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The Great Smoky Mountain Journal

Staff Reports

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2018 03:52 PM

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OPED: The Scariest Stat You Will Ever See

When you consider the fact that a third of American adults cannot name a single branch of their federal government, you cease to wonder why things are so bad and begin to wonder why they are not already worse.

In a poll conducted for the Annenberg Public Policy Center ahead of this weekend’s celebration of the 229th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution, only 26 percent of respondents could identify the executive, legislative and judicial branches, while 40 percent could name only one or two.

Americans talk openly and often about the dumbing down of our culture, what we refer to as “The Big Stupid.” It is a lament, but also something of a brag for people not clutched by ignorance of this magnitude.

But it’s easy to be an intellectual elite in a nation where not even half of the people know what kind of government they have. Possessing the knowledge we should expect of a sixth grader is nothing to boast about. This should be cause for deepening alarm, not selfish pride.

Knowledgeable people look on in horror as mobs denounce our Founders, attacking even the author of the American Creed. Reasonable people despair to hear the growing frequency with which bigotry mingles with patriotism.

But if these bad actors do not even understand what the American system is, can we be so surprised that they do not cherish its most basic tenets?

One of the conceits about the lunkheaded, tribal politics of the current era is that Americans are rightfully aggrieved by the failures of their government. In this sympathetic view of the electorate, voters are desperate for change and willing to accept increasingly radical options in hope of fixing Washington.

Let us suggest a more frightening possibility: Not enough Americans know what their government is for to make sensible demands of it.

We will not waste time today discussing the causes of the current crisis, which surely trace back to a rejection of civics education and an overall slide toward enthusiastic ignorance in the larger culture.

But make no mistake, a crisis it is.

It is telling that the folks who commissioned the poll didn’t even give this appalling fact top billing, instead focusing on a specious question about whether illegal immigrants have rights under the Constitution. The appeal of partisan clickbait is so great that even institutions supposedly devoted to preserving civic knowledge cannot resist.

If we care to avert the crisis, we must also foreswear the delight of easy clicks and cheap shots.

It becomes increasingly clear that the central struggle for all people who love America and believe in its creed is to be instructional in nature. And if you care about the voices and rights of ordinary people, first they must be equipped to operate the magnificent machinery of a constitutional republic.


“As the natural limit of a democracy is that distance from the central point which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand, and will include no greater number than can join in those functions; so the natural limit of a republic is that distance from the centre which will barely allow the representatives to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs.” – James Madison, Federalist No. 14