Truth And Consequences

I told you so. Over and over. (Okay, I know I’m preaching to the choir here–those who read and respond to this blog aren’t the problem…) But here we go again.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a survey of American constitutional knowledge. CNN reported the results, which it dubbed a “bouillabaisse of ignorance.”

  • 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. (In 2011, 36% could name all three branches.)
  • One in three (33%) can’t name any branch of government. None. Not even one.
  • A majority (53%) believe the Constitution affords undocumented immigrants no rights. However, everyone in the US is entitled to due process of law and the right to make their case before the courts, at the least.

“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are,” said Annenberg Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson. “The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

Many definitely don’t. Mountains of evidence confirm Americans’ ignorance of their government.

A 2010 Pew poll asked respondents to name the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Now, I’m not a big fan of these sorts of “trivia” questions–I’m much more concerned that people know what the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court do–but it is nevertheless disheartening when fewer than three in 10 (28%) could answer correctly. That rate compared unfavorably to the 43% who had correctly named William Rehnquist as the chief justice in a Pew poll back in 1986.

Worse– although most of the 72% of people who didn’t name Roberts as the chief justice in 2010 said they didn’t know, eight percent guessed Thurgood Marshall, who was never  chief justice of the Court (and had been dead for 17 years)and 4% named Harry Reid.

In another widely-reported poll, 10% of college graduates thought Judith  Sheindlin–aka “Judge Judy”– was on the Supreme Court, but it was kind of a trick question….

When large numbers of people know absolutely nothing about the way their government is supposed to work, the consequences are grim. As the CNN report duly noted, we’re living with certain of those consequences now.

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.

I am alternately amused and infuriated by the fact that people who wouldn’t think of choosing a dentist who’d skipped dental school (bone spurs?) and had zero experience working on teeth are nevertheless perfectly willing to turn the government and its nuclear codes over to someone who clearly doesn’t have the slightest notion how government works (or, one suspects, what government is.)

I can only assume that this willingness is the consequence of the voter’s own ignorance of the knowledge and skills required–the “job description.”

In a very real sense, when American voters go to the polls, we are “hiring” for the positions on the ballot. Yet people who would never choose a cleaning lady who didn’t know how  clean a sink or plug in a vacuum cleaner will cheerfully cast their ballots on the basis of a candidate’s attractiveness, partisan affiliation, or belief in the juicy tidbit their neighbor whispered about the opposing candidate’s spouse.

Or the fact that the candidate hates the same people they do.

No wonder our government is broken.


  1. The thing I find scariest about Trump is if he could follow his talking points and read the teleprompter without the ad libs he would be considered by the majority to be a great President.

    The bar is set incredibly low and he still can’t get over it.

    You can’t blame Trump for the ignorance of the average voter

  2. Wait, Rick, the average voter may be slightly more informed than the average American. At least they took the 10 minutes it takes to register.

    So, if you follow along with the cause and effect experiment, who’s failed at educating our masses?

    Or, is ignorance self-inflicted?

    Hitler noticed the same thing with the German people so he chose to take advantage of them with propaganda. He manipulated the masses.

    If you spend an hour on the TV, you can see propaganda everywhere appealing to the masses. There is nothing educational about it…mostly manipulating consumers into buying this or that.

    So, who is responsible for educating our children about civic matters? Who is responsible for educating our children, period?

    And just a twist, we’ve now reached over $1.3 trillion in student loans for kids who do want to educate their minds beyond high school. That’s not really a shiny encouragement for families and young people to extend their education.

    Hey, you’ll be smarter than the average citizen, but guess what?

    You can make $1.00 more an hour at Walmart but you’ll have to live with your parents and cram 5 others into a one bedroom apartment because you have no discretionary income after paying student loans.

    The systems are creating failure everywhere you look and we are quickly approaching the next economic meltdown.

  3. “I can only assume that this willingness is the consequence of the voter’s own ignorance of the knowledge and skills required–the “job description.”

    “Truth And Consequences” of The Constitution of the United States of America:
    Article II, Section 1, Clause 5; “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President, neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

    The first four Clauses of Article II, Section 1, pertain to the Electoral College responsibilities; citizenship and age requirements for these members are not included. The 1st Amendment freedom of speech does not require truth be spoken and while “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”, religion is now firmly established within Congress and the laws they pass. The oath of office taken by none of our elected officials is obviously not a requirement to serve at any level but are empty words with no actual Rule of Law requiring they be upheld. I have read the Constitution, not from beginning to end but in sections, but nowhere did I find a requirement for truth, factual establishment of ability to serve, honesty or morals. The Constitutional requirement actually does qualify Donald Trump to “act” as president (he is a citizen and at least thirty five years of age); it is the sitting Congress who are not fulfilling their established responsibilities or their Oath of Office as they sit idle. They and the Electoral College were supposedly established to protect us from such as Donald Trump.

    We are hearing more and more demands for limiting terms of elected officials, as if that would solve the problem (it will protect us from more than 2 terms by Trump); we would be forced to lose the few who work to protect democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution. We already have a term limit for all elected officials…THEY ARE CALLED ELECTIONS.

  4. “is ignorance self-inflicted?” Yes!
    I have seen this over and over again here in Indiana and in Illinois. It is the attitude of those who proclaim, “I didn’t go to no college, and I do OK.” Or the famous “Those so called pointy headed experts don’t know nothing.” It is that put down of all things that ring of education that gets passed on to the next generation, usually at home, by the very people who are responsible for raising and seeing to the education of the next generation. The psychological need to feel OK about oneself takes over, blocking out self-knowledge and truth.
    This attitude toward education has been nurtured and fed upon by the powerful who NEED an uneducated mass from which to draw upon for cheap labor.
    Pride in ignorance is the terminal cancer of this society.

  5. Are we lawyers even taught the actual Constitution in law school, or just largely its penumbras and emanations? In our supposed Constitutional system, shouldn’t the First Amendment be largely irrelevant except in DC or on federal property, and shouldn’t multiple sections of Article 1 of our Hoosier Constitution take precedence?

  6. Eric,

    Apparently, you lawyers are NOT taught the actual Constitution or you wouldn’t have asked your second question. I urge you to ponder the meaning of Amendment X.

    We need to keep in mind that the Constitution is a framework for government. It is not a prescription or job description. That’s why we have Articles I and III.

  7. Odd how Republican’s consider ignorance and inexperience as virtues in their candidates. (“Hey he’s never done ANYTHING in public service or cracked a book on government, so he’d be the PERFECT candidate!”) But then their education policy explains all that I guess.

  8. Oddly and coincidentally with Sheila’s choice of words today, I have a recently-deceased high school classmate who retired to a reservoir not far from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a “pointy head” PhD college professor type who often commiserated with me in re the state of civic education. An agnostic, he was expert in Indian languages and fluent in Navajo (the same language we used in WW II for our secret messaging which the Axis powers were never able to decipher). I played the role of foil in such conversations and snail mail exchanges.

    Sheila is rightly back to putting down our lack of civic education today with the Annenberg numbers to prove her thesis, and I agree with others that such civic ignorance and what it may portend for the future of our democratic norms and values constitute a burden on and threat to our continuation as a democratic republic.

    Perhaps instead of using our resources to build walls and fight wars we should appropriate large sums of money to pay for crash courses in civic education so that, perhaps, walls and wars would be unnecessary – or at least wars based on ignorance – like, what if we gave a war and nobody came?

  9. A couple months ago, Sheila cited a chapter from my latest book, “Why Angels Weep: America and Donald Trump”, regarding the infamous Lewis Powell “memo” to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In that memo, Powell made a call to arms to have corporate/banking America exercise their financial influence on education at EVERY level in American society in order to favor the so-called free-market, unrestricted capitalism that Republicans are bonded to. That call to arms has worked very well.

    To Todd’s point: “So, who is responsible for educating our children about civic matters? Who is responsible for educating our children, period?” I suggest that is the oligarchs who have picked up the mantle for education. Not only do these power brokers influence what goes into textbooks, they have established “colleges” within universities to “study” how our economics and politics are supposed to work.

    This ignorance is not just insidious, it has been planned.

  10. Hardly anyone needs to be literate in civics or science to produce wealth for oligarchs to live off of.

    As Sheila pointed out the other day it’s not what we don’t know that hurts us it’s what we know that ain’t so.

    In my experience the biggest problem we face is not what the average person didn’t learn in school but what they did learn over entertainment media.

  11. Would the adults during FDR’s time have performed any better on the Civics Test??? Would the adults during LBJ’s or Nixon’s time have performed any better on the Civics Test???

    Perhaps people realize this Civics Knowledge is superfluous because our Elected Officials will not vote for the people, but will vote for their paymasters who fund their elections, i.e., Lobbyists, Pac’s and Superpac’s.

    Universal Single Payer Heath Care Medicare – Expanded & Improved Medicare For All, eliminate the tax evasion schemes of multinationals and the 1%, gun control, increased teacher pay, reduce the bloated defense budget, assaults of the environment were any of these issues on the table of issues our wannabe elected officials addressed in their campaigns recently??

    Knowing who the Chief Justice is or memorizing the Bill of Rights is not going to change our American Political System. You have once you are voting two choices at best, in many cases because gerrymandering you do not have two viable choices.

    From the above> CNN reported the results, which it dubbed a “bouillabaisse of ignorance.” So today I am confident CNN and MSDNC will have 24 hour coverage on Trump, Trump, and more Trump. If there is a “bouillabaisse of ignorance” CNN and MSDNC are certainly two the ingredients.

  12. Pete:

    Afraid you’re right! Their world is shockingly narrow and defined only by what they see on their computers or their phones, which they never put down. It’s led us to where we are at the moment.

  13. Ignorance is a timely topic. Trump currently argues that ignorance of the law is his leading excuse. Simultaneously, however, when judges don’t rule in his favor, he argues that it is because they are democrats, are of an ill-chosen ethnicity, or are ignorant. The first point of law I ever learned was that ignorance is no excuse. If ignorance were an excuse, Trump would be the most excusable president we’ve even had. His mantra is, “To know nothing is to forgive (myself) all.”

    Yet in Asia and in some Asian/American homes, the Tiger Mom is still the Queen Bee, students stand when the teacher enters the class room, parents make sacrifices to get their kids the best educations, and government leaders, devoid of democratic instincts, have sterling academic credentials. Is it any wonder that China is overtaking America so rapidly in so many areas and will soon leave us in her dust economically and scientifically? Has our affluence corrupted us to the extent that, on average, we no longer give a damn or have we turned so lazy and undisciplined that we refuse to put in the work required to maintain our competitiveness?

    Something there is that does not love a slacker, yet 74% of us don’t know the three branches of government. It appears we are on the verge of surrendering most of what we’ve accomplished as a nation without a fight. How very, very sad.

Comments are closed.