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, most of them college students, but also a random sample of adults from all educational and demographic backgrounds.
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. 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.")
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?
Richard Brake is co-chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding the ISI's past and current civic literacy studies and to take the test online, go to www.americancivicliteracy.org.
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Are you smarter than an elected official?
If you can correctly answer five or more of these basic Constitution-related questions, congratulations! You're smarter than the average elected official! (Answers are below -- but no peeking!)
1) What are the three branches of government?
A. executive, legislative, judicial
B. executive, legislative, military
C. bureaucratic, military, industry
D. federal, state, local
2) What part of the government has the power to declare war?
B. the president
C. the Supreme Court
D. the Joint Chiefs of Staff
3) In the area of United States foreign policy, Congress shares power with the:
B. Supreme Court
C. state governments
D. United Nations
4) The United States Electoral College:
A. trains those aspiring for higher political office
B. was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates
C. is otherwise known as the U.S. Congress
D. is a constitutionally mandated assembly that elects the president
E. was ruled undemocratic by the Supreme Court
5) What impact did the Anti-Federalists have on the United States Constitution?
A. their arguments helped lead to the adoption of the Bill of Rights
B. their arguments helped lead to the abolition of the slave trade
C. their influence ensured that the federal government would maintain a standing army
D. their influence ensured that the federal government would have the power to tax
6) The phrase that in America there should be a "wall of separation" between church and state appears in:
A. George Washington's Farewell Address
B. the Mayflower Compact
C. the Constitution
D. the Declaration of Independence
E. Thomas Jefferson's letters
7) The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits:
A. prayer in public school
B. discrimination based on race, sex, or religion
C. the ownership of guns by private individuals
D. establishing an official religion for the United States
E. the president from vetoing a line item in a spending bill
8) Identify one right or freedom below guaranteed by the first amendment.
A. Right to bear arms
B. Due process
D. Right to counsel
9) Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government listed below?
A. Make treaties
B. Make zoning laws
C. Maintain prisons
D. Establish standards for doctors and lawyers
10) Who is the commander in chief of the U.S. military?
A. Secretary of the army
B. Secretary of state
D. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
1) A; 2) A; 3) A; 4) D; 5) A; 6) E; 7) D; 8) C; 9) A; 10) C
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