Category Archives: Civics Literacy

Happy Anniversary & More on Civics Literacy

First off, happy anniversary to the U.S. Supreme Court!  On this date 221 years ago, the Court convened for the first time in New York.  It was not until 1916 that Congress set the start of the Court’s term to the now-familiar first Monday in October.

Now more on civics literacy, a discussion which I began here.  Our new House Speaker may know legislative strategy, but he is a bit rusty when it comes to civics:

Perhaps these truths are not so self-evident if an elected official cannot remember where they were declared.  It is not so surprising that Boehner would confuse our two most important founding documents.  Ordinary American fall victim to the same mistake in high numbers.  From a 1987 Hearst Corporation survey:

True or False: The following phrases are found in the U.S. Constitution:

  • “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  • “The consent of the governed.”
  • “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
  • “All men are created equal.”
  • “Of the people, by the people, for the people.”

The correct answer is that the Constitution contains none of these phrases, though of course some of these ideas flow naturally from the principles espoused in the Constitution.  According to a 1987 study by the Hearst Corporation, most Americans fell into this trap.  Nearly eight in ten Americans thought the two phrases from the Declaration of Independence were in the Constitution.

Mistaking the Declaration for the Constitution is completely understandable (unless you are the Speaker of the House).  Scott Gerber has argued that the Declaration is essential to interpreting the Constitution.  Mistaking Karl Marx for the Constitution, which 45 percent (!) of Americans did, is more problematic.

Only 41 percent of Americans could correctly identify the purpose of the Bill of Rights, though again some of the other options for answering the question seem plausible.  A quarter of Americans thought the Bill of Rights were the preamble to the original Constitution.  Considering the importance the Bill of Rights play in our national political culture, this is an understandable mistake.  In fact, some the Founders considered putting the Bill of Rights at the top of the Constitution, a proposal which James Madison rejected.  Madison hoped that by placing the Bill of Rights at the end of the Constitution, Americans would not think them the most important feature of the document.  Boy was he wrong.  Madison originally opposed a Bill of Rights because a law infringing on the freedom of speech, for example, was not one of the enumerated powers granted to Congress by the original Constitution.

On other parts of this survey, most Americans fare much better.  Nearly eight in ten understood that the president cannot unilaterally make treaties.  I expected this number to be lower given the increasing prominence of executive agreements.    Nearly three-quarters of Americans correctly stated that the president cannot declare war unilaterally.  I expected this number to be much lower, given the historic abdication of power that is the War Powers Resolution.  On the other hand, 60 percent of Americans thought the president can unilaterally appoint a Supreme Court justice.  Considering that more than eighty percent of all high court nominees in U.S. history received confirmation, the president plays a much more important role in this process than Congress, making this error more understandable.

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Rethinking (civics) literacy tests

I recently came across a civics literacy test administered by Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  I have to admit I got one question wrong when I took it, but, in my defense, it was an economics question.  I was not at all shocked to learn that most Americans fail this test miserably.  I was surprised that politicians who took the test scored worse than average Americans.  Yes, you read that correctly.

Are You Smarter Than a Politician?

Of the 2,508 People  surveyed, 164 say they have held an elected government office at least  once in their life. Their average score on the civic literacy test is  44%, compared to 49% for those who have not held an elected office.  Officeholders are less likely than other respondents to correctly answer  29 of the 33 test questions. This table shows the “knowledge gap” for  each question: the difference between the percentage of common citizens  who answered correctly and the percentage of officeholders who answered  correctly.

Theme of Question Citizens Elected
1. U.S. – Soviet Tension in 1962 70.09% 56.51% -13.58%
2. Declaration of Independence 83.09 69.78 -13.31
3. Sputnik 74.1 62.82 -11.28
4. Definition of Free Enterprise 41.45 32.08 -9.37
5. M. L. King’s “I Have a Dream” 80.5 71.5 -9
6. Electoral College 65.88 57.31 -8.57
7. Scopes “Monkey Trial” 67.76 59.21 -8.55
8. Susan B. Anthony 80.84 72.98 -7.86
9. Power to Declare War 53.6 45.82 -7.78
10. Business Profit 49.11 41.38 -7.73
11. International Trade 37.47 30.45 -7.02
12. FDR’s Government Programs 66.63 59.73 -6.9
13. Abortion 50.77 43.94 -6.83
14. Federal Branches and Foreign Policy 54.71 48.39 -6.32
15. First Amendment Freedoms 79.58 73.32 -6.26
16. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas 29.49 23.29 -6.2
17. FDR and the Supreme Court 25.07 19.24 -5.83
18. Taxes and Government Spending 27.7 22.12 -5.58
19. Free Markets vs. Centralized Planning 16.25 10.71 -5.54
20. Action Prohibited by the Bill of Rights 26.41 21.24 -5.17
21. Commander in Chief 79.04 74.46 -4.58
22. Anti-Federalists and the Constitution 38.22 33.82 -4.4
23. Source of phrase “a wall of separation” 18.92 15.07 -3.85
24. Policy Tool of the Federal Reserve 43.12 40.48 -2.64
25. Powers of the Federal Government 75.01 72.69 -2.32
26. World War II Enemies 68.76 66.58 -2.18
27. The Puritans 19.1 17.32 -1.78
28. Definition of a Progressive Tax 51.26 49.97 -1.29
29. Three Branches of Government 49.65 49.32 -0.33
30. Definition of a Public Good 27.6 28.03 0.43
31. Gettysburg Address 21.06 22.95 1.89
32. Fiscal Policy for Economic Stimulus 36.07 39.93 3.86
33. Lincoln–Douglas Debates 19.06 23.62 4.56

Granted, since this is a voluntary, Internet-based survey, there are probably some issues of representativeness of both samples, but these results are nonetheless remarkable.  The difference in proportions for the first 17 questions are statistically significant (p < .05, two-tailed test), and the results overall between the two groups fall just outside the 95 percent confidence interval.

Perhaps these results should not seem all that surprising in light of how some politicians have recently fared on civics issues.

In light of these embarrassing incidents and data, I think we should seriously reconsider implementing literacy tests – not for voters, but for candidates.  Literacy tests for voters were methods employed in southern states to keep blacks (and in some cases poor whites) from registering to vote.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 invalidated this practice.

While it is manifestly unjust to hold voters to a certain intellectual standard in order to exercise the franchise, holding candidates to a higher standard is a very different issue.  The whole reason we have elections is to judge candidate qualifications and fitness for office.  It is axiomatic that elected officials need a thorough grasp of civics to do their jobs effectively.  Thus, I think that implementing  a civics literacy test for candidates might be a good idea. Perhaps all candidates for public office should be required to take this test or the American citizenship test and have the results be disclosed publicly.

The Founders were very concerned about the virtuousness of candidates for office.  Articles I and II of the Constitution outline various age, citizenship, and residency requirements for members of Congress and the president, although our Founders did not believe religion should be used to disqualify elected officials.  Ironically, there are no constitutional requirements for federal judges (not even a law degree). I think a civics literacy test would be consistent with these founding values.

[H/T to the good folks at the Monkey Cage]


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Media and misinformation

A new survey is out from World Public, which contains some depressing, though unsurprising findings concerning political misinformation.  Voters tend to be misinformed overall, and misinformation tends to be filtered through partisan lenses.

For example, two-thirds of Republicans wrongly believed that the economic stimulus bill contained no tax cuts, compared with less than half of Democrats.  On the other hand a majority of Democrats incorrectly believe that President Obama has not increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, compared to two out of five Republicans.

What force could be driving political misinformation?  The study has some provocative findings concerning the correlation between media exposure and misinformation.

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that:

  • most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)
  • most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)
  • the economy is getting worse (26 points)
  • most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)
  • the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)
  • their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)
  • the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
  • when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
  • and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

These effects increased incrementally with increasing levels of exposure and all were statistically significant. The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it–though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

Many on the left are crying that this study proves that watching Fox News makes people dumber.  This is not a valid conclusion to make.  First of all, MSNBC viewers also tended to be more misinformed on other issues, though these effects are more limited in comparison.  Second, the authors of the study are pointing out a correlation; they are not making a causal argument.  Third, this study measures misinformation, not intelligence.  All it indicates is that Fox News and MSNBC may be biased (shocking, I know).

This does not mean these findings sit well with me.  Political knowledge rates are abysmally low in this country, which has corrosive effects on political participation rates.  Public knowledge of the Constitution is also pathetic – more individuals can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of government.

Spinning issues through partisan filters is an American tradition, but I would remind pundits from both parties to heed the warning of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

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