When the president of the United States demonstrates little knowledge or understanding of the U.S. Constitution, it is not surprising that many Americans do the same.
Donald Trump has asserted that the nation’s founding document gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” That should be disturbing to anybody who cares about the rule of law.
He has said, “I got sued on a thing called emoluments. Emoluments. You ever hear of the word?” That should be appalling to anybody who has studied Article I of the Constitution and believes presidents should not profit from dignitaries staying at their hotels.
And he has encouraged government officials to ignore congressional subpoenas. That should be alarming to anybody who understands the notion of checks and balances, which is one of the nation’s foundations.
The sad fact, however, is not that President Trump has little regard for the Constitution, but that many Americans share his authoritarian predilections. Inadequate civics education has helped create a situation in which far too many Americans have little knowledge of the system that has sustained this nation for nearly 250 years.
That is demonstrated in the latest national survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The poll, conducted last month, found that 39 percent of American adults could identify all three branches of government. It also found that one in five adults could not identify any of the branches.
Those would be the executive, legislative and judicial branches; we’re guessing you knew that if you are reading the Editorial Page. The U.S. Constitution creates the framework for the those branches and defines checks and balances that prevent any from wielding excessive power. We’re guessing you knew that, as well.
But the fact that many American citizens do not understand that balance demonstrates the importance of civics education. As Andrea Gabor wrote recently for Bloomberg Opinion: “Embracing a meaningful civics project ... may be the best way to help kids make the connection between what they learn about the nation’s political institutions and a future they can affect.”
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The state of Washington has taken steps in that direction. In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill — led by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, to boost civics education in public schools, including training for teachers.
Meanwhile, other programs are being used to help citizens understand our system of government. The state’s public-affairs network promotes a “Teach with TVW” project, providing hands-on education; the Council of Public Legal Education has launched a Civic Learning Initiative to provide access to civics instruction; and the office of Secretary of State Kim Wyman promotes a “Legacy Washington” program to boost knowledge of the state’s history. Plus, we should mention that newspapers provide daily insight into how our government works.
For the United States government to function properly, citizens must understand the machinations. Otherwise, our democracy can be undermined by foreign influence, by a lack of civic engagement, and by a president who willfully ignores the Constitution. Persistently low voter turnout is one example of how citizens are ignoring our democracy and allowing it to atrophy; a lack of understanding about the basics of government is another.
Protecting this nation requires knowledge and engagement with the process. Improved civics education is one way to promote those attributes.