The Pillars of Democracy


The Lincoln Memorial along the shores of the Potomac River was designed by architect Henry Bacon as a likeness to the Parthenon, the ancient Greek temple. The Parthenon had 25 beautiful columns forming its rectangular sides. Some of them are still standing today above Athens as a monument to the enduring legacy of what became the cradle of democracy. The Parthenon was constantly being restored after centuries of storms, wars, and revolutions.

The Lincoln Memorial, a contemporary replica of the Greek temple, has 36 columns, the number of states in the Union Lincoln preserved. They symbolize the pillars of our democratic Republic, the enduring civic and governmental institutions that have girded our system of governance. Those 36 pillars literally hold up the Lincoln Memorial just as those institutions figuratively support our system of governance.

The Lincoln is more than its legacy. The Memorial should be a constant reminder that our democratic Republic has faced serious and corrosive challenges before and the nation has counted on those institutions to preserve the very structure of the Union.

But now the institutions are crumbling, if only metaphorically. The damage being done is no less destructive. The current irresponsible behavior, a loss of trust in each other and in those institutions, and destructively divisive and angry politics could prove calamitous, even permanent. The careless disregard for what our forefathers left for us to safeguard is a violation of the responsibilities of citizenship.

What we have didn’t come free of charge.

Some of our institutions are the cornerstones of democracy. The most foundational is American education, which churns out mediocrity where excellence is needed the most, in the fields of history and civics.

Civics education is the centerpiece of a book I’ve written with congressional colleague Jerry Climer, which should be out next Spring. It delves deeply into the dissolution of many of our institutions and explores what is necessary to restore the peoples’ supremacy over a colossal and complex representative government.

Young Americans are not being taught the essentials of how the Republic came to be, how it is supposed to work, why it doesn’t, and how they can control more of their own destiny. Older Americans have simply fallen behind in their understanding of and competence in self-governance. They have been foreclosed from the knowledge they need to influence those who govern them.

The evidence of that failure is laid out over decades for all to see in volumes of studies and survey research. The most recent is the annual Annenberg Public Policy Center survey conducted just before Constitution Day Sept. 17.

“The results are disturbing, especially considering the current threats to our democratic institution. It’s hard for people to understand the nature and significance of those threats if they don’t understand the institutions themselves,” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told the Washington Times.

Annenberg found that one in six American adults could not name any of the three branches of the government. The survey also found that Americans do not have a great deal of knowledge about the basic individual rights enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

  • Only 40 percent knew the Amendment protected freedom of religion;
  • 28 percent, freedom of the press;
  • 77 percent, freedom of speech;
  • 33 percent right to assembly; and
  • Just 9 percent knew about the right to petition government for redress of grievances.

Only five percent could name all five rights.

A majority of Americans think the First Amendment’s freedom of speech means that people can say whatever they want on Facebook.

The surveys over many years are extensive and show very similar results. I once saw a survey that found among college students in Texas, 10 percent thought Judge Judy was on the Supreme Court.

They reflect the very sorry state of civics education in America. Without continuous education people are left without the tools they need to be constructive and engaged citizens. It leaves young Americans ill-prepared to assume the mantle of citizenship.

The dire consequences of this failure have been given clarity by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, who has championed the cause of civics education for many years. He did again in an interview with PBS Firing Line with Margaret Hoover.

Hoover reminded Dreyfuss that he once called the failure of the US to teach the Constitution “suicidal and that everyone from our lawmakers to our parents to the media is responsible…guilty of collusion in the crime of killing America.”

“I think we’re in the endgame right now,” he said. “I think that we could let slip the greatest idea for governance ever devised and we won’t even know that it happened. We have no muscle memory of it. 50 years is a long time when it comes to how many generations have been without civics education.”

Hoover quoted from a book Dreyfuss wrote: “It is especially absurd to think our children could run this complex country without learning anything about its government first. We can’t fly a plane without training or practice medicine without attending medical school. Then explain how we can send people to Congress who haven’t first learned the workings of government or what powers Congress has.”

“I want the people to remember that they are the sovereign power here…We’ve stopped teaching civics, and now we can’t have a civil political discussion. The American experiment may fail if we don’t act.”

Change must come in a hurry and it should begin with an attitude adjustment. Civics education is a load-bearing pillar of our Republic, but education cannot penetrate an intolerantly closed and sealed-up mind. It cannot penetrate so much emotionally-driven distrust in both institutions and each other.

As Gerard Baker wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“At the heart of America’s political and cultural turmoil is a crisis of trust. In the space of a generation, the peoples’ confidence in their leaders and their most important institution to do the right thing has collapsed…As public faith in the performance, credibility and integrity of these institutions has collapsed so too has mutual trust—social glue that holds the country together. Americans have become suspicious of one another, distrusting their fellow citizens as much as they distrust foreign adversaries.”

The solutions to our institutional infirmities are many and varied. But again, Baker reminds us of an indelible truth, “It will require political change so that Americans can take back control of the institutions that direct the country and affect their lives.”

Political change, however, must come from the ground up and not the top down. Leaders can’t lead without direction, purpose, and public trust. They cannot bring about change without the empowerment of the people. Voters must find new leaders, elect them, engage them, and oversee them so that they once again become their servants, not their superiors. Are Donald Trump and Joe Biden the very best the country has to offer?

Citizens must exercise more than their vote, as important as it is; they must also exercise more of the responsibilities of citizenship, a title Thomas Jefferson thought the most important in the Republic.

Citizens armed with greater knowledge and better tools for gaining access to and influence over their Congress can make a difference.

The Lincoln Memorial is a monument to a great heritage, but it is also a vivid reminder of how critical it is to begin again restoring and strengthening the institutions of democracy and the supremacy of responsible citizenship.

As my friend and talented photographer Marty LaVor would say, visit the Lincoln Memorial again, for the first time.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.