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What should Americans know about their government?

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner wonders what Americans need to know about their system of government. Responding to a post on Twitter that declared “Political Science nerds, asking respondents number of votes needed to overturn a presidential veto isn’t a useful assessment of knowledge,” Joyner writes:

While I agree that the actual number here is indeed a matter of trivia, I contend that understanding the broad workings of our political system is far more useful knowledge than the ephemeral matter of voting records. Because most people are so woefully ignorant of the parameters, they’re susceptible to magical thinking and easy targets for propaganda.


It’s certainly not vital that Americans know that it takes 290 Representatives and 67 Senators to override a presidential veto. It’s useful, however, for them to understand that it takes a near-impossible supermajority in both Houses of Congress to force legislation on a president.

It’s not at all critical that Americans understand the distinction between Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances or even that they have a decent idea of the myriad ways in which the Executive and Legislative branches, in particular, can complicate the other’s ability to get things done. But it’s absolutely vital for them to understand that the mere fact that a president or presidential candidate wants something doesn’t mean that they will be able to make that something become policy.

Do I care whether Americans can spout back the history of the Great Compromise or the parable of the Cup and Saucer to explain the wisdom of our bicameral legislature? Nope. But I do care that they don’t seem to understand that we have 50 states, each of which have varying local interests, and that our system is designed to give voice to them.

We largely agree with Joyner, though, many of the civics-related tests that Americans perform poorly on are not simply filled with the kind of trivia the tweeter despises; if they were, perhaps the scores would be less dispiriting. Instead, as Cheryl Miller noted last year when Newsweek asked 1,000 American citizens to take the official citizenship test and 38 percent of them failed, “the citizenship test largely consists of such forehead-slapping-obvious questions as: When do we celebrate Independence Day and what happened at the Constitutional Convention?”

See if you can pass the U.S. Citizenship Test here.