Civics 101

Know your civics (image from Peacock Panache)Although everything you learn in high school is valuable at some point in your life, civics is the most important class you will take. Knowing the law and how government work can be crucial in protecting your rights and will help you vote for candidates who can best serve your community and nation.

With a presidential election and a recent vacancy in the US Supreme Court, it becomes more important than ever to learn civics. Here are some basic things you should learn. (Although this article focuses on the United States, the basic concepts can be applied to most countries.)

Know how your government works.

What are the branches of the Federal government? Why are there two houses of Congress and what do each of them do? What is the difference between Federal, state, and local law? What does “separation of powers” mean?

You need to understand the basics of government to make sense of what happens in the news. Take the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Why does President Obama get to pick his replacement? Why are Senate Republicans so determined to block his appointment and how are they able to do that? It takes a knowledge of government and history to understand what is happening, why it is important, and how it affects you.

Understand what those labels really mean (and that they don’t really matter).

Words like “liberal,” “conservative,” “communist,” and “fascist” get tossed around so much that they seem to have lost all meaning. But these terms have specific definitions that are buried beneath the emotional responses.

Let’s start with “socialism,” a term that has been talked about a lot lately. There are different forms of socialism, and they are not all the same. There’s democratic socialism, like the type you see in Europe. There’s Marxism, which is what most Americans associate with socialism, but it only sees socialism as a stage of developing a communist state. And there is National Socialism (which is best known by its German name, Nazism) that had little to do with socialism (especially because it was backed by German industrial concerns) and has everything to do with racism and national expansion. (Besides, the Nazis brutally attacked democratic socialists and communists.)

What is more important than the labels are the specific positions of the parties and politicians. Do your homework and find out where they really stand on the issues. Don’t depend on labels, especially the ones that politicians and parties give themselves.

Beware of those who try to exploit your lack of knowledge of civics.

The fact that so many people are not literate in civics is a serious problem. Politicians seek to exploit people’s ignorance of the workings of government to their own benefit. They make promises that are constitutionally impossible to keep, propose policies that are just plain illegal, and resort to mudslinging when they can’t back their statements with facts. Learning what elected officials can and cannot do will enable you to do your own fact checking so you can vote for the most qualified candidates.

Find out how you can get involved.

Voting isn’t the only way you can participate in government. Volunteering in community organizations, organizing petition drives, campaigning for politicians and causes you support, and even running for office yourself. There are local offices and committees that need qualified candidates. Governments are only as good as the people in them. And if you’re not happy with the way things are being run, make your voice heard.

By learning civics, you learn how to be a good citizen. You can understand what is happening in the news, make better choices when voting, and find ways you can get involved in your community. Of all the classes you can take, civics is the most important. It will teach you how to protect your rights and improve the quality of life for your community and nation.