Through apathy, our republic withers.
There’s good reason for those dramatic words: Just 26 percent of all Americans can name the three branches of government. One-third of the country – 33 percent – cannot name a single branch of government.
The rest fall in between with 13 percent knowing two branches and 27 percent knowing one branch. For those versed in math – and I’m guessing that’s not many Americans given that math is more difficult than simply memorizing “executive, legislative, and judicial” – 60 percent of the country cannot name more than one branch of government.
I imagine the most-well known branch is the executive as Americans have increasingly been infatuated with the singular head of state and government, lusting for ceaseless news coverage about him (someday her!) and spending hours commenting on even the most trivial of presidential activities (eg, President Obama propping his feet on the Resolute Desk or when Obama happened to order Dijon mustard).
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt asserted executive primacy and Congress more or less acquiesced – the Senate put up a strong fight, but only because Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, sought to (gasp) promote racial equality – the (imperial) presidency has become the image of American government.
So people equate the executive with government and forget the other branches exist, especially when a divided Congress or a split between partisan control of the legislative and executive branches leads to governing through executive order. That trend’s been evident since 2011.
As many people cannot name a single branch as in 2011, but 12 percent fewer can name all three branches (and 11 percent more can only name one). I’d guess people slide down knowledge levels, devolving from knowing three to knowing two to knowing one – and then remembering that one…maybe.
Such apathy and ignorance, of course, does not bode well. We can’t expect voters to make informed decisions about complex issues if they don’t understand how the government works. Associating the government with one office, and so one individual, makes Americans susceptible to authoritarian appeals because any and all autocrats would pledge to do get things done (you know, the “I alone can fix it” attitude). They rebel against inaction and complication and turn towards simplicity and impossible promises. And then those inevitable fail because for all the promises of immediate, unilateral action, voter ignorance doesn’t erase the other two branches. But it does threaten their continued legitimacy and, at worst, independence.
So, Americans, do the country a favor. Learn the branches of our government. It’s really not that hard.