Outside of the classroom, while there are a few bright spots—like the National Constitution Center, a Philadelphia museum with an array of civic-education projects—other institutions that once played a vital part in civic education no longer do. In particular, our political parties and other civic associations have been falling down on the job. It could be argued that Democrats are attempting to educate the public about the Constitution via the impeachment hearings, but it’s difficult to make up for years of neglect with a flurry of activity. A day-long, televised seminar from constitutional scholars hosted by the House Judiciary Committee, while welcome, is unlikely to do the trick.
As for the parties more generally, the Democratic presidential campaign has been a case study in constitutional carelessness. How many times have we heard the Democratic candidates strike a decisive pose, insisting they will give Congress a chance to legislate but will act by executive order on gun violence or health care? “On my very first day as president,” Elizabeth Warren promises, “I will sign an executive order banning new fossil fuel leases and drilling offshore.” Not to be outdone, Tom Steyer promises that on his first day in office, he “will declare the climate crisis a national emergency and use the emergency powers of the presidency to implement a plan to build a safer, more sustainable world, with or without Congress.” Very little attention is devoted to whether the Constitution actually empowers the presidency to take such actions. Even less attention is devoted to explaining just why it might be a constitutional virtue to have to work through the legislature and achieve some political consensus.
Republicans, meanwhile, have altogether distanced themselves from a principled commitment to the Constitution—outsourcing it as a thing defended by judges, but of little concern to the executive or legislative branches, let alone the citizenry.