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Lloyd Omdahl: Trying to save democracy in a 'fake news' age

Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, a former social studies teacher, lost House Bill 1337. That's the bill that would have required high schools to teach "the Federalist Papers, the structure and relationship of the federal government and state and local governments, and the role of separation of powers and the powers reserved or granted to each level of government."

Eighty-five Federalist Papers were written by Founding Fathers James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to persuade New Yorkers to approve the new U.S. Constitution.

In defense of HB1337, Schatz argued that it was one thing to know facts about American history, but quite another thing to understand those facts.

In the hearing on the bill, other high school social-studies teachers noted the pitfalls in his bill.

Dave Michaelson from Dickinson, N.D., pointed out that the Federalist Papers were quite lengthy and constituted an entire new course. He was quite right.

When I was on the UND faculty, I created and taught a semester-long course on federalism, one-third of which consisted of the Federalist Papers.

Understanding the depth and breadth of the Federalist Papers would require knowledge of the Articles of Confederation and readings of the Anti-Federalist writings, Madison's notes and the Supreme Court cases interpreting their meaning down through history.

That said, Schatz has a good case when he argues that Americans need a greater understanding of the foundational documents. Democracy is in trouble and needs a citizenry of critical thinkers who can tell the difference between truth and "fake news."

The blogs, Twitters, Facebooks, YouTubes and renegade TV channels are full of misinformation, misrepresentation and deceit. Unfortunately, these have become the primary sources of information for a society too lazy to read.

Among the media, the printed word has become the only reliable source of information. Newspapers and print magazines are still accountable. The reporters are known, and stories can be challenged. The unfounded lies and rumors generated in the social media cannot.

The ideologues are now engaged in a concentrated effort to discredit the legitimate news media. Even U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., has joined the effort with a proposal to intimidate television networks until his version of Tea Party news becomes the norm.

Because of the growing dependence on faulty information sources, citizens must be equipped to distinguish truth from fiction. In order to do so, they must have a solid foundation of knowledge with which to think critically.

Let's talk specifics.

Currently, we see an irrational fear of Sharia Law coming to the United States. This fear stems from ignorance of the democratic processes. In order for this to happen, champions of Sharia Law would have to win a majority in both houses of Congress and the signature of the president. That isn't going to happen.

The same example of ignorance occurred when Barack Obama got elected. Fear mongers said Obama was going to take away their guns. Gun and ammunition sales skyrocketed. And what happened? Nothing, because confiscation of guns would have required an amendment to the Constitution, implementation in both houses of Congress and the president's signature. That didn't happen.

It seems that we have come to a point when all we have to fear is fear itself. To curb panic and heart attacks, citizens need to understand the democratic processes and how public policy is created. This understanding is necessary because ridiculous fears will continue to appear in the future and cause unnecessary panic in the streets.

Schatz may have lost HB1337, but he has raised an important concern.

Omdahl is a retired professor of political science at UND and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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