Constitutional Literacy at Risk

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Americans’ awareness of their freedoms and where they came from are at a low point and the institutions that once passed on that knowledge are largely to blame. “The public’s veneration of the Constitution is combined with a low level of knowledge,” Andrew Busch, a professor at Claremont McKenna said at the Heritage Foundation last Thursday. “Many did not know there were three branches of government,” he observed, referring to polling data.

Dr. Busch is a professor of government and an associate dean at Claremont McKenna. “I think that it does start in the schools,” he avers of the constitutional memory chasm that stretches from classrooms right down to the presidential campaign trail.

“When I taught at the University of Denver I taught a freshmen introductory course,” he remembered. “Some of the questions I would not expect them to know but there were questions like ‘Does the Constitution give the Congress unlimited powers?’”

“One student told me the three branches of government were the president, the mayor and the head of the board.” Dr. Busch is the author of The Constitution on the Campaign Trail: The Surprising Political Career of America’s Founding Document.

Political candidates, in turn, do not provide much illumination on constitutional issues and the reporters who cover them seldom press them on it. In reviewing web sites on the would-be standard bearers, Dr. Busch finds that:

• Of Sen. Clinton’s 13 speeches on the internet, 3 contain constitutional references. Six out of 10 of her position papers do;

• Of Sen. Obama’s 18 position papers on the web, 5 contain constitutional references; and

• Sen. McCain has 4 position papers with constitutional references on the web out of 12 total backgrounders. Nevertheless, he has an entire paper devoted to Second Amendment rights. Out of seven of his speeches, five contain constitutional references.

Hillary Clinton has said that, “The genius of the Constitution is that it can expand as our hearts do.” Call it Thelma and Louise meet the Constitution.

Her rival for the nomination, who is currently much closer to it than she is, says, “The genius of our founders is that they created a system of government that can be changed.” This is a particularly interesting observation for the putative Democratic standard bearer who frequently reminds audiences of his background in constitutional law.

“In a foreign policy paper, he promised to restore habeas corpus,” Dr. Busch noted of Obama. “Since it is a foreign policy paper, I guess he means habeas corpus for Al Qaeda members.”

The stark nature of the living document quotes he relays from the Democratic candidates in comparison with his recounting of Sen. McCain’s defense of the right to keep and bear arms might lead the casual observer to believe that Dr. Busch gives the edge to the GOP on constitutional questions. Indeed, despite the Arizona Republican’s constitutionally questionable campaign finance law, Dr. Busch does aver that “Democrats look in the Constitution for an excuse for federal programs” while “Republicans have been trying to educate the public about federalism.”

Nonetheless, he does point out that Sen. McCain’s “discussion of the education department contains no discussion of the Constitution.” By the way, the Constitution contains no discussion of the education department either.

Moreover, as Dr. Busch shows, both political parties have been giving less space in their party platforms to America’s blueprint for more than a century. In fact, there was “a nadir reached in the 1960s” on such issues and “something of an upturn since,” Dr. Busch estimates.

Between 1840 and 2004, Dr. Busch relates:

• The “total constitutional references per 1,000 words” in “major party platforms” went from about 20 to less than 5. Republican mentions exceed Democratic ones but not by much.

• The “percentages of constitutional references that were explicit vs. implicit” flipped to where the latter outnumber the former. A first amendment defense, for example, is explicit and a freedom of speech avowal implicit.

Dr. Busch has also written Reagan’s Victory: The Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right. Without a legal background, President Reagan showed a clearer understanding of the constitution than either of the lawyers running for his old job today.

“Reagan pointed out that our constitution is the only one in the world in which the people tell the government what it can do rather than the government telling the people what their rights are,” Dr. Busch reminded the audience.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.