Houston, We Have a Problem…

In my periodic rants about the state of civic knowledge, I’ve frequently cited the results of a test periodically administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) as evidence of the American public’s worrisome deficit of civic literacy.

As troubling as that deficit of public knowledge is–as much as it contributes to political polarization and our inability to hold government actors accountable to constitutional standards– another outcome of ISI’s research should really terrify us.

Elected officials’ scores were lower than those of the general public in almost every category.

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.

Think about that for a minute.

Manufacturers don’t hire workers who don’t know how to make the product. Athletes who don’t understand the rules of their sport are soon gone. A lawyer who doesn’t know the rules of procedure and the precedents governing his practice area is likely to get sued for malpractice. Surely we have a right to expect our public officials to have a basic acquaintance with, and understanding of, the Constitution they swear to uphold.

I suppose ISI’s findings shouldn’t come as a shock; those of us who are watching the political spectacle that is the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election have seen plentiful evidence that–even among the people who presume to run for the highest office in the land–a number appear to be woefully ignorant of America’s history, philosophy and constitutional principles.

Perhaps we should test candidates for political office for basic constitutional competence before we allow them to run.


  1. I appreciated Richard Lugar and Lee Hamilton when they represented me. I knew they both could think!

  2. The results of this study come as no surprise to me. The level of education and literacy of a candidate matters to me. I agree completely with the comment about Lugar and Hamilton, and I was horrified when Republicans chose Mourdock over Lugar. What could they possibly have been thinking? Education matters. Intellect matters. Literacy matters.

  3. I’ve said for years that candidates for any office should pass the test given to applicants for citizenship — even, and perhaps especially, if the office is for the local school board or city council

  4. Even if WE cannot test them, their parties could. That could/should happen in the primary stage.

  5. Pat; Senator Lugar made a few – very few – decisions favoring his constituents and common sense so the GOP decided he was a traitor to the party and dug up Mourdock. Even though I am not impressed with Donnelly, if we couldn’t have Senator Lugar we are blessed not getting stuck with Mourdock.

  6. What if there were no political campaigns? All of the exposure candidates got to the public was a handful of debates? Take the money and the celebrity out of the equation. If the dabates were on radio it might even take the now critical component of hair out. Give oposition a focused opportunity to expose civic illiteracy. And mental shortcomings.

  7. Poll tests. What an idea.

    Seems the Restoration folks down South were onto something.

  8. Maybe we should insist they submit to drug tests for the job of politician as well????

  9. I’ll have to agree with Gopper on this one. The idea of administering tests rang a bell in my head also about Poll Taxes and Literacy Tests of the South. Educated voters should be administering the “Test” at the ballot box. Sadly though with Gerrymandering, and the corrupt campaign finance system the “test” is rigged from the start. Add in to this mix you have some voters that want a law that clearly violates Civil Rights to protect their beliefs.

  10. As long as oligarchs buy elections all we’ll get from them are incompetent candidates voted into office by gullible rubes because that’s what works for them. The last thing in the world that oligarchs want is good government.

  11. I tend to agree with the truism that the people vote for the government that they deserve, gerrymandering and all. If they had the will or inclination to demand changes, they would do so.

  12. Wallflower, will and inclination is a power we all have individually. Democracy is a force that people died to give us. The ability to change people’s minds lies on pages like these. Don’t wait, time is precious.

  13. Thank you, Pete. That is a very optimistic message. I’ve been banging my head too much trying to move my fundamentalist relatives who just dig in.

  14. Pat;

    Republicans didn’t and couldn’t elect Murdock. That was proven by the fact that he lost. Democrats elected Mourdock by failing to vote in the Republican primary, where it would have counted. So don’t blame the GOP for dumping Lugar. Put it where it fits: Dem stupidity.

  15. Mr. Kennedy, Dems taking a GOP primary ballot would have guaranteed Donnelly’s defeat.

  16. Wayne, think with me now: Donnelly didn’t run in the GOP primary. Lugar did. Had Dems voted for Lugar in his primary, Lugar would have prevailed in the general election and still be the senator. Lugar was a more powerful legislator for Indiana than Donnelly will ever be and power is politics.

  17. Isn’t asking for a ballot of a party you are not a member of so that you can screw with that opposition party the same as lying? Think about it.

  18. Earl; get a grip on reality, heed what these people are saying. By voting GOP in the primary you were aiding and abetting the opposition – was Lugar (anti-Mourdock) the only vote you cast? Did YOU actually vote the Republican primary or is this merely what you believe to be sage advice, or Monday morning quarterbacking? Senator Lugar lost because he chose to vote on a few issues in support of his constituents and against local Republicans so they pulled their support and their money from his campaign. Having voted for him myself at times; I believe, if asked about the issues when he opposed the GOP, he would take the same course of action. He took an oath to support the people of Indiana to the best of his ability; he remained a Republican in the true sense of the term…they seem to be extinct today. I miss being able to watch and listen and choose the candidate I believe to be best suited; until recent years I was an Independent voter the same as Bernie Sanders. The lure of Barack Obama for me was his “Audacity Of Hope”; that both parties would once again sit at the bargaining table and seek solutions to problems.

    I look at the ever-growing list of Republican presidential candidate wannabes and view it as comic relief…or is this a deliberate distraction for whoever the GOP will actually nominate? Houston; THIS is the problem. I have read comments from those who want to see debates – debates between who? The two Democratic possibilities/probabilities wouldn’t waste their time or their breath debating any or all of the herd of Republicans so far throwing their hats in the ring. They should debate each other; as for being aware of civics issues, together they couldn’t pass a civics test. This country is in trouble, people, when “The Donald” is so far the favored Republican candidate. Poor us, poor U.S.

  19. Can’t you see that Donnelly Vs Lugar in a general election would have been a much better choice than Murdoch/Donnelly? Voting for Lugar in the GOP primary would have enabled that better choice. Somehow, we have to come to the reality that gerrymandering has made participation in primaries MORE important than most general elections.

    Murdock pushed the GOP so far right that they lost the general election but the Dems had to settle for a DINO!

    Lying in politics? I’ve got this bridge in NYC I’ll let go cheap!

  20. Indiana let go one of the most powerful man on the Hill in Lugar. This is not a state known for intelligent politics or politicians. ( potatoes) Today, Lugar would have had the Senate by the gonads. With that amount of power, he could have taken the chances Johnson did with his power. No greater racist than he ever walked the halls of the Senate but he pushed the Civil Rights Bill through. Threatening less powerfuls to the face.

  21. Donnely vs. Lugar would have been a better choice only if you wanted this state to maintain the high level of Republican control – which is has but with one less thanks to Mourdock running against Donnelly.

  22. Ah, the Lugar mythology continues among Hoosiers. He voted 98 percent of the time for the George W. Bush agenda and was in no way an intellectual moderate. But the state’s right wing media loved the Lugar-as-moderate narrative which, obviously lives on. Check voting records, prople.

  23. You are 100% correct on the Lugar record but just as wrong on the issues. This is Indiana: The Mississippi of the Midwest. We have to play the cards we’re given. This is the state that Cronkite would open with “Good evening and we begin the returns with Indiana going for Reagan. ” This is the first state to introduce voter restriction laws and the last to have a mass, open lynching. You play the cards you’re given. We were given a choice between Mourdock, Donnelly and Lugar. Which would have been the better choice for INDIANA?

    I will not bring Donnelly’s voting record into the equation although it strengthens my point.

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