Civics Ignorance Is Enormous Threat to Constitution
Far too few Americans can name our branches of government, much less our enumerated rights.
During a year in which national politics has dominated the 24-hour news cycle, one might think Americans are more in touch with the Constitution than ever before. But the reality is just the opposite. As we approach the 230th anniversary of the ratification of our Constitution on Sept. 17, we should consider mourning the document’s demise as much as celebrating its relevance after so many years.
Brace yourselves: The numbers aren’t pretty.
According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “Only 26 percent of respondents can name the three branches of government, the same result as last year. People who identified themselves as conservatives were significantly more likely to name all three branches correctly than liberals and moderates. The 26 percent total was down significantly from APPC’s first survey on this question, in 2011, when 38 percent could name all three. In the current survey, 33 percent could not name any of the three branches, the same as in 2011.”
You might say it’s not a big problem if citizens aren’t able to identify the three branches of government as long as they’re aware of their basic rights. After all, we’ve witnessed plenty of protests across the country in recent years made up of disgruntled and badly parented youth demanding their rights, so they must know what’s in the Constitution, right?
Unfortunately, when it comes to the rights enshrined in the Constitution, the numbers are even worse. As the APPC poll reveals, “Nearly half of those surveyed (48 percent) say that freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But, unprompted, 37 percent could not name any First Amendment rights. And far fewer people could name the other First Amendment rights: 15 percent of respondents say freedom of religion; 14 percent say freedom of the press; 10 percent say the right of assembly; and only 3 percent say the right to petition the government.” Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Nearly 40% of all Americans surveyed couldn’t name a single right in the First Amendment.
We don’t need a citizenry made up of constitutional experts, but how can we expect voters to make informed decisions if they know next to nothing about our system of government or their rights under the Constitution? How can we as Americans ever hope to protect our cherished rights if we don’t even know what they are?
Rather than keeping an eye on those in power and making sure that they’re protecting our Constitution, we’re blind to what’s happening in the halls of whatever that branch is that makes laws. One of the consequences of our hyper-political mindset is that those who do know what’s in our Constitution often take advantage of the masses by proposing ideas that are clearly in violation of that same document.
We’d like to think that our middle schools, high schools, and even colleges and universities are providing students with at least a basic understanding of our government and Constitution. Educating young citizens is perhaps the most critical part of ensuring that future generations will be ready to protect and defend our nation’s ideals and principles.
The problem is that many schools either don’t teach civics, or teach it the wrong way, or teach it in a politicized manner. Compounding this, universities today are more interested in turning students into political activists than knowledgeable citizens who value the ideals upon which our country was founded. As a result, Americans have a lot to say about “rights” that their teachers and professors have conjured up, but they know nothing about the rights in the Constitution.
But let’s not put all of this on our education system. During turbulent times in our nation’s past, we took solace in knowing that those in power were there to defend our sacred documents. Not today. In 2012, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”
And in 2014, Barack Obama told the United Nations General Assembly that “on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rulebook written for a different century,” a clear allusion to the Constitution that leftists believe is outdated and places too many restrictions on government power.
It seems that year after year we predict the demise of the Constitution, but as its anniversary approaches, perhaps we should look for a glimmer of hope. There are new initiatives springing up around the country that encourage the teaching of civics and require students to pass a civics examination.
Over the years, we in our humble shop have distributed more than one million pocket Constitutions toward the end of educating our fellow citizens.
And just this year, President Donald Trump appointed a constitutionalist to the Supreme Court in Neil Gorsuch, and there may be more to follow in the coming years. But a more constructionist Supreme Court is just a start; we have to prepare a new generation to stand up for the Constitution not only in government but also throughout society.
While the recent downward trend in knowledge about our Constitution is troubling, we cannot surrender our solemn obligation to support and defend a document whose ideas have blessed us for 230 years. As our Founders overcame great obstacles in ratifying the Constitution, we too must remain steadfast in educating our citizenry. Only then can we support and defend the framework of our republican system of government and our precious natural rights.