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The Legislative Gazette


May 3, 2011


Page 11


the powers and roles of the president and Congress are? If not, according to a recent study


Democracy at risk: Study shows NYers don’t know how gov’t works D


By TOM CASEY Gazette staff writer


o you know what the founders’ intentions were in creating the Constitution? Do you know what


by New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, you have much in common with a large number of voting New Yorkers. A report released April 13 by the


Brennan Center indicates many New Yorkers had poor knowledge of the foundational ideas of the Constitution and the institutions and processes of American government and governance. “We were interested in questions related


to how you understand today’s events, what you know about the Constitution’s history and principles, and sort of make sense out of today’s politics and policies and elections,” said Eric Lance, co-author of the report. “I think it’s very surprising and pretty horrifying that New Yorkers … don’t understand the three branches of government and what they do. I think it’s really poor that New Yorkers don’t know the reason for the establishment of the Constitution. I think all of those findings are pretty bad.” The Brennan Center surveyed more


than 1,000 New York residents who said they were at least 18 and registered to vote over the summer of 2010. Survey results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. The interviews found many New


Yorkers said they believed the U.S. Constitution is important for America to be successful. Eighty-six percent said they believed democracy requires a citizen to be knowledgeable of the document, however, only 16 percent said they are very familiar with the Constitution. The findings showed 42 percent of


New Yorkers knew basic information about the three branches of government. Two-thirds of the respondents know the president is in charge of the executive branch. Two out of five New Yorkers polled could not identify which branch of the federal government makes laws. New Yorkers polled did not fare any


better when identifying the roles of the president and of Congress. Fifty- one percent of those polled incorrectly identified enforcing tax laws as the purview of Congress, and 62 percent incorrectly identified the president as the federal official who has the power to declare war. “How do you evaluate how your elected officials are doing [if] we don’t actually know about the process and we don’t know how American government is intended to work?” asks Lance, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center and a distinguished professor of public law at Hofstra University School of Law. “We want people to do it for us now. We are becoming very immature, and this lack of education is fueling that.” The report also asked New Yorkers


about the principles and ideas of the founding fathers that were behind the formation of the Constitution and the goals the document was supposed to achieve. Fewer than one-third of those surveyed


could identify strengthening the federal government as a goal of the Constitution,


Gazette file photo


A new report by the Brennan Center revealed New Yorkers’ poor civic literacy. A large number of those polled could not identify certain principles of the Constitution, powers of the President and Congress, and failed to identify either Charles Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand as the state’s U.S. Senators.


while 31 percent of those polled incorrectly believed the founders were seeking to create a Christian nation as they drafted the Constitution, according to the report. Voters polled also were asked their opinions of the role of special interests and compromise in American government. Twenty-nine percent of New Yorkers say elected officials should stand by their beliefs and refuse to compromise, whereas 65 percent say compromise is necessary to get things done. Special interest groups block the will of the people and make government





provide Charles [Schumer’s] name when asked,” the report says, “especially when we consider that both senators’ names (Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand) were on the ballot in the Nov. 2010 elections and both were campaigning during the time the poll was conducted.” New Yorkers did have some positive


scores, however. Eighty-four percent know both the Constitution as ratified did not allow all Americans to vote, and that the separation of powers was established to ensure no single branch can dominate the others. But the correct answers were few and far between.


The greatest gift an authoritative government gives to its people is the right to be ignorant.


dysfunctional, according to 50 percent of voters responding to the Brennan Center’s survey, while 39 percent say special interests are a part of democracy and make government work. “The goal of the Constitution was


— Eric Lance, report co-author According to Lance, the study says “a





to make sure these interests could be heard, but to block their ambition until a consensus for action could develop,” the report read. “Too often Americans characterize as dysfunctional the processes of government that are intended as anchors against the realization of special interest agendas.” New Yorkers also had trouble identifying


their elected officials. Fifty-eight percent of New Yorkers could not name either of the two current New York representatives in the U.S. Senate. “It is significant that so few New Yorkers were able to


hell of a lot” about New York’s public school system and insists it is responsible for the lack of civic literacy. He said schools have been slowly abandoning civic education for the past 40 years in favor of programs such as No Child Left Behind.


“I believe people should be literate and should be able to do math. Certainly, one can’t be civically literate unless they can basically read, but I think that they are pushing civic education to the bottom,” said Lance. “They themselves are really undermining the vigor of American democracy, which has been on the decline for years anyway.” Lance warns the less Americans


know about civics, the more American democracy is put at risk. He says if


Americans don’t know about their government and their role in it, the more complacent and apathetic they are toward participating in it. “There’s a great quote from Eisenhower where he basically said you need to be informed to maintain the democracy,” said Lance. Paraphrasing the quote he said, “The greatest gift an authoritative government gives to its people is the right to be ignorant.” Lance also takes issue with left and right


wing organizations such as the tea party, whose members are passionate about government but lack civic knowledge and the facts behind their beliefs. “The tea party did what you are supposed to do, they organized [and] they pushed their issues. I’m not objecting to them per se, I’m objecting to their using passion instead of using the facts,” said Lance. “I don’t think you should make a decision about how big or small government is supposed to be without some context of understanding the Constitution. Making up facts about the Constitution is not very helpful letting people into the discussion.” To solve the lack of civic literacy


in New York, the report calls on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to create a task force made up of a wide range of New Yorkers from teachers to elected public officials. The task force would look to “equip all New Yorkers with the tools needed to understand the values of American democracy, to hold elected officials accountable and to meaningfully participate in their government.” “You can’t leave your democracy behind,” said Lance. “We could turn into the Chinese system and then compete, but we don’t want to do that. We’re a democracy and we can’t compete by leaving our democracy behind.”


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