Ignorance of Americans: Only One Third Can Name 3 Branches of Government

Is it really any surprise that only about a third of eligible voters participate in mid-term elections? “Only 35 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government and 36 percent can’t name any of them,” according to an Anneberg Public Policy Center poll in September 2014.

  • Just over a quarter of Americans (27 percent) know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
  • One in five Americans (21 percent) incorrectly thinks that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.
  • The study also found that more than half of Americans do not know which party controls the House and Senate:
    • Asked which party has the most members in the House of Representatives, 38 percent said they knew the Republicans are the majority, but 17 percent responded the Democrats, and 44 percent reported that they did not know (up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).
    • Asked which party controls the Senate, 38 percent correctly said the Democrats, 20 percent said the Republicans, and 42 percent said they did not know (also up from 27 percent who said they did not know in 2011).

In 2011, a study by Newsweek revealed:

  • 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president.
  • 73 percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War.
  • 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.
  • 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.
  • about 35 percent couldn’t assign the proper century to the American Revolution

Andrew Romano, author of the Newsweek article, pointed out:

  • In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan.
  • A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent.
  • A Jan. 25, 2011 CNN poll, meanwhile, discovered that even though 71 percent of voters want smaller government, vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), and Medicaid (70 percent).
  • Instead, they prefer to slash waste—a category that, in their fantasy world, seems to include 50 percent of spending, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

Lack of Awareness of the World

The US scored NEXT TO LAST in a National Geographic survey of world geography knowledge. See these disturbing articles:

Geography Is Greek to Young Americans


Americans Shaky on Geography


Americans Fail Geography. Are Other Nationalities Better?


Lack of Historical Knowledge

“What happened in 1066? Just 10 percent of Americans know it is the date of the Norman Conquest. Who said “the world must be safe for democracy”? Just 14 percent know it was Woodrow Wilson. Which country dropped the nuclear bomb? Only 49 percent know it was their own country.” — Rick Shenkman, founder of the History News Network.

In 1986, only 30% knew that Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court decision that ruled abortion legal more than a decade earlier. In 1991, Americans were asked how long the term of a United States senator is. Just 25% correctly answered six years. How many senators are there? A poll a few years ago found that only 20% know that there are 100 senators.

The only “good news” is that the level of ignorance has remained constant over time. Americans today are about as knowledgeable about history and civics as were Americans in the 1940s.

The lack of knowledge may partially explain why so many Americans do not vote — they do not have the knowledge to cast an intelligent vote. Of course we also know that many people — on the right, the left and in the middle — do casts votes who do not have much know knowledge, haven’t utilized critical thinking skills and are easily manipulated by the temper of the times.

The Pew Research Project on People and the Press in 2006 offered some insight into who votes, who doesn’t vote, and why. About one-third of American adults are regular voters; about one-quarter are  registered but rare voters; about 23% of adults are intermittant voters; and about 22% of adults are unregistered. Not surprisingly, those who don’t vote are more socially isolated and more distrustful of people than than those who do.

The only good news is that this ignorance isn’t anything new. The Annenberg Center says the numbers have only varied by one or two percentage points since the polls began in the 1940s. I remember a survey that revealed America’s ignorance of foreign policy in the 1980s — only 25 percent of Americans could correctly identify where El Salvavor was, and some said it was in Louisiana, near Baton Rouge.

Drill Deeper:


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