“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both” (James Madison)
No, this is not another post about sex (the title may be misleading). This is about the current state of affairs in America and an attempt to at least partially understand it.
In honor of Constitution Day* the Annenberg Policy Center released a poll last week on Americans’ understanding of the Constitution. The poll is predictably depressing. As it turns out, 37% of Americans could not name a single 1st Amendment right (speech, religion, press, assembly, petition), only 26% could name the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), and 33% could not name any of the three branches of government. Interestingly, self-described conservatives could identify the three branches better than liberals and moderates.
The survey also found that more than half of the respondents did not believe illegal immigrants have rights under the Constitution. As far back as 1886 the Supreme Court ruled that non-citizens are protected by the Constitution (the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause), and the Court has affirmed that decision in other cases since 1886. In 1982 the Court even guaranteed the right to public education to children of illegal aliens.
One encouraging response to the poll was that more than 3/4 of Americans understood that atheists and Muslims have the same Constitutional rights as Christians but, conversely, it is disheartening that about 1/4 of respondents did not know that. Or maybe they do not want to accept it.
- Three years after Obamacare was implemented 44% of Americans still did not know it had been passed in to law.
- Americans consistently overestimate the amount spent on foreign aid; although it is only about 1% of the federal budget Americans believe about 1/3 of the budget goes to foreign aid. Further, Americans have no idea how much of the federal budget goes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security (about 45%).
- Americans are confused about which governmental responsibilities are performed by which officials, some believe a 5/4 Supreme Court decision is sent to Congress, and a large number don’t know the role of the Senate in approving the president’s nominations.
- About half of Americans don’t know that every state gets two senators.
Last year Just Facts Daily commissioned a poll on Americans’ knowledge about major issues facing our country. The poll included 23 questions on education, healthcare, global warming, social security, and more. The majority of voters gave the correct answer to only 6 of the 23 questions. I’ll admit that some of the questions were difficult and required the respondent to be somewhat informed and capable of thinking critically, but the results are still a concern because it means voters last year chose candidates (for all political offices) based on false assumptions.
And before you jump to conclusions you should know that Republicans outscored Democrats on 19 of the 23 questions. In other words, Republicans answered Constitutional questions correctly more frequently than did Democrats. Democrats only scored higher on questions related to Social Security, climate change, and EPA impact on air quality. But again this is only a semantic difference since average respondents for voters from both parties only answered 6 of 23 correctly.
In an older poll (2010) only about 1/4 of the population could identify John Roberts as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and only about 1/3 knew that President Bush enacted bailouts of banks: most thought bailouts were introduced by Obama. According to a poll from last year only 16% could name both their state’s senators and about 35% could name one of the two.
I could continue, but I’m sure you get the idea. Americans are pretty uninformed about the government, the major issues facing society, and the Constitution. I doubt you are surprised.
The truth is that this is probably not something new. Polls since the 1930’s have consistently demonstrated that Americans have been, for at least 80 years, relatively uninformed compared to citizens of other nations. As explained by Ilya Somin*, the problem is more significant now because of scale. That mean that in the “old days” people might have not known a great deal about the government, constitution, or public policy, but the government was less involved in citizens’ lives back then so it was less important. Today there is honestly no aspect of our lives over which government has no control at all. I’ll entertain any disagreements in the comments section. Name something the government doesn’t control!
Of course Somin is a conservative (a very intelligent one) , so he argues for decentralization of government; give power back to local governments as much as possible, then give power to state governments, and leave larger issues (he mentions climate change specifically) to the national government. This idea is appealing, but after observing numerous corrupt, ineffective, and petty local governments for several decades I disagree that giving them more power is necessarily a good solution.
But I digress.
It seems strange that most Americans now have access to almost all human history and knowledge in their pockets or purses, and we are no better informed than we were when our phones were connected to the wall (yes, kids, I know that’s a strange idea).
The truth is that our lives are busy. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to pay close attention to those who are elected to represent us. As Somin argues, historically that was less important, but now it really matters. Because we are so uninformed we fall easy prey to trite campaign slogans and promises (the wall, free education for all, Make America Great Again, Stronger Together, etc.). We also fall easy prey to Facebook news (which, as it turns out, is easily manipulated by the Russians and others) and other less reliable “news” outlets. As a consequence a large portion of voters make voting booth decisions based on those trite promises and inaccurate news rather than determining whether the promises and news are meaningful or true. In that sense we probably get the government we deserve, and apparently we deserve pretty crappy government because that is what we have.
And before reaching the conclusion that Americans are just becoming dumber, you should know that Americans’ IQ scores have actually increased by about three points every decade during the last 100 years. So we are more intelligent but less informed. Maybe we should use our phones and computers for more than just watching puppy videos (although I do love puppy videos).
I honestly have no solution. I cannot wave a magic wand and expect voters to suddenly care. What I do know is that it appears the democratic experiment is failing. Quickly. And it is largely because Americans as a whole are uninformed but still feel some responsibility to vote.
*Constitution Day celebrates the signing of that document by our Founders on September 17, 1787. I generally only remember about eight dates (one reason I’m not a historian): July 4, September 17, and six birthdays, one of which is my own. September 17 is a big deal.
*Ilya Somin is a Law Professor at George Mason University and fellow at the conservative Cato Institute,