This summer, pollster and messaging expert Frank Luntz conducted a survey of 1,000 adults 18 and older to find out what Americans from all political stripes think could help heal this country. What he found can be boiled down to two words: “better civics.” CivXNow spoke with the public opinion expert about the survey and its findings (which you can see in the infographic here) to find out more about how and why civics can be the great unifier.
Q: Why did you conduct this survey?
Luntz: I had the opportunity to meet three Supreme Court Justices last summer. While I was both blessed and impressed, I realized that 99.9% of Americans will never meet or question a single Supreme Court Justice — and so many do not understand the role of the courts and the role and responsibility of citizens in their own democracy.
Teaching civics to young people and promoting civics to their parents and grandparents is absolutely essential in reuniting our country after decades of corrosive, brutal elections. I wanted to play a constructive role, bringing my messaging skills to this effort. I did this entirely as a volunteer as a way to thank my country for giving me a system of government that allows me the freedom to be irreverent, skeptical and directly challenge the status quo.
I travel extensively. In half the countries across the globe, I would have been locked up for what I say and what I do. I take that threat very seriously. I believe democracy is a blessing worthy of protection. My favorite quote about democracy is from Ronald Reagan. He said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.” Right now, thanks to the increasing examples of the ‘cancel culture,’ it feels like we are even less than one generation away.
So it is my responsibility to do everything I can to make this democracy as strong as it can be. Every generation has the responsibility of giving the next generation a democracy that is worthy of them. Right now, I feel we are failing the next generation.
Q: From the results of the survey, how would you describe the biggest differences between democrats and republicans in terms of priorities and messaging?
Luntz: I don’t want to answer that. I want to focus on the similarities. When we asked what specific action would have the most meaningful, measurable impact on democracy, Republicans and Democrats both agreed that it was civic education. It is the one unifying solution for a country that is so divided. Everyone — regardless of their party or ideology or age or income — every segment of the American people believes that civic education for students in K-12 would have the most positive and meaningful long-term impact on strengthening our American identity.
Of course there are partisan differences. Easier access to voting is a priority for Democrats. It’s not a priority among Republicans. More participation in religious activities is a priority among Republicans. It is unimportant to Democrats. A year of community service matters more to the GOP. Again, all the other so-called solutions to strengthening the American identity are partisan or seen through a partisan lens, but not civic education.
Q: It was interesting that more GOP respondents thought that a year of service would have the most meaningful impact. What do you make of that?
Luntz: Democrats are angry at the government right now, so they prioritize what can be done on election day. Republicans think that America is great again, so they want to give something back. But again, I don’t want to get into that because I don’t want to get into partisan politics. I myself am pretty mad at what’s going on in Washington and across the country with people not speaking to each other anymore because of their political differences.
To me, what is more interesting, and a bit ironic, is that Democrats prioritize teaching American government, even though they’re unhappy with it right now, while Republicans prioritize teaching American history. Democrats want to focus on the things they want to change, while Republicans want to focus on the things they want to protect. That’s a wonderful metaphor for the Great Divide — and civics are the great unifier.
Q: What do you make of that?
Luntz: We used to be able to set aside our differences — not just our political differences, but our value differences and our economic circumstances. We can’t anymore. That’s why there is so much concern about social media, particularly among Republicans. Nothing is more divisive right now than social media in general, and Twitter in particular.
Q: You say that your favorite question in the survey was the one about the media, and Americans’ lack of trust of the media. Tell us about the role the media plays in our democracy? How important is media literacy?
Luntz: We used to collect our news to inform us. Now we collect news to affirm us. We are looking for confirmation for our biases, which is why talk radio, all three cable news channels, and social media have become so partisan. It’s good for attracting narrow audiences, but I think it’s pretty bad for the health of our democracy.
The highest civic priority right now among adults is “to teach young people the skills to think critically, assess the quality of sources, and distinguish facts and information from misinformation and disinformation.” That is the exact wording of the response, and I struggled to craft it without a hint of bias. That’s the message of the survey. That’s the key takeaway. A healthy democracy requires a healthy dose of informed skepticism and an effective, functioning unbiased media.
Tragically, we are being fed a daily dose of toxic poison into our political system, and there are two antidotes. One is civic education — so that we can separate and distinguish fact from fiction. The other is the truth, which I am not convinced we are getting anymore. That’s why, about two years ago, I decided to devote the next few years of my life to search for the truth. What I’ve learned so far is that the more we know about civics, the easier it is to identify the truth.
Q: The survey shows that teachers are the most trusted voices in advocacy for civic education, even more so than Supreme Court Justices, much more than politicians — and far more than journalists, who ranked last. What is the role of teachers in civic education advocacy?
Luntz: Americans universally believe that every generation should be taught the principles and the process of governance. That is why teachers are so important. The students today are not learning it on their own, and they are not learning it in the home, so they need to learn it in the classroom.
My only request of teachers, whom I believe should be celebrated for what they do, is that they make every effort to provide students with the facts, the information and the research skills they need — and then step back and let the students make up their own minds independently. Too many teachers and professors don’t do that anymore.
Q: What should the members of CivXNow take from this survey?
Luntz: Not only are you on the right path, but you are essential to the future health of this country. Particularly in light of this election, you should redouble your efforts to bring about a greater commitment to civic education even sooner. We are running out of time. We are losing a generation. We need civic knowledge right now.