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Is American Democracy McBroken?

I love ice cream. I mean, like seriously, I could eat it every day at least once if not twice per day!

When my wife and I first got married, there was a McDonalds at the end of the road of our first home. Since I’m a plain vanilla ice cream kind of guy and the price was right (cheap!!!), we would end up there every few nights on a last minute date.

That is, until the ice cream machine stopped working.

We gave them a few days to get it fixed and went back. Yep! Still broken.

So we allowed a few weeks to transpire before our next stop. You guessed it, broken!

At this point, it was annoying and almost funny that it became a joke in our house. Apparently, the broken ice cream machine at McDonalds is a “thing” as I recently ran across a website dedicated to tracking these machine outages across the country ( Seriously, look below—this is too good to make up!

Looking at the heat map of ‘broken’ machines, one could surmise that there are more out of order than in order. The researcher in me is always asking “why?” So…I dug into it a little deeper.

First, allow me to say that my first gainful employment was at Chick-Fil-A (back before it was line wrapped around the building two times cool!). We, too, had an ice cream machine, and it was hardly ever down. Yes, I know comparing Chick-Fil-A and McDonalds is apples and oranges, but nonetheless, there is a common denominator of the ice cream machine. And, I worked with it so I have a little firsthand experience here.

Research Question: Why is the McDonald’s ice cream machine seemingly always out of order?

There are three likely explanations that I found according to employees who wished to remain nameless:

1) We may have either just cleaned it for the night, or the one person that actually knows how to do the mandatory thorough cleaning once a week isn't working. That means the machine shuts itself down automatically until that's done and we can't use it.

2) As someone who worked there for a year the machine would automatically go into a cleaning process that would take a long period of time, you couldn’t do anything with the machine until it was cleaned.

3) There was also something called freezer lock, it was caused by employees not filling it up and allowing the small amount of liquid to freeze disabling the machine.

The answers provided above are consistent with my own personal experience at Chick-Fil-A. Truthfully, I always hated being assigned the duty of cleaning the ice cream machine. It was a time consuming, hard, and messy job. Yet if it were not done on a regular basis, the machine would not function properly and the frozen treat would not be safe to eat.

If we were to parlay this example to our democracy, I would say that we are more on the “McBroken” side of the aisle than on the “My pleasure” side. To be more exact, America has become complacent with the notion that our democratic way of government just ‘happens’. While this notion is counter-intuitive to anyone who knows that Newton’s third law—the basic theory that states “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Following this logic out, where there is no action, there is no reaction. Then, it should be of little surprise to any of us that based on our country’s commitment to civic education in terms of financial resources and time invested in it, that we find ourselves where we are currently in our country.

Americans' participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last. Of increasing concern to many is the declining levels of civic engagement across the country, a trend that started several decades ago. It is not only knowledge about how the government works that is lacking—confidence in our leadership is also extremely low. According to the Pew Research Center, which tracks public trust in government, as of March 2019, only an unnerving 17 percent trust the government in Washington to do the right thing. We also see this lack of engagement in civic behaviors, with Americans' reduced participation in community organizations, especially among young people.

Many reasons undoubtedly contribute to this decline in civic engagement: from political dysfunction to an actively polarized media, as posited by Robert D. Putnam. Of particular concern is the rise of what Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Peter Levine call "civic deserts," namely places where there are few to no opportunities for people to "meet, discuss issues, or address problems." They estimate that 60 percent of all rural youth live in civic deserts along with 30 percent of urban and suburban Americans. Given the decline of participation in religious organizations and unions, which a large proportion of Americans consistently engaged in over the course of the 20th century, it is clear that new forms of civic networks are needed in communities.

With the entry of the “No Child Left Behind” Act, Reading and Mathematics courses along with STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) took center stage in terms of both educational focus and investment.

Nationally, we spend $50 per student on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) while we spend 5 cents per student on civics education.

Read that statement again! Again, I say there should be no surprise that the result is a society that can no longer have civil discourse or when our legislative bodies grind to a screeching halt because of political polarization.

Why is this? Well, much like our friends at McDonalds or Chick-Fil-A and their ice cream machines, sustaining a healthy an active democracy takes consistent hard work, investment, maintenance. We can’t wait to rely on those who “know how democracy works” to service it. How it works, how to maintain and service it, and how to participate in it is something in which every American should be trained and assurance made that the skills are satisfactorily acquired.

Where do we start? As one of the few social institutions present in virtually every

community across America, schools must play an important role in catalyzing increased civic engagement. They can do this by helping young people develop and practice the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors needed to participate in civic life. Schools can also directly provide opportunities for civic engagement as a local institution that can connect young and old people alike across the community. To do this, civic learning needs to be part and parcel of the current movement across many schools in America to equip young people with 21st-century skills.

To date however, civic education experts argue that civic learning is on the margins of young people's school experience. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education examined the status of civic education and found that while reading and math scores have improved in recent years, there has not been the commensurate increase in eighth grade civics knowledge. Few states prioritize the range of strategies, such as service learning which is only included in the standards for 11 states not including Georgia, that is required for an effective civic education experience. The study also found that social studies teachers are some of the least supported teachers in schools and report teaching larger numbers of students and taking on more non-teaching responsibilities like coaching school sports than other teachers. Student experience reinforces this view that civic learning is not a central concern of schools. Seventy percent of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem and 30 percent say they have never taken part in a debate—all important parts of a quality civic learning.

Let me be clear. Hope is not lost. However, an intervention must occur; an investment must occur; an infusion of civic knowledge must occur. I’ve written often about my +Civics formula. (Increased civic knowledge leads to increased civic identity/dispositions, which over time lead to increased civic engagement). A child of the 80s I remember the commercials on television that said “knowledge is power” and “the more you know, the more you grow.” This is not an outdated philosophy. Rather, it is more appropriate now than ever. Updating it to reflect our rallying cry, it reads: “civic knowledge is civic power.”

There are some practical steps that can be taken

1) The United States Congress should pass the recently introduced Educate for Democracy Act that would invest $1 Billion into civic education over the next few years.

2) States and their board of educations should take more seriously the charge to educate our young people on the responsibilities of citizenship. In Georgia, high school students are given ½ a credit for civics. To put this in perspective, that is the same credit a student could get for a “walk/jog” PE class.

3) Teacher preparation programs should include pedagogical training that include experiential learning elements for history and government courses.

4) Nonprofit organizations that lead in this area such as the Civic Mission of Schools, iCivics, Constitutional Rights Foundation, and our own Center for Civic Engagement, need to be wholehearted embraced by educational institutions as partners.

5) Colleges should make civic engagement a fundamental part of the college experience.

As I said, hope is not lost. It is fading, but not lost. Just as with the ice cream machine, if we fail to care for the daily tasks to keep our democracy alive and well, it will “freeze up” and eventually stop working altogether.


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