Civic Education

New ABA civics survey finds most Americans perceive decline in civility

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An overwhelming majority of Americans agree that civility has sharply declined in our country.

That’s one of the key findings of the fifth ABA Survey of Civic Literacy, which was released Thursday ahead of Law Day on May 1. The survey polled 1,000 individuals, asking for their thoughts on civility in society and collaboration among government leaders. It also assessed their basic knowledge of U.S. democracy.

“This year’s Law Day theme, ‘Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration,’ coincides with the ABA initiative to encourage the legal profession to lead the way in promoting civics, civility and collaboration to restore confidence in our democratic institutions and the judicial system and to protect the rule of law,” said ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross on Thursday during a virtual panel discussion focused on the survey results. “Learning how our government works and developing an understanding of these three great cornerstones of democracy inevitably will help us build a better society.”

The survey revealed 85% of respondents believe civility is worse than it was 10 years ago. About 29% blame social media, while 24% hold the media responsible and 19% fault public officials. Only 8% and 7% blame the educational system and popular culture, respectively.

Enix-Ross, who moderated Thursday’s event, asked panelists whether they were surprised by these findings.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all because every day that I turn on the news or go into my social media feed, there is always reporting on some kind of uncivil behavior,” said Donna Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and author of Leading With Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People. “I will call it undignified. It’s just pervasive, especially when you have public officials who are insulting each other and are spewing these kinds of indignities on a daily basis.”

Judge Adrienne C. Nelson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, who is the chair of the ABA Cornerstones of Democracy Commission, agreed that she wasn’t surprised. But she also suggested that there are ways to counter these sentiments.

“As a child who grew up in the Deep South, I was always taught to be kind and to be considerate and to consider other people, so it doesn’t always sit well with me,” Nelson said. “I think we need to talk about how to take a step back and give people tools to get over what they’re seeing and show them how they can be better.”

Another significant majority—90% of respondents—feel parents and family are responsible for instilling civility in children. Only 6% think schools have that responsibility.

When asked who is responsible for improving civility in our society, 34% of respondents point to family and friends and 27% point to public officials. About 11% say community leaders, while 9% are undecided.

The ABA 2023 Survey of Civic Literacy also asked respondents several questions about government officials and when they should compromise.

According to results, 79% prefer that their government leaders work toward compromise. When asked about specific issues, 75% and 70% believe their leaders should reach agreements on infrastructure and immigration reform, respectively. About 53% think they should compromise on both Social Security and gun rights, while 45% think they should compromise on reproductive rights.

Only 37% of respondents believe government officials should reach agreements on voting rights.

The survey results break some of these findings down by age, gender and race.

For example, 64% of respondents ages 18-24—compared to 51% of respondents ages 50-64—say elected leaders should compromise on gun rights. About 58% of women, versus 46% of men, support agreements around gun rights. And in terms of race, 51% of Hispanic respondents, 41% of white respondents and 26% of Black respondents do not support compromises on gun rights.

Among the other questions posed Thursday, Enix-Ross asked how people can persuade others with different viewpoints while also ensuring they are listening to those viewpoints.

Eugene Meyer, president and CEO of the Federalist Society and the third member of the panel, said tolerating and actively trying to understand the views of others is a good place to start.

“I think it not only will improve civility a lot because you’re starting to understand and communicate with people rather than yelling at them, but it’s simply the whole way in which society hopefully does better,” Meyer said. “Because you share ideas, and if you really discuss them, if you really think about them, if you really understand what other people think, society is going to reach better solutions than if the idea is just, ‘I’ve got the power, I’m going to demand this, I’m going to push for this, and I don’t care what you think.’”

ABA survey also assesses Americans’ civic knowledge

The ABA 2023 Survey of Civic Literacy asked respondents 14 multiple-choice questions to test their understanding of U.S. democracy.

These questions are based on the current U.S. naturalization test, and most respondents provided the correct answers to many of them. About 87% knew the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called the Bill of Rights; 88% knew the Declaration of Independence declared our nation’s independence from Great Britain; and 84% knew “rule of law” means no one is above the law.

Slight majorities of respondents answered other questions about U.S. democracy correctly. About 57% knew holding a federal elective office is a right that is only for U.S. citizens, while 52% knew there are 435 members in the U.S. House of Representatives. About 50% knew serving on a federal jury is a responsibility only for U.S. citizens.

When asked to identify the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, 59% of respondents correctly named John Roberts. About 19% chose Clarence Thomas.

Respondents’ knowledge of the First Amendment was mixed. While 64% knew the right to vote is not in the First Amendment, 19% incorrectly thought freedom of speech is a right that is only for U.S. citizens. About 60% knew the First Amendment protects their ability to speak out with some limitations, but 38% incorrectly thought it provides absolute protection no matter what they say.

The survey additionally asked respondents how informed they think the public is about the government and the way it works. About 53% believe the public is not very informed, while 20% think it is somewhat informed. Only 3% of respondents say the public is very informed about how government works.

An ABA press release with more information is here.

For more information on other events, visit the ABA Law Day 2023 website.

See also: “Most Americans want to see changes in elections, new ABA civics survey finds”

Updated April 27 at 2:30 p.m. to include comments from the panel.

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