Column: Americans don’t understand their government
Disturbing levels of Americans are completely uninformed about our basic constitutional structure. A recent survey by the Annenberg Policy Center reveals that nearly 75 percent of respondents are unable to name all three branches of government. This is not a hard question. The answer should be learned in elementary school and reinforced in middle and high school: legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In fact, a full third do not know any of these branches.
More troubling is that our level of ignorance is worsening. When the first Annenberg survey was taken in 2011, 38 percent could name all three branches of government. The substantial drop to 26 percent shows that whatever we are doing, it is not working. In fact, it is hurting.
A natural response to this survey may be blasé unconcern. After all, these polls have had the same results for years, and everything is just fine. Right? Hardly. One only has take a cursory glance at our political environment and discern quite the opposite.
America is indeed a melting pot. We have many, many diverse elements, and many vigorously disagree with each other in the political arena. However, there has been an underlying commitment unifying these diverse factions — a commitment to the founding principles of our Declaration of Independence. Those principles include the rule of law, unalienable rights, limited government, the social compact, equality, and the right to alter or abolish an oppressive government. Also unifying the people was a near universal commitment to the Constitution. Many of the disputes that caused tremendous positive change involved bridging the gap between the promises of the First Principles and the Constitution and the harsh realities of life (for example, emancipation, women’s suffrage, and civil rights). No question that the gap has not yet been completely bridged, but that goal continues to drive us.
That foundation of these principles has historically tempered many charged emotions and pointed policy disputes. When united on this foundation, political opponents are not seen as personal enemies. When Thomas Jefferson took office after defeating his political nemesis President John Adams, he eloquently stated in his First Inaugural Address, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
We need to remember this. And to do so, we need to remember what unites us — the first principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and our shared heritage (warts and all). When we do so, we can only but succeed. Jefferson continued, “I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth.”
But when we no longer share the foundation underlying the republic, it can all go to hell. And a basic tenant of our constitutional republic is that we have three branches — equal, distinct, and vibrant. To forget that caters disaster. And we are forgetting.
To arrive at this sorry state has taken decades, and has accelerated over the last few years. There is no easy answer. But there are many small advances that together can make a definitive difference. Among these solutions are K-12 standards and curriculum reform; mandatory reintroduction of American history and civics in higher education; and law school and bar reform.
Often overlooked is the power of the calendar. That is why my daughter Leah and I created Patriot Week — with the hope of establishing a new civic calendar to renew the spirit of America. Patriot Week celebrates the first principles, patriots, vital documents and speeches, and flags that make America the greatest nation in world history. It is anchored by the key dates of September 11 and September 17 (Constitution Day). Time to remember who we are and what preserves our liberty, or risk it all. Join us.
Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit judge and former member of the State Board of Education.