Ralph Nader called me a few days ago. It was not a robo-call. Like any voting American, I get lots of those from celebrities. This was Nader live. I have not been that excited by a phone message since Arnold Schwarzenegger called me in 2001.
I called Nader back. He was promoting a big conference, Breaking Through Power, that delved into civics education. It sounded dull, but I promised to read the conference materials. They were interesting and inspired a contrarian thought.
Nader admires educational philosopher John Dewey. The Columbia University professor said students should learn civics by taking part in campaigns, social movements and other activities that reveal firsthand how a democratic society works.
Dewey knew what they would see would often be messy, disheartening, craven, dishonest, rude, scandalous and corrupt. Civics is not always civil. Isn’t that what the presidential campaign of 2016 has been all about?
We Americans have spent a great deal of time telling each other how awful this election season is. We assume that we have reached some new low, but that’s not true. In the glory days of our nation’s first elections, people were chattering about Alexander Hamilton’s adultery and Thomas Jefferson’s impregnating a slave. If you are offended by Twitter insults, remember that Abraham Lincoln was called an “idiot” and a “gorilla.”
And that is just national politics. What’s said at school board and city council meetings, about how the mayor funded the new bridge or about what the police chief did when his son robbed a liquor store can be even more outrageous.
Advocates of civics education, such as Nader, want us and our children to learn such things. He recommended that I read “The Kid’s Guide to Social Action” by Barbara A. Lewis, which is full of stories of children confronting malpractice and lies. Students at Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City investigated an old barrel yard, deemed a hazardous waste site. Local health officials told them that nothing could be done about it. When the children kept pushing, the owner of the barrel yard had a heart attack, and they were blamed. Their teacher received anonymous calls threatening legal action if her kids persisted.
Our failure to remember what civics and history taught us in school is not new. A hundred years ago, a test given to high school and college students found that many did not know what happened in 1776. A 1943 test found that just a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Lincoln.
So we need exposure to the truths of civic engagement, even if we do not enjoy them. In that respect, we are lucky this year. Never has news of a presidential campaign spread as widely, with social media in full cry and TV debate ratings breaking all records.
Personal participation in politics of the sort Dewey recommended is also surging. More people voted in primary elections this year than at any time other than 2008. The get-out-the-vote ground game pioneered by President Obama, using thousands of paid and unpaid workers, has been adopted by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Republicans are employing some of the same techniques and will probably do more in 2020 if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, not a ground-game fan, loses this election.
We may not like to encounter unpleasant truths about civics in America, but we need to remember them. For instance, the Breaking Through Power conference where Nader spoke last week celebrated the 50th anniversary of his landmark book “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
His dissection of the auto industry became a sensation and a great funding source when he sued General Motors for its efforts to smear him. This is a fact many Americans are too young to recall. Operatives followed Nader, tapped his phone and sent women to try to seduce him to discredit his work.
Such unsavory forms of civic activism — hello, hackers — have not disappeared. We should thank the current political campaign for teaching us so much about them.