Presentation to the ISU Chapter of Mortar Board on “Citizenship” (February 15, 2001) -- (I thank Mortar Board for an honorarium for this speech).


As a historian, I’m especially honored to be speaking tonight because I believe that today is the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Mortar Board on Feb. 15, 1918.  I’ll have more to say about that founding in a while.

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My thanks to the Mortar Board members and their faculty advisors for the opportunity to speak to this group tonight.  When Merilee and I discussed what I might have to say that would be worth hearing, she said that it should be “fun.”  I assured her that I would have fun.  Whether you have fun is, I’m afraid, a different question.  I guess we’ll see.

I’m asking you to be involved with me tonight in thinking about the topic of “citizenship.”  You would help me, and at the same time get involved in the evenings activities, by taking a few minutes to write down on the slip of paper that I distributed when you entered this evening what you think “citizenship” means. 

Thank you.

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We all had several lessons in “citizenship” back in November, and December [2000], as we tried to figure out what happened on election day.  A little over half of the eligible voters in the nation participated in the presidential election; in Idaho, the figure was a tad less than 71 percent.  We might take pride in this number compared to the national average except for the fact that 71 percent marked a drop-off from the 73 percent turnout in 1996 and the 80 percent, in 1992.  Should we be concerned about this decline?  Does being a good citizen include voting? 

Maybe Southerners who lived during the era of segregation were right, after all.  We live in a “pay as you go” society today, and its expensive to run elections.  Maybe people should have to pay a poll tax in order to vote, and those people who don’t want to pay it shouldn’t have to?

Should we go back to literacy tests for voting, too?  If a person can’t read (or doesn’t read carefully, in the case of some of Florida’s ballots), should they be allowed to vote? 

The folded Florida ballot raises other interesting, and potentially important, questions.  Should people have to prove that they’re mentally competent in order to vote?  After all, we require people to take a test in order to drive; do we really want all people to be able to decide who our elected officials will be?  But where do we draw the line?

What if people can’t get to the voting places?  Should the state be required to provide transportation for them?  In Oregon, people vote by mail instead of going to the polls.  Some people envision the day when voting will go on-line, and it will theoretically be even easier for people to vote.  Is there value in having people be physically present in a voting booth in order to mark a ballot?  Does being a citizen mean that you should have to do something other than click a mouse?

When not even election analyst Tim Russert’s white board could explain to viewers what might happen with the electoral college, we got another lesson in citizenship on November 7, and in the days following.  The framers of our Constitution, fearing that the President of the United States might become the pawn of the group that elected him (someday, we’ll be able to say “him or her”, right?), devised a system that today we call the Electoral College.  But the system defies understanding, as Tim Russert unwittingly demonstrated so convincingly on election night. 

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the states with the largest populations should control the electoral votes as they now do, let’s focus on the inherent inefficiency of the Electoral College.  The framers of the Constitution deliberately divided the responsibility for selecting the president among the states, the people, and the national government.  The states start the process because the states determine how the electors will be chosen.  Originally, state legislatures chose the state’s electors.  Today, the state legislatures allow popular choice, but the method of selection still resides in the hands of the state legislature.  In Nebraska, for example, electors are chosen in the state’s congressional districts; in Idaho, the electors are chosen from the entire state.  Putting the choice of electors in the congressional districts locates the decision closer to the people; but is this a wise move?

During my almost 30 years of living in Idaho, I’ve run across any number of people who want to argue with me that the United States was set up as a republic, not a democracy.  It is true that the framers of the Constitution distrusted “the people” and created a system whereby “the people” would choose the president indirectly rather than directly.  But, today, most states try to bind the state’s electors to vote for the person for whom they’ve announced they would vote rather than exercise some discretionary authority, independent of the people’s will.  Further, most states, like Idaho, allow political parties to organize the electors and then bind them to vote for the person to whom they’re pledged.  If we had a true republic, wouldn’t we want to elect the best person for this important job, irrespective of that person’s political party?  Maybe Idaho should become more “republican” and go back to the original system? 

And if we should have a republic, rather than a democracy, why were people so upset not knowing who would be president the day after the election?  Why not have allowed the House of Representatives -- with each state casting one vote -- to be the final arbiter of the election as it specifies in the Constitution?  Why not have encouraged Florida to certify two sets of electors and then let the states fight it out in the House?  If we’re a nation of laws rather than individuals, why should we fear going into January not knowing who would be the president?  In 1800, it took 36 ballots for the House of Representatives to elect Thomas Jefferson as the nation’s third president.  Was he more entitled to be president than George W. Bush because he played out the full scope of the republican electoral process?

I’m not through with this point about inefficiency and the lesson in citizenship provided by the past election.  Many of the founders of this country took a negative view of human nature and believed that, at best, human beings were capable only of balancing interest against interest.  As James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.... [W]hat is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Due to the fact that the founders held these views, they created a system that shares government’s powers between state and national authority in more areas than just the Electoral College.  They set up a complicated division of powers in the national government among the executive, legislative and judicial branches so that the branches would check and balance one other.  They also wrote a Bill of Rights that corralled the powers of government in any number of areas.  In other words, I repeat, they wanted to make government inefficient.

Evidently, the views of the founders of the republic are today passé.  Debate, dialogue and discussion waste our time.  We cant be bothered with the inefficiency of disagreements or controversies.  Our current Idaho legislature is considering an omnibus tax cut and spending bill because many of its members are afraid that debate on the bill’s specifics would create an impasse.  The super majority sets the legislative agenda in caucus so that theyll be able to get bills out of committee speedily and onto the House and Senate floor for a vote.  Heaven forbid that they’d have to defend their positions.  After all, in a republic don’t the people elect representatives to the legislature and then trust their judgment to do what’s right?

It would appear that this is the case.  Tuesday’s (2/12/2001) Idaho State Journal reported that this year “two fewer bills were introduced and 87 fewer were drafted through the first five weeks of the [legislative] session than during the same period in 2000” when the legislature was in recess the entire first week due to the death of the Senate President Pro Tem.  The current Senate Pro Tem reported, “I’ve not had a lot of legislation proposed to me from my constituents.  In fact, my constituents generally say, ‘We expect you to do your job by stopping legislation from passing.’ They feel like they’re controlled enough.  They feel like their lives are impacted by government to a higher degree than what they want to see.”  The Speaker of the House agreed.  “I just dont think there are a lot of problems out there.  A lot of people didnt come here with agendas or to be pro-active.  The status quo seems to be enough.”

Let’s follow this through.  Since debate on the tax bill isn’t necessary and since most of the bills that the legislature passes in its closing days are never debated because there isn’t enough time, why should legislators go to Boise at all?  Leadership and the governor’s office could prepare an agenda, and the whole legislative session could be conducted on-line.  Texans pride themselves on the fact that the legislature only meets every other year; we could top them by saying that in Idaho, the legislature never meets at all!

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Another thing I’ve noticed about living in Idaho that’s directly related to “citizenship” is that there’s a deep respect for the Constitution but there’s also a willingness to set it aside quickly when it doesnt conform to what people believe to be true or in their best interests.  Then, the Constitution becomes just another law.  It’s not at all uncommon today to hear somebody say that they won’t play by the rules because the rules are fixed.  Or they’ll tell you that the Constitution benefits only minorities, not everyone.  Or they observe that the courts defend only the rights of the perpetrators of crime, not the victims.  Or they’ll state that the Constitution means only what those who fix the system to benefit themselves (usually the wealthy) say it means.  And on, and on.

The problem with such thinking is that the Constitution, for better and for worse, is “the supreme law of the land” and, therefore, more important than just any old law, good or bad.  I always think of Abraham Lincoln in this context.  During the Civil War, he saw that the nation’s words and its actions would have to be reconciled; that we could not proclaim that “all men are created equal” and hold these same men, their wives, and their children in perpetual slavery.  Either the nation would have to change the ideal or the nation would have to change the “supreme law of the land” -- the Constitution -- to conform to the ideal.  In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court said the same thing in Brown v. Board of Education; segregated schools are inherently unequal.  In 1972, the U.S. Congress acted similarly when it added Title IX to the Higher Education Act -- discrimination based on gender is a violation of the Constitution.

Nothing is more interesting or controversial today than Title IX and the extent to which it changes the operation of the Constitution.  Indeed, as I studied about the history of Mortar Board in preparation for tonight’s presentation, I learned that this organization has had to confront the meaning of Title IX in interesting and important ways.  Mortar Board was originally founded in 1918 as an organization exclusively for female students.  But in 1975, because Title IX prohibits sex discrimination within organizations on campuses that are recipients of federal funds, Mortar Board’s Constitution changed.  In 1976, the organization opened its membership to male students and changed the purpose of the organization “to promote equal opportunities among all people” while also “emphasiz[ing] the advancement of the status of women.”  When you wear the mortarboard, you assume these commitments.

So, it’s a mistaken notion to believe that Title IX gives preference to women over men.  In fact, the Constitution cuts the pie into many irregularly shaped pieces, and because it’s hard to predict sometimes how the Constitution will be applied, people get mad.  But why don’t they change it?  If society really wanted to go back to the original document -- the one that legalized slavery and gender bias -- it would be possible to do so.

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Another part of the Mortar Board constitution caught my eye also: “to establish the opportunity for a meaningful exchange of ideas as individuals and as a group.”  You are perhaps aware, by now, that I’m not going to define “citizenship” for you.  What I am going to do at this point is to ask you to engage in “a meaningful exchange of ideas” about what citizenship means, based upon what you have written on your slips of paper.  I’ll write down what I hear and project it [on this overhead projector] so we can all see and discuss what you wrote.

Who’ll start us off?

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Thank you for that discussion.  In closing, I would like to say that there are other good ways that Mortar Board interfaces with “citizenship.”  Your commitment to scholarship (beginning with children, by promoting reading) witnesses to your belief that self-improvement is essential to membership in your organization.  But reading isn’t enough; in the words of your current nationwide project, “Reading is Leading.”  So, once you know something, you’re bound to share it with others.  And in sharing, you serve the needs of your community.  Scholarship, leadership and service -- these ideals will make you a good member of Mortar Board, and it’s by belief that they will also make you a good citizen.