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Only 1 out of 3 Americans know the three branches of government

U.S. government

(NaturalNews) With election season heating up in earnest, and political debates breaking out nationwide, we would do well to remember an often overlooked but troubling survey, published by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania in September 2014. That study found that U.S. residents show an astonishing lack of understanding of the basics of how their government functions. Indeed, more than one in three respondents was unable to name even a single branch of the U.S. government.

The survey of 1,416 adults in the United States was conducted by phone between July 8 and 14, 2014. It was released on Constitution Day, September 17.

"Although surveys reflect disapproval of the way Congress, the President and the Supreme Court are conducting their affairs, the Annenberg survey demonstrates that many know surprisingly little about these branches of government," said APPC director Kathleen Hall Jamieson. "This survey offers dramatic evidence of the need for more and better civics education."

Ignorant of how government works

The survey found that only 36 percent of respondents – just over a third – were able to accurately identify all three branches of the U.S. government: legislative, executive and judicial. As much as 35 percent could not name any, while 13 percent could name only one and 16 percent could name only two.

Asked how much of a majority was required for Congress to override a presidential veto, 47 percent answered that they did not know, while another 26 percent answered incorrectly. Only 27 percent knew the correct answer – a two-thirds majority.

When asked what a 5-4 Supreme Court decision meant, 25 percent said they did not know. More than one in five (21 percent) incorrectly said that a 5-4 decision would be sent back to Congress for reconsideration. Just under half (47 percent) knew that any majority decision by the Supreme Court becomes law.

Overall, respondents did better when asked which branch of government has the final responsibility for deciding whether laws are constitutional. A full 62 percent correctly answered the Supreme Court, while 17 percent incorrectly said Congress, and 12 percent said the president. A further 8 percent were unsure.

Perhaps most relevant for elections season, the survey found that fewer than half of respondents knew which political parties control the House and the Senate. When asked which party controls the House of Representatives, only 38 percent correctly answered Republicans. A further 44 percent were unsure, and 17 percent incorrectly answered Democrats.

Notably, the number who did not know which party controlled the house had increased dramatically since a similar survey in 2011; back then, "only" 27 percent said they were not sure.

The numbers were similar when respondents were asked which party controls the Senate: 38 percent answered correctly (Democrats), 20 percent answered incorrectly (Republicans), and 42 percent did not know (compared with 27 percent in 2011).

Support for First Amendment tepid, at best

The survey found that, in general, support for the protections of the First Amendment remains high, although perhaps not as high as might be wished. Respondents were asked whether they would favor or oppose a law that barred news media from reporting on any matters of national security without first receiving government approval. Though 54 percent opposed such a law, 37 percent favored it.

However, the picture is grimmer when levels of support or opposition are considered: 19 percent opposed the law somewhat, while only 35 percent opposed it strongly. And 9 percent did not know whether they supported the law or not.

The researchers found that people who were more politically engaged were more likely to answer the questions correctly.

"If you're excited about politics, if you discuss politics with family and friends, you tend to be more knowledgeable," said Ken Winneg, managing director of survey research at APPC. "The key is involvement."

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