Civic Knowledge, David Souter, ret. Supreme Court Justice

Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter has maintained a very low public profile since retiring from the bench nearly eight years ago, but Rachel Maddow highlighted a 2012 appearance Souter made in New Hampshire, and his remarks on “civic ignorance” are striking in their foresight.

“I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’

“That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.

“If we know who is responsible, I have enough faith in the American people to demand performance from those responsible. If we don’t know, we will stay away from the polls. We will not demand it. And the day will come when somebody will come forward and we and the government will in effect say, ‘Take the ball and run with it. Do what you have to do.’

“That is the way democracy dies. And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”

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