More Confirmation Of Civic Ignorance

One of the most obvious–and infuriating–characteristics of the Keystone Kop administration that Trump has cobbled together is its utter cluelessness about the government they have been installed to manage.

One of the most consistent complaints I hear from reasonably well-educated Americans is amazement that there is still a base that sees nothing wrong with an Education Secretary who clearly knows nothing about public education, a Secretary of State who consults his bible in order to formulate foreign policy, an EPA Administrator who says we need not worry about climate change for another fifty years…and so on and so on.

Not to mention a President who is clearly unacquainted with any part of the U.S. Constitution and who would be challenged to answer questions on a 6th grade civics test.

Much of the answer is, of course, Trump’s appeal to white nationalists who are willing to support anyone who hates the same people they do. But another, significant part of the explanation is the large numbers of uninformed voters, citizens who have no idea how their government is structured or how it is supposed to operate–who have no clue what the rules might be, and thus are unaware of the (multiple) times when those rules are being broken.

Yes–I am once again going to pontificate about the civic ignorance of far too many American citizens. (And yes, I know it isn’t just civic ignorance–a recent, widely reported poll revealed that 56% of Americans believe that Arabic numerals should not be taught in American schools…it’s hard not to cry.)

When it comes to my persistent distress over civic literacy, however,  I now have the American Bar Association to confirm my rant.

According to a new national poll conducted by the American Bar Association, less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while almost one-quarter think it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 16 percent believe it is Clarence Thomas.

The nationally representative poll of 1,000 members of the American public found troubling gaps in their knowledge of American history and government, as well as constitutional rights. One in 10 think the Declaration of Independence freed slaves in the Confederate states and almost 1 in 5 believe the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution are called the Declaration of Independence instead of the Bill of Rights.

 ABA President Bob Carlson reacted to the survey:

Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance,” said Carlson. “Moving forward, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Public Education will launch an educational program based on these survey results, to re-acquaint the public with the law and the Constitution.

“We cannot be content to sit on the sidelines as democracy plays out in front of us. For the sake of our country, we all need to get in the game,” he said.

So, what were the findings that shocked officials of the Bar Association? Let’s start with the “good” news:

The U.S. public expresses strong support for freedom of speech. Eighty-one percent of the public agrees that people should be able to publicly criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader and three-quarters agree that government should not be able to prevent news media from reporting on political protests. Fully 80 percent of the public agrees that individuals and organizations should have the right to request government records or information. And 88 percent correctly say that the government does not have the right to review what journalists write before it is published under the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, this strong endorsement of free speech is accompanied by public confusion over what the First Amendment actually protects.

Nearly 1 in 5 said freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment and 20 percent said the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment. More than half incorrectly think the First Amendment does not permit the burning the American flag in political protest under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that forbid flag-burning, ruling first in 1989 that under the First Amendment a person cannot be penalized for such action.

There’s more, of course.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents, for example, knew that the term “the rule of law” means no one is above the law, but fully 15 percent believed  it means “the law is always right.”

The public also demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge about the rights and responsibilities accorded under the Constitution. Less than half know that only U.S. citizens can hold federal elective office, more than 1 in 5 believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for paying taxes and more than 10 percent believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for obeying the law. A little more than 1 in 6 think that due process of law is only available to U.S. citizens. And 30 percent believe that non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech.

To view the whole, sad survey, you can download it here.

As for me, I’m going to pour myself (another) drink.


  1. Fox News teaches civic literacy. There should be a limit to the amount of TV one watches but what would we do all day if we didn’t have access to a cheap tele made in China and a monopolized cable service? 😉

    Meanwhile, I just posted an article this morning where we are mishandling the CIA/MIC’s initiative to start a war with Iran. Trump tripped over himself several times, and your use of “Keystone Cops” fits this bungling perfectly.

    Saudi Arabia is mad because a small Iranian group attacked one of the pipes with a drone. Can you imagine the gull of people resisting genocide?

    Unless you live in a democracy, freedom of speech means nothing. See Wikileaks and Julian Assange.

    There would be more arrests and closures of media establishments if our media weren’t operated by Disney World.

  2. The bar association also sponsors We the People, a civics extracurricular activitiy popular among the brightest students in high schools across the country.

    Today at our church, we observe the funeral of a true statesman and bi-partisan leader, Senator Dick Lugar. I still describe my political as a Lugar Democrat and why split the ticket when he was on the ballot.

    No other Indiana politician served the people with as much honor and devotion to principles set forth in the Constitution.

    Senator Richard Lugar, may he rest in peace.

  3. This ignorance is, in part, a failure of the American educational system’s neglecting to require a Civics class as a graduation necessity. Don’t want to take an entire year for Civics/government? Then take six weeks just to read and discuss the Constitution with high school students. Create a required mini-course. At least that would be SOMETHING positive. At least these students would have some concept of how government is supposed to work and why our Constitution is such a precious, precious document. ANY study is better than no study at all.

  4. In the 60’s, we had civics class. but–I find many of my classmates remember nothing from it.
    They simply lost their minds when Obama was elected. They just LOST it.

    I find it very troubling that the current Republican Senate seems to have no understanding of how our country is supposed to work.
    Lindsey Graham is telling the Presidents family to IGNORE a Senate Subpoena. REALLY ?
    Mitch McConnell no longer believes anything other than PROTECT TRUMP.
    Do the Russians have dirt on ALL of them?
    I think the answer must be YES – – they do.
    Especially Lindsey

  5. The statistics you use in this rant today are pretty much the same for the positive aspects of civic literacy as they are for the negative. Are these twenty plus percent of citizens who do not know the Constitution the same ones who do not understand such ideals as freedom of speech and assembly? I would guess that they are.
    I would be more interested in a study done state by state correlated with voting patterns.

  6. Sheila; this is a butt-kicking, mind-blowing blog today! Too much to absorb at one reading; nothing I can comment except to be more appalled at conditions in this country today after watching CNN morning news and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to substantiate your repeated claim confirming the civic ignorance (including my own) which has allowed the Trump administration to come into being, to flourish and which may retain the entire bunch in 2020.

  7. Sheila,

    Would the ABA consider using whatever power it may have to try to push public school systems to return to providing civics education to students since that subject has been pushed aside to allow more time for STEM classes? The Indiana Board of Education and Local School Boards might listen to the viewpoint/voice of the Bar Assn.

    Students need to have a thorough civics education with multiple classes over a period of years that ensures they fully understand our governmental structures and their rights as citizens. I had a one semester class in my junior year in high school year and that was definitely not enough.

  8. The problem with a lack of civics literacy may be because it is taught as course, as is English, and too many people who graduated from high school persist in saying things such as “they has went to the store.” Material in an academic class is not necessarily internalized. I don’t know what the solution is to this problem, but I still remember the guy who taught the class I took (in 1955-56). Every Friday he collected our class notes and read them over the weekend. On Monday we got them back with his comments written on them. We paid attention in class. But he was just one guy.

  9. This is why I believe that Mitch McConnell is the greatest villain of our time. He KNOWS better, but he proceeds to wreck our Constitution. The rest of the clown show don’t have a clue, even though I suspect that most of them had civics classes in high school. Teachers can teach, but they can’t make you learn.

  10. I think Theresa Bowers has the right of it. I’m not saying the bad news isn’t bad, but it’s a bit of a half-full/half-empty argument. If you look at it, in the good news section it was that 80% of people got it right. In the bad news section, it was 20% got it wrong. Seems to me these are the same stats from different sides of the argument. On the bright side, that means you can be happy that 80% of all of these people had the right answer.

    I recommend not thinking too hard about how the remainder 20% somehow got this stuff wrong – you’ll end up needing another drink. Though, it might comfort you to remember this is (probably) the same 20% who believe ghosts and Bigfoot play poker on the weekends. They’re not just constitution ignorant.

  11. Dirk; Theresa is right with her comment regarding awareness of a study state-by-state correlated with voting patterns but…didn’t the Electoral College appointments of George W.’s economic disaster and Trump’s demolition derby administration provide that information? And one reason for simply accepting the Electoral College appointments without knowledge of how it is operated in highly populated Republican states is further proof of the general lack of civic knowledge by most American voters.

  12. Trump’s handlers have convinced Donald-the Slowlearner that the only way Trump can be re-elected is by throwing us into the jaws of war. It’s the one strategy they have hastily cobbled to ensure his greater popularity as a wartime president and he has his coven of Cabinet witches and those in the Congress (such as Graham) who will gleefully sell our country for a few pieces of silver.
    Ready to live as a Third World slave? Stay awake when they chip away at our hard-won Constitution.
    Meanwhile let Donald continue to distract you with “His Wall”.

  13. Kudos Theresa – want that data now!

    Another thought…given how some Red state legislatures control what students learn in school (see Texas textbook history, etc.), one wonders what they have done in the area of civic education content (besides eliminating it completely as it isn’t “job related”). Maybe I have become way too cynical, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them want to teach Libertarian civics, etc.

    I am also concerned about teaching civics “facts” for a test (like who is the Chief Justice) rather than the concepts of our democracy that might challenge the powerful. I refer all again (for at least the fourth time – apologies – to “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” – Postman/Weingartner.

  14. just lazy people,with a silver spoon stuck where it is. not being rich mind you, they have a gilded life,whereas, many of us went to war, or, grew up and around a less desireable life.
    they believe all is hunky dory and its not my problem. we are sheltered by the news media,and life. alls well when the tube tells ya so. and thats as far as life they get. reality t.v. should be reality, show the bodies when isreal claims they been had again!(dont forget to ask why.?)
    show the streets after a explosion in a market place, and the roadway when someone is killed by another driver. instead its all sanitized in the sake of someones bad dreams later on..reality sucks, but so does life,when it doesnt go the way of your poor sanitized life. we fail to educate,before the issues arise.the
    pacified and amazed get the mcconnels elected. they have delibertly pacified the reality,in a scam to change goverment,to their liking,and the people be damn. they know not what they see……. best wishes

  15. You can teach Civics in High School. Like any other course such as Algebra, Geography, History, etc., are you going to retain them once you leave HS?? Retention of knowledge has a lot to do with if you need to use it. You may recall taking Algebra in HS, could you pass an Algebra test ten years after HS???

    The For Profit McMega-Media and even NPR, etc., should have a responsibility for continuing education on Civics. However, in the case of the For Profit McMega-Media on TV like FOX, CNN or MSDNC they have become advocates of opinions, rather than News.

    The High School students can be taught, we the people elect our various elected officials. Then of course there is the hard reality of campaign donations by the wealthy 1% and large corporations via PACs, Super PACs and Lobbyists. Whose Bread I Eat, His Song I Sing.

    It is amazing to me to see all the efforts made to drown Progressives with money and lies. Yet, the Progressive movement has grown.

  16. We used to have an old saying that “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I think we have the same problem with students where constitutional history is taught as well as in some jurisdictions (notably Texas) where such courses are not offered at all courtesy of the Texas Board of Education, apparently with the design of keeping the masses ignorant of their rights and those of others as well and, of course, to deprive such future voters of their own country’s history from Bunker Hill, the Preamble, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights etc., which makes them open to propaganda from Fox News, Trump and others who profit politically from such ignorance.

    The readin, writin and rithmetic crowd of those who insist that the basics must be taught should have civic literacy added to their list, and yes, Lester, libertarian views of government and economics are already being taught in school these days at the higher education level. Witness the naming of business schools and worse, the teaching of nihilism in government, courtesy of such hard right zillionaires as the Mercers and Kochs, whose contributions to colleges and universities are (to top off this insult to Peter Abelard’s classic view of the role of education at the university level) tax deductible, thus making all of us who have to make up, however indirectly, what these libertarians don’t pay to support a system we detest. I am told that in addition to content, some of such business schools only appoint new faculty after approval from such libertarian contributors, and I presume grants of tenure are subject to the whim of such libertarian moneybags as well.

    Can anyone imagine that the Kochs and Mercers and their ilk would support curricular requirements of constitutional history and critical thinking K through PhD in public schools and universities? I can’t.

  17. Hi Sheila —
    Here’s another frightening thing I learned today: According to the Growing Child web site, In May 2015, Oxford University Press revealed its children’s word of the year to be “hash tag.” In a recent edition of the Oxford Junior dictionary, some words have been removed.

    The deletions include acorn, ash, beech, buttercup, catkin, conker, cygnet, dandelion, fern, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lavender, minnow, mistletoe, nectar, otter, pasture, terrapin and willow, and other words describing beauties of the natural world. The words introduced in the new addition, along with hash tag, include biodegradable, blog, broadband, bullet point, celebrity, chartroom, committee, cut and paste, database, dyslexic, MP3Player, vandalism and voicemail.

    When the head of children’s dictionaries at OUP was asked to explain the changes, the reply was that the dictionary needed to reflect the experience of modern-day childhood.

    So not only will our kids miss out on Civics (especially if Betsy Duffus remains head of the Dept. of Ed) but apparently kids are gradually being led away from knowledge about the natural world. If our future generation doesn’t understand government or Nature, then we are doomed!

  18. This is a critical time in our history to assess our civic knowledge, or lack of it, and work diligently to become an educated electorate.

  19. Challenge. Turn on CNN or MSNBC for any evening news show. See if you can watch an hour without the host or “contributor” making a substantive statement that is in error factually, historically, or about how government is structured and works. Wait, make that 15 minutes!

  20. I think that of all of the items defining civil illiteracy in America today the most damaging is that we cannot afford good government. This stems not from a lack of education but is taught by pervasive entertainment media paid for by oligarchs who financially benefit from weak incompetent corrupt government the best example being the one that we have.

    The animus demonstrated for the Obama Administration may be partially due to racism but much can also be attributed to his basic competence and allegiance to our Constitution and unshakable belief in good government.

  21. Thank you Sheila as always,

    Unfortunately for all of us, both those that are oblivious to what’s currently going on both in Washington and around the world and those of us to do, we are very likely on the verge of bumbling into another war of choice, this time with Iran. We have a President and, quite frankly, a National Security Advisor straight out of hell, pushing the Iranians both diplomatically and militarily into a confrontation in the Persian Gulf that could very likely lead to a huge catastrophe throughout the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region as well as a likely confrontation with the Russians to make matters worse. Once again, this country embarks on a war of choice and those of us that think about such matters have to wonder if this trip is really necessary.

    Meanwhile, thanks to the underwhelming amount of information being given to the American public by this current administration coupled with the way that the news media covers things these days this situation which could have extremely dramatic consequences for all of us is merely another news story sandwiched in with all that human interest fluff that we see every day on the Internet which, for many Americans, is their sole source of news. Add to that the near total ignorance that the American public has in regard to world events, world geography and history, where we end up being mere spectators to what could be playing out in front of us all that will ultimately affect us all of us with no real grounding for many in why this is happening and what all its ramifications will be.

    One of the biggest core components of our democracy is an informed public with everyone from Thomas Jefferson on saying this over and over and over and over the course of the last 240 years and yet we still struggle with it. Add to that the glaring incompetence of the current Secretary of Education was seems more interested in debasing and gutting the teaching of civic literacy at every chance she gets. We could be being led into a very bloody war that would be far worse than anything that we have seen since Vietnam and we are woefully unprepared for such an eventuality.

    30 some years ago I made what now seems to be a grave error in that I studied Middle East politics and the geography of the region as well as the military balance of that same region in school so while all these other people are just going on their merry way being oblivious to the risks that we run and the even greater risks we run given the paucity of our current national leadership I worry over this stuff. Once again, due to our own hubris and incompetence, along with not having any grand strategy of any semblance regarding what our role in the world it is especially in regard to the use of our military forces we seem to be embarked on the same course of action we found ourselves in in 2003 where we will set in motion what we’re trying to prevent again but this time it could be far, far worse in its scope. This will very likely come as a huge shock to all those people out there do not pay attention to what their government does with their ignorance being multiplied via pronouncements this Administration makes where those pronouncements border on being nonsensical almost every day.

    If all of this ends up being and merely a wag the dog strategy by Trump to deflect public attention from his criminality and other excesses in office, which could involve in a very real way putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk there should be holy hell to pay. We could end up with a huge governmental meltdown here right in the middle of a war or something close to it with a large chunk of the American public being not clued in on most of it.

  22. Gerald (and all)- if you haven’t read it yet, suggest you check out Nancy McLean’s “Democracy in Chains” with all the details of the Koch’s and Libertarian’s takeovers of universities and law schools.

  23. “More Confirmation Of Civic Ignorance” has led us to the dangerous result of the combined extremes found in a Nietzsche quote; “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” The current insane result is the combined extremes of Trump and the GOP supported by civic ignorance; sadly, civic ignorance can easily be confirmed in both parties. It is never too late to learn; but at this late date, is it too late to reverse the result?

  24. Sheila – please don’t down a drink each time you learn of some new travesty of civic ignorance. Otherwise, we will start having to ship it to you by the truckload!

    The 56% are merely the summa cum laude graduates of the Republicans’ most successful education program ever – The Dumbing Down of America. South Carolina kicked out the Common Core curriculum when it was discovered it contained a segment on critical thinking. A reply to a letter I wrote on the subject of civic ignorance some years ago said, “You don’t know what you are talking about. We’re lucky we have smart people to do our thinking for us.” Bear in mind, this is South Carolina, where our state motto is, “Thank God for Mississippi.”

    On a slightly more serious note, maybe we can lobby city and town and county councils to pressure schools to require a year’s worth of civics to graduate. Questions like, “Who, among Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Roberts and Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, is least likely to consider the political aspects of a case involving a woman’s right to rule over her own body? Analyze and argue for, and be prepared to defend your choice” will stimulate millions of students’ neurons and will feel so good the kids will want to experience that kind of high the rest of their lives. Parents, working together, can demand that schools deliver the quality of thinking that makes a sustainable democracy possible. It’s apparently not self-perpetuating.

    I’m compelled to comment on the pending war in Iran. There will be nothing accidental about it. It is the recurring dream Bolten has enjoyed since he lost interest in the war he started in Iraq. It will be the result of careful planning, chicanery, lying ( a la Gulf of Tonkin or Joe Wilson and yellowcake uranium), and, if necessary, convincing Trump that he needs this war in order to win the next election. It is likely to produce a higher American death toll than the Iraq War (4,424) and, with twice Iraq’s population, cost far more than the $2.4 trillion that Bush hid on secret ledgers so we wouldn’t feel the pain. For all intents and purposes, it is now underway so Trump is probably weeks away from declaring mission accomplished. Unless you are a Beltway Bandit, it will destroy America’s economy and render absurd any attempts to bring China into accord with international economic practices. Perhaps most interestingly, it may force a Russian-American confrontation over who is in charge in that part of the world.

Comments are closed.