WASHINGTON — Can you list the three branches of the U.S. Government? If you can, you’re apparently in the minority. For the first time in six years, the percentage of Americans who correctly named the legislative, executive, and judicial branches fell below the 50 percent mark.
In all, just 47 percent of respondents know all three branches of the government, a decline of nearly 10 points from last year, according to the latest Annenberg Public Policy Center survey. To make matters worse, one in four people could not name any of the branches. Even fewer could correctly identify what role the U.S. Supreme Court serves.
Also dropping in 2022 is the number of Americans who can, without any prompt, name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Only 6 percent of the 1,113 adults surveyed were able to list the “Right to petition the government” as a First Amendment protection.
“Freedom of speech” knowledge appears to have fallen, or become politically tainted, among self-described conservatives. Two-thirds inaccurately think Facebook posts are covered by the First Amendment. Overall, a slight majority (51 percent) incorrectly say that First Amendment protections force Facebook (or other social media companies) to permit users to post anything they want on their company platforms.
‘Troubling that so few’ Americans know their civics
The survey results end years of rising civics knowledge among Americans, prompting the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, to describe the findings as a warning sign. “It’s troubling that so few know what rights we’re guaranteed by the First Amendment. We are unlikely to cherish, protect, and exercise rights if we don’t know that we have them,” Jamieson says in a statement.
During a C-SPAN interview, she expressed her disappointment at the results, particularly after the positive numbers in the 2021 annual survey. “If you don’t understand these [civics facts], then some basic things happening in the news aren’t going to make very much sense,” she said. “But also, some of your capacity as a citizen, is not going to be at top-of-mind for you when you might need it.”
The adults in the survey did maintain solid civics knowledge in regards to several specific aspects. That includes presidential vetoes and the relationship between the U.S. Supreme Court and the White House. More than three-quarters (76 percent) know that under the Constitution, even when the president vetoes a bill, it can still become law if two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the executive branch. And 73 percent of respondents know it’s inaccurate to say that under the Constitution, a president can ignore a Supreme Court ruling if they believe it was wrong.
Numerous caveats and tidbits of constitutional awareness show up throughout the latest survey numbers. For example, 76 percent of adults in the survey know Congress cannot establish an official religion in the United States. And 78 percent know it is accurate to say that protection from “unreasonable searches and seizures” is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Similar majorities of U.S. maintain their knowledge of their rights in court and in regards to undocumented immigrants. A 57 percent majority know that undocumented immigrants in the country have at least some rights under the Constitution, up nearly 20 percentage points from 2017.