Opinion: Americans tend to be ignorant about their government. Is this a problem?

A new study says Utah ranks high in terms of social trust. Will that, alone, save democracy?

Shortly after he was elected to the U.S. Senate last November, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville told the Alabama Daily News that the founders hadn’t intended for any one group to control all three branches of the government.

“You know, the House, the Senate, and the executive.”

So much for all those efforts to increase civics education among Americans. 

At least one thing can be said of self-government. Democracy does result in leaders who are representative of the people.

This year’s Constitution Day survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that Tuberville isn’t alone. Forty-four percent of Americans also failed to correctly identify the three branches of government as the executive, legislative (which includes the House and Senate) and judicial. 

That was actually a much higher figure than in previous surveys. Back in 2006, only one-third of Americans could name all three, compared with 56% today. 

But is this improvement enough to make self-government really work? Is it necessary to know the three branches of government in order to vote on candidates who make their positions known on current issues? Does this ignorance explain the bitter divisions between parties and geographic regions of the country today? Does it explain how disinformation is so readily embraced by so many?

Or are other factors just as important — say, the amount of trust people have in each other and the communities in which they live?

The Utah Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan research group, has just released a report on social trust. That is a factor it says “has major implications for the prosperity of an economy, the health of a democracy, the strength of the social fabric and the support of strong social capital.”

Social trust is “the extent to which people believe that other people in their community will do the right thing most of the time.”

Without this, society starts to unravel. Just look at Venezuela, the report says. That is “a country rich in resources but bedeviled by low levels of social trust.” Indeed, it has gone from having the highest living standard in Latin America 60 years ago to a failed economy with hyperinflation today. 

Well, take heart. It turns out that, by this measure, Utah is a regular paradise, at least compared to the rest of the country. On all four metrics studied in the report — fraud, breach of trust, corruption and violent crime — the state outperformed the nation at large. 

You may wonder about fraud. Isn’t Utah the Ponzi scheme capital of the world, where one devious church member can lure an entire congregation into investing money with the promise of high returns, then head out of town with all the loot? 

Yes, the report said, Utah had, by far, the highest number of reported Ponzi schemes in the nation in 2018. On one level this is ironic. As author Stephen King said, “The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool.

But on another, more important one, it’s only a small piece of the fraud landscape. 

When you look at the whole picture, overall fraud in Utah has been trending downward, and the slope is steep. Fraud convictions fell by one-third between 2009 and 2020, and Utah now is well below the national average.

The same can be said for breach of trust and federal corruption convictions. Only violent crime has been trending upward during the past decade, but it remains relatively low — 60% below the national average and the 11th lowest in the nation.

Taken together with the foundation’s recent report on civic engagement, Utah seems to be a mixed bag. That earlier report found that Utahns struggle when it comes to “exercising our rights, duties and privileges as citizens,” including showing up at public meetings and voting.

This is an age in which finding answers about the health of a democracy can be as frustrating as the tax code.

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Utahns may be trusting of one another, and they ought to have confidence in how their state works, but their response to pandemic restrictions and the need to be vaccinated, as well as the way partisan distrust of elections and other institutions on a national level has been mimicked here, seems to suggest that other factors are at play.

Yes, it’s important to know the three branches of government and other facts that help you sort events of the day. Yes, Utah’s high level of social trust is a cause for optimism. 

But only time will tell whether people in Utah, and the rest of the nation, have what it takes to truly keep self-government healthy and strong.

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.

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