Donald Trump famously declared, “I love the poorly educated!” and we know why. An electorate that’s ignorant about the basics of democracy is ideal grist for an authoritarian.
I was reminded of that this week when I read the latest civics survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The stats speak for themselves. Only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial), and 33 percent can’t name any branch of government. Only 14 percent know that freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment, while 37 percent can’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
This lamentable obliviousness has been tracked for years. In a 2010 survey, roughly 33 percent couldn’t even name the correct century of the American Revolution, and more people could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of “Billie Jean” than could identify the Bill of Rights as a list of constitutional amendments. In a 2015 survey, roughly half of college students at 55 top-ranked institutions didn’t know how long a senator serves (six years) or a congressman (two).
There’s no empirical proof that Trump’s narrow path to victory was plowed by the poorly educated. After all, Barack Obama won twice with the same electorate. But someone with authoritarian instincts, once entrenched in power, is perfectly positioned to exploit civic ignorance. It’s easy to trample on democratic norms when so few Americans recognize and value the democratic norms.
It’s easy for Trump to attack the integrity of judges when millions can’t even identify the judiciary as an independent branch of government. It’s easy for Trump to attack journalists as “enemies of the people” when millions are clueless about First Amendment press freedom. It’s easy for Trump to trample our history — he says that Andrew Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War” (Jackson died 16 years before the Civil War) — when millions of Americans, according to the 2010 survey, couldn’t even say whether Revolution preceded or followed the Civil War.
And it’s easy for Trump to attack immigrants when, according to the Annenberg Survey, 53 percent of Americans don’t know that even illegal immigrants have some constitutional rights. Due process, under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, has been guaranteed since the Supreme Court said so 131 years ago.
Where does this ignorance originate? Two prominent educators, Richard Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, recently nailed the biggest reason: “Public schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose — preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”
Basically, the public schools don’t teach civics anymore. Back in my day, at the risk of sounding ancient, we had “social studies,” which compelled us to know the three government branches, the basics of voting, and the democratic values embedded in the Constitution (plus, the correct century of the Revolution). We were even tasked with learning and naming all nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
But as Kahlanberg and Janey point out:
“The explicit civics curriculum has been downplayed in recent years. With the rise of economic globalization, educators have emphasized the importance of serving the needs of the private marketplace rather than of preparing citizens for American democracy. On one level, this approach made some sense. As the country celebrated two centuries of continuous democratic rule, the paramount threat seemed to be economic competition from abroad, not threats to democracy at home.
“So the bipartisan education manta has been that education should prepare students to be ‘college-and-career ready,’ with no mention of becoming thoughtful democratic citizens. In a telling sign, in 2013, the governing board of the National Assessment for Educational Progress dropped fourth- and 12th-grade civics and American history as a tested subject in order to save money.”
They argue that “rigorous courses in history, literature, and civics would cultivate knowledge of democratic practices and a belief in democratic values.” True enough. But even if school curricula were miraculously overhauled, we’re still left with the grim reality that several generations have already been lost. And we’re left with an electorate (or a huge slice thereof) that’s potential putty in the hands of a demagogue who knows as little as they do about constitutional norms.
As James Madison, the father of the Constitution, wrote in 1822, “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.