In a survey of thousands of Americans, one subset – elected officials – proved particularly clueless on questions about the U.S. Constitution.
In fact, fewer than half could correctly answer such basic questions as "Who can declare war?" and "What are the three branches of government?"
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute reports it conducted the quiz of over 2,500 adults, asking 33 basic civics questions, many taken from nationally recognized instruments like the U.S. Citizenship Exam, including 10 questions related to the U.S. Constitution.
Of the sample size, 164 identified themselves as having been successfully elected to government office – whether federal, state or local positions – but the subset performed even poorer than the national average on questions about the government.
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For example, only 15 percent of officials answered correctly that the phrase "wall of separation" appears in Thomas Jefferson's letters – not in the U.S. Constitution – and only 57 percent knew the purpose of the Electoral College.
Twenty percent of the officials, reports Richard Brake in AOL News, thought that the Electoral College was a school for "training those aspiring for higher political office."
"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," writes Brake, who is co-chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's National Civic Literacy Board, "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," he continues, "it would seem that last week's House reading of the Constitution shouldn't be described 'presumptuous and self-righteous' [as a New York Times editorial dubbed it], but as a necessary national tutorial for all elected officials."
Brake reports that the surveyed group, including a random sample of adults from all educational and demographic backgrounds but focused primarily on college students, outscored the elected official subset by five percentage points and topped the government officials on every constitutional question.
For example, only 49 percent of elected officials could name all three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – compared with 50 percent of the general public.
Similarly, only 46 percent of elected officials knew that Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war, while 54 percent of the general public identified the correct answer.
Overall, the average score for officeholders on the civic literacy test was 44 percent, compared to 49 percent for those who have not held an elected office
ISI reports the elected officeholders came from the ranks of Democrats (40 percent), Republicans (31 percent), Independents (21 percent), and those who indicated no affiliation (8 percent). None were asked to specify what office they held, so the proportion in which they held local, state, or federal positions is unknown.
Overall, 74 percent of officeholders failed the exam, compared to 71 percent of those who had not held office.