I just failed civics

In a recent Face­book con­ver­sa­tion I bemoaned the fact that most Unit­ed States res­i­dents can­not name even one of their State’s sen­a­tors, and less than a third can name two.1 That got me think­ing about whether my own knowl­edge of our polit­i­cal land­scape is any good. So I gave myself a sim­ple test: to write a list of all fifty states, and iden­ti­fy the junior and senior sen­a­tors from as many states as I could.

I did­n’t do very well. If you want to try it your­self, you should prob­a­bly stop read­ing now, because I’m going to start nam­ing names soon and that will prime your memory.

First embar­rass­ing fact: I could only name forty-nine states with­out look­ing at a map.2

Sec­ond, I was only able to iden­ti­fy thir­teen cur­rent Unit­ed States Sen­a­tors. Real­ly, I only named twelve. I give myself cred­it for remem­ber­ing the guy who was recent­ly crit­i­cized for his com­ments about restau­rant health reg­u­la­tions as the junior sen­a­tor from North Car­oli­na but I could­n’t remem­ber his name3.

Some of the names I missed were embar­rass­ing. Once I looked at the list, I don’t know how I failed to think of them. Patrick Leahy, Mar­co Rubio, Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexan­der, Al Franken? Come on, I should have had those. There were oth­ers that I missed but whose names I imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized, but also a whole lot of Unit­ed States Sen­a­tors whose names meant noth­ing to me at all.

Of the twelve I named (War­ren, Schumer, Gilli­brand, Cruz, Gra­ham, Sanders, McConnell, Paul, McCain, Reid, Fein­stein, Box­er) nine I got right, iden­ti­fy­ing state, par­ty, and senior­i­ty sta­tus. I got lucky with Fein­stein and Box­er — they took office fifty-three days apart and that was after I’d moved away from Cal­i­for­nia but before I moved back. I thought prob­a­bly that Fein­stein had come first but it was realy a lucky guess. I called Sanders the senior sen­a­tor from Ver­mont, but I would have known bet­ter if I’d remem­bered Leahy4. I was frankly sur­prised that Mass­a­chus­sets had elect­ed a sen­a­tor more recent­ly than Eliz­ibeth War­ren, but she and Ed Markey start­ed their terms only six months apart. I know Ted Cruz from his face appear­ing on the tele­vi­sion, but I could­n’t have told you he was the sen­a­tor for Texas. I guess I know that now.

I did­n’t even try gov­er­nors. I can name sev­er­al recent gov­er­nors of states but with very lit­tle con­fi­dence that they are cur­rent­ly serv­ing and not just show­ing up on TV with «Gov­er­nor» at the front of their name. Brown5, Cuo­mo, Christie, Walk­er6. After that, I’ve got noth­ing. After look­ing at the list, I feel like I might have remem­bered Scott, Jin­dal, and Shum­lin’s names had I actu­al­ly writ­ten them down.

It may be that this is not so bad com­pared to oth­ers, and clear­ly some of it was just fail­ure to recall with­out con­text. A pop quiz on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing isn’t that big of a deal. It nev­er­the­less seems that where there is a group of peo­ple with that much pow­er of my life, know­ing who they are should take a high­er priority.

  1. I’m gen­er­al­ly skep­ti­cal of these sta­tis­tics because I sus­pect there are lots of false neg­a­tives. Even well-informed peo­ple make easy mis­takes on the spot, and these kinds of sur­veys would be hard to do sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly if you allow peo­ple to guess again. Kevin Under­hill incor­rect­ly called Nan­cy Pelosi a Sen­a­tor, but obvi­ous­ly is nei­ther gen­er­al­ly igno­rant nor specif­i­cal­ly con­fused about Pelosi being a mem­ber of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. He men­tioned the can­di­date who was «run­ning for Nan­cy Pelosi’s House seat» in a 2012 Forbes arti­cle and you can prac­ti­cal­ly hear the facepalm he made when cor­rect­ed on this point on Twit­ter. Yes, it’s embar­rass­ing, but it’s the sort of mis­take any­one could make and not real­ize until after it’s out of their mouths. Still, most peo­ple ought to be able to get at least one right, so those sur­veys about peo­ple’s civic knowl­edge? Scary even if the sur­veys are wrong by even a wide mar­gin. 
  2. Sor­ry, Iowa. 
  3. Thom Tillis. 
  4. No one in the Sen­ate has been there as long as Patrick Leahy. 
  5. Jer­ry, not Kate 
  6. Scott, not Bill

2 Replies to “I just failed civics”

  1. I was just real­iz­ing the
    I was just real­iz­ing the oth­er day that I could­n’t name all the state cap­i­tals as read­i­ly as I used to. Most­ly it’s dis­use, and I thought of it when we were dri­ving through Olympia, Wash­ing­ton, and it struck me that cap­i­tals are so infre­quent­ly the largest city for US states.

    I’d have got­ten the Leahy/Sanders thing right, but I was liv­ing in Ver­mont when Leahy was my sen­a­tor and Sanders was the Representative.

    As for politi­cians, that’s all sub­ject to change, so I look it up when I need to know it — and not before.

    1. [quote=Deirdre]I’d have
      [quote=Deirdre]I’d have got­ten the Leahy/Sanders thing right, but I was liv­ing in Ver­mont when Leahy was my sen­a­tor and Sanders was the Representative.

      Sure. I was liv­ing there when Leahy was Sen­a­tor and Sanders was the May­or of Burling­ton. It real­ly was just a com­plete fluke that I did­n’t think of Leahy. Most­ly I remem­ber Leahy because he’s kept a rather high pro­file on pri­va­cy and intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty issues.

      As for remem­ber­ing politi­cians, of course I agree with you gen­er­al­ly. I would­n’t try to remem­ber all the Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and I did­n’t expect I’d get 100% of the Sen­ate. But Sen­a­tors tend to be big­ger play­ers than Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. They fre­quent­ly end up being Pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls and indi­vid­u­al­ly their opin­ions are most like­ly to direct­ly affect me. 

      Yikes. I’m afraid I don’t think I’d do well at all try­ing to name the state capitols.

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