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↩︎



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.

Deirdre wrote:
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.