"How you lose your democracy": Shocking new research shows Americans lack basic civic knowledge

Do you know what the three branches of government are? Do you understand their roles? Many Americans do not

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer
Published September 26, 2023 9:13AM (EDT)
Updated September 26, 2023 12:19PM (EDT)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on October 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on October 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Republicans are systematically eroding the basic civil rights of the American people. As we are seeing in other countries that are experiencing what experts describe as "democratic backsliding," Republicans are doing this by undermining and corrupting America's democratic institutions from within. If Republicans get their way, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, equal protection under the law, the right to privacy, the right to vote, and other basic freedoms and rights will be severely restricted.

In an example of Orwellian Newspeak, Republicans present themselves as defenders of freedom, when they actually oppose it. More specifically, Republicans believe that freedom is the ability and power of a select group of White Americans (rich, white, "Christian" men) to take away and otherwise deny the rights and liberties of other Americans and people in this country they deem to be less than, second-class, not "real Americans" and the Other, such as Black and brown people, the LGBTQI community, women, non-Christians, and other targeted groups.

Unfortunately, many Americans are unaware of their basic constitutional and other guaranteed rights and liberties – and how the country's democratic institutions are ideally supposed to function. How can the American people defend and protect their democracy and rights, if they lack such basic knowledge?

Such an outcome is not a coincidence: it is the intentional outcome of how the American right-wing and conservative movements have undermined high-quality public education for decades with the goal of creating a compliant public that lacks the critical thinking skills and knowledge to be engaged citizens. Now new research by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center provides insight into the extent of this crisis. Some of the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey's findings include:

[W]hen U.S. adults are asked to name the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, only one right is recalled by most of the respondents: Freedom of speech, which 77% named.  
Although two-thirds of Americans (66%) can name all three branches of government, 10% can name two, 7% can name only one, and 17% cannot name any. 

I recently spoke with Matthew Levendusky, who is a Professor of Political Science, and the Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, about this new research. His new book is "Our Common Bonds: Using What Americans Share to Help Bridge the Partisan Divide."

In this conversation, he explains how America's democracy crisis is connected to a lack of basic political knowledge and civic literacy, the role that education can play in equipping Americans to defend their democracy, and why contrary to what many "conservatives" like to believe, America is not a "republic".

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

How you are feeling about the country's democracy crisis, given your new research that shows a lack of basic civics knowledge among a large portion of the American public?

I am worried, with occasional glimmers of hope. But mostly I worry. Why? Our data show that people lack key civics knowledge, continuing a trend from recent years. A new report from Pew confirms what many suspected: Most Americans are fed up with government and don't think it's working. Those two things are deeply related.

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To understand why, it's helpful to take a step back and think about why civics matters, broadly speaking. The main reason is that we want people to understand how they can make their voices heard in our democracy. But you can't make your voice heard if you don't understand our system of government. For example, if you don't know the three branches of government and their roles, then you won't know why President Biden and Congress are sparring about spending, immigration, green energy, etc. If you don't know what rights are protected by the First Amendment or what they mean, then you won't understand why the government can't censor the New York Times, but Facebook can make you take down a post that violates its community standards policy. If you don't know which branch has the responsibility of determining whether a law is constitutional, you won't understand why the Supreme Court and its rulings are so important and influential. In short, without some basic civic knowledge, you can't even follow the news of the day to be an informed citizen. If you can't do that, then you cannot know what to expect out of your government. That is not—at all—to say that a lack of knowledge is the root of dysfunction (it is not). But it is to say that they are related.  

The concepts of civic literacy and engaged citizenship are not commonly discussed among the news media and general public. Can you explain those two concepts in more detail and why they matter?

What we can measure in a survey is civic literacy, which is your comprehension of basic facts about our system of government. So, for example, we ask if people know the three branches of government, what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment, who is responsible for determining the constitutionality of a law, and so forth. This gets at the pre-requisite knowledge you need to understand government and to participate in our system. But engaged citizenship—having people really how know to function in our governmental system, and make their voices heard—is the deeper goal.

This matters because we do not just want people to vote, we want them to cast an informed vote. This means, at a minimum, that they know where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to them, and they understand the office's role in our democracy. For example, if you don't know that the president is responsible for nominating Supreme Court justices who are then confirmed by the Senate, you won't know to investigate the types of justices that a candidate might nominate. Likewise, if you don't know the candidate's positions (or have been misled about them), then you cannot effectively cast your vote on the issues that matters to you.

"Backsliding is more the fault of elites than voters."

But even more importantly, we want people to participate in government more broadly. This can be many things: going to a community meeting (such as a school board meeting), volunteering for an election or civic activity (shout out to poll workers, the unsung heroes of democracy!), or working to solve problems in your community. For most of us, local participation is more important than national participation. Few people can meaningfully participate in national politics beyond voting (this is just as true of political scientists as it is of regular folks). But we can all participate locally, and for most of us, that is where we interface with government the most: local governments help pave our roads, police our streets, teach our children in schools, and so forth. What would this knowledge look like?

Take the case of Philadelphia. Here, the information needed to participate could be identifying your councilperson, knowing what they can resolve, and how to contact them. It could be knowing who controls the schools, and what are the roles of the mayor vs. the school board. You could also investigate what should be reported to 311 to get a response from a city agency, and what a registered community organization can help to address. These would differ from place to place, but the core idea is that it would help citizens see how they could uncover how the government can help them solve problems in their lives.

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I went to a very good public school system.  I remember taking social studies and civics courses. Obviously, given my career path, those courses and teachers had a great influence on me. Are such courses still taught today? What is their content?

Many states—including Pennsylvania—have civics requirements, and that's helpful for teaching this sort of civic literacy. But it is on all of us, as citizens, to help the next generation learn how to participate more meaningfully in our democracy. Happily, there are so many great resources for those who need to do this. For example, the Civics Renewal Network provides thousands of free, non-partisan, high-quality learning materials about civics that anyone can use. For example, Annenberg Classroom provides 65 high-quality videos about various key Supreme Court decisions, as well as extensive materials about our system of government. While much of this is aimed at teachers, who can use it directly in their classrooms, parents and others could also make use of this material. [In full disclosure, both CRN and AC are part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, but I would endorse their content even if I did not work there.]

If I could add something to civics education in our current moment, it would be teaching people skills on how to have conversations across lines of difference. This is something that I discuss in my new book, and I show can reduce animosity and improve understanding between the two sides.

What does this look like? There are many ways of doing this, but they tend to share a few things in common. These are conversations centered on genuinely listening to the other person and their point of view, what some scholars call "perspective getting" so you can understand why they believe what they believe. The goal is to understand those with whom you disagree, not to persuade them. This means asking probing questions and keeping an open mind. These are also conversations grounded in what Keith and Danisch call "strong civility," basically the idea that we treat each other as political equals and respect the other person's right to take part in the political process.

But this takes practice, and can be intimidating, so it's something we all need help to do well. Happily, there are a number of groups working to do this, but it is a vital civic skill as well that we all should try to master. 

What measures of political knowledge and civic literacy were used in the new research? What do those measures help to reveal (or not) about a person's relationship to democratic citizenship and its demands and requirements?

Surveys like ours ask about the key ingredients of civic literacy. Do you know what the three branches of government are? Do you understand their roles? Do you know key rights guaranteed by the various key amendments?  Do you know what a 5-4 Supreme Court decision means? And so forth. These are some of the benchmark pieces of information people need to know to be informed citizens.

And our survey—like many others—finds that many Americans do not. For example, one-third do not know the three branches of government. While most people know that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of speech, they don't know the other rights protected by it (freedom of the press, freedom of religion, right to petition the government, and right to peaceably assembly). And even though most people know that free speech is protected by the First Amendment, they don't understand what that means: roughly half think (incorrectly) that it requires Facebook to let you say whatever you'd like on its platform. 

This sort of lack of basic information is quite troubling, as it highlights that citizens lack that core civic literacy. 

Many Americans do not have a basic understanding of politics and government. Yet, we are also in an era of 24/7 news media and the Internet. The high levels of civic ignorance and lack of knowledge among the American people is an indictment of our country's political culture, political elites and the news media, the educational system, and other key agents of political socialization.

This is why the well-documented decline of local media is so important. If you like politics, there's never been a better time to be alive. You can read Politico, First Branch Forecast, subscribe to Ezra Klein's podcast, etc. You can consume politics all day, every day. But if you don't like politics (and most Americans do not!), it's never been easier to avoid it, so scholars have found that civic knowledge similarly polarizes based on political interest.

In the days of a robust local media, that was less pronounced: if you subscribed to the local paper to get the sports scores, you also flipped past some national stories, and at least glanced at them. Now, you don't even get this sort of by-product coverage. This is especially consequential for coverage of sub-national politics. All of the sources I discussed above focus on national politics, covering the minutiae of the debates between McConnell, Schumer, Biden, and so forth. But there is far less attention to state and local issues, and indeed, there are just far fewer reporters covering that today than a generation ago.

Given that the business model of local journalism has collapsed, I don't have a great solution to this problem, but it is an important one that many scholars are working to solve.  

As a function of a deep hostility to real multiracial pluralistic democracy, there is a right-wing talking point that America is actually a "republic" and not a "democracy". Of course, this is not true. What intervention would you make against that disinformation and propaganda?

As someone who has taught core undergraduate American politics classes at Penn for many years, this is a perennial question that comes up every year. When people ask which is right—are we a republic or a democracy—the correct answer is that we're both.

For the Founders, "democracy" meant some sort of direct democracy, where the people themselves rule. Functionally, that doesn't exist anywhere in the modern world, at least not at scale (the closest we get are ballot initiatives and referenda in some states). But we have elements of that spirit animating our government today, most notably when we talk about the "will of the people" and public opinion, which is central to our modern understanding of how our government functions.

But we are also a republic, where it is not just what the people want directly that matters, but how that is filtered through our institutions that shapes outcomes (the Electoral College being perhaps the most striking element of that). I try to emphasize to students that our system has both elements, the key is to harness the best of both without succumbing too much to their weaknesses.

Imagine that you are a doctor of American democracy. What is your diagnosis and prognosis for the patient in this time of crisis? How does your new research (and related work of course) help to inform your conclusion(s)? 

Like many others, I fear for our system, and there are real signs of trouble for American democracy. What, then, is to be done? The first, I think, is to put pressure on elites to a bulwark against backsliding. As many scholars—myself included—have shown, backsliding is more the fault of elites than voters (i.e., it is less about voters demanding elites break norms than it is elites breaking norms that voters then rationalize as unimportant). Our job as citizens is to demand better of them. In 2020, despite real threats—including January 6th—the guardrails of democracy held. They need to be strengthened and reinforced to ensure that they can continue to flourish.

At the outset, I said that I occasionally see glimmers of hope. Those glimmers are the people who are working to make our democracy better. They are working to help us better understand one another, build bridges, and make America live up to its founding promises to all Americans, not just some of them. That is hard, difficult work. But it is the work we need at this moment.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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