About the Institute
BOSTON —The United States’ constitutional democracy is defined by its separation of powers and checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and also by more than 200 years of “traditions and norms” that have long guided the ways a president, legislators, and judges conduct themselves in office.
Helping adult U.S. voters better understand the roles played by both written and unwritten rules in sustaining American democracy is the focus of a new civics education initiative by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, called “Real Life Civics.” Real Life Civics is part of the non-partisan organization’s response to a nationwide call from across the political spectrum for improved and expanded civics resources following the polarizing, 2020 election year and the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol aiming to overturn Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote.
For years, the Kennedy Institute has offered an expansive roster of civics education classes, programs, and resources for K-12 and college students and professional development resources for history, social studies, and civics teachers.
“Real Life Civics is the Kennedy Institute’s effort to increase access to informative, engaging civics education for adult audiences through public libraries, community and senior centers, and other venues,’’ said Caroline Angel Burke, the Kennedy Institute’s Vice President of Education, Visitor Experience & Collections.
In a lively, interactive one-hour format presented online, Kennedy Institute staff explain how the U.S. government is structured under the Constitution, the division of powers among the branches, and the origins of and crucial role played by traditions and norms such as:
• Senate rules for filibusters and selection of majority and minority leaders and a president pro tempore who is third in line to succeed a deceased president; • respect for the independence of the Justice Department and judiciary; • acceptance of the Supreme Court’s power to determine the constitutionality of laws; • formal concession speeches by losing presidential candidates; • defeated presidents attending their successor’s inauguration; • presidential disclosure of personal tax returns; • presidents honoring, despite not being legally bound by it, the spirit of the Hatch Act restricting use of government properties for partisan or electioneering purposes; • the aversion of most presidents to “packing” the Supreme Court with additional justices; • and the now-universal norm that states grant their voters the right to choose a president and vice president through the Electoral College — a custom not enshrined in the Constitution.
“Norms and traditions are an important component of how legislators and presidents interpret their role in government and wield their powers,’’ Ms. Burke said. “We have seen these norms and traditions evolve with each successive Congress and presidential administration over the last century. Real Life Civics explores the implications of this evolution for all of us, in a non-partisan non-ideological way.”
Lydia Gravell, adult services staff librarian at the Lunenburg, Mass., Public Library, which hosted a Real Life Civics session earlier this year, said, “I was thrilled to host the Kennedy Institute’s program on ‘Traditions and Norms of the US Government.’ The staff brought an enthusiasm for the material that made their presentation as engaging as it was informative. I was impressed with their knowledge of the history of our government and the ready answers they had for our patrons. I think many libraries would benefit from offering this opportunity to their own communities and would highly recommend hosting them for a Real Life Civics program at your library!”
To submit a request for a Real Life Civics program for your library, community or senior center, or other organization, please visit https://www.emkinstitute.org/resources/visit-request-form.
About the Edward M. Kennedy Institute
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is dedicated to educating the public about the important role of the Senate in our government, encouraging participatory democracy, invigorating civil discourse, and inspiring the next generation of citizens and leaders to engage in the civic life of their communities. Learn more via www.emkinstitute.org.
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