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.