Sep 14, 2021 - Politics & Policy

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

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

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

Why it matters: “This knowledge appears to have been purchased at a real cost," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. "It was a contentious year in which the branches of government were stress-tested.”

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

  • In 2021, 56% of Americans were able to name all three branches of government, up from 51% in 2020 and 33% in 2006.
  • About one-third of respondents say they know how long the term of office for members of Congress, both in the House and Senate.

Between the lines: Broadly speaking, Americans are much more aware of the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, and particularly free speech.

  • More than half of respondents 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-fourths (74%) of all Americans were able to name freedom of speech as a right, followed by freedom of religion (56%) and freedom of the press (50%).

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

  • To that end, more than half of Americans (61%) said incorrectly that the First Amendment requires Facebook to let all Americans express themselves freely on its platform.
  • Similarly, nearly half of Americans (49%) believe it's accurate that arresting the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters violates their constitutional rights.

Bottom line: “It is a sad commentary on the public’s civic literacy that half of the public considers an effort to disrupt the certification of an election an exercise of a First Amendment right,” Jamieson said.

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