Imagine you are at a football game where you suddenly discover that nearly 50% of the partisan, screaming fans don’t know the rules of the game. They don’t know a touchback from a touchdown. To make matters worse, their ignorance is only exceeded by their fanatical, potentially violent support for their team.
Further imagine (and this takes some doing) that the stadium holds a little over 200 million people. How do you feel now? A recipe for disaster, right?
Welcome to the U.S. electorate.
According to the 2020 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, only 51% of surveyed voters could name all three branches of the federal government.
And while that was an improvement over the previous year, the survey was disappointing.
For example, only about half of the respondents correctly identified the Supreme Court as the ultimate authority for determining when a president’s action is constitutional — down from 61% in 2019. Maybe more alarming, a growing minority of 29% incorrectly said it was “up to Congress” to decide the constitutionality of a President’s actions. That was up from 21% being incorrect in 2019.
So, why and how is this important?
Well, there are about 200 million registered voters. Most of us would readily acknowledge we just suffered through one of the most contentious elections we’ve had — especially in its violent aftermath.
While there are many reasons for the contention, a large share of it can be chalked up to citizens’ general lack of knowledge of how government works — a knowledge that could provide us with a foundation to withstand constitutional crisis threats from outside and in.
When about half of us don’t know basic rules, that’s a true crisis. And, unlike football, when that many citizens don’t know the rules, there is more at stake than just a lot of ignorant fans yelling and throwing popcorn at referees.
“Civics” refers to what we generally know of government and the obligation of citizens. While the U.S. government is the first and longest-reigning, free government the world has ever known, and one which most subsequent free governments around the world have looked to for guidance, support and inspiration, we all might have to admit that, as a country, our knowledge of the rules of football might exceed what we know about government.
The good news is a few years back, some saw a looming civics crisis and have been doing something about it.
Kudos to former Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson and Utah Rep. Steve Eliason for showing real legislative leadership in 2015 when they sponsored and passed the American Civics Education Initiative, a law requiring more civics education in Utah’s schools. Others who worked on this important project were Rick Larsen, Chuck Warren, Alex Iorg, Michael Melendez, Hillary Koellner and Clark Caras. They saw the future.
On April 21, the Sutherland Institute and Bill of Rights Institute are jointly sponsoring in Salt Lake City a critical discussion about civics. They will be reviewing Utah’s progress in educating students.
And there are other things, which, if they continue, may allow us to sidestep potential constitutional crises in our future.
Our current situation nationally — our driftings, our media and data selection silos, our tendency to fail to listen to or acknowledge divergent viewpoints, together with a general decline in national civility — make it even more important that we double down on civics.
So I ask you: Please support civics and civics education. Discuss it everywhere — with friends and opponents alike.
I have found in discussing civics with new U.S. citizens, they often know more about our government and how it works than most Americans. You might take the same 128 questions civics test new citizens must pass. See how you do. Then follow up and learn more about what you don’t now know, or don’t remember, about government. You can find that test and its answers here.
Politics, at times, will be confusing. So will much of the contention that accompanies it.
Not to worry. Since our very beginning, we have been a country blessed with the best governmental charter the world now knows — the United States Constitution. It’s our nation’s rulebook.
The better we understand it, the better it will continue to protect us in leading both our nation and the free world forward.
Jonathan E. Johnson III is a Utah businessman and former co-chairman of Civics Education Initiative in Utah.