At the momentous convention that drafted our Constitution in 1787, someone asked Benjamin Franklin what form of government the delegates were establishing.
“A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
But the appalling ignorance of so many Americans on the basic structure and workings of our government raises serious doubts as to whether we can.
A few months after the convention, Franklin’s convention colleague James Madison explained in The Federalist No. 39 that in a republic, government “derives all its powers … from the great body of the people.”
Its success, he argued, depends on “the capacity of mankind for self-government.” That’s the theory. In practice, the evidence does not, to put it charitably, prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this capacity continues to exist in our society and culture.
Understanding how our system of government is designed to work is not only necessary to evaluate its performance, but also to keep in place the elements that make our liberty possible.
This is especially important, for example, as unfair attacks are claiming that Supreme Court justices whose decisions don’t advance certain political interests are unethical, corrupt or partisan. Unfortunately, that effort may be working, as a majority of Americans now believe the Supreme Court bases its decisions more on politics than the law.
One-third of Americans incorrectly say that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent either to Congress or back to the lower courts to be reconsidered and decided. But it’s more than the fact that so many Americans just don’t get it. As I wrote in 2019, stunning unfamiliarity with the Constitution has bred contempt for the document on which our republic is based. If put to a vote today, only half of those surveyed said they would vote to adopt the Constitution. Even fewer believe that Congress should follow the Constitution.
Many factors contribute, in one way or another, to this dismal state of affairs.
The Rand Corp, surveyed high school social studies teachers about aspects of civic development that they considered “absolutely essential.” High on their list were “toleran[ce] of people and groups who are different than themselves” and “see[ing] themselves as global citizens.” Way behind were understanding the basics of our system of government such as federalism, the separation of powers, and checks and balances or identifying the protections of the Bill of Rights.
It looks like students aren’t learning what their teachers aren’t teaching. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s 2023 survey of civic knowledge found that one-quarter of Americans can name only one branch of government—or none at all. Half can name no more than one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
In another peek at the future, civics scores for eighth graders in the National Assessment of Educational Progress are declining for the first time since it began in 1998.
The American Bar Association’s recent civic literacy survey found that more Americans say the phrase “we the people” opens the Declaration of Independence than the Constitution. In a National Constitution Center poll, twice as many young people can name the Three Stooges as can state the first three words of the Constitution. And two-thirds think that the Constitution, not the works of Karl Marx, contains the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
It’s not a good sign when a bare majority of Americans can name any of the three branches of government — and that finding is celebrated as a “15-year high.” But then, some of our elected leaders aren’t setting a good example. Recall when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, urged Democrats to take back all three chambers of Congress: the presidency, the Senate and the House.
“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789, “they can be trusted with their own government.” Today, the ABA survey found, 70% of Americans say that the public is “not very informed” or “not at all informed” about how government works. Even worse, more than one-third of Americans say they do not feel informed enough to participate politically in our democratic process.
On Jan. 6, 1816, Jefferson wrote Virginia legislator Charles Yancey that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” Given the profound ignorance that we are seeing today, the stakes could not be higher for our country and our freedom.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times