Most Americans Know Next to Nothing About the Constitution

For a document that is practically deified as the greatest legal instrument in the world, the U.S. Constitution is woefully misunderstood, or not understood at all. Those are the depressing results of a 2017 poll from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. (Though the data are one year old, I doubt the results have changed, except maybe for the worse.)

More than one in three people (37%) could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment. Only one in four (26%) can name all three branches of the government (down from 38% in 2011), and one in three (33%) cannot name any branch of government. A majority (53%) believe that undocumented immigrants have no rights under the Constitution, despite the Supreme Court ruling repeatedly that everyone in the U.S. is entitled to due process and the right to make their case before the courts.

As Chris Cillizza over at CNN points out, these dismal results aren’t limited to just one poll:

Take this Pew Research Center poll from 2010 When asked to name the chief justice of the Supreme Court, less than three in 10 (28%) correctly answered John Roberts. That compares unfavorably to the 43% who rightly named William Rehnquist as the chief justice in a Pew poll back in 1986.

What did the 72% of people who didn’t name Roberts as the chief justice in 2010 say instead, you ask? A majority (53%) said they didn’t know. Eight percent guessed Thurgood Marshall, who was never a chief justice of the Court and, perhaps more importantly, had been dead for 17 years when the poll was taken. Another 4% named Harry Reid, who is not now nor ever was a Supreme Court Justice.What we don’t know about the government — executive, legislative and judicial branches — is appalling.

It’s funny — until you realize that lots and lots of people whose lives are directly affected by what the federal government does and doesn’t do have absolutely no idea about even the most basic principles of how this all works. The level of civil ignorance in the country allows our politicians — and Donald Trump is the shining example of this — to make lowest common denominator appeals about what they will do (or won’t do) in office. It also leads to huge amounts of discontent from the public when they realize that no politician can make good on the various and sundry promises they make on the campaign trail.

While I think more and better civics curricula is a solution, I also suspect that the visceral hatred of all things government dissuades people from caring about these things in the first place. At the same time, I can also see how (often understandable) cynicism towards our political system might breed apathy, too. Why bother to know about a system that you are convinced does nothing good for you or society?

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