Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Liz Miller
Observer Staff Writer 

Embracing Ignorance: 75% of Americans Can't Name 3 Branches of Government

Many Americans Unable to Understand the Basics of Our Government, sending "shockwaves through a democratic society


September 19, 2016

A new survey on civic knowledge has found that only a quarter of adult Americans can name all three branches of our government.

Nearly a third of Americans can't name even one of the branches.

This abysmal result should send shockwaves through a democratic society.

Without a basic understanding of the ingenious political system put into play by our founding fathers, it is easy for political or media agitators to manipulate Americans into a slathering frenzy over issues that were done and settled 200+ years ago.

Quick, for ten imaginary points: Can you explain why Supreme Court Justices are NOT elected?

It is all in the Constitution, dear readers.

"Those unfamiliar with our three branches of government can't understand the importance of checks and balances and an independent judiciary," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). "Lack of basic civics knowledge is worrisome and an argument for an increased focus on civics education in the schools."

The survey, conducted by APPC, also revealed some other shameful points of ignorance prevalent in our seemingly uneducated society.

In a series of multiple-choice questions, Americans didn't know which branch of government has the power to declare war, though most understood that Congress has the power to tax, and Congress cannot establish an official religion:

• Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) incorrectly said that the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war. Over half (54 percent) knew that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.

• A vast majority (83 percent) correctly said that the Constitution gives Congress the power to raise taxes.

• A majority (77 percent) know that the Constitution says that Congress cannot establish an official religion.

Sadly, though, almost 1 in 10 agreed with the statement that the Constitution says "Congress can outlaw atheism because the United States is one country under God." At least they said they agreed with that statement ... surely they do understand that outlawing atheism would be the same as establishing a religion, right? Let's hope so ...

Most Americans didn't know what happens if the Supreme Court ties 4-4 on a case, which is more likely to happen under the current eight-member court with one seat unfilled. Only a third of participants (33 percent) correctly said the decision of the lower court stands.

Although the First Amendment expressly prohibits the making of any law "infringing on the freedom of the press," 40 percent of those questioned favored the idea that Congress could forbid the news media from "reporting on any issue of national security without first getting government approval." Just over half (55 percent) opposed such limitations.

While the citizens in some parts of the country may score much higher than those who participated in this survey, it certainly seems like many Americans need to brush up on their civics.

Democracy requires an informed populace.

A Quick Reviewof the Three Branches:

The three branches of government are the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. In simplified form, the legislative branch creates laws, the executive branch enforces laws, and the judicial branch interprets laws. The executive branch can veto laws, but the legislative branch can override that veto. Both are elected by the people and therefore subject to influence by fads or donations.

The judicial branch is very purposely not elected, so that their first obligation is to the Constitution. Voters do have indirect influence, though, because the justices are nominated by one elected official (The President) and approved by others (the Senate). The Constitution, itself, gives the Supreme Court the power to interpret the Constitution.

An executive order carries the force of law, but it can be overturned by the judiciary.

See how everyone is looking over everyone else's shoulders? That is the system of checks and balances that prevents any one branch from becoming too powerful.

It is a very clever arrangement, and the reason our government has lasted for such an astonishingly long time.

Long Live the Constitution!

The Annenberg Constitution Day Civics phone survey, conducted for APPC by the research firm SSRS, includes questions asked July 14-18 among 1,021 adults and Aug. 11-15 among 1,475 adults. The interviews about the candidates were conducted in August and the other questions were asked in July. The margin of error is +/- 3.6 percent.


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