Fault Lines in Our Democracy

Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States

Highlights of the Report



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As the 21st century unfolds, the United States faces challenges of historic proportions, including a struggling economy, budget deficits and growing debt, an aging infrastructure, global terrorism, and a host of other problems. While there is much disagreement on solutions to these problems, many would agree that solutions will have to come from an educated and skilled citizenry who:

Americans will respond to the challenges the way we always do: through the power of our democratic government. But our democracy is only as strong as its citizens.

The dismal state of civics knowledge among our youth, along with the likelihood of voting and volunteering being strongly related to one's age, education, literacy and numeracy skills, and income, represent fault lines in the bedrock of our democracy. Each of these fault lines is highlighted here. Some ideas about what to do about this problem are offered at the end.

Civic Knowledge

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Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool ... The habits of citizenship must be learned … But we have neglected civic education for the past several decades, and the results are predictably dismal.

— Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

This lack of knowledge provides ample concern for our future because civic knowledge has effects on voting and civic participation.

Who Votes and Who Doesn't?

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Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves — and the only way they could do this is by not voting.

— Franklin D. Roosevelt (1934)

Older adults with the most education and the highest incomes carry the most weight in the voting booth. Here's a profile of who voted in the past presidential election.

Voting is not the only civic activity associated with age, education, and income. So is civic engagement.

Vote Chart

Civic Engagement and Attitudes

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The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.

— Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Books, 1954

Improving the civic engagement of our citizens will require concerted efforts on many fronts.

What We Should Do?

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Efforts to increase the civic engagement of our citizens will require efforts on many fronts and include efforts like the following:

The most serious danger Americans now face — greater than terrorism — is that our country's future may not end up in the hands of a citizenry capable of sustaining the liberty that has been America's most precious legacy. If trends continue, many young Americans will grow up without an understanding of the benefits, privileges, and duties of citizens in a free society, and without acquiring the habits of character needed to live responsibly in one.

— William Damon (2011)

About the Authors

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Richard J. Coley

Richard J. Coley is Executive Director of the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education. His recent work has focused on the achievement gap and on the factors that are associated with the gap, as well as on tracking and analyzing national trends in student performance and educational attainment. He has been involved in studies of federal, state and local education policy issues, including studies of school finance and governance, teacher education and certification, educational standards, education indicators and education reform. Recent publications include: State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status; The Mission of the High School: A New Consensus of the Purposes of Public Education?; The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped; Parsing the Achievement Gap; and The Family: America's Smallest School.

Andrew M. Sum

Andrew M. Sum is a professor of economics at Northeastern University and the Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies in Boston. He has conducted research on a wide array of educational, labor market, social and workforce development topics at the national, state and local level for the past 40 years. He also has been engaged in research on the educational, civic, social and labor market experiences of the nation's teens, young adults, older workers and blue-collar workers, and their implications for educational and labor market policies. Among his recent articles and policy monographs are: "Ignoring Those Left Behind in the Labor Market," Challenge, March-April, 2012; Resurrecting the American Dream in Massachusetts, The Massachusetts Institute for A New Commonwealth (MassINC), 2011; "No Country for Young Men: The Declining Economic Status of Less Educated Young Men," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2011; The Vanishing Teen Labor Market, Mott Foundation, 2010; The Perfect Storm, Educational Testing Service, 2008; An Assessment of the Labor Market, Income, Social, Health, Civic, Incarceration, and Fiscal Consequences of Dropping Out of High School: Findings for Michigan Adults in the 21st Century, January 2008; Mass Economy: the Labor Supply and Our Economic Future, MassINC, December 2006.