Constitution Day Surveys Confirm Decline in Civic Knowledge and Constitutional Literacy

Two surveys released in honor of Constitution Day 2016 – one from the Center for Civic Education and the other from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania – confirm that Americans lack a basic understanding of the United States Constitution and our system of government.

On September 14, 2016, the Center for Civic Education and Professor Diana Owen of Georgetown University released the result of their Constitution Day survey, which showed that while Americans do not know much about the United States Constitution, they do, at the very least, support its basic ideas.

The full survey results can be found here.

Some key findings from the survey include –

  1. Only 14% of Americans think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. 86% of respondents are aware that they are not well-informed regarding our nation’s foundational documents.
  2. The survey revealed that the greater the knowledge of the Constitution, the greater the acceptance of its basic ideas. For example, 84% of those who know a lot about the Constitution think that all citizens should have equal political rights compared to 67% of those with little knowledge.
  3. A large majority of Americans (80% +) support elements of the Constitution and its amendments that protect the rights to freedom of belief and expression; the protections of due process of law for the rights to life, liberty, and property; the equality protection of the law; and political equality.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found in their annual Constitution Day survey that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government, the poorest showing on that question in a half-dozen years. They also found that nearly a third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government. Last year, the APPC survey found that about one in 10 Americans (12 percent) says the Bill of Rights includes the right to own a pet. (For the record – it does not!)

Other key findings include –

Of war, taxes and religion

In a series of multiple-choice questions, Americans were divided over what the U.S. Constitution says about which branch of government has the power to declare war, but clearer on what it says about taxes and religion:

  • Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) incorrectly said that the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war. Over half (54 percent) knew that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.
  • A vast majority (83 percent) correctly said that the Constitution gives Congress the power to raise taxes.
  • A majority (77 percent) know that the Constitution says that Congress cannot establish an official religion – though almost 1 in 10 agreed with the statement that the Constitution says, “Congress can outlaw atheism because the United States is one country under God.”

The Supreme Court and a free press 

Americans were divided about what happens if the Supreme Court ties 4-4 on a case, which is more likely to happen under the current eight-member court with one seat unfilled. A third of people (33 percent) correctly said the decision of the lower court stands, a third (32 percent) said the case is sent to the “Federal Court of Appeals” for resolution, and 21 percent said the justices must vote until the tie is broken.

The First Amendment prohibits the making of any law “infringing on the freedom of the press.” But 40 percent of those questioned favored the idea that Congress could forbid the news media from “reporting on any issue of national security without first getting government approval.” More than half (55 percent) opposed such restraints.

If you’re disturbed by these statistics, I encourage you to join the organizations working every day to address the troubling decline in civic knowledge and constitutional literacy.

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