The latest Elon University Poll contains disturbing — but not surprising — results. More people know the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers than the names of either of our U.S. Senators. Get beyond the president, vice president and governor and fewer than half those surveyed knew the names of Council of State members. Less than one-quarter could tell the names of their own elected state senator or House member.
What makes this so disturbing is that the poll was taken among registered voters. If they don’t know them, how can they make good decisions in the voting booth? If you don’t know them, it’s a pretty sure bet you also don’t have a clue what they are doing.
It shouldn’t be surprising. There are at least four reasons why people can’t identify their elected officials. Let’s start with an indictment of our education system. We no longer require civics to be taught in our schools, a bad decision with even worse consequences. This nation has survived for more than 200 years because those who came before us understood their responsibilities as citizens. Now it is our turn to preserve what our founders called a “grand experiment,” but if you don’t understand the basics of how government is structured and operates you can’t fully appreciate your personal responsibility to preserve and maintain our systems. We should insist that both history and civics be required subjects in our schools, and not taught just one semester.
In this era of so many voices, the media is partially responsible for our not knowing who represents us. Pay careful attention to your local TV newscasts. The first five to 10 minutes is devoted to wrecks, robberies, murders and mayhem. “If it bleeds, it leads” in most newscasts and the more sensational, the more eyeballs stations get. When they do get around to covering government, the most you’ll get is sound bytes of lawsuits, partisan bickering, political pandering, mistakes or infidelities of elected officials. Very seldom is in-depth, civil and balanced discussion of issues even attempted.
Some of us remember when The News & Observer devoted a full page to committee meetings, discussions held and votes taken by our legislature each day. Nowadays, you wouldn’t know when they are in session. The reporters covering the government beat were the most seasoned, but today’s reporting, mostly by young reporters, has no historical perspective with which to gauge an action’s significance and most reporters today want to be spoon-fed the story and don’t have or take the time to dig deeper.
Politicians can share responsibility also. Instead of acting like responsible adults, they too frequently behave like children in a playground sandbox, calling each other names and fighting with one another instead of working together for the common good. Who wants to spend much time learning more about the inner workings and personalities in this kind of arena?
But the reality is that if we don’t know those elected officials who make decisions on our behalf, it is nobody’s fault but our own. Our increasing apathy doesn’t bode well for our nation’s future and may even end with us just another statistic among the history of nation-states that once were, but are no longer. It is our civic duty to vote and know who represents us.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.