense of civic duty?  People actually called in wanting to know why they couldn’t vote on a website or email their vote in because they were too busy to go to their precincts and wait in line.  In a world of instant gratification, voting has become little more than an inconvenience to some people.  However, for others, voting in THIS election was the most important thing in the world.  I was overwhelmed by the number of calls I received from people on both sides who had not voted in over a decade (or sometimes even longer) but wanted to make sure that they were registered to vote this time.  For better or worse, people are paying more attention to politics now than ever, and they need the proper context to understand what they are witnessing and respond.

I hope that we reform our educational system.  I hope that one day students will take classes on how politics and society work at every level of their education, but there’s no time to wait.  Every day there is a new Executive Action or a new policy position that the American people need to understand.  In order to really do that, they need to understand the limits of executive power that are defined in the Constitution.  They need to understand how laws are passed.  They need to understand our government’s separation of powers and its system of checks and balances.  They need to know the roles that Congress, various foreign leaders, and business executives are playing in President Trump’s agenda, and most importantly, they need to know how they, as citizens, will be affected.  All of a sudden, the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons and all of that stuff you memorized for a test and then quickly forgot about years ago has become CRITICAL.  You have to understand what President Trump is doing in order to be able to hold him and his Administration accountable.

Citizenship101.info is offering a political education to everyday folks.  It’s one professor’s attempt to talk to the American people about politics the same way that I would talk to my friends and family members: with a lot of explaining along the way, a little bit of humor, and nothing but the best intentions.  My posts will cover important political concepts as they relate to today’s news.  They will be conversational, informative, and hopefully entertaining.  I will also post contributions from my colleagues.  These guest posts will be from people that I studied with, worked with, and taught during my career.  However, I am always interested in collaboration, so please contact me if you feel like you have something to add.

My goal is for this to be an interactive space.  I welcome your comments on any and all of my posts and will do my best to respond to them, but remember, the purpose of this blog is to EDUCATE not to HATE.  There is no shortage of websites where you can express your hatred for politicians and policies.  This is not one of them.  I want this to be a constructive educational space.  I don’t care which political party you support or who you voted for, EVERYONE needs to learn more about the rights and responsibilities that come with their citizenship.  That means that you’re free to disagree with politicians, with me, or with each other, but there will be no name-calling or insults in the comments on this domain.  All such posts will be deleted.  We’re all adults, so let’s act like it.  We can’t learn anything if we can’t talk to each other.

I love Merriam-Webster’s definition of citizenship: “the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community.”  What an interesting way to think about it.  If American society is our community, then according to this definition, our membership (or citizenship) requires a response.  We are all responding to the actions of this Administration in our own ways.  My response is doing what I do best: educating others.

What will your response be?