Welcome to Day Zero. Now let’s rebuild America’s civics infrastructure

You know, civics. The kind of stuff that used be taught in high school before the radical right began terrorizing teachers

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package on Dec. 8, 2021, at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in Kansas City, Missouri. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

By Max McCoy

President Joe Biden came to Kansas City on Dec. 8 to tout his $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. In a chilly bus barn on the Missouri side of the line, the president delivered a folksy, sometimes rambling speech about the bill, which he signed into law last month. It means billions of dollars in Kansas and Missouri to improve supporting structures from bridges to broadband.

Biden visited the Kansas City Transportation Authority, headquartered in KCMO but serving both states. It operates KC metro rapid transit buses as well as 78 local routes in seven surrounding counties. The president did all the things that were expected in the speech, from a gentle remembrance of Kansas GOP icon Bob Dole, who died last week at age 98, to thanking those who helped him pass the infrastructure bill, including U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, vice chairwoman of the House transportation committee and the lone Democratic member of the Kansas Congressional delegation.

He also praised unions, repeated his promise that nobody who made less than $400,000 a year would pay “one single cent” for the legislation, and predicted that history would rank the law with the transcontinental railroad and the Eisenhower highway system.

If you missed his 35-minute speech, you can see the entirety here.

This was the first time Biden had been to Missouri since 2014, when as vice president he helped open the new Joplin High School, rebuilt following the city’s devastating tornado of three years earlier.

The deeply red and decidedly unswinging states of Missouri and Kansas don’t merit much presidential attention unless there’s a catastrophe (Former President Barack Obama came to Joplin after the 2011 tornado, which killed 164 people), there’s some local candidate they think needs help (Donald Trump came in 2018 to Topeka to rally for then-gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach) or they want to make a point. Obama came in 2011 to Osawatomie, Kansas, because that’s where, a hundred years earlier, Teddy Roosevelt had delivered his call for a “new nationalism.”

Biden came to Kansas City to make a point.

President Joe Biden says during his Dec. 8, 2021, visit to Kansas City, Missouri, that one of the reasons he ran for president was “to rebuild the backbone of this country, working class and hardworking middle class people.” (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

He wanted blue collar workers and struggling families to know how the infrastructure bill would benefit them. The biggest infrastructure spending bill in 70 years, Biden said, would restore America’s place as a world leader in those things that support the economy — those big things business can’t do for itself, such as build roads and bridges — and in doing so, it would provide millions of jobs.

None of this was new, except the setting. Biden has said this all before, or versions of it, and the message was squelched by competing news of the day, including tensions with Russia over a buildup on the Ukraine border and the Ghislaine Maxwell trial. There was solid local reporting driven by the novelty of a presidential visit, but it was difficult even for veteran journalists to make the speech compelling.

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It’s not a messaging problem, as has been generally assumed. If you take the time to watch Biden’s speech, the message is clear. Even though we’ve let our roads and bridges and other pieces of infrastructure go to hell, it’s time to rebuild, and this will create millions of jobs without burdening working families. It’s an investment in the future. It even has a nifty website.

Biden’s poll numbers have been slipping since mid-August, and now most Americans disapprove of the job he’s doing. This is alarming, because Biden is a doing a competent job, informed by professional ethics, a lifetime of service and a real vision for America. Compared with the last occupant of the Oval Office, Biden is the designated driver. Tired of having our lives endangered by the recklessness of others, we handed him the keys.

So, what’s gone wrong?

Even when you have real accomplishments like the infrastructure law, it's difficult to compete with lies and spectacle. Presidents are often blamed for cultural uncertainty, and Biden's popularity is suffering from a lingering pandemic, supply chain jitters and stomach-churning inflation.

Even when you have real accomplishments like the infrastructure law, it’s difficult to compete with lies and spectacle. Presidents are often blamed for cultural uncertainty, and Biden’s popularity is suffering from a lingering pandemic, supply chain jitters and stomach-churning inflation. Beyond that, even those whose sympathies lie with Biden policies are dismayed by his inability to counter the propaganda spewing from an increasingly radicalized opposition party. As months pass, there’s spreading alarm that Biden’s actions in defense of democracy and voting rights fall short of his rhetoric.

Ten thousand miles of roads in Kansas and Missouri will do us little good if democracy falls apart. In addition to billions of dollars for roads and bridges, we need a political investment in maintaining the civic machinery that makes safe and secure elections possible.

We need a civics infrastructure act.

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On the same day Biden gave his speech in Kansas City, his administration’s long-planned Summit for Democracy kicked off with “Day Zero” events. The virtual event gathered more than 100 world leaders in a rally against rising authoritarianism. But the optics, considering our backsliding democracy here at home, are not good.

Dorothea Lange took the memorable 1936 “Migrant Mother” photograph as part of the New Deal’s cultural supports. (Library of Congress)

Before holding a global democracy summit, perhaps the Biden administration should have hosted democracy summits across the United States. Our current political purgatory is caused by a lack of public understanding of how a democracy functions, especially in regard to whether an insurrection is Constitutional.

Those global sessions on a free and independent press, safe and fair elections, and the role of private enterprise, should be held in person at public libraries, community centers, and town halls in this country. Election integrity, fair redistricting, voting rights, evaluating sources of information, and the peaceful transition of power should all be taught. Participation should be strictly voluntary. And the sessions must be grounded in fact but scrupulously free of partisanship.

You know, civics. The kind of stuff that used be taught in high school when teachers weren’t afraid to do their jobs. The radical right has so succeeded in terrorizing others that librarians, high school teachers and college professors are self-censoring out of self-preservation. When facts have been framed as the enemy, then truth becomes the object of suppression.

Biden’s poll numbers don’t really show his job approval rating. They’re about trust in government, across the political spectrum. About 30% of Americans believe the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. An increasing number are rejecting elections and embracing authoritarian doctrines. You can’t have a democracy if a substantial faction of Americans no longer trust elections.

The threat of this fractured trust is as grave as anything we’ve faced since the end of World War II. It’s an existential threat, the kind that topples democracies from within. This threat is exacerbated by a Supreme Court that appears ready to reset the clock to before the Civil War and just let the states hash out divisions for themselves. The result would be a house not just divided — but fractured, dismantled, tornadoed.

It is time for Biden to fight harder for voting rights and implement a Works Progress Administration-like campaign to save democracy. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA put millions of Americans to work constructing public buildings, parks, and roads. In addition to this massive physical infrastructure project, the New Deal agency also launched projects that employed writers and artists to document the Great Depression, creating a sort of cultural infrastructure project that we still benefit from today. Who among us hasn’t been moved by Dorothea Lange’s 1936 “Migrant Mother” photograph? Lange made the photograph while working for the Resettlement Administration, another New Deal agency.

The WPA was created by presidential order.

It faced harsh criticism, including accusations that it was full of leftists or a political machine on behalf of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Any effort to bolster civics infrastructure now will be met with similar criticism. It will also be the target of shouting, misinformation, and threats (or actual acts) of violence.

But the time to complement the strengthening of our physical infrastructure with civics infrastructure is now. During the Great Depression, the fight was against poverty. Now, the fight is against a poverty of civic responsibility. We have lost a shared narrative of constructive engagement in cultural and political life. The way to find it is to keep reminding ourselves that as a nation, first and foremost, we aspire to democracy.

And we are a work that is still and forever in progress.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He wrote this piece for the Kansas Reflector, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.