Can you name the three branches of government? What are the three rights guaranteed by the First Amendment? Can you name the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court? Sadly, almost two-thirds of our citizens cannot correctly answer these questions, according to a poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
33 percent could not name any branch of government; only 26 percent could name the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. 37 percent could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment, the most important of our constitutional protections, meaning that 63 percent could not list the rights of free speech, free exercise of religion or the guarantee to assemble peaceably. A Pew Research Poll similarly revealed that only 28 percent knew the name of Chief Justice John Roberts. 53 percent said they didn’t know; some guessed Thurgood Marshall (who had been dead 17 years when the poll was taken) and others, including Harry Reid, who never has been a Justice.
Our civic ignorance is increasing at an alarming rate. In 2011, the same polls identified 38 percent who could name all three branches of government. In 1986, 43 percent knew that William Rehnquist was our chief justice. Those percentages are nothing to brag about but are indicators of the growing decline of basic knowledge about government.
We haven’t seen similar polling here in North Carolina but our guess is that if respondents were asked questions about our state government results wouldn’t vary significantly.
What does this say about our nation and its people? Our lives are impacted by government but how can we function when most of our citizens don’t have any
knowledge of the basic principles of how government works? More frightening is how can we possibly make informed decisions when electing our leaders when we have so little understanding of their roles and responsibilities? Politicians can make any claims or promises they like and the electorate isn’t informed enough to discern whether or not those promises are even feasible. Further, how can we ever hold government officials accountable if we don’t even understand what they can and should do?
Jefferson is reputed to have said that the cornerstone of Democracy is an informed electorate. These poll results demonstrate we are increasingly ill informed. Interestingly, those founding fathers of our nation initially only wanted to allow property owners the right to vote because they believed them to be informed enough to make good decisions. For the first 125 years of this Republic U.S. Senators were selected by their respective state legislatures, again because it was believed these state assemblies were astute enough to make responsible choices. It wasn’t until 1913 that the 17th Amendment was ratified, allowing all qualified voters in a state to select their U.S. Senators.
Our nation and our state face many threats today, but none is more serious than our lack of understanding about the basic tenets of our government. We must do better in educating our populous. That education must begin teaching civics in our schools — not just for one year, but ongoing lessons over several years about how our government operates and our roles as citizens.
If our Republic is to continue in its present form our citizens must reverse this course of civic ignorance.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.