Saturday, January 22, 2011

Are You Smarter than an Elected Official?

Remember the uproar a week or so ago from the liberal Dems and their friends in the media when the Republicans opened the 112th Congress by (gasps and horrors!) actually reading the US Constitution. Most condemned the idea as a publicity stunt and a waste of time. After all, what does the Constitution have to do with governing? As Nancy Pelosi said during the healthcare debate, “we need to stop worrying about rules and procedures and get this thing done”.

This is actually a defining difference between liberals and conservatives. Some of my liberal friends (yes, I have several good friends that are politically liberal) charge that the term “liberal” is a meaningless label that is constantly overused. Ignoring the fact that the media rarely uses it as opposed to constantly overdosing on the “C-word” (conservative), we know that the word liberal comes from a Latin word that means "to not be bound by". Thus a liberal politician believes that we are not bound by the Constitution, just as a liberal theologian believes that we are not bound by the Bible. Therefore, to a liberal, why read something that is perceived to possess no authority. The Constitution is merely a "living document" to be interpreted however it suits them at the time.

Many conservatives even joked that the opening of the congressional session might be the first time that many Dems had actually been exposed to the Constitution. Now, our good friend Dee alerted us to an article that appears to confirm that it may not be a joke.

Richard Brake, co-chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's National Civic Literacy Board writes in AOL News, Elected Officials Flunk Constitution Quiz:

When the Republican House leadership decided to start the 112th Congress with a reading of the U.S. Constitution, the decision raised complaints in some quarters that it was little more than a political stunt. The New York Times even called it a "presumptuous and self-righteous act."

That might be true, if you could be sure that elected officials actually know something about the Constitution. But it turns out that many don't. In fact, elected officials tend to know even less about key provisions of the Constitution than the general public.

For five years now, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been conducting a national survey to gauge the quality of civic education in the country. We've surveyed more than 30,000 Americans… Included in the adult sample was a small subset of Americans (165 in all) who, when asked, identified themselves as having been "successfully elected to government office at least once in their life" which can include federal, state or local offices.

The survey asks 33 basic civics questions, many taken from other nationally recognized instruments like the U.S. Citizenship Exam. It also asks 10 questions related to the U.S. Constitution. So what did we find? Well, to put it simply, the results are not pretty.

Elected officials at many levels of government, not just the federal government, swear an oath to "uphold and protect" the U.S. Constitution. But those elected officials who took the test scored an average 5 percentage points lower than the national average (49 percent vs. 54 percent), with ordinary citizens outscoring these elected officials on each constitutional question.


  • Only 49 percent of elected officials could name all three branches of government, compared with 50 percent of the general public.
  • Only 46 percent knew that Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war -- 54 percent of the general public knows that.
  • Just 15 percent answered correctly that the phrase "wall of separation" appears in Thomas Jefferson's letters -- not in the U.S. Constitution -- compared with 19 percent of the general public.
  • And only 57 percent of those who've held elective office know what the Electoral College does, while 66 percent of the public got that answer right. (Of elected officials, 20 percent thought the Electoral College was a school for "training those aspiring for higher political office.")
  • Overall, our sample of elected officials averaged a failing 44 percent on the entire 33-question test, 5 percentage points lower than the national average of 49 percent.
The fact that our elected representatives know even less about America's history and institutions than the typical citizen (who doesn't know much either) is troubling indeed, but perhaps helps explain the lack of constitutional discipline often displayed by our political class at every level of our system. Given this dismal performance, it would seem that last week's House reading of the Constitution shouldn't be described "presumptuous and self-righteous," but as a necessary national tutorial for all elected officials.

In fact, we can only hope that this trend of Constitution reading will continue to sweep the nation and states. After all, there are 50 state constitutions as well. When elected officials take an oath "to protect and defend the Constitution," shouldn't they know what they are swearing to?

You may follow the article link above to take the test for yourself.

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