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Opinion: The number of Americans who favor democracy is shrinking. Where’s the breakdown?

Less than a third of Americans born in the 1980s think democracy is vital. Where did we go wrong?

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Illustration of U.S. capital splitting in half

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

The American founders framed a republic reliant on informed engagement by citizens. But they were nervous that their experiment in liberty would require individuals to know the constitutional system and feel the responsibility to civically engage in a healthy and active manner. Then and now, it also requires that we respect the freedom to disagree across differences. These founding principles are embodied in good civics education

Civics education is experiencing a renaissance in Utah. Since 2021 the Utah Legislature has supported a number of crucial efforts to bolster our knowledge of and participation in civic life. We thank the 2023 Legislature for continuing this arc in its efforts in the just-concluded session. Will this new and much-needed spending be a one-time investment, or will Utahns encourage legislators to keep civics education a priority?

Alarmed about our nation’s increasing polarization and the spread of misinformation and civil unrest, the 2021 Utah Legislature formed the HCR15 working group to study how civics is taught in our state. The group’s recommendations have since prompted the Legislature to invest more than $5 million in civic-education support in the last two years. 

This legislative action is timely. The World Values Survey reported a decline across several American generational cohorts that rank it as “essential” to live in a democratically governed country. Respondents were asked what sort of government they would prefer, and more than half (52%) said they favor “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections,” up from 38% in 2009. And less than one-third of Americans born in the 1980s think democracy is vital. Should we be surprised by these results after generational disinvestment in civics education? 

How did this come about?

During the Cold War, taxpayers heavily funded math education programming to respond to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. In the No Child Left Behind era of President George W. Bush, federal education funding was distributed based on test scores in math and reading. In response, educators focused on these areas instead of social studies. The Obama administration’s education plan, Race to the Top, also emphasized innovation in student performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). 

As a result of these generational trends, for every five cents of federal funds spent per pupil on civics education, nearly $55 is invested in STEM, according to Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. While literacy and the STEM fields are important for our continued innovation and prosperity, if we neglect civics education we may lose the constitutional infrastructure that makes every other success possible.

In context of these broader national trends, the Utah Legislature passed HB327 in 2021, which allocated a one-time $1 million appropriation to create the Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative (CTLI) at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies. In 2022, that one-time appropriation became an ongoing source of funding.

Then in 2023, the Legislature generously increased that funding, enabling CTLI to continue supporting K–12 teacher professional development in civics; offering civic fellowships for UVU undergraduates; conducting Utah-focused research on civic knowledge, skills and dispositions among adults and youth; and providing regional training for civics educators and leaders. Each of these activities is raising public consciousness about the importance of civics education in Utah. 

In addition to CTLI, Utah has promoted civics in other important ways. For example, HB274 created a $1.5 million fund distributed through the Utah State Board of Education for Utah schools to request funding support for innovative civics projects. Distribution of these funds reflects legislative emphasis on local control, where schools identify interests, design projects and request funding. Projects are now in motion and range from supporting the development of student simulation programs, such as We the People and mock trials, to interdisciplinary programs for students to identify misinformation, to professional development for teachers in the civics competencies of constitutional literacy, media literacy and academic service learning. 

The HCR15 working group recommendations, which led to these measures, offered important caveats. Any skill-building or civic engagement must be deeply informed by an abiding knowledge of the Constitution and the foundations of our democracy. Fortunately, that is a requirement that both sides of the aisle can get behind in Utah.

These legislative moves are exciting, but will they last? Lawmakers at the state and national level tend to react to current events or increased pressure from constituents. As the ones with our hands on the spigot, will we as Utahns keep civic education front and center for our legislators? 

Data suggest that with every new generation, fewer and fewer Americans believe in and are committed to these ideas. Like the founders, we now have our own reasons to be nervous. If we continue on this path, with our constitutional republic on the line, failure is not an option. We Utahns owe it to ourselves and those who follow after us to keep investing in civic education. 

Eleesha Tucker is a civic research fellow with the Civic Thought and Leadership Initiative in the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University. She teaches the required general education course American heritage, which aims to inform undergraduate students of our foundational ideals and inspire them to fulfill their civic responsibilities.