• Ben Henschel

The Modern Call for Civic Education: Keeping the Madisonian Republic

The plot to overthrow the 2020 election, along with the insurrection of January 6 as its climax, left mountains of unscrupulous implications for Americans to reckon with. As key tenets of the sacred electoral process were discarded — all in favor of inciting the passions of an inflamed base through lies — the fissures between the American left and right were highlighted with the ransacked offices and broken windows of the U.S. Capitol. The nation has endured many challenges, but such a violent and internal struggle in a nation that claims relative stability struck a deafening chord. Although it is far from the only cause, the rapid emergence of social media fueled the fire of the insurrection — providing a means for political leaders to incite the event, organizers to plan the event, and later, for citizens to spread disinformation regarding it.

According to legend, the nation was once warned by Benjamin Franklin that, upon completion of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they had received “a republic, if [they] could keep it.” In the age of social media and digitized democracy, the Constitution and ideals left by the founders may no longer be enough on their own.

New media-driven challenges for the Madisonian republic have risen and the nation can no longer rely on its expanse to deter factions. Millions can connect from thousands of miles away to share interests, which is certainly a benefit and channel to educate and enrich. But citizens can also organize insurrections or spread false information with acute and alarming precision. Today, social media may be just as ingrained in modern ideals of liberty as factions themselves are — both the same to modern liberty as “what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” With this in mind, America cannot rid itself entirely of social media to prevent future wounds.

Instead, it may serve well to enlarge both the spirit of the citizenry and its education of national virtues and processes. In the eyes of Montesquieu, to “preserve” a nation, or to keep it as America was challenged to, “[the people] must love it” and know how to operate within it. Thus, an expansion of civic education — drawn from the spirit of Madison and Hamilton’s writings as well as enlightenment political theory — may be a critical step in counteracting modern factional impulses and defending against new obstacles.

The definition of civic education used here is a process of thought expansion and learning that would ideally serve two purposes — the first of which focuses on efforts to bolster public understanding of one’s place in a community and nation. This would also include an understanding of the roles individuals are responsible for playing within their respective community. The second portion involves building a public reluctance to let inward-looking desires for wealth and delights crowd out a natural empathy and regard for civil obligations. An effort to do so could change the current American ideal of an immediate aversion to politics to a level that may still have distaste for it, but does not lack a spirit of civic engagement. As a whole, civic education acts as a moderator between one’s own essential reflection of political ideology and their relationship to their community, as well as the means by which public spiritedness can be fostered.

To best express why such efforts are so necessary now, an examination of how far social media has gone to reduce the effects of Madison’s faction-deterring republic is required. The advantages of the proposed republic described in Federalist 10 are emphasized by its size — even if factions “may kindle a flame within their particular states,” they “will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states.” Representation by means of an expanded republic is more effective than direct democracy, since democracy offers “nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual,” and allows stirred passions to quickly destabilize the constituency. The extended republic has the advantage of allowing representatives to speak for a larger group, offering balance along with the tempering effect of its large size.

But as social media has overtaken other modes of political discourse and information dissemination — reducing the republic to an online community without any physical distance barrier — that tempering effect has been hamstrung. It is in the nature of social media to cause its users to lose the common incentive to reason coolly with each other, considering the benefits of a heated spectacle on a public platform lacking an impulse for compromise. The various perspectives one is exposed to on social media are completely customizable, allowing users to block any information counter to their own political stances. This process, called “narrowcasting,” is counter to a previously dominant broadcast model that transmits a wider variety of angles and attitudes for readers to digest. Users are not only allowed, but incentivized to tailor their intake — leaving factions of interest, passion, and affection to box themselves in what are commonly known as “echo chambers.”

These echo chambers prevent the plurality of interests described by Madison by siphoning citizens into a handful of groups based on only a handful of litmus test political issues. As a result, the Madisonian pluralism with which factions were to exist has dissipated and made room for polarization of the right and left. A new tyranny of the majorities is formed on the fringes of the political spectrum, rendering the virtue of an expanded republic ineffective. Considering such dire consequences, efforts to increase civic education would aim to make up for part of what social media has taken, and to inform the public of their power to soberly weigh decisions and interests. In an environment where users can instead easily look through the lens of their echo chambers — calling on the finely written tweets with the highest number of likes rather than their own reflection — this education is an essential step.

The writers of The Federalist, expressed as Publius, could not have predicted this dramatic increase of both factional formation and online democracy, to be sure. Even so, much can be drawn from their writings to align goals for powerful civic education. One primary function of the people espoused by Publius is their key role in providing the foundation for an effective republic. In Federalist 16, Hamilton describes the people as “the natural guardians of the Constitution.” A strong national government is necessary to unite Americans, but its further success depends on the ability of the people to be active citizens. Hamilton also suggests that the people should be “enlightened enough to distinguish between a legal exercise and an illegal usurpation of authority” by those in charge.

Although the people are not expected to operate procedures such as impeachments or appointments themselves, they are still expected to command a considerable understanding of the surrounding government and translate it to their lives, forming opinions and motivations. To adequately prepare them for this, a level of education with how power structures work in America, along with a baseline understanding of the current threats facing the nation, would be prudent.

The respect that the founders offer to and expect of the people is continued in Federalist 55. Madison claims that the “genius” of the people would prevent them from electing “men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery” into the House of Representatives. Such a specific assumption of the people’s propensity for good judgement by Madison assumes a designation of good character on the people. This assumption weighs heavier in the modern context, considering not only that social media has dismantled counterbalances to factious conglomeration and disinformation, but also that the people — not state legislatures, as was proposed at the 1787 Convention — are now trusted with electing members to the Senate. Beyond the trust of the people to elect members to the House, Madison also espoused the importance of balanced public opinion in effective American government.

In Federalist 49, Madison assumes the Humean ideal that “all governments rest on opinion” to be true. The opinion of citizens rests heavily on the number of opinions they are surrounded with, especially when they are surrounded by the same opinions. This is to say that opinions of the people are rather malleable — and upon reflection of Madison’s previous writings, it can be drawn that the large scope of the republic was assumed to reduce any concentrated bubbles of opinion. The modern-day context of a “shrunken” republic leaves the nation vulnerable to these concentrations and the instability that can result from them. The “danger of disturbing the public tranquility by interesting too strongly the public passions” was a substantial threat for Madison, in the sense that enough resistance or frustration from the people will cause even the most well-constituted governments to grow futile. To draw from scholastic interpretation, Madison’s objectives in constructing his republicanism “was not merely to establish the conditions” that prevent factious growth, but also to “refine and enlarge the citizens’ views” to establish a “nonfactious” public opinion.

These goals form Madison’s outlook on civic education, along with the establishment of constitutional aspects such as “the establishment of a practicable extent of territory, representation,” federalism, and a separation of powers. Informal and societal establishments such as newspapers, journals, and the educational influence of educated elites were too included in his outlook. Madison’s trust in newspapers and elites as the pure-hearted educators and “expeditious messengers of intelligence” were overly optimistic, or at least understandably unaware of the innovations and emergence of social media to come. But the usefulness of Madison’s constitutional foundations — and more importantly, an understanding of these underpinnings — are as instrumental today as they were in the time of the founding.

The responsibility afforded to American citizens and public opinion by Madison and Hamilton, as well as the danger of improperly fostering it, assume an important underpinning virtue among the citizenry that is essential to foster in the social media age. As a key source of inspiration for the founders themselves, strategies on a proper education of virtue can be found within the works of Montesquieu to translate to the modern context — even as the perfect education of virtue that Montesquieu describes is impossible to fully capture, especially within the confines of such an increase in online dialogue and a resulting cultural education. Virtue is the foremost corresponding principle to republics in The Spirit of the Laws, and is defined as “the love of the laws and of [one’s] country.” To properly inculcate it among the people, the “whole power of education” is necessary, since virtue is “a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful.”

As such, the education of the citizens must extend to the household, the “masters,” and “the world.” Given that education within American family structures are outside the purview of legislation and government, they are difficult to implement beyond recommendation — but, as an essential step, civic education within the household must be more sweepingly encouraged in the present age. This kind of education is “the surest way of instilling it into children,” and the foundation which allows more formal modes of civic education to succeed. Given that a significant portion of American parents are unable to implement a deeply impactful education of virtue given socioeconomic and intra-family issues, formal modes of civic education accessible to all emerging generations are a fitter, less constrained focus. It is still quite clear to Montesquieu that education outside of the household can “efface” familial teachings of virtue.

An essential part of the teaching of virtue in republics is inspiring “the love of equality and of a frugal economy,” which comes to pass most fluently when “equality and frugality themselves” are “established by law.” This is to say that a substantial portion of the education of the two desired traits is the regimented display of it — “to love [equality and frugality], we must practice and enjoy [them].” This line of thought can be extended to virtue in a republic and Montesquieu’s initial claim that for a citizenry to cultivate a successful government, they must enjoy its systems and understand their roles within it. In a similar manner, modern civic education must demonstrate throughout the process the advantages of reasoning coolly with political issues and taking time to build opinions based on an understanding of one’s role.

America’s first educational efforts began with the initiative for democratic ideals to be taught to emerging generations within governmentally funded institutions. In the decades following the publication of the Declaration of Independence and the eventual ratification of the Constitution, the implementation of civic education was championed by American presidents and political figures. Madison himself, decades after The Federalist essays in his second annual message as U.S. president, stated that a main goal for state-sponsored education was “enlightening the opinions,” “expanding the patriotism,” and “assimilating the principles,” “sentiments,” and “manners” of American constitutional democracy to the people. This would in turn counteract “sources of jealousy and prejudice” and proliferate the “features of national character” and widen the “extent given to social harmony.”

The same is true for the modern age, but with wider scope and more serious depth. A thorough report from the Civic Mission of Schools described the main objectives of twenty-first century civic education to include making sure that learning parties “are informed and thoughtful,” that they “participate in their communities,” that they “act politically,” and that they have “moral and civic virtues.” These goals are still among the most central in the attempt to neutralize the adverse effects of social media, but miss aspects that are more germane to the emerging decade. This includes the portion of civic education that deals with developing the “natural empathy and regard for civil obligations” described in this paper’s definition, as well as proper “media literacy” among emerging generations.

Considering social media’s propensity to incite argumentative passions — in the absence of a common impulse to temper them when conversing in-person or verbally — the education of “equality” in one another’s political stances, similar to Montesquieu’s description, must be a central focus. Certainly, perspectives that threaten human and civil rights must be quickly addressed as harmful, such as claims that Black Americans and members of the LGBTQ+ community are outside the scope of those “created equal” and “endowed” with the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But this aspect of civic education should aim to reduce the growing ideal that differences in political stances involving issues such as taxes and the extent of government should warrant a shunning of the opposition. Media literacy is another aspect that should be among the objectives, and is a direct response to the threats that loom large over digitized democracy. It is defined here as the ability to understand the differences between media types, to understand what information and messages are conveyed, to understand the intentions and authors of the media, and to reflect on how these media impact users.

The latter portion of this definition, concerning reflection upon media usage, is the newest objective emergent in educational spaces. At its core, it is a “shift from me to us” in the sense that it is “a move from skills and vocational training towards insights and understanding with respect to the social, economic, political, cultural and ethical implications of digital media.” An increase in media literacy among emerging and existing generations would counter the tendency to build opinions based only on popular messages on social media for the sole reason that they are validated by so many “likes” or “reposts.” In this way, it is a check on “the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual,” with which Madison takes issue in Federalist 10.

The emergence of social media as a vehicle for political dialogue, news, and information is not entirely made up of the threats discussed here. The possibilities for it to expand access to knowledge more than it polarizes political parties, to spark meaningful dialogue more than it discourages difference, are still within reach of the American electorate. But to arrive at this point, modern civic education promoting the expansion of virtue, the understanding of one's roles in their community, and a high regard for civil obligations with respect to current obstacles is necessary. It's clear that a distaste for the aggressive byproducts of social media exists, along with a yearning for more allowing and inclusive dialogue. Updated civic education would serve as a dutiful first step toward this end, espousing contemporary lessons along with relevant older ones. Montesquieu was apt to cherish virtue as the principle of republics, just as Madison was in adopting this ideal to the proposed American republic.

Virtue is indeed as Usbek expressed in Montesquieu's Persian Letters — not "to cost us anything" and not to "be considered as a wearisome exercise," as "justice to others is charity for ourselves." It is clear now, with the threats America faces and the increasing levels of divisiveness within it, that civic education is a necessary justice for all.