Personal Growth

The upside of our turbulent year: More Americans learned the basics of government

In a year when the obscure logistics of ratifying a new president via hundred-year-old electoral conventions was parsed to excruciating detail, is it any wonder that America’s civic brains are growing?

Not really. A new study from the University of Pennsylvania reveals that Americans are now more well-versed in the basics of government, including such fundamentals as its three-branch structure and the pillars of the Constitution’s First Amendment. According to an annual survey conducted by the school’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, the number of U.S. adults who could correctly name all three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—rose to 56%, the highest since the survey began in 2006.

That’s both encouraging and dismaying, if you consider that only half of adults can recall a rudimentary fact taught in sixth-grade social studies. But any progress is good progress. The rise was likely brought by a barrage of news spotlighting the power dynamics between branches: the push and pull to pass COVID-19 relief bills along with a presidential impeachment trial.

Additionally, more people could name most of the freedoms bestowed by the First Amendment, with the most recognizable right being “freedom of speech” at 74%, followed by “freedom of religion” at 56%.

Again, it’s unsurprising given the coverage this year surrounding the issue of free speech—and, specifically, how it tracks with misinformation and disinformation. Popular social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter made unprecedented moves to ban former president Donald Trump on the grounds of inciting the infamous Capitol Hill riots. That’s led to a war of words between political conservatives and liberals, with the former claiming that the left wing is trying to muzzle Trump and his allies, and the latter arguing Trump’s actions constitute a dangerous threat to public safety. Caught in the middle are Facebook and Twitter, which have been accused of both too much and not enough censorship.

But just because Americans can cite “free speech” doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it. Annenberg’s report shows 61% think the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech requires Facebook to allow anybody to say anything on its pages and news feeds—however, that’s been deemed patently untrue. The First Amendment defends citizens from government censorship, but doesn’t include censorship from private companies, as courts have ruled in the past. The mistaken belief was held by 66% of conservatives, 61% of moderates, and 55% of liberals self-described in the survey.

Also spotlighted recently by both the Capitol riots and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations is the issue of protest—and this year saw a rise in people who could name the First Amendment’s “right to petition.” But disturbingly, 49% of Americans said the insurrectionists who stormed Capitol Hill on January 6 armed with baseball bats and stun guns were exercising their “right to petition the government for redress of grievances,” and that arresting them was unconstitutional. That figure included 53% of conservatives, 51% of moderates, and 42% of liberals.

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