- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

Everyone seems to agree that the debacle in Florida has been a invaluable "civics lesson." Indeed, I ran a quick Nexis-Lexis database search of stories about the Florida election. I found that the phrase "civics lesson" came up about 500 times in the 28 days since the election bell rang but neither combatant left the ring.

This "civics lesson" spin is a perfect example of journalists, invested in a story, endeavoring to protect their interests by saying they are performing a vital public service.

For example, a few years back, we were told by scores of pundits and legal commentators that the O.J. Simpson case was, in the words of one journalist, "an invaluable civics lesson in one of the true glories of democracy, the courtroom trial."

Of course, there's something distinctly American about this on-the-bright-side kind of thinking. Wars are useful because they foster medical and technological breakthroughs. I even know quite a few conservatives who contend that cigarette smoking plays an important role in American public life since smokers die before they can collect most of their Social Security benefits, which helps keep the system solvent.

But none of this changes the fact that silver linings only come on dark clouds. Remember the parable about the optimistic kid who finds a pile of horse manure under the Christmas tree and exclaims, "Where's the pony?!"? Well, even if the kid gets his new pet, it doesn't change the fact that he's got a steamy mess to clean up.

If there is a pony in Florida, it's very small and the pile of pony chad is huge. Consider one of the important lessons we are supposed to be encouraged that Americans are learning about: The lack of bloodshed in a disputed election.

"Despite the uncertainty of the election's outcome, there are no National Guard soldiers on the sidewalks or tanks in the streets, because they are not needed," intoned The Salt Lake Tribune. And Mary Matalin, on CNN's "Crossfire," noted with great relief, "We're sending in lawyers not tanks. That's pretty good with wars around the world."

Is it really? Good lord, is our faith in our system so weak that we think it's even possible Americans would kill each other over (ital) Al Gore and George Bush? (end ital) I think America is a shining city on a hill, but surely, we can set our standards a notch or two above blood in the streets.

Or take the notion that this brouhaha is performing the valuable service of teaching America about the Electoral College. Now, I love the Electoral College. It elegantly defends the idea that this is a federal republic, not a mobocracy. I am for anything that helps people appreciate it more.

But where is the evidence that people appreciate the Electoral College more than they did just a month ago? More people may know about it, but, if anything, more Americans want to get rid of it now than before.

For 27 straight elections, from 1888 until 2000, the Electoral College did its job out of the sight and minds of most voters. In only four out of 54 elections has it yielded a result even arguably different than the popular will, while at the same protecting the grand design of the Founders. But now, thanks to this "civics lesson," many people are angry at it. And defenders of small "r" republicanism and federalism will have to fight to save it.

And this reveals the real problem with the "civics lesson" idea. Yes, more Americans better understand how a few cogs - the Electoral College or voting machines, for example - of the constitutional machinery work. But so what? Knowing how a carburetor operates doesn't make you a conscientious driver, and understanding what the Electoral College does doesn't make you a good citizen.

"Civics" actually has a meaning. It comes from the same root as civilization and citizen. It describes how people are supposed to behave responsibly in a free society. I find it difficult to see how average Americans are learning how to be good citizens.

As with the O.J. trial and the impeachment drama, Americans are being taught that there is nothing wrong with exercising every legal right, even if it leads to a wrong. We are being told that victory in court justifies going to court.

Unelected judges are elevated to priesthood, while accountable legislatures are denounced as illegitimate. Every night some partisan declares that citizens can't even be held responsible for reading the directions on a ballot. Some even argue that the directions were deliberately confusing so racists could keep blacks and Jews from voting.

This is a great civics lesson?

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