What Should Americans Know About American Government?

What walking around knowledge about our political system is necessary to be an informed citizen?

Earlier today on Twitter, Joy Larkin declared, “Political Science nerds, asking respondents number of votes needed to overturn a presidential veto isn’t a useful assessment of knowledge.” After a bit of back-and-forth, she explained that she believes what’s important is “working political knowledge,” such as whether they know the names of their representatives and their voting record. Indeed, she joked, she hasn’t thought about the number of Members required to override a veto since her undergrad days.

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 not particularly important for Americans to know off the top of their heads that there are 435** Members of the House of Representatives or 100 United States Senators. It is, however, useful that they understand the basic differences between how the two institutions work and, in particular, that the filibuster and other devices give the Senate enormous power to gum up the works.

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. The failure to understand this fundamental point makes powerful the assertion by presidents that Congress refusing to go along with their policy preferences somehow constitutes unpatriotic behavior because they have a duty to “work in the best interests of America” when that notion is contrary to the very spirit of our system.

*Indeed, while I have a PhD in political science with American Politics  as a subfield and taught the Intro to American Government class a couple dozen times, I don’t know the raw number off the top of my head since 2/3 of 435 is an odd bit of mathematics.

**I’m counting only real voting members created by the Constitution, not the token representatives given DC and various US possessions and territories through legislative fiat.

FILED UNDER: Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    What do we need to know? We need to file our federal income returns on or before April 15.

  2. @Dave Schuler:

    That may be the one fact that the Federal Government wants us to know.

  3. mistermix says:

    Obligatory nerd comment: if you want to take 1/3 of a hard to factor number, start with an easy number near the odd number and do easy math to get to hard math.

    360 is near 435. 1/3 of 360 is easy = 120. Twice that is easy = 240.

    435 – 360 is pretty easy, 75. 1/3 of 75 is easy = 25. Twice that, also easy = 50.

    240 + 50 = 290.

    But no, nobody should know that off the top of their head.

  4. MBunge says:

    One thing people should know is that the Supreme Court is not now, and may never have been, an august body of intellectual giants who dispassionately evaluate the issues before them and hand down decisions based on nothing but impartial and unbiased legal judgment.


  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Both of you are wrong. What needs to be posted by the 15th is any taxes owed. The actual return can wait 4 months or 8 or 12 or…. I don’t know how many extensions one can file for.

  6. ernieyeball says:

    @Dave Schuler: We need to file our federal income returns on or before April 15.

    April 15th is Sunday in 2012 and Monday, April 16th is Emancipation Day, a holiday in DC.
    Hang on to yer cash till Tuesday, April 17th.

  7. Almost a decade ago, a budding political scientist wrote:

    It is also possible that what matters isn’t what voters know about politics, but rather what they understand about politics. Knowledge may simply be a byproduct of understanding among those citizens most exposed to political information; in other words, knowledge is only important to the extent that higher levels of knowledge about politics—as measured by, for example, answers to the notorious “trivia questions” about politics that are regularly used by civic groups as evidence that the public has insufficient levels of civic education—generally reflect greater understanding of politics. (131)

    Maybe he was onto something.

  8. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    The test Green Card holders must take to become U.S. citizens is a pretty good template IMO for the minimum knowledge all Americans should possess about the government and its processes.

    Give that test to high school students in any big liberal city controlled for decades by liberal Democrats, however, e.g., Detroit, Philly, Chicago, L.A., Newark, etc., and it soon will become readily apparent not only that Zombieland falls well short but that there’s little in the way of hope for a turnaround.

  9. ernieyeball says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II: When I graduated HS (1966) in Illinois I had to pass a US Constitution test to get a diploma. I think it was a State of Illinois requirement.
    Don’t know if this is still the case or if other States require it.
    How about we rescind citizenship of those who fail this test and return it when they get it right!

  10. @Chris Lawrence:

    Knowledge and understanding are indeed to very different things. Whoever that guy was, he was pretty smart 🙂

  11. An Interested Party says:

    Give that test to high school students in any big liberal city controlled for decades by liberal Democrats, however, e.g., Detroit, Philly, Chicago, L.A., Newark, etc., and it soon will become readily apparent not only that Zombieland falls well short but that there’s little in the way of hope for a turnaround.

    Please…while you are busy casting aspersions on others, what evidence can you provide that would prove that you could pass that test…

  12. matt says:

    @ernieyeball: Indeed Illinois still has the requirement to pass a constitution test before graduating from highschool.

  13. Bennett says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II: I graduated 10 years ago from a public HS in Alabama, in a district with abstinence-only sex ed, a conservative school board for all of recorded time and a pretty decent amount of Bible pushing teachers. Except for my AP/IB class, I bet that 99% of the students in that school would have failed basic civics. And this is not some backwater, I graduated in a class of almost 500. B

  14. Joy says:

    Being the snarky commenter who inspired this post, I’m touched. As James mentioned, the reason why I even brought this thought up was closer to the esteemed Mr. Lawrence’s scenario.

    I had just finished a survey on political views, and the survey in question had a series of political trivia questions, including the number needed for presidential veto override. Me, being oh a good decade and a half removed from darkening the halls of the political science department, didn’t quite see the relation between political knowledge and my understanding of how to make the political system work.

    As a citizen, more important actionable knowledge seems to be: where to find good information about the issues, where my polling place is, how my Senators/Representatives vote, who is up for election/re-election and where they stand, how to contact my Senators/Representatives and etc.

    As a citizen, does my knowledge of political trivia really add to my understanding? Not really, other than allowing me to win quizzo on election night.

  15. mannning says:

    I would like to think that most citizens have read fairly recently the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and its amendments, but I am very doubtful that hard copies of those documents are even in most homes, and if they are there, it has most likely been a very long time since anyone there has read them, even from the web.

    I would also like to think that our citizens have a reasonable grasp of the big issues of the day, who the candidates for office are, who their state and federal representatives are in the respective legislatures, and some knowledge of their political leanings, but I would bet that only a small percentage could meet those minimal requirements.

    Then, too, we seem to have a very hard time getting out the vote. I don’t recall the exact percentage of eligible voters that did vote in the last elections, but, it was not a sterling showing for this democratic republic of ours. Perhaps a 60-65% mark?

    There are quite few citizens that feel their vote simply doesn’t mean anything; it doesn’t count in the larger scheme of things, so they don’t put out any effort to become knowledgeable or to go to the polls and vote.

  16. merl says:

    I was told that Obama refused to give the military a raise. I suggested to that person that she take a civics course before she embarrasses herself again when we discuss politics.

  17. merl says:

    she took the second option she doesn’t discuss politics with me anymore. i may not know a lot, but I know that the Congress controls the public purse.

  18. ernieyeball says:

    she took the second option she doesn’t discuss politics with me anymore.

    Better to sit silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt…