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May 10, 2023

Reflections on Civics as a National Security Imperative

By: Suzanne E. Spaulding and Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker
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Suzanne E. Spaulding:

The Disinformation Threat to National Security

When I stepped down in January 2017 as the Department of Homeland Security’s Under Secretary responsible for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection, the United States had just finished the 2016 election. The intelligence community assessed that what we saw in 2016 was part of a much longer-term, broader, and ongoing campaign by Russia to undermine public trust in American democracy and its institutions: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the U.S. liberal democratic order.” Off. of Dir. of Nat’l Intel., Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution (Jan. 6, 2017).

Concerned that the continuing danger might be lost in the narrowly focused examinations of the 2016 election, I convened under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) a group of national security experts to assess the threats to American democracy and consider ways to counter them. These discussions led to the 2018 publication of a report, Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions. Suzanne Spaulding & Eric Goldstein, Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions, CSIS (Feb. 14, 2018). That was followed in 2019 by a report detailing ways Russian information operations targeted public trust in the U.S. justice system. Suzanne Spaulding et al., Beyond the Ballot: How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the U.S. Justice System, CSIS (May 1, 2019).

Both reports included recommendations for conducting further research, raising public awareness, and developing a whole-of-nation strategy to deter, detect, and mitigate the consequences of adversary efforts to undermine American democracy. But the most significant recommendation was to restore a sense of shared values and build public resilience against disinformation operations that come from foreign and domestic sources. The operations seek to convince Americans that there is more that divides us than unites us, democracy is irrevocably broken, and the individual is powerless to bring about effective change. Countering these meta narratives and building resilience requires reinvigorating civic education for students as well as the general public.

The threat to American democracy

Disinformation—the intentional spread of false and misleading information—presents a significant threat to national security. It exacerbates declining trust in democracy and institutions. It erodes a sense of national identity and common purpose. It fuels divisions and makes it more difficult to mobilize to meet society-wide challenges. It robs democracy of an informed and engaged citizenry and provokes outrage and even violence. Disinformation can come from foreign and domestic sources, with both seeking to provoke mistrust and outrage and often amplifying each other’s lies. They take advantage of existing vulnerabilities, including legitimate grievances, and they undermine trust in traditional sources of information, sowing confusion about facts and undermining the very idea of objective truth.

The link between disinformation and national security is evident in influence campaigns conducted by foreign adversaries. The media and the public’s focus on the risk of foreign interference in U.S. elections continues to obscure what Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray describes as a daily threat from adversaries against American democracy and its institutions. Pete Williams, FBI Chief Wray: Russia Works ‘365 Days a Year’ to Undermine American Democracy, NBC News, Apr. 26, 2019.

As part of Russia’s attacks on American democracy, the Kremlin has worked to undermine public trust in a key pillar of government: the justice system. As with elections, the public’s mistrust in the legitimate processes of the justice system undermines their willingness to accept the legitimacy of judicial outcomes. And evidence shows that, like elections, justice systems are consequential targets in adversaries’ attempts to undermine democracy. Using multi-pronged disinformation operations, Russia and its surrogates exacerbate existing divisions within the U.S. population and work to increase overall mistrust of and paranoia about “the system,” including all democratic institutions. Justice systems are portrayed as irreparably corrupt, inept, and hypocritical. Spaulding et al., Beyond the Ballot, supra. No institution – certainly not the U.S. justice system – is perfect, and Russia seizes upon legitimate problems and portrays them as not opportunities for reform, but reasons for giving up on the justice system and democracy altogether. Spaulding et al., Beyond the Ballot, supra.

Along similar lines, disinformation works to build a sense of identity around shared grievances, rather than shared values or aspirations, and thus fuel outrage and despair. Suzanne Spaulding et al., Why Putin Targets Minorities, CSIS, Dec. 21, 2018. Moreover, social media, with algorithms designed to reinforce users’ preferences and keep them engaged, draws each user into a vortex of bias confirmation fueled by and in turn fueling emotional responses. Domestic sources of disinformation also rail against “the system” as corrupt and broken. An individual actor’s goal may be to attract a larger audience, but the collective outcome is to exacerbate mistrust in democratic institutions and in the power of individuals to achieve change through legitimate and legal means.

As the midterm elections in November 2022 approached, only 47% of Americans expressed confidence that their votes would be counted correctly. Associated Press, Few Think Our Democracy is Working Well These Days, Oct. 19, 2022. Not surprisingly, there were post-Election Day claims from some losing candidates that a particular election was not legitimate. See, e.g., Jessica Boehm, Arizona Election Deniers Kari Lake and Mark Finchem Have Not Conceded, Axios, Nov. 16, 2022. Normally, such claims are resolved in court. But if a significant percentage of the public has been convinced that judges are political and judicial decisions illegitimate, the ability of courts to facilitate the peaceful transition or retention of power is undermined. The people who attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021 did so despite over 60 court cases that determined claims of election fraud were unsubstantiated. The insurrectionists rejected the legitimacy of those judicial decisions.

The 2024 presidential race is already underway and, with it, continued claims that the institutions of our government, including elections, are corrupt and broken. See, e.g., David Morgan, Republicans defend Trump by attacking criminal-justice system, Reuters, Apr. 1, 2023. The prospect for further political violence and chaos stoked by disinformation is a tempting target for our adversaries: we saw Russia, China, and other nations attempt to interfere in the 2022 midterm elections and continue to see attempts in general online discourse. Mandiant Intelligence, Pro-PRC DRAGONBRIDGE Influence Campaign Leverages New TTPs to Aggressively Target U.S. Interests, Including Midterm Elections, Mandiant, Oct. 26, 2022; Ben Nimmo & David Agranovich, Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior from China and Russia, Meta, Sept. 27, 2022.

Steps can and must be taken to reduce the sheer volume of disinformation reaching the U.S. public. But disinformation will never be totally eliminated. The public must become more resilient by becoming more able to recognize, reject, and counter disinformation. Seeds of malign information undermining trust in democracy find fertile ground in the absence of knowledge about how democracy is supposed to work and the role of the individual in moving us towards a more perfect union. Combating disinformation requires an urgent and sustained effort across communities as well as government, business, and educational institutions. This effort must restore shared aspirations, rekindle civic skills, and reinvigorate an understanding of how government works, how individuals can hold institutions accountable, and how citizens can bring about change. For decades, civic education has been neglected. Revitalizing it has become a national security imperative.

Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker:

The Decline of Civic Education

Not a typical law review article or policy essay, this brief, personal history of a national crisis is shared in the hope that others will use it to arrive at their own conclusions about a profound threat to our democracy: the decline of civic knowledge and engagement. What this decline means in a time of disinformation threats by foreign and domestic adversaries and how we address these threats are the focus of what follows.

Several questions are relevant to this discussion. How have so many well-intentioned U.S. leaders and policy makers missed the decades-long decline in civic education? Has this decline, long unchallenged, become “the new normal”? Why are efforts to address the lack of civic education rejected as radical proposals that must be defeated? Why is the decline in civic understanding so dangerous at this time in our nation’s history? Finally, what can be done to address the problem?

Historical perspective

The daughter of a dedicated social studies teacher, I take no pride in concluding that the nation’s decline of civic education was a national security threat well before the events of January 6, 2021 brought the threat to national attention. Why did I fail to recognize much earlier how weak our system of civic instruction had become? For years I failed to recognize growing indications that our nation’s civic education was being hollowed out, which happened gradually over 60 years. The decline has now impacted two generations’ understanding and support for the U.S. legal and constitutional traditions necessary to support our democracy. Without action, a third generation is at risk. Meanwhile, active political measures by hostile foreign governments are weaponizing social media to sow disinformation about American democracy. The decline of civic education and understanding enables disinformation to take root and has itself become a grave threat to our national security. Facilitated by outside actors, it has created an inside threat.

The lessons that I learned about the decline of civic education appear in the forthcoming report, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. See Kathleen Hall Jamieson et al., Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, Leonore Annenberg Inst. for Civics of Annenberg Public Policy Ctr (2011). The report’s statistics show that civic education in the United States has been shelved throughout the academic curriculum, from grade school to graduate school. Civics is not taught in K-12 classrooms or schools of education or law and barely exists in higher education research and teaching.

Today, many states require only one course in civics. In other states, civics is not a graduation requirement. In some, high school graduation requires only passing some of the 100 questions that all applicants for U.S. citizenship must study for the Naturalization Test. See Naturalization Test and Study Resources, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In still other states, there is no requirement for civic education at all. Moreover, because civic knowledge is almost never tested in U.S. public schools, undergraduate and graduate schools of education do not prepare teachers to teach the subject. Similarly, studies show that high school social studies teachers are among the least supported faculty. Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools (Jonathan Gould ed., 2011). Other teachers with no background or preparation in civic instruction are often drafted to teach the limited course offerings in civics. Id. Higher education, notably law schools, also pays little attention to civic education.

As the Annenberg report makes clear, the best source of evaluating students’ competence in any academic subject is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although administered less frequently than the tests for Math, English, and Science, the test for Civics, Government and American History, first administered in 1998, has consistently resulted in low scores. Nat’l Ctr. For Educ. Statistics, Civics, Nat’l Assessment of Educ. Progress. Only slightly more than 25% of students tested can demonstrate basic proficiency in civics. The difference in funding spent on teaching specific subjects provides a possible, partial explanation for the difference in proficiency. By some estimates, the U.S. government spends $66.48 per enrolled school child on science and math education, Andrea Peterson, STEM Education Budget: FY22 Outcomes and FY23 Request, Am. Inst. of Physics, June 10, 2022; Off. of Mgmt. & Budget, Fed. Program Inventory, STEM Education, but only 46¢ on civic education. Shawn Healy, Small Budgetary Step From Congress Is Huge Gain for Civics, RealClear, Dec. 23, 2022.

Even the American Bar Association (ABA), whose goals include to advance the rule of law by increasing public understanding of and respect for the rule of law, see ABA Mission and Goals, has only recently begun to consider the problem. The ABA’s first annual survey of citizens’ knowledge of basic civics concepts took place in 2018. The focus on the problem by the current ABA President, Deborah Enix-Ross, is certainly welcome. See ABA Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration Commission. But ABA presidents serve only one year, and the problem of inadequate civic instruction will need much more time to fix. Meanwhile, despite the continuing assaults on public order, disregard for facts, and disinformation threats from inside and outside the United States, the American media seldom mentions the fundamental problem of inadequate civic education, even though it poses a threat to our democracy.

Why have leaders been so slow to acknowledge the problem of hollowed-out civic education and to find solutions for it? After all, many American adults, myself included, have benefited from an education that included civics concepts and skills. But we have not looked beyond our own experiences, instead living in an echo chamber and failing to recognize that civic education has been on the decline for decades. Individual threats to our world view are ignored or rationalized until an event of cataclysmic impact, such as January 6th, occurs. But ignoring the decline in civic education is no longer possible. We can only hope that American civic education is not past the point of repair. We did not arrive at this abysmal state of affairs quickly, and the problem will not be solved easily. But we must begin to act, lest we produce third and fourth generations of Americans unprepared to sustain our democracy.

A failure to recognize threats

I acknowledge my own failure to recognize and act upon mounting evidence that something was wrong with the nation’s civic education. A law school dean for a decade, I was confident about the responsibility of law schools and their role as stewards of our legal system. As I explained to first-year law students, law schools have the duty to train lawyers to protect our civil society and ensure that law remains the “cultural glue” that holds together the nation’s diverse citizenry in a democracy based on the rule of law. I saw diversity as the source of U.S. creativity and world leadership, fundamental to our national well-being. Was my belief grounded in fact? Now I see that I failed to recognize repeated indications of the decline in civic education and the threats posed by those eager to take advantage of the situation.

In 2007, then-California Chief Justice Ronald M. George created the Commission for Impartial Courts. It was not the Commission’s 2009 report about a lack of civic knowledge, but Justice George’s explanation of the Commission’s name that first caught my attention. It was called a commission for “impartial” courts because surveys showed that the public did not understand the concept of an independent judiciary. Instead of “independent” being understood as separate, it was construed as “runaway.” Jud. Council of Cal. Admin. Off. of Cts., Commission for Impartial Courts: Final Report, Dec. 15, 2009. This was my first indication about the dismal state of public knowledge about our legal system. Other experiences followed.

In 2004, I was involved in building a law-themed high school as part of the new Sacramento High Charter School and learned that there was no curriculum for such a venture. Seeking support from the education policy staff of the James Irvine Foundation, I was surprised by a dismissive response: “I don’t think there is a gold standard curriculum for what you are trying to do. But if there were, we don’t have the teacher corps to deliver it.” When the school succeeded beyond anything I imagined, with both 100% graduation and 100% college-going rates for a racially diverse, low-income population, I did not recognize that this school was an exception, not the rule. Thus, I remained deluded, believing K-12 schools were protecting the rule-of-law culture needed to sustain civil society.

I also missed signs of external threats. In the late 1990s, I was involved in multilateral talks on nuclear security that introduced me to a Russian counterpart who commented, “We know what your weakness is. It’s your diversity.” Stunned, I dismissed the remark with unwarranted confidence: “No, you don’t understand. That’s our strength.” This conversation occurred soon after the end of the Cold War and with the advent of a “New World Order,” which I naively believed all nations would recognize and embrace. Russia’s disinformation campaign attacking the 2016 presidential election forced me to view the conversation in a very different light. My naivete about global support for democratic institutions has now been completely dispelled by Russia’s attacks on Ukraine.

The relationship of two problems

As noted above by Suzanne Spaulding, the significance to national security of the decline of civic education has been studied by CSIS. Beginning in October 2016, CSIS released four reports. The first (Heather Conley et al., The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe, CSIS, 2016) focused on Russian efforts to gain economic and political influence in Eastern Europe by working with local economic and political actors susceptible to control.

The second report (Heather Conley et al., The Kremlin Playbook 2: The Enablers, CSIS, 2019) further described an “enabling ecosystem” based on Russia’s manipulation of financial systems.

[T]he analysis of Russian malign tactics in Europe brings us back to the conclusion that Russia does not create our fault lines; it exploits the weaknesses that the West presents. It does so in order to pursue a central policy objective: to erode confidence in and discredit the Western democratic model. The Kremlin aims to manipulate and transform the policies of the West to better suit its national interests as well as to make democracy, market economies, and the dignity of the individual over the state as unattractive as possible to Russia’s neighbors and former Soviet nations. Id. at 10.

Russia’s malign influence campaign takes advantage of Western European nations that have been co-opted to enable Russia to use Western financial systems to control or undermine both Eastern and Western European nations, a danger that can extend to the United States.

[B]y failing to recognize the gravity and persistence of this threat, to close governance gaps, and to address economic and social disparities at home, the West creates a breeding ground for Russian disinformation and illicit funds to infiltrate public perceptions and its financial system. Id. at 40.

Russia’s efforts to undermine the 2016 and 2018 elections in the United States complemented its direct efforts to take advantage of weak governmental structures in Eastern Europe. Taking advantage of social media, the Kremlin spread disinformation, eroding trust in a basic democratic structure: elections. Yet, as the 2019 CSIS report Beyond the Ballot: How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the U.S. Justice System, Spaulding et al., supra, made clear, Russian efforts to disrupt and divide American social cohesion were opportunistic. The judicial system, too, has been a target of Russian disinformation efforts, designed to sow mistrust in the institutions most essential to any functioning democracy. The report details efforts to undercut Western European legal systems with disinformation attacks and shows how these attacks have expanded to the United States. The escalating disinformation attacks have been amplified by unwitting Americans who distributed mis- and disinformation designed to deepen societal divisions. Decades of declining civic education put the United States in a highly vulnerable position. The natural defenses of a strong civil society, supported by robust civic education, are now needed but missing. Further, the U.S. population has not been effectively educated in how to identify and combat disinformation, a problem exponentially complicated by recent developments in artificial intelligence. As former National Security Agency Deputy Director Rich Leggett put it in a conversation with me: “We know what Russia did to interfere with the U.S. election process. What we don’t know is how to defend our democracy against such attacks.”

Spaulding and Parker:

What Now?

Sustaining our republic begins with understanding our obligation to be informed citizens. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor saw this long ago. “Knowledge about the ideas embodied in the Constitution and the ways in which it shapes our lives is not passed down from generation to generation through the gene pool; it must be learned anew by each generation.” Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy, The Legacy of Sandra Day O’Connor. Solutions to the nation’s crisis in civic education must recognize that democratic values and systems, the principles essential to good citizenship, are not intuitive. They must be taught and learned over many years. This is particularly true for a diverse society like the United States’ that requires a shared set of values to unify the nation.

None of us can escape responsibility. We have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon others—our institutions, elected and public officials, and the media—to carry the burden of preserving our democracy. This is not how democracy works. We, the American people, are responsible for our government, not the other way around. While our institutions must work harder to live up to our aspirations, that will happen only if we are informed and engaged and hold them accountable.

Civics with purpose

To address the national decline in civic education, an all-out effort must be made to improve civic education at all levels, from kindergarten to 12th grade and in higher education, including schools of education and law. But more is needed. The current population of U.S. adults has been ill-served for decades by the lack of emphasis on civics. These Americans too need attention. Further, civic education must include not only the nuts and bolts of how our system works but also the basic values, norms, and traditions essential for civil society. It must include civic skills, including digital literacy and civil discourse, as well as civic knowledge.

Other countries around the world that view disinformation and the erosion of democratic values as existential threats have adopted programs that could serve as models. Following are a few examples:

Estonia: Since 2010, Estonian public schools teach media literacy to all grades beginning in kindergarten. 10th-grade students take a mandatory 35-hour “media and influence” course, focused not on politics, but on the skills needed to independently seek additional information to verify facts, enabling a culture of critical analysis. Amy Yee, The Country Inoculating Against Disinformation, BBC Future, Jan. 30, 2022.

Finland: Finland has undertaken a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach to media literacy since 2014. Media literacy has been incorporated into the public school curriculum, and many active civil society organizations promote media literacy to adults as well. Eliza Mackintosh, Finland is Winning the War on Fake News. What It’s Learned May Be Crucial to Western Democracy, CNN, 2019; UNESCO, Media Literacy in Finland – National Media Education Policy.

Iceland: Iceland’s “Better Reykjavik” platform allows citizens to send suggestions for policy changes in their communities. The platform has been noted for its unique approach to civic engagement. Participedia, Better Reykjavick: Iceland’s Online Participation Platform.

There is some good news. U.S. public and private-sector leaders, as well as individuals from the larger civil society, are developing community programs. The Annenberg Public Policy Center manages the Civics Renewal Network, a group of organizations committed to developing reputable, high-quality, accessible civic resources for all Americans. See Civics Renewal Network. Another leader in this space, iCivics has partnered with other civic groups and experts to develop the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap that outlines key themes and concepts that should be included in civic instruction. See Educating for American Democracy.

It is encouraging that civic education enjoys some bipartisan support. “Civic education has massive cross-partisan appeal as a solution to what ails our democracy.” CivXNow. Additionally, bipartisan commissions, like the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service and the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, have determined that civic education is essential for addressing the respective issues studied by each group. See National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service; Cyberspace Solarium Commission. The goal now should be to create and expand meaningful civics programs for students and adult learners across the country.

Civics at work

As noted earlier, not only students in kindergarten through 12th grade need civic education. Events such as January 6th highlight the urgency of reinvigorating civic skills and knowledge among American adults as well. But engaging adults is a bigger challenge. Although most civics materials focus on K-12 students, some adult-education materials are available. The challenge is getting them into the hands of adult learners and there are related issues of content and scalability.

Responding to these concerns, CSIS launched the “Civics at Work” initiative to reach adults in their workplaces. The ‘Civics at Work’ Initiative, CSIS. Surveys indicate that employers are one of the few remaining trusted sources of information. 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer: The Cycle of Distrust, Edelman, Jan. 24,2022. By signing on to “Civics at Work,” business leaders commit to doing three things:

  • Advocate for reinvigorating civic education
  • Engage their workforce to expand civics knowledge and exercise civic skills
  • Support civic activities in their communities

To provide further support to business leaders, CSIS and the Annenberg Public Policy Center released Civics for Adults: A Guide for Civics Content Providers, which helps civic leaders to develop more resources for adult audiences. Suzanne Spaulding et al., Civics for Adults: A Guide for Civics Content Providers, CSIS, Sept. 15, 2022. The civics community is moving to meet the challenge.

And so, while the hour is late, the future is not without hope. It will, however, require leadership at all levels and in all parts of our American society. The time to do the essential work of revitalizing U.S. civic education is now.

Suzanne Spaulding

Senior Adviser, Homeland Security & Director, Defending Democratic Institutions project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Suzanne Spaulding is senior adviser for homeland security and director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She also serves as a member of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission and the Homeland Security Experts Group. Her previous positions include undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security, general counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, minority staff director for the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and assistant general counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker

Non-Resident Senior Adviser, Defending Democratic Institutions Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker is a non-resident senior adviser with the Defending Democratic Institutions Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She formerly served as the general counsel for the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, executive director of the State Bar of California, dean of the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, and the general counsel for the University of Wisconsin System. Dean Parker is a founding member of the Intelligence Community Studies Board of the National Academies of Science; a member of the advisory board of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School; a lifetime counselor to the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security; and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  

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