Tag Archives: civic ignorance

What We Don’t Know…

When I give presentations like the one I recently posted, addressing deficits in civic literacy and the extent of American ignorance of our constitutional system, I often include a statistic from a 2011 survey: only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government. Audiences tend to gasp. Only 36%! How awful!

Well, the Annenberg Public Policy Center has just released the results of a similar survey taken just this year, and not only has there been no improvement, the results are actually worse.

The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey finds that:

  • More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;
  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;
  • Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.

When asked about rights protected by the First Amendment, most of those who could name at least one right connected the Amendment to Freedom of Speech. But naming a right obviously isn’t the same thing as understanding it: 39% of those respondents said they support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on “any issue of national security” without government approval.

I’m sure Donald Trump believes that any reporting critical of him is an “issue of national security.” Definitions can be so pesky….

I know I sound like a broken record, but civic ignorance matters. It’s one thing to have different policy preferences and to engage in debates about the relative merits of those preferences; such debates can be illuminating and productive. Most of us have been in situations where we are “schooled” by a person arguing for a different approach to an issue; sometimes, we’re introduced to information we didn’t have, other times to arguments we haven’t considered. Even if we don’t change our own preferences, we appreciate where others are coming from.

However, when one party to a political argument is clearly ignorant of the most basic premises of American government, we don’t consider that person’s point of view legitimate. Those who know better will discount the person, and any organization he or she might represent, in the future.

The problem is, too few of us know better; as a result, we can often be persuaded by arguments that a civically-literate person would recognize as specious.

When Americans don’t know squat about their government, democracy doesn’t work. Voters don’t have the tools to evaluate candidates’ platforms or assess their fitness for office. They can’t hold public officials accountable, because they don’t know what those officials are supposed to be accountable to. 

Activists, candidates and office holders who don’t know what they’re talking about ought to be marginalized for that reason– but as we have seen, when Americans dismiss knowledge and expertise as “elitist,” even profound and obvious ignorance is no longer an electoral handicap. Today, too many Americans don’t vote for the person they consider most knowledgable and thoughtful; they vote for the demagogue who is most closely channeling their bigotries.

We are about to discover that the old adage was wrong: what you don’t know can hurt you.


Worse Than I’ve Been Telling You

There’s a jaw-dropping video making the rounds of Facebook, Twitter, et al. It shows several Texas Tech students being stopped on campus and asked questions that any American should be able to answer. In our sleep.

Who won the civil war? Who is the Vice-President of the United States? From whom did the U.S. win independence?

I know I get tiresome on the subject of civic ignorance, but these students–college students at a reputable university–are so embarrassing it is hard to believe this wasn’t staged (and even harder to understand how they gained admittance. Evidently, Texas Tech is not what you’d call selective.)

Not only were the students unable to answer the simplest questions about American history (one of them, upon being asked who’d won the civil war asked “who fought in that war?” Another asked “was that in the 1960s?”), but–to add insult to injury–they could all give the names of both actresses Brad Pitt had married, and the name of the television program on which someone named “Snookie” had appeared.

This does answer a persistent question of mine: namely, what kind of people elect buffoons like Louis Gohmert?

And it certainly explains why Texas is my go-to source when I need examples of stupid public policy to use in my classrooms.

As uninformed as many of my undergraduate students are, I truly do not believe that a similar effort on the IUPUI campus would yield such a collection of pitifully ignorant and utterly shallow responses.

I hope to hell I’m right about that, because otherwise, America is over.



It Isn’t Just Me

I know I sound like a broken record on the subject of civic knowledge, but I’m not the only person despairing of the consequences of our civic deficit. A recent article in Salon by C.J. Werleman describes the civic landscape and its implications.

A few of the author’s more trenchant observations:

The health of a democracy is dependent on an educated citizenry.  Political illiteracy is the manure for the flourishing of political appeals based on sheer ignorance.

So let me introduce you to House Majority Speaker Eric Cantor’s Republican Party vanquisher David Brat (R-VI). First thing you need to know about this far right-wing political upstart is he’s a university professor, which means it’s highly probable he’s not an idiot. He also identifies with the Tea Party strain of conservatism, which, paradoxically, means it’s likely he is, indeed, an idiot. And by idiot, I mean wholly ignorant of U.S. history and constitutionality.

In fact, in his victory speech delivered last week to his supporters, Brat demonstrated that he sits among the majority of Americans when it comes to political and cultural illiteracy.

“I wish to restore America to its Judeo-Christian roots,” declared Brat. “God acted through people on my behalf.”

Ignoring the self-delusion of the latter part of the above text, Brat now joins no less than 200 million Americans, according to a number of polls, who believe the U.S. Constitution and our laws are based on Judeo-Christian values. On any given Sunday you will hear Christian-right politicians claim absurdly that U.S. laws are based on the Bible. Spoiler alert: they’re dead wrong. The Constitution’s secular provisions came into being thanks to the Founding Fathers, who shared a deep suspicion of both organized religion and the supernatural. The Constitution was framed with a conscious omission of any mention of God and a prohibition of all religious tests for public office. Moreover, the First Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” embodied the founders’ view that religion has no place in the political domain.

That not a single major media outlet bothered to correct Brat’s ignorance represents America’s continual decline in American civic and cultural literacy.

The rest of the article is equally scathing, and well worth reading, but I want to focus on that last quoted paragraph, because I think it points to one of the major reasons Americans are so uninformed, and so easily manipulated.

We have lost journalism.

What used to be called “the journalism of verification” has disappeared into a sea of Kardashian-watching, Faux News “reporting,” hate radio, consumerism and internet conspiracy theories. The few actual reporters who remain–and I mean few (a couple of years ago I used a textbook in my Media and Policy class titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights”)–simply do not know enough to ask what should be obvious follow-up questions, or to provide readers with background and context that would allow them to properly evaluate what political actors are saying or doing.

Werleman is dead-on when he concludes:

In other words, when Republicans say there is no such thing as gravity, and Democrats reply that gravity is real, CNN and the like say, “Look, Democrats and Republicans are fighting again,” which not only exacerbates the nation’s anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism, but also increases the likelihood of extremist views and falsehoods taking hold in the national electorate.

We’ve replaced fact-checkers with “he said/she said” stenographers, and in the process, we’ve created a political world in which there are no facts–only opinions.

It’s a recipe for disaster. Ignorance isn’t a survival strategy.


Now I Understand Why People Believe What They Hear on Fox News….

Ever wonder why people don’t recognize when “news” reports are blatantly, obviously incorrect, improbable or impossible? Or wonder why anyone in his right mind would vote for Michelle Bachmann or Louis Gohmert or Ted Cruz?

My working thesis is that folks who don’t know anything–who are hazy about history, have no clue about how government functions and have only the most tenuous connection to the Constitution–simply have no context within which to judge the reasonableness of assertions that more knowledgable people simply laugh at.

Recently, Bill Maher cited a study showing that fewer than 17% of incoming college freshmen knew what the Emancipation Proclamation was (he described the incoming class as “Basically, golden retrievers with smartphones”). Unfortunately, we have a lot of studies that conclude we don’t know anything.  And the hits keep coming.

As if we needed even more evidence of Americans’ abysmal lack of knowledge, here are the results of yet another survey I stumbled across:

1. Only 45% of Americans were able to correctly identify what the initials in GOP stood for: Grand Old Party. Other popular guesses were Government of the People and God’s Own Party. Republicans obviously scored much better than Democrats did on this answer.  [source]

2. 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution and that the founding fathers wanted One Nation Under Jesus. This includes 75% of Republicans and Evangelicals. [source]

3. Although a “relatively” high 40% of people were able to name all three of the United States branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — a far lower percentage knew the length of a Senator’s term. Just 25% responded that a Senator’s term stretches for six years. Even fewer, 20%, knew how many Senators there were.  [source]

4. Americans are known to pick recent heads of state as among the best president in history, which is why Clinton and Reagan regularly rank higher than Lincoln, FDR and Washington. However, Hoover used to routinely top polls of the worst, but today, just 43% of Americans know who he was, according to statistics from the University of Pennsylvania. [source]

5. When asked on what year 9/11 took place, 30% of Americans were unable to answer the question correctly, even as few as five years after the attack. This was according to a Washington Post poll conducted in 2006. . [source]

6. It’s not shocking that 80% of Americans believe that there is life out there somewhere, because it’s hard to look at a vast universe and think we’re completely alone. But 1 in 5 allege that an alien life form has abducted a friend or family member of theirs. Based on population estimates of around 300 million, that means that a terrifying number of people believe they have been probed. [source]

7. When looking at a map of the world, young Americans had a difficult time correctly identifying Iraq (1 in 7) and Afghanistan (17%). This isn’t that surprising, but only a slim majority (51%) knew where New York was. According to Forbes and National Geographic, an alarming 29% couldn’t point to the Pacific Ocean. [source]

8. 25% of Americans were unable to identify the country from which America gained its independence. Although 19% stated that they were unsure, Gallup findings indicated that others offered answers varying from France to China. Older folks scored much better than young people on this question, as a third of those 18-29 were unable to come up with the correct answer. [source]

9. Despite being a constant fixture in school curricula, 30% of Americans didn’t know what the Holocaust was.  [source]

10. Even though we are a predominantly Christian country, only half of Americans knew that Judaism came before Christianity, because the words “Old Testament” are apparently very confusing in that regard. [source]

11. A surprisingly high percentage of Americans, 20%, believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, instead of the opposite, aka the correct answer. This is despite the fact that centuries of science have consistently proved otherwise. [source]

12. In 2011, Newsweek found that 29% of Americans were unable to correctly identify the current Vice President, Joe Biden, when asked to take a simple citizenship test. Although a relatively low 6% didn’t know when Independence Day was, a much, much higher percentage (73%) had no idea why we fought the Cold War. [source]

13. According to most polls, Americans didn’t know that Obamacare was scheduled to go into effect. Kaiser puts the number at 64%, whereas others say as few as 1 in 8. [source]

14. 2006 AP polls showed that a majority of Americans were unable to name more than one of the protections guaranteed in the first Amendment of the Constitution — which include speech, assembly, religion, press and “redress of grievance.” Just 1 in 1000 could name all of these five freedoms. However, 22% were able to come up with the name of every member of the Simpson family. [sourceTC mark

And we wonder why we elect buffoons to high office.

Just kill me now.



A Simple Quiz

I happened to catch a recent interview between a Tea Party Congressman and a reporter. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get the names of either.)  The Congressman defended  the decision to shut down government if that’s what it took to stop the hated “Obamacare” by saying that government had “no business” being involved in healthcare. When the reporter asked the obvious follow-up question, “what does that mean for your position on Medicare?”– the Congressman looked at her blankly and responded “What’s your point?” He rather clearly had no idea that Medicare is a government program.

Americans are electing to office people who are totally ignorant of the world they inhabit and the Constitution they claim to revere. As “Red George O’Malley,” a frequent commenter here, aptly put it, they are prisoners of their own ignorance.

Recently, I was asked to develop a “quick and dirty” quiz that might test the actual civic knowledge of some of the folks who are so vocal about government and political life. My guess is that readers of this blog would do well on that quiz–and far too many of our elected officials and vocal opinionators wouldn’t. It’s ten questions: see what you think. (Answers are at the end.)

1.     The American Constitution was based largely upon principles of “natural rights” and John Locke’s “social contract” theory. Those ideas came primarily from (a) the bible; (b) English common law; (c) Enlightenment philosophy; (d) James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. 

2.     The first ten Amendments to the Constitution are referred to as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights (a) is the source of rights that government has granted to American citizens; (b) is a list of human or ‘natural’ rights that the government is prohibited from infringing; (c) was included in the Articles of Confederation; (d) all of the above; (e) none of the above.  

3.     Checks and balances were intended to limit concentrations of government power. They include (a) the three branches of government; (b) federalism; (c) judicial independence; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.  

4.     Freedom of Speech is (a) protected by the First Amendment; (b) protection against government censorship; (c) intended to protect unpopular views, even when majorities of citizens believe those views are dangerous; (d) all of the above; (e) none of the above.    

5.     The phrase “separation of church and state” refers to (a) the assault on Christianity by liberal judges; (b) the rule that Churches are tax exempt; (c) the operation of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment; (d) all of these (e) none of these.  

6.     The Fourth Amendment was an outgrowth of anger at searches by King George’s soldiers under what were called “General Warrants.” The Amendment (a) prohibits government from conducting searches without ‘probable cause’; (b) has been held to require individualized suspicion; (c) forbids government from conducting ‘fishing expeditions;’ (d) places the burden on government to justify a search; (e) all of these.  

7.     Equal Protection of the Laws requires government to (a) treat all citizens the same; (b) treat similarly-situated citizens equally; (c) protect citizens against discrimination by other citizens; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.  

8.     The Deficit is (a) the national debt; (b) the difference between what government takes in and what it spends on an annual basis; (c) calculated without taking entitlements into account; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.  

9.     The Debt Ceiling (a) is the amount of money the country is authorized to borrow; (b) allows the U.S. to borrow what is necessary to pay amounts Congress has previously spent or authorized spending; (c) has generally been raised by large, bipartisan Congressional majorities; (d) all of these; (e) none of these.

10.  A scientific theory is (a) scientists’ best guess about the way a natural phenomenon works; (b) a systematic methodology based on the accumulation of empirical evidence; (c) based on Darwinian ideology; (d) a rejection of religion.


Answers: 1(C); 2(B); 3(D); 4(D); 5(C); 6(E); 7(B); 8(B); 9(D); 10(B).