In 1789, Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Unfortunately, many Americans remain deeply uninformed about even the most basic facts of our Republic. Study after study, and survey after survey, finds that, despite Americans’ unprecedented access to information, we live in an age in which people are not particularly knowledgeable.
On March 1, 2006, BBC News ran the headline: “Simpsons ‘trump’ First Amendment.” The study about which the article was written, conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, found that only about 1 in 4 Americans could name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. But more than half of Americans could name at least two members of the fictional cartoon family The Simpsons (22% could name all five Simpson characters).
More recently, in 2011, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. citizenship test, a variation of the one administered to all immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship. Although a majority of the respondents passed (a 60% is required to pass), 38% failed. Sixty-three percent of Americans could not identify how many Justices are in the Supreme Court; 29% could not identify the Vice President.
The citizenship test is comprised of 100 questions covering five different categories: American government, systems of government, rights and responsibilities, American history and integrated civics. During their nationalization interview, immigrants are asked up to 10 questions from the list of 100 potential questions, and must answer correctly at least six (6) of the 10 questions to pass. Do you think you could pass? Let’s see how you would do in this sample test.
How did you do? Did you pass? Did you fail? Now that you’ve taken a mock citizenship test, browse the list of 100 potential questions that could be asked of immigrants during the nationalization interview. We require that potential immigrants be able to answer these questions (or most of them) correctly. There is no similar requirement for American citizens.
The fact that only a small number of people can answer basic civics questions is hard to fathom in a country which, for at least half a century, all children have been required by law to attend grade school or be home-schooled. But don’t get us wrong: civic ignorance is not a new phenomenon.
In the late 1940s, the University of Michigan began doing comprehensive surveys testing Americans’ civics knowledge, called the National Election Studies (NES). What these studies demonstrated was that Americans fall into three broad categories with regard to their political knowledge. A minuscule number of Americans know “a lot” about politics. Up to 50% to 60% know enough to answer very simple questions. But the rest know next to nothing.
There are many possible explanations for this. The U.S. political system is relatively complex, we have one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, the U.S. educational system is decentralized, and we rely on market-driven programming rather than public broadcasting.
But our nation can ill afford to remain ignorant. We can no longer mind our own business.
It is not particularly important for Americans to know that there are 435 Members of the House of Representatives or that it takes 290 Representatives and 67 Senators to override a presidential veto. But the more that you do know and the better informed that you are, the better equipped you will be to be an active participant in our democracy. Without discriminating citizens, our country suffers, no matter how good our leadership.
That last point cannot be emphasized enough.
At Of Politics and Men, we believe that the only hope for better policy is a more informed electorate. A better-informed citizenry would hold leaders accountable and produce better governance.
For these reasons, we created the Government 101 initiative. The information contained herein is meant to provide our readers with the resources they need to embrace the responsibility of citizenship. While the information contained within Government 101 is not meant to be exhaustive, it is our hope that this page can be used as a tool to better understand the structure of the U.S. government and its current makeup. This initiative is an ongoing project, and its pages will constantly be updated and improved.