A few years ago, a close friend and colleague made a surprising confession. Even though we worked at a charter school network devoted to civic education, she admitted to me that she’d never voted and wasn’t even registered. She felt guilty and hypocritical. How could she promote the virtue of voting to children starting in kindergarten but not vote herself?
She expected me to be disappointed, even shocked, but I wasn’t. My friend is among the most civic-minded and public-spirited people I know, had touched the lives and shaped the education of hundreds, even thousands, of other people’s children in a leadership position in our network. Not only did she have nothing to apologize for, compared to her career in education, voting seemed insignificant, even trivial. She’s a model of civic virtue.
I’ve been thinking about my friend and our conversation against the backdrop of our annus horribilis: plague, disruption, social unrest, and economic despair, wending its way inexorably toward what is certain to be the most rage-fueled election in living memory. And that leads me to a confession of my own. Despite writing about and advocating for civic education and teaching a high school civics class, I’m not going to vote this year, at least not in the presidential election. This reflects a lack of enthusiasm for either party’s candidate (I’m a lifelong registered Independent), but it has more to do with my unease with politics’ all-consuming role in our lives, the passion and energy partisanship consumes, and its corrosive effects on our well-being.
To state the obvious, we are a deeply divided nation and only becoming more so by the day. Hyper-partisanship is a spreading stain coloring everything it touches red or blue. Joseph Kahne of the University of California, Riverside, cites the public response to things like climate change and Covid-19, which in saner times might remain mostly outside the partisan sphere. “We’re seeing with this virus that people’s belief about a scientific phenomenon is enormously shaped by their political party,” he points out. Most ominously, partisanship colors our perceptions of each other. “It drives us to see people with different political perspectives as evil and inherently untrustworthy,” Kahne notes. That’s not merely deleterious to civil society, it’s toxic, and potentially fatal to it. If we’ve gotten to the point—and this happens to nearly all of us—where people want to know whose team you’re on in order to judge your character, work, and ideas, then a rebalancing is overdue.
Taking a broader view of civic education and revitalizing the civic mission of schools might help. Civics and citizenship is not just the forgotten purpose of education, it’s the forgotten subject. Fewer than one in four eighth graders score “proficient” or better on NAEP Civics, easily the poorest performance on any tested subject, and what little of it is offered tends to focus on teaching about government. But there is more to civics than government. And more to citizenship than voting.
“Government is only one among many tools for shaping our common world, and voting is only one of many tools for influencing government,” observes Tufts University’s Peter Levine, who doesn’t agree with me about staying home in November but shares my view that it’s a mistake to reduce “civic engagement” to voting. “In my ideal of civic education, the nation-state and our relationship to it would be less important than it typically is, and civil society would be more important,” he tells me.
Civil society is one of those terms that is subject to interpretation and without a firmly established definition, but it generally refers to a broad range of activities and institutions that belong neither to the government or business sectors, including (but not limited to) churches and charities, social movements and advocacy organizations, community groups and associations. There is not a clear line separating political life and civil society, but one thing is obvious: Trust and cooperation are indispensible to these “third sector” activities and institutions. If we are hostile to people who don’t share our politics, it can only undermine our ability to work together with those folks in churches, on the PTA, or other activities that stitch communities together. Try this simple thought exercise: If you are among the 69 percent of Biden supporters or 61 percent of Trump’s supporters who described themselves to pollsters recently as “extremely motivated” to vote for your candidate, how would you feel about your child’s soccer coach if he drove to practice in a car festooned with bumper stickers for the candidate you oppose, and maybe even despise? How comfortable would you feel on the sidelines if you knew most of the other soccer moms and dads took a dim view of your politics?
Shortly after the tumultuous 2016 election, Michael Wear, the former director of Barack Obama’s faith-outreach efforts, observed in The Atlantic that politics was “causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.” Wear’s insight, which has only sharpened with time, applies to those of us who are concerned with preparing our children not just to be voters but to become deeply invested in civil society and the range of institutions, public and private, that allow us to work together and solve problems and advance our shared interests. I want my students to become politically sophisticated voters capable of advocating for themselves. I also want them to be able to work well alongside people whose views they might not share.
To be clear—and emphatic—I’m not advocating for nonvoting at large, particularly for communities that have historically had too little say in government and politics. But I’m increasingly reminded of the ‘80s movie “War Games,” in which the world is pushed to the brink of nuclear holocaust by a computer-simulation exercise that careens out of control. The computer itself narrowly averts World War III and concludes in the film’s finale, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” I’ve come to feel much the same about our zero-sum game of presidential politics. So I’m sitting this one out.
As a coda, I reached out to my former colleague to tell her I was writing this post for Rick’s blog and to refresh my memory of our long-ago conversation. She’s still doing great work for kids, but she’s been a proudly registered voter since 2016, passionately engaged by politics, and adamantly anti-Trump. When I described my idea for this piece, she emailed back and chided me a little, even speculating that “making a nuanced point about how to be civic-minded by not voting makes me believe you are keeping your support [of Trump] veiled. But,” she added, “I tend to assume the worst in general.”
And that’s the point.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published on Education Week’s blog Rick Hess Straight Up.