Americans Are Dangerously Politically Ignorant -- The Numbers Are Shocking
Tea Party-backed economics professor David Brat, shown April 26, 2014 in Glen Allen, Virginia, defeated incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June 10 primary.
Photo Credit: AFP
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The health of a democracy is dependent on an educated citizenry. Political illiteracy is the manure for the flourishing of political appeals based on sheer ignorance.
So let me introduce you to House Majority Speaker Eric Cantor’s Republican Party vanquisher David Brat (R-VA). First thing you need to know about this far right-wing political upstart is he’s a university professor, which means it’s highly probable he’s not an idiot. He also identifies with the Tea Party strain of conservatism, which, paradoxically, means it’s likely he is, indeed, an idiot. And by idiot, I mean wholly ignorant of U.S. history and constitutionality.
In fact, in his victory speech delivered last week to his supporters, Brat demonstrated that he sits among the majority of Americans when it comes to political and cultural illiteracy.
“I wish to restore America to its Judeo-Christian roots,” declared Brat. "God acted through people on my behalf.”
Ignoring the self-delusion of the latter part of the above text, Brat now joins no less than 200 million Americans, according to a number of polls, who believe the U.S. Constitution and our laws are based on Judeo-Christian values. On any given Sunday you will hear Christian-right politicians claim absurdly that U.S. laws are based on the Bible. Spoiler alert: they’re dead wrong. The Constitution’s secular provisions came into being thanks to the Founding Fathers, who shared a deep suspicion of both organized religion and the supernatural. The Constitution was framed with a conscious omission of any mention of God and a prohibition of all religious tests for public office. Moreover, the First Amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” embodied the founders’ view that religion has no place in the political domain.
That not a single major media outlet bothered to correct Brat’s ignorance represents America’s continual decline in American civic and cultural literacy.
“Every shortcoming of American governance is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the public – if only because there is no widespread indignation at policies shaped by elected officials who suffer from the same intellectual blind spots as their constituents,” observed Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason.
The nation’s collective ignorance as it pertains to cultural and civic literacy paves the way for extremist politicians to convince the public of the validity of extreme positions.
So how bad is America’s political literacy?
A 2007 National Constitutional Center poll found that two-thirds of Americans couldn’t name all three branches of the U.S. federal government, nor a single Supreme Court justice. Another poll found that 91 percent couldn’t name the current Chief Justice, which is staggering considering the number of high profile, politically polarizing cases deliberated upon by the nation’s highest court in recent years – including the rulings on the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage and campaign finance laws.
It gets worse. When respondents were asked whether they could recall any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, a majority could name only free speech. More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights. The National Constitution Center also found that 42 percent of Americans think the Constitution explicitly states that “the first language of the United States is English;” and 25 percent believe Christianity was established in the Constitution as the official government religion.
Only 40 percent of adults know that there are 100 Senators in the U.S. Congress, while a great majority of Americans have no idea of when or by whom the Constitution was written. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey of Americans' knowledge of public affairs and politics revealed that political literacy has been in rapid and continual descent since high water mark of the 1950s. While one may be forgiven for not understanding all the quirky procedural rules of the U.S. Senate, one should be suitably embarrassed if one cannot at least correctly identify the number of votes needed to end a filibuster, but on that – more than two-thirds of Americans do not know the answer is 60.