Great news: 36% of Americans can name all three branches of government

When you’re waiting in line at your polling place in November, remind yourself that it’s statistically likely the person ahead of you and the person behind you understand basic civics at the level of a four-year-old.

Still care about voting?

Only 38 percent of Americans knew the Republican Party controls the U.S. House of Representatives, while 17 percent think Democrats are still in charge. The number of people who knew Republicans were in charge has dropped 17 percent since the last time Annenberg asked, back in 2011, right after Republicans reclaimed control.

An identical number, 38 percent, knows Democrats run the Senate, while 20 percent believe Republicans control the upper chamber. Only 27 percent knew it takes a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.

If it makes you feel better, we don’t seem to be getting worse at civics, just coasting along at our usual levels of ignorance. Compare the data from 2014 and 2011. Solid as a rock:


Interestingly, when people were asked whether they thought they knew the three branches, 72 percent said yes (73 percent in 2011). It’s not just ignorance you’re seeing here, it’s ignorance about the depth of one’s ignorance. The best kind.

There are a few noteworthy trends over the past three years buried in the data. Some are easily explained:


In 2011, the barrage of headlines about a big Republican takeover in the House was still fresh in the public’s mind from the preceding November. Three years later, that news is lost in the mists of time, drowned out by Iggy Azalea tunes and the fact that the new iPhone’s camera is 2.3 percent better than the old one’s or whatever. (The flip side of the last table is that many more people were apt to say incorrectly in 2011 that the GOP controlled the Senate than say so now. They saw the “GOP landslide!” headlines after the 2010 midterms, apparently, and didn’t bother reading further to see whether that applied to one chamber of Congress or both.) On the other hand, I’m not sure where this trend is coming from:


Why is there almost a 10-point gain in people thinking a 5-4 decision gets sent back to Congress for further consideration? My half-assed guess is that it stems from SCOTUS’s 2012 ObamaCare ruling. That was big enough news to penetrate even the thick, Kardashian-filled skulls of the low-information voter; it could be that they heard about the ruling, then heard that Republicans in Congress were still holding votes to repeal the law, and somehow teased out that all 5-4 decisions are essentially punts back to the legislature. But I don’t know. How do you parse the civic reasoning of someone who’s working off of an essentially imaginary, incoherent civic template to begin with?

The poll was sponsored by the Civics Renewal Group. Another civics education group wants mandatory civics tests for high-school students on par with the kind that are given to immigrants during the naturalization process. Normally I’m “meh” about that sort of thing — does knowing that the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia matter much to good citizenship? — but after spending the last few years watching Obama grab statutory powers from Congress over war, health care, and soon immigration, I think a better handle on civics might be a fine idea. At least then, when O announces he’s going to raise the debt ceiling or the minimum wage on his own, you might get more out of the public than a shrug. Emphasis on “might.”