Can you name the five rights enumerated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? If you can’t, you are not alone. Most people can’t. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center 37 percent couldn’t name any of these rights.
It is estimated that 60 percent of U.S.-born citizens could not pass the test required of immigrants seeking citizenship. Most Americans are poorly informed about basic constitutional provisions. Only 26 percent could correctly name the three branches of government; 33 percent could not name any of the branches; 60 percent of college graduates don’t know any of the steps to ratify a constitutional amendment. 50 percent don’t know the terms of representatives or senators. Only a few understood the Electoral College. Fewer still understood the difference between a democracy and a republic or which one we are. Why we have separation of powers or how it protects our liberties is a mystery to most.
I just finished reading a book by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch called “A Republic, if You Can Keep It.” It is a surprisingly simple and clear explanation of his view of the intent of the founders for the judicial branch of government and the separation of powers. It is easily readable and is by no means a dry legal tome.
Not only does he discuss the role of the judiciary as an originalist body as the founders intended, he also touches on other issues he sees with government. Specifically, he talks at length, with supporting case law and events, about the erosion of the separation of the powers as intended by the founders. He believes there should be a clear delineation of duties of the legislative, executive, and judicial with none exceeding their bounds.
He cites the common example of Congress passing a directive or rough framework of a law and then leaving government agencies in the executive branch to work out the “details” of the directive. In other words, the executive branch is now writing law at the direction of the legislative branch. Further, there are often “administrative judges” employed by that agency who hear disputes over the rules the agency wrote. These administrative judges often report to and are beholden to agency leadership for their jobs. This is a classic example he uses to point out the blending of agencies. Or as he infers, actions similar to those of a despotic regime.
He also talks about civics and civility. He says, “Each serves a vital role in sustaining our republic, a nation established on the idea that government exists to serve the people, not the other way around.”
We have a major civility problem in America today: 70 percent of Americans believe there is a problem, and 60 percent pay less attention to politics and many say they will not run for public office because of its lack. Given the amount of vitriol aimed non-stop at our sitting president, this attitude is not surprising. But then who will carry on the ideas of self-governance?
Civics is also necessary to continue the government as the founders saw it. If we are to be a self-governing people, we need to know not just our rights but the structures that protect them. Otherwise we and those we elect are operating in a dark void. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be.”
That leads back to my opening paragraphs. The level of ignorance from our citizenry is astounding. It is sad when immigrants have a better idea of how our country works than those native-born. We are fortunate to have someone like Gorsuch on our highest court. His knowledge of the intent of the founders is astounding, as is his belief in originalist intent of the Constitution applying to today’s issues. I strongly recommend his book, perhaps even as a text for government classes.
It is a new year. My challenge to you is to become more knowledgeable about how our government is structured and how it was intended to work. Hillsdale College offers a free online Constitution course available to anyone. It is excellent. Make a resolution to take that course. It will hopefully spark a desire to know more. Knowledge will be on you, as our education system has abandoned civics.
Oh, and those five rights? They are freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to practice a religion (or not), freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.