Great news: Elected officials know less about the Constitution than the public

posted at 11:36 am on January 14, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

So claims the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which just concluded a five-year study on the American public’s knowledge of its foundational legal document.  The bad news: the general public gets an F, with just a 54% average on the 33-question civics test.  The worse news: those who identified themselves as public officeholders scored an average of five points worse than the general public:

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. Examples:

  • 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.”)

There are a couple of caveats about this test. First, the sample for the general public was a robust 30,000 respondents, but the subsample of elected officials only comprised 165 of those. That is a pretty small group from which to extrapolate conclusions about the entire population of elected officials.

Still, these results are less than confidence-building, aren’t they? Of the 165, 33 apparently thought the Electoral College was a school.  Over 80 of the elected officials couldn’t name the three branches of federal government.  The “wall of separation” quote causes quite a few errors in public discourse, most recently in the gotcha question asked of Christine O’Donnell, and to be fair, some Presidents have had some trouble understanding that the power to declare war belongs in the legislature and not the executive branch.

In one sense, this demonstrates that elections don’t always promote our best and brightest — but then again, most of us already knew that much.  But it does call into question how we can expect elected representatives to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States” when many of them appear not to comprehend it — and when many of us don’t comprehend it, either.  The biggest lesson here is that we need to do a much better job of teaching the Constitution in primary education … and that maybe a reading of the Constitution at the beginning of the session of Congress ought to be a regular event, with mandatory attendance.

Update: I thought the public scored 49% and the elected officials 44%, but it was 54% and 49%, respectively.  I’ve corrected it, thanks to Rob Port.


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Comment pages: 1 2

The question below has had some comments posted about it:

30) Which of the following fiscal policy combinations would a government most likely follow to stimulate economic activity when the economy is in a severe recession?
A. increasing both taxes and spending
B. increasing taxes and decreasing spending
C. decreasing taxes and increasing spending
D. decreasing both taxes and spending

Emphasis mine.

Naturally I picked D as would the vast majority of bitter, gun-and-Bible clinging conservatives like myself. After all, government works best the least of it we possess. They have C as the correct answer. Morons!
Those that put A should be given credit. Not because it is correct, but because this is what Obowmao and democrats are doing and those morons are currently in charge in the Senate and in the White House. Heck, regardless of economic times A is what Libtards want! We can see how well it is working . . .

The question should be worded as follows: ” Which is the correct fiscal policy to follow . . .”

Bubba Redneck on January 14, 2011 at 3:26 PM

Out of curiosity, is there a statistical analysis to show that the 5% difference between elected officials and the general public is statistically significant?

Heck, I could probably do it in five minutes if I had the raw data.

Scott H on January 14, 2011 at 3:38 PM

Scott not sure it really matters. Either way it is scary.

CWforFreedom on January 14, 2011 at 4:08 PM

Out of curiosity, is there a statistical analysis to show that the 5% difference between elected officials and the general public is statistically significant?

Scott H on January 14, 2011 at 3:38 PM

To a first approximation (assuming every question is equally likely to be got right and 0.54 is the true probability of getting one right), 0.49 is more than seven standard deviations below the mean for 156 randomly chosen members of the general public.

IOW, it’s incredibly unlikely that the .49 average for the elected officials was a fluke.

edshepp on January 14, 2011 at 4:20 PM

some Presidents have had some trouble understanding that the power to declare war belongs in the legislature and not the executive branch.

Most Presidents of the last century (except Reagan, bless him) gave no indication that they had ever bothered to read the Constitution. Certainly, many treated it as a pesky technicality.

Bubba Redneck on January 14, 2011 at 3:26 PM

I scored 100%, but I recognized that question as a problem and answered the way I figured they wanted it, rather than the way it should be answered–otherwise, I would have answered D, too–government’s response to recession should be to leave us alone.

DrMagnolias on January 14, 2011 at 4:53 PM

When I saw the photo that goes with this post, my first thought was, “oh, Basil Marceaux is back in the news.”

Tzetzes on January 14, 2011 at 7:36 PM

100% Baby! (I need to get a life.)

elfman on January 14, 2011 at 9:48 PM

elfman on January 14, 2011 at 9:48 PM

No, you need to run for office.

DrMagnolias on January 14, 2011 at 10:10 PM

Hey lookie: It’s my son’s former congressman, Phil Hare.

Heheheheh.

annoyinglittletwerp on January 14, 2011 at 10:53 PM

crr6 on January 14, 2011 at 1:37 PM
crr6 on January 14, 2011 at 2:17 PM

This thread should be remembered, it might be the first time crr6 ever gotten anything right. But despite the dyslexia induced reading comprehension error, I still only missed two. I would have missed it anyways because given the evidence I believe raising taxes, and spending is the most likely government action.

Slowburn on January 15, 2011 at 2:09 AM

I got 32 of 33. I missed question 30. I chose (d), but correct answer was (c). I can see from the top comment on this page that I wasn’t alone.

unclesmrgol on January 15, 2011 at 2:26 AM

The site makes the statement that college education doesn’t equal civics knowledge. That’s kind of sad because, while one doesn’t learn civics in college, most states have an American History and a Civics requirement for high school graduation. I guess, in these later years, studying our government and our rights from a historical and academic standpoint has been replaced by participation in required civic service. The latter is liberal feel good action, but certainly is not going to replace lost education hours. I’ll have my kids take this exam and see if what I think happened actually happened, because I think the thrust of their civics classes were compulsary civic service.

unclesmrgol on January 15, 2011 at 2:33 AM

I’m not surprised by these results. When they read the constitution on the floor of the house the other day I suspect that this had been the first time some of the officials there had ever heard it.

duff65 on January 15, 2011 at 4:45 PM

I’m not at all surprised by the knowledge of the Constitution by our elected elite. No wonder they were deaf when we all were screaming about the healthcare bill in the past. They had no idea or do they now have ANY idea now.

mixplix on January 17, 2011 at 5:05 PM

Most elected officials are intellectually deficient. All of the dems are either that or unethical. The elites are just unethical. Yu can not find a contrary example. Only the immoral or th dumbos vote for dems. No exceptions.

proconstitution on January 18, 2011 at 9:02 PM

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