More Americans know basic civics, due to hyper-political media regimes

Data: Annenberg Public Policy Center;  Graphic: Will Chase/Axios
Data: Annenberg Public Policy Center; Graphic: Will Chase/Axios

New data reveals that Americans have a much better understanding of the three branches of government than ever before, likely due to the massive increase in politics in our media diets.

Why is this important: “This knowledge appears to have been purchased at real cost,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “It was a controversial year in which branches of government were subjected to stress tests.”

Details: An annual civic study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center finds that a more polarized society knows more about the basics of U.S. government and much more about the First Amendment.

  • In 2021, 56% of Americans could name all three branches of government, up from 51% in 2020 and 33% in 2006.
  • About a third of respondents say they know the length of terms for members of Congress, both in the House and in the Senate.

Between the lines: Generally speaking, Americans are much more aware of the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, and in particular of freedom of expression.

  • More than half of those polled can name at least three of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. In 2016, most Americans could only name one.
  • In total, nearly three-quarters (74%) of all Americans could name freedom of speech as a right, followed by freedom of religion (56%) and freedom of the press (50%).

Yes, but: A better understanding of issues like freedom of speech is likely the result of an increasingly polarized debate in society over media censorship and bias, which has muddied some facts around the issue.

  • To that end, more than half of Americans (61%) incorrectly said that the First Amendment requires Facebook to let all Americans speak freely on its platform.
  • Similarly, nearly half of Americans (49%) believe it is true that the arrest of the Capitol rioters on January 6 violates their constitutional rights.

At the end of the line : “It’s a sad commentary on public civic literacy that half the public views an effort to disrupt the certification of an election as exercising a First Amendment right,” Jamieson said.