Category Archives: Academic Papers

Civic Identity, Civic Deficit: The Unanswered Questions

With Heather McCabe, J.D./PhD.            

The current concern over civic education and what might be called our “civic deficit” is founded upon a generally accepted belief that civic knowledge is an important foundation of democratic self-government. There is substantial research linking civic literacy—defined as knowledge of the constitutional and historic bases and current structure of American government–to civic participation and engagement, although definitions of both civic knowledge and civic engagement vary widely. Beyond those connections, however, we are left with a striking absence of empirical research on some very foundational questions: what do we mean by “civic literacy” and “civic knowledge”? Is there some essential, identifiable body of knowledge that civically literate people must know? Do people with and without such knowledge understand America differently, and if so, in what ways? How does informed participation differ from un- or misinformed engagement, and how do the outcomes differ? What evidence do we have to support the widespread belief that civic literacy matters, that there is some irreducible level of civic knowledge critical to the success of the democratic experiment?

There is no dearth of theory on the importance of informed citizenship. In their important book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters, Delli Carpini and Keeter cite Locke’s belief that it is the “obligation of all citizens to act in ways consistent with the public interest.” (p.29). Acting in the public interest requires understanding what the public interest is, and possession of sufficient information to make informed decisions about where it lies. In a letter written by James Madison to W.T.Barry, Madison emphasized the importance of civic knowledge, saying, “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps both.” For his part, Alexis de Toqueville believed that “each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills an develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy.” (Branson, 1998).

The emphasis placed on civic competence was one justification for the limited franchise that originally characterized U.S. government. The knowledgeable citizens Madison and de Tocqueville were describing were propertied white males, comparatively privileged and educated men who alone were deemed likely to possess the civic skills necessary to participation in self-governance. Michael Schudson argues that the concept of the “informed citizen” as we know it today did not really emerge until the end of the Progressive Era, with the rise of mass media and the ideal of universal public education. (Schudson, 1999) Prior to the 1890s, voters were handed their ballots by party functionaries, so-called “ticket peddlers,” who provided pre-printed slates of candidates. The voter did not mark the ballot; he simply placed the party’s “ticket” in the ballot box. Beginning in 1888, states began to adopt the “Australian” ballot, which was printed by the government and required a decision by the voter. As Schudson says,

“The Australian ballot shifted the center of political gravity from party to voter. Voting changed from a social and public duty to a private right, from a social obligation to party enforceable by social pressure to a civic obligation or abstract loyalty, enforceable only by private conscience. The new ballot asked voters to make a choice among alternatives rather than to perform an act of affiliation with a group.” (emphasis in original)

If the individual voter was to choose between alternatives, he (and it was still only “he”) needed to be informed, to understand what the alternatives represented and to have the skills needed to evaluate their consistency with American constitutional premises and the common good.

This belief in the importance of informed citizens—whether founded on Lockean philosophy or derived from the growing power vested in the voters—is now virtually universal. It has become an accepted axiom of political culture. While a few hardy souls dispute the nature and amount of knowledge needed for informed democratic participation (Levine, 2013), most political commentators accept the premise and profess their distress when faced with overwhelming evidence that large numbers of voters are woefully uninformed. As former Representative Lee Hamilton recently wrote,

The truth is, for our democracy to work, it needs not just an engaged citizenry, but an informed one. We’ve known this since the nation’s earliest days. The creators of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 thought the notion important enough to enshrine it in the state’s founding document: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, iffused generally among the body of the people,” they wrote, are “necessary for the preservation of rights and liberties.” (Center on Congress, 2003)

If democratic theory is correct, and a civically literate population is essential to liberal democratic self-governance, the concerns raised by available data are understandable and appropriate.  Research from a multitude of sources gives evidence of a widespread lack of constitutional competence and civic literacy in the United States. Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial Survey, 2007). Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2006). Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution (1998 National Constitution Center Survey). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies indicates that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.

These and many similar research findings clearly demonstrate that those surveyed are woefully ignorant of the subject matter on which they were being tested. What they do not show, however, is the materiality of that subject matter; that is, we have no empirical research that identifies a body of knowledge acquisition of which is essential to informed citizenship. We can certainly speculate: knowing the three branches of government and their respective duties, for example, certainly seems like the sort of civic information citizens need in order to cast an informed vote or otherwise participate in the political process. On the other hand, knowing the composition of the Supreme Court or the names of particular Justices, while desirable, is probably less critical. If we are going to engage in collective hand-wringing over the state of the democratic enterprise, it would seem prudent to identify those elements of civic knowledge that are demonstrably linked to informed citizenship.

It isn’t only the absence of empirical research on that question and many others that erects barriers to reasoned debate about our civic deficit. National efforts to improve civics education and civic literacy are also limited by the widespread belief that knowledge about our history and governing structures is of importance only in the political arena. There is less recognition of its theoretical and practical importance in other areas. In the age of the administrative state, anyone concerned with policy—from business enterprises regulated by the state, to medical researchers dependent upon government grants, to science teachers under pressure to teach religious doctrine in the classroom—quickly finds that knowledge of the nature and extent of the rules to which they are subject and the mechanisms that are available to them is a critical element of disciplinary competence. Increasingly, civic information and civic skills are required for effectiveness in arenas far removed from the political.

An example can be found in the field of social work.  Social workers frequently work with clients from vulnerable populations.  As a part of their work, social workers must advocate within institutions and systems (governmental agencies, regulated organizations) in order to assist their clients in obtaining needed services.  In addition, social justice is a guiding principle of social work (Swenson, 1998; Breton et al, 2003; NASW, 1999) and social workers are expected to advocate within the policy arena when existing policies are not meeting their clients’ needs.   If social workers need to address a policy, either at an individual client level or a system level, they must have the requisite civic knowledge to do so.  They must understand the difference between a legislative statute and an administrative policy.  Additionally, they need to be able to identify whether the policy is a federal, state, or local issue.  If social workers do not have the basic civic knowledge needed to parse out these details, they are unable to appropriately advocate on behalf of their clients.  The same need for civic understanding applies to any enterprise that interacts with government at any level, or is subject to government regulation. Civic competency is necessary for any person, industry or organization seeking to have an impact on the policy environment within which it operates.

Beyond the underappreciated practical importance of civic knowledge to professional practices and business operations of various kinds, beyond the more widely recognized concerns about connections between civic literacy and democratic stability, the sociological literature suggests that the existence of a common body of civic knowledge may play an even more vital role in promoting civic cohesion, due to its function in promoting social capital and its centrality to what has been called “civic religion.” Work done in these areas has considerable relevance to questions about the role of civic literacy in a diverse polity.

References in the United States to social capital can be traced back to 1916 (Putnam, 2000), but widespread interest in the concept did not arise until the mid 1980s with Bourdieu (1986).  The concept was popularized in sociology by James Coleman (1988); it was introduced into general political discourse by Robert Putnam, primarily with the publication of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). While there are numerous definitions of social capital, there is general agreement that social capital develops and rests upon norms of trust and reciprocity (both specific and generalized), which develop between people in social networks. Social capital can also build solidarity, which develops as a product of common group fate. Social capital has been defined as either “bridging” or “bonding,” depending upon the “thickness” of the connections involved. Social capital is understood to facilitate coordination, reduce transaction costs, and enhance the flow of information. Civic engagement has been demonstrated to build social capital. (MacGillivray & Walker, 2000).

The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in an article for Daedalus that remains the standard reference for the concept. While the proper content of a civic religion has been and remains the subject of heated debate, the purpose of such an overarching value structure is to provide citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. (Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and never has been an officially Christian country, although it has been culturally Protestant, and the dramatic increase in religious and cultural diversity over recent decades makes Christian doctrine even less suited to such a task.) The importance of a common value structure, and its relevance to civic literacy, has been explained by one scholar thusly:

The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. This constitutionally-required state neutrality has long been a source of considerable political tension between citizens intent upon imposing their religious beliefs on their neighbors and those who reject efforts to enforce religious hegemony. Thus far, no proposed value system or theorized civil religion has been entirely able to resolve that conflict. To the extent that Americans do endorse an overarching ideology or civil religion, it is a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. (emphasis added) (Kennedy, 2011)

We do have ample research showing that greater civic knowledge leads to greater civic engagement. (Galston, 2001; Galston, 2004; Milner, 2002) Civic engagement generates social capital, which connects Americans to each other with bonds of trust and reciprocity. While we have little empirical research on the role of civil religion, it is also believed to forge bonds between citizens and to facilitate the collective civic enterprise. Given America’s growing diversity, such a civic value structure necessarily rests upon our common constitutional values. Civic literacy –knowledge of American history, constitutional premises and governing structures—is thus a necessary component of civil religion, and to the extent that it fosters civic engagement, a generator of social capital.


We have ample research about what Americans do and do not know. What we need is research into the causes and consequences of that civic deficit. At a minimum, we need sound empirical investigation into the following questions:

  • What are the essential elements of civic literacy? That is, what is the content of a minimal level of civic knowledge necessary to effective citizenship?
  • What aspects of civic knowledge are most predictive of civic engagement, defined as regular voting, and political activism (work on a campaign, attendance at public meetings, and other indicators of civic involvement)?
  • With respect to those who are civically and politically active, are there measurable, meaningful differences between those who are civically-literate and those who are not?
  • Why have former efforts to improve citizenship education failed to have a lasting effect? What can we do differently in the future to make and sustain improvements?
  • Are there measurable differences in levels of civic literacy between identifiable groups? For example, are scientists more or less civically literate than lawyers? Are members of certain religions more or less literate than others? Are people who harbor homophobic or anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim opinions less civically literate than those who are more accepting of diversity?
  • What are the connections between civic literacy and mass media? How has the dramatic “morphing” of media, and the accompanying changes in the ways in which Americans access information affected levels of civic knowledge?

There are many other research areas we might suggest. These examples only begin to scratch the surface of a pressing research agenda that needs to be “operationalized” and pursued. But the answers to these and similar questions are an essential precondition to thoughtful action to address our civic deficit, and finding the scholars to address them and the resources to support those scholars is an increasingly critical task.

There is widespread recognition that our government institutions are broken. We will not fix them with exhortations alone. Doctors rely on accurate diagnoses in order to prescribe the right medicines; similarly, academics and concerned citizens must base our recommendations on credible empirical evidence. We can’t fix our systems—biological or political—until we really understand what has gone wrong and why.



Works Cited

Annenberg Public Policy Center. (2007). Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial

Survey. Retrieved from


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In J. Richardson, (Ed.) Handbook of Theory

and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood, p. 241-258.


Branson, M. (1998). The Role of Civic Education: A Position Paper. Calabasas, CA. The

Center for Civic Education.


Breton, M., Cox, E.O. & Taylor, S. (2003). Social Justice, Social Policy, and Social

Work. The Social Policy Journal, Vol.2, Issue 1.  


Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.  The American

Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, p. S95-S120.


Delli Caprini, M.X. & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans Know About Politics and Why

It Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Galston, W.A. (2001). Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education

Annual Review of Political Science, Vol.4, 2001, pp. 217-234.


Galston, W.A. (2004). Civic Education and Political Participation. PS: Political Science

& Politics, Vol. 37, Issue 2, pp.263-266


Kennedy, S.S. (2011). Civil Religion. [Web Blog]. Retrieved from


Levine, P. (2013, January 17). What Did You Voters Know and Understand in 2012?

[Web Blog]. Retrieved from


MacGillvray, A. & Walker, P. (2000). Local Social Capital: Making it Work on the

Ground. In T. Schuller, Social Capital: Critical Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.197-211.


Milner, H. (2002). Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work.

University Press of New England


National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2006). NAEP-Civics 2006: The Nation’s

Report Card. Retrieved from


National Association of Social Workers (1999). Code of Ethics of the National

Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from


National Constitution Center. (1998). National Constitution Center Teens’ Poll.

Retrieved from’Poll.shtml


Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 19-20.


Schudson, M. (1999). The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press.


Swenson, C.R. (1998). Clinical Social Work’s Contribution to a Social Justice

Perspective. A Journal of the National Association of Social Workers, Vol.43, Issue 6. 


The Center on Congress. (2003, November 15). Why We Need An Informed Citizenry.

Bloomington, IN.


Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth


As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. Arguments based on manufactured histories or distorted realities are intellectually dishonest and ultimately unproductive—and they are particularly destructive in an era when there is no universally trusted “mainstream” media to correct spin, misrepresentations and outright lies.

What we are trying to do with this brief publication is identify some of the most common areas of confusion and/or misunderstanding—those distortions of accepted history, economics and/or science—that seem most often to characterize our contemporary political/social arguments, and to distinguish between facts that have been documented and agreed to by responsible people of all ideological perspectives, and the different conclusions and interpretations that may be drawn from those facts. To use an analogy from the courtroom, two sides to a conflict may “stipulate” to what happened, but then proceed to argue in good faith about what those agreed-to stipulations really tell us.

Why do we say that agreement on definitions and documented facts is important? Take the recent debates about the Affordable Care Act—aka “Obamacare”—as an example. People may have very different opinions about the wisdom of the policy choices involved, but our decision to repeal, implement or amend the Act depends upon agreement about what it actually says and does. If opposition to the policy is based upon “death panels” that don’t exist, or its defense is based upon an insistence that the individual mandate isn’t government coercion, the likelihood of reasoned discussion—let alone agreement on policy changes—disappears.

Or take the ongoing battles over religion in the nation’s schools. There are genuine arguments to be made about the proper application of the Establishment Clause in the context of public education. But just as we can’t have those reasoned disputes with people who insist that the First Amendment doesn’t require separation of church and state, we cannot have productive conversations with people who insist that all the Founders were Deists who believed religion was unimportant.

Basing one’s arguments on verifiable fact and accepted history actually helps people make more persuasive cases for their own points of view. We all encounter people who have a legitimate point worth considering, but who—because they are basing their argument on erroneous facts, or demonstrating a lack of understanding of important basic concepts—get dismissed out of hand. Credibility requires verifiable evidence. You might want to use that perfect quote from Thomas Jefferson that you saw on the Internet, but if it is bogus, you’ve just undermined your own position. Defending alternate realities is like arguing about whether a fork is a spoon—it doesn’t get you any closer to a useful resolution.

This brief pamphlet contains basic facts about the U.S. Constitution, economic concepts and systems and the nature of science and the scientific method that every citizen should know—facts and definitions that can serve as solid starting points from which you can build more persuasive arguments for your preferred policies, whatever they may be.


What Everyone Should Know about the Constitution and American Legal System:

1) What is Government?

This may seem like a silly question, but in an age of outsourcing and privatization, it’s often harder to identify government than you might think. (For example, tax dollars pay the salaries of more than 18 million people employed by private companies or nonprofit organizations under contracts with government agencies. Are they part of government? It depends.)

Governments were originally defined as entities having the exclusive right to exercise legitimate coercive power. They were established to keep the peace and control the kinds of behaviors that a given society believes to be inconsistent with public order. It is a truism that a government strong enough to protect us is a government strong enough to oppress us, and some of our most acrimonious debates arise from concerns that by giving the government enough authority to do particular jobs, we may be giving it the power to unduly limit our liberties.

Government—sometimes referred to as “the state” (not to be confused with states, like Indiana or California) or the “public sector” (not to be confused with “the public square,” a very different concept) is also a mechanism through which we citizens collectively do things that would be difficult or impossible to do individually—issue currency, defend the nation’s borders, clean up waterways or pave roads. There are two non-governmental sectors: nonprofit and voluntary organizations or associations (sometimes called civil society or the nonprofit sector), and private persons, families and businesses—the private sector.

The role of government has grown significantly over the years, and thanks to new agencies performing new tasks and the growth of public-private partnerships of various kinds, its presence isn’t always obvious. But here’s a good rule of thumb: If an agency is managed by someone we’ve elected—or by someone appointed by someone we’ve elected—and if it is financed with our tax dollars, it’s probably government.


Why It Matters

In the United States, it is particularly important that we know government when we see it, because our constitutional system is largely based on a concept of “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that individual rights do not come from government; rather, they are “natural.” We are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”), and government must respect and protect those rights.  The U.S. Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government—“the state”—is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot prescribe our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and it is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions.

Those limitations don’t apply to private, non-governmental actors. The government can’t control what you read, for example, but your mother can. The government can’t tell you what to say but (at least at work) your boss can. Your public (government) school can’t make you say a prayer, but a private or parochial school can. The doctrine known as “state action” is shorthand for these limits on government intrusions. If government hasn’t acted, or isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution. Private actors can break other laws, like civil rights laws, but only government can violate the Bill of Rights. That makes it pretty important to be able to recognize when government has acted.


2) What is a Constitution?

Constitutions are different in kind from the statutes and ordinances passed by legislative bodies. They are statements of broad principles that govern and limit what kind of laws legislatures may properly enact and what sort of actions government officials can properly take. While parts of the U.S. Constitution deal with specific, practical matters—how old must someone be to run for President? What is the function of the courts?—they also are statements of important principles meant to guide and constrain lawmakers and government authorities in the future. (There is a very big difference between “there shall be a traffic signal at First and Main Streets” or “there will be no smoking in public places” and “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”) A government is said to be legitimate when its laws and the actions of its public officials are consistent with the principles of its constitution.

Two hundred plus years after the American Constitution was drafted, lawmakers and judges must consult the text and context of our Constitution, in order to decide what the drafters’ original intentions were and the nature of the values they were trying to protect. Since there were many participants in the Constitutional Congress, and they did not speak with one voice, there were often differences of opinion about the meaning of the various provisions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights even then.

Why It Matters.

Understanding the difference between a constitution and an ordinary law is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that constitutions are statements of national aspirations and beliefs about the proper way for citizens to live together. Understanding what values the Founders were trying to protect helps us apply those values to situations they could never have envisioned. It’s a safe bet that James Madison did not have an opinion about government regulation of porn on the Internet, for example. But he most certainly had strong opinions about the value of protecting free expression. The Founders who drafted the Fourth Amendment’s Search and Seizure provisions could hardly have foreseen technology that allows police officers to “see” marijuana growing inside a house from across the street. Our Courts must decide how the Founders would have applied the principles that were so important to them to such new “facts on the ground.” (This process is what legal scholars mean when they talk about the “living Constitution.”) If we don’t know the history and philosophy that motivated the Founders’ choices, we can’t form educated opinions about the application of their principles to modern situations.

3) What Was the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment is the name given to the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement that produced science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government legitimacy on which our system is based. Enlightenment thinkers included Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, John Locke and many, many others. The Enlightenment ushered in profound changes in the way people thought about science, education, liberty and the role of government.

Why It Matters

The Enlightenment changed the definition of liberty. The Puritans and Pilgrims who came to America defined religious liberty as “freedom to do the right thing”—freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors did too. The Founders who crafted our constitution some 150 years later were products of the Enlightenment and its dramatically different concept of liberty.  Enlightenment philosophers defined liberty as personal autonomy—an individual’s freedom to make his own moral and political decisions, free of government coercion. In the Enlightenment’s libertarian construction, liberty meant freedom to “do your own thing,” so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you recognized the equal right of others to do their “own thing.”  The U.S. Constitution is based upon the Enlightenment understanding of liberty.

The Enlightenment also gave us John Locke’s “social contract” theory of government. Locke believed that government legitimacy rested on a theorized agreement—a ”social contract” –between citizens and their governments. Citizens gave the state a monopoly on the use of coercive power in return for the state’s protection of their property, and its maintenance of public order and safety. (This was a dramatic change from belief in the divine right of Kings, a belief that had long justified monarchy.) In Locke’s view—adopted by the Founders—power came from the people, who authorized government to exercise that power for specific purposes, and who could revoke that authority if the government failed to keep its part of the bargain.

4) What is the Bill of Rights?

When the Constitutional Convention drafted a document to replace the unworkable Articles of Confederation, that document did not include a Bill of Rights. The omission was not because there was a disagreement over the importance of those rights; it was because the new government was seen as one of delegated powers, and those powers did not include censoring speech, dictating religious beliefs and otherwise infringing fundamental liberties. Those who opposed adding written guarantees to the constitution also worried that any effort to enumerate, or list, basic liberties would inevitably omit some. Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that the new constitution would not be ratified unless proponents promised to enact a Bill of Rights spelling out specific liberties that government could not infringe.

As passed, the first eight Amendments listed rights that the government was specifically forbidden to infringe; the Ninth and Tenth Amendments were added to address the concerns of Founders like Alexander Hamilton, who worried that any list of protected rights would inevitably leave some out. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments—sometimes called the “Rights and Powers” Amendments—were intended to make it clear that just because a right wasn’t “enumerated” didn’t mean people didn’t still have that right, and to affirm that powers not specifically given to the federal government were retained by the states and/or the people.

The Bill of Rights initially limited only federal government action. It wasn’t until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, in the wake of the Civil War, that the Bill of Rights’ limits on government power were applied to state and local government actors as well. The 14th Amendment prohibited states from denying their own citizens the “privileges and immunities” of American citizenship; as a result, in a series of cases interpreting the Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans are entitled to the same fundamental rights no matter which state they live in. You don’t lose your right to vote, for example, or your right to choose your own religion or reading material, when you move from one state to another. Today, when we refer to the Bill of Rights, we typically mean the first ten Amendments plus the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Because the Bill of Rights incorporates the Enlightenment understanding of liberty as a negative, that is, as our right to be free of government interference with our fundamental rights, only government can violate the Constitution.  If there has been no state action—the legal term meaning action taken by a unit of government—the constitution isn’t involved.

Why it Matters

The Bill of Rights raises and answers an important procedural question: who decides? Who decides what prayer you say, what book you read, how many children you have? In our system, government doesn’t get to decide these and other very personal matters—we individuals decide these things for ourselves. The Bill of Rights doesn’t tell us what we should value or how we should live our lives; it protects our right to make those decisions for ourselves, free of the interference of government.

The Bill of Rights not only limits what government can do, it limits what popular majorities can vote to have government do. In fact, the Bill of Rights is sometimes called a “libertarian brake” on the power of the majority. The Bill of Rights ensures that a majority of your neighbors cannot vote to make you a Baptist or an Episcopalian; they also don’t get to vote on your reading materials or your political opinions. When people don’t understand that the Bill of Rights limits what majorities can vote to have government do, they often misunderstand court decisions that uphold the right of individuals to hold unpopular positions or unconventional beliefs. The courts are not endorsing the choices made by those individuals; rather, they are protecting the right of individuals to make their own choices. When legislators fail to appreciate the limits imposed by the Bill of Rights, they often enact unconstitutional laws that deprive citizens of their liberties. When people don’t understand the operation of the 14th Amendment, they don’t understand that the Bill of Rights applies to all levels of government, including state and local authorities.

5) What are Checks and Balances?

The U.S. Government is divided into three branches: Executive (sometimes called Administrative), legislative, and judicial. We refer to this Constitutional structure, or architecture, as Separation of Powers, and it is fundamental to the American form of government.

The purpose of dividing government powers and responsibilities in this way was twofold. Enlightenment thinkers believed such a system would be more efficient, a division of labor that would make the best use of specialized skill and expertise. Judges would be better at judging if that was the bulk of their responsibilities; legislators would be more adept at passing laws, and so forth. They were also convinced that a division of power would keep any one branch from becoming too powerful and thus threatening the liberties of citizens. Each branch would check the powers of the other branches.

The legislative branch passes the laws. The executive branch administers those laws. And the judiciary—ultimately, the Supreme Court—determines whether the laws passed by legislators and the actions of the administration are consistent with the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Checks and balances don’t stop with the division of the federal government into three separate branches. The system devised by the Founders also gave significant authority to state and local units of government, further dividing power. We call that structure federalism. If you have a zoning issue, for example, you take your case to your local, municipal government; if you want to lobby for changes to family or marriage laws, you approach state legislators. Local, state and federal authorities have different, although sometimes overlapping, jurisdictions. Federalism obviously raises the possibility of conflicts between federal and state laws; when that happens, the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause provides that the federal law prevails.

Why it Matters.

Understanding the structure of our government is important for many reasons. If you want to effect a change, you need to know who has the authority to make that change. (Griping about a zoning ordinance to a member of Congress may make you feel better, but it’s not likely to do much good.) Understanding how the branches interact is also necessary in order to cast informed votes; at election time, the airwaves are filled with political advertisements blaming officeholders for doing or failing to do something. Often, the effectiveness of that charge depends upon voters not understanding where the actual responsibility for action or inaction lies. This is particularly true of political campaigns for chief executives—Governors or the President. People unfamiliar with checks and balances tend to believe that the President or Governor can simply decide to make some change, and it will happen. That is very rarely the case; even appointments to policymaking positions or the courts often require ratification by the legislative branch. We need to understand the operation of checks and balances and the way they limit the exercise of power in order to arrive at informed opinions about elected officials’ performance.


6) What is Judicial Independence?

In the federal courts, judges are appointed for life, and can be removed only for improper behavior. This is an important part of our system of checks and balances. We elect a President, who appoints members of the executive branch; we elect the men and women who represent us in Congress. Those two branches are thus “answerable” to voters. We can dismiss them—vote them out—if we don’t like the way they discharge their duties. The courts, on the other hand, are not supposed to do voters’ bidding; they are responsible to the Constitution and the rule of law, not to popular passions or the electorate.

Why It Matters.

Removing judges from electoral politics was intended to insulate the courts from political pressure. When judges must decide high-profile or highly charged cases, we want them to make those decisions on the basis of their reading of the law, the facts and the Constitution—not out of fear of being voted out of office by a public that may favor a different result. When judges are elected, as they are in some states, and must raise campaign money in order to mount a campaign, there is also a concern that they will weigh the positions of campaign contributors more heavily than the demands of justice or the requirements of the rule of law. When judges make poor decisions—and some will—we nevertheless want those decisions to be based upon their considered judgments, not on political expediency.


7) What is Freedom of Speech?

Most of the people who want to ban a book or a painting, who want to protect the flag or the Virgin Mary from desecration, are acting on their belief in the nature of the public good. They see unrestrained freedom as a threat to the social fabric. The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe. (Where fundamental liberties are concerned, majority rule is a lot like poison gas—it’s a great weapon until the wind shifts!)

Like our legal and economic systems, the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment is based upon a belief in the marketplace–if you make a better widget, it will beat out the competition; if you have a better idea, it will eventually emerge victorious. Accordingly, in our system, the antidote to bad speech is not suppression; it is more and better speech. Every so often, we must remind ourselves that the First Amendment was intended to protect all ideas, not just good ideas, or those with which a majority or substantial minority may agree. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes memorably put it, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment was meant to protect “the idea we hate.”

While government must respect our right to express our own opinions—while it cannot control the content of our message—it can constitutionally regulate the time, place and manner of that expression. Such restrictions, however—no sound trucks in residential neighborhoods after 10:00 pm, for example—must be reasonable, must be content neutral (that is, not based upon the idea being expressed), and must apply to everyone equally.

Why It Matters.

John Stuart Mill made perhaps the most enduring moral argument for free speech, writing  “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This argument rests on respect for the integrity of the individual conscience—respect for the “inalienable” right of each individual to form and exchange opinions voluntarily, and to attempt to persuade others of the validity of those opinions. In addition to this argument for the importance of protecting free speech as an individual right, however, Mill and other Enlightenment philosophers believed that a robust “marketplace of ideas” was the mechanism most likely to guarantee that truth would emerge from public debate.


8) What is Separation of Church and State?

The phrase “separation of church and state” refers to the operation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The phrase itself does not appear in the Constitution. (Its first documented use was by Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, well before the Revolutionary War.) The most famous use of the phrase came from Thomas Jefferson; when Jefferson was President, a group of Danbury Baptists wrote to him asking for an official interpretation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Jefferson’s response was that the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause were intended to “erect a wall of separation” between government and religion.

Historians tell us that the Establishment Clause went through more than 20 drafts, with the Founders rejecting formulations like “there shall be no National Church.” The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The courts have uniformly held that this language not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion or state Church, but also prohibits government actions that endorse or sponsor religion, favor one religion over another, or that prefer religion to non-religion, or non-religion over religion.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits government interference with the “free exercise” of religion. Americans have the right to choose their own beliefs, and to express those beliefs without fear of state disapproval. Together, the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause require government neutrality in matters of religion. Government can neither benefit nor burden religious belief.  One way to think about the operation of the religion clauses is that the Establishment Clause forbids the public sector (i.e., government) from favoring or disfavoring religion, and the Free Exercise Clause forbids government from interfering with the expression of religious beliefs in the public square (i.e., the myriad non-governmental venues where citizens exchange ideas and opinions.)

It’s important to note that the courts have endorsed some restrictions on religious observance (as opposed to belief)—for example, your religion may call for sacrificing your first-born, or smoking dope, but your rights under the Free Exercise Clause don’t extend that far!

Why It Matters.

Some of Americans’ most heated arguments are rooted in religion. This has always been the case, even in colonial times, when “religious diversity” mostly meant “different kinds of Protestant.” As we become more religiously diverse as a nation, it becomes even more important to understand the constitutional limits on the rules that government can impose.

When states misuse their authority to play favorites, to privilege some religious beliefs over others, people who do not share those privileged beliefs are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Separation of church and state prevents adherents of majority religions from using government to force their beliefs on others, and it keeps agencies of government from interfering with the internal operations of churches, synagogues and mosques. As government becomes more pervasive, knowing where to draw the line between what is permissible and what is not becomes more difficult, making it even more important to understand the original purpose of the religion clauses.

As to that original purpose, there are few explanations better than the one offered by John Leland (1754-1851), an evangelical Baptist preacher with strong views on the individual’s relationship to God, the inviolability of the individual conscience, and the limited nature of human knowledge. He wrote, “religion is a matter between God and individuals; religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government, nor in any way under its control…Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics.”


9) What is Freedom of the Press?

It is interesting to consider why freedom of the press was singled out for specific protection in the First Amendment. After all, the Free Speech clause obviously protected journalists as well as other citizens. Why include a specific provision about freedom of the press?

The answer is that the architects of our constitution believed that self-government requires the free and uninhibited flow of information. They wanted to be extra-certain the government kept its hands off that information. So while the First Amendment protects all expression, the free press provision emphasizes the importance of protecting the specific kind of expression we call “journalism.” Note that the constitution doesn’t protect persons called “journalists.” It protects the act of journalism. The activity of “journalism” ensures the availability of information that is in the public interest.

The Founders were anything but naïve. They recognized that what they called the press and we call the media got it wrong a lot of the time. The newspapers of their own time were partisan rags that make our own politicized outlets look positively statesmanlike by comparison. But the Founders also believed that only the freest, most robust exchange of argument, information and gossip would safeguard liberty.  Neither Freedom of Speech nor Freedom of the Press rested on the notion that ideas are unimportant, that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words won’t hurt me.” The Founders knew that ideas are often both powerful and dangerous. But they believed that giving the government power to determine which ideas and information can be transmitted or expressed was infinitely more dangerous.

Why It Matters.

An informed citizenry is ultimately the only guarantor of liberty and sound public policy, and in our complex modern society, citizens depend upon the media for that information. This role of mass media is sometimes called “the watchdog function,” and it is critically important to reasoned political decision-making.  One of the challenges facing American citizens in the age of the Internet is the fragmenting of the traditional media, and the loss of the fact-checking function it used to provide.  When citizens do not have reliable and credible sources of information, ideology and partisanship drive the national conversation. Whatever their faults and shortcomings, media providing what has been called “the journalism of verification” are critically important to democratic deliberation.


10) What is the Right to Assemble?

In addition to Freedom of Speech, Religion and the Press, the First Amendment provides for “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The Supreme Court held in 1937 that the right to peaceably assemble “for lawful discussion, however unpopular the sponsorship, cannot be made a crime.”


Why It Matters.

When we think about assembling today, images of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street may come to mind, but this right to demonstrate, to engage in public protest, has been an important part of the American story for a long time. It protected union organizers, facilitated the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the gay rights movement of our own times. It has also protected those trying to derail those movements. Demonstrations—sometimes called “symbolic speech”—are part of the broad umbrella of expressive freedom that the Founders believed to be essential to ordered liberty. Protecting the right of citizens to come together to protest perceived injustices or highlight social problems is yet another “check” on the power of government. It empowers citizens to demand that their concerns be heard, if not necessarily addressed.


11) What is Search and Seizure?

Before the American Revolution, British soldiers entered the homes of colonists at will, searching any person or place they wanted and often motivated by nothing more than political animosity. Resentment of this practice was a significant cause of the Revolution. (To be fair, many Englishmen also objected to the use of “General Warrants” authorizing searches at the discretion of the authorities. William Pitt, addressing Parliament in 1763, famously said, “The poorest man may, in his cottage, bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England may not enter.”)

When America won independence, revulsion against such practices led to enactment of the Fourth Amendment, which provides that people have a right to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires that police and other authorities have a warrant, issued upon “probable cause,” to conduct such searches.  The Amendment effectively prohibited searches unless government had cause to believe that a crime had occurred and a good reason to believe that a specific person or place contained evidence of that crime. Furthermore, the reasonableness of the search was not to be left to the discretion of an individual policeman; a search warrant was to be issued by an impartial magistrate.

Why It Matters.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against abuses of authority by erecting procedural safeguards against over-reaching and intimidation.  America, unlike totalitarian regimes, places the burden on government to show why it should be allowed to search, rather than on citizens to demonstrate why they should be left alone. The Fourth Amendment rests on the premise that individuals are entitled to be left alone unless there is good reason or “probable cause” to intrude upon their privacy. It would thus violate the Fourth Amendment if police stationed themselves on a public street and demanded that every third passer-by submit to a drug test, even if it could be demonstrated that a high percentage of those who lived in that neighborhood used drugs. The Fourth Amendment protects us against “fishing expeditions”—searches for something incriminating that are based solely on hunches, animosity or cultural stereotypes.


12) What is Due Process of Law?

The right of each citizen to “due process of law” is included in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law” and the Fourteenth Amendment reinforces that prohibition by declaring that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law..”

The effect of this insistence on a fair process can be seen most clearly in the American criminal justice system. Unlike civil and canon law systems—sometimes referred to as inquisitorial systems—that were common in Europe at the time of the Revolutionary War, the American adversarial system requires that proceedings be public, rather than secretive, and gives the accused a presumption of innocence. (In other words, the “burden of proof” is on the prosecution, which must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The accused person need not prove his innocence.) People charged with crimes have a right to be tried by a jury of their peers, in a trial presided over by an impartial judge, and they have the right to refuse to testify—to “take the Fifth” as popular culture phrases it. If the prosecution loses, that’s it—the prohibition against double jeopardy means the state can’t try again.

These and other aspects of criminal law’s due process guarantees were efforts to address the imbalance between a powerful government and far less powerful individuals. The primary goal of our system is not to demonstrate the authority of an all-powerful state, it is to find the truth of a matter, and achieve justice.

Americans’ right to due process is not limited to the criminal justice system. Whenever government acts in a way that threatens a citizen’s liberty or property, the government must provide fair notice and an opportunity for that citizen to be heard. Due process in civil matters is based upon the individual’s right to insist that government actions meet the test of fundamental fairness. So when government proposes to take action that would violate what the courts have called “the liberty interest” (the right to enter into contracts, the right to engage in common occupations, the right to marry and bring up children, to worship freely, to acquire useful knowledge—in short, the right to enjoy the qualities of life recognized as essential to the pursuit of happiness), or when the government proposes to infringe a “property right” (licenses to practice a profession, social security entitlements, civil service employment) we have a right to be notified of the impending action and the reasons for it, and the right to argue about it—to confront witnesses against us, and to have our arguments heard by an impartial decision-maker.

There is one other type of due process, and it is widely misunderstood. This is substantive due process, sometimes called “the right to privacy.” Substantive due process shields private rights from the exercise of arbitrary power; it distinguishes between matters that are properly a concern of government, and thus subject to regulation, and those that are not. (The Supreme Court has ruled, for example, that the question whether married couples use birth control is a personal decision, not a decision that can constitutionally be made by government.)

Why It Matters

Due process is an essential element of the rule of law; the existence of a fair and open process that applies equally to everyone prevents the exercise of raw power, and arbitrary or capricious enforcement of the rules. In addition to being seen as “fair play,” due process is essential to social stability. When people feel that they have been treated unjustly, when they have been prevented from “having their say, or making their case, they are far less likely to abide by the law or official rulings.

Due process is also a tangible outgrowth of the Founders’ insistence on limiting state power. The U.S. Constitution draws a distinction between public and private, and substantive due process guarantees are one way we ensure that government does not overreach, does not intrude into decisions that are properly left to individuals. Both procedural due process and substantive due process are meant to limit the authority of government and prevent abuses of state power.


12) What Do We Mean by “Equal Protection of the Laws?”

Governments have to classify citizens for all kinds of perfectly acceptable reasons. We draw a distinction between children and adults, between motorists and pedestrians, between smokers and non-smokers. The Equal Protection doctrine prevents government from imposing inappropriate classifications; those based upon criteria that are irrelevant to the issue, or that unfairly burden a particular group.  The general rule is that a governmentally imposed classification must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. A requirement that motorists observe a speed limit is clearly a classification related to government’s entirely proper interest in public safety. A law that imposed different speed limits on African-American and Caucasian drivers just as clearly would be improper.

Laws can be discriminatory on their face (i.e., only white males can vote); however, these days, laws meant to be discriminatory are usually crafted to achieve that result by design. That is, they are drawn to look impartial on their face, but to have a discriminatory effect. A rule that all firefighters weigh 180 or more pounds would prevent many more women from being employed than men, despite the fact that one’s weight is not a indicator of strength or the ability to climb a ladder, etc. There are also situations in which genuinely neutral laws are applied in a discriminatory fashion. (The phrase “Driving While Black” grew out of statistics suggesting that some police officers were disproportionately stopping black motorists for speeding.)

The courts will look more closely at classifications that burden constitutional rights, or disadvantage members of groups that have historically been subject to discrimination. Racial minorities and women fall into those categories. We call that process of taking a closer look “heightened” or “strict” scrutiny.

Why It Matters.

The constitutional requirement of equal protection is intended to prevent majorities from using government to disadvantage individuals and minorities of whom the majority may disapprove. Equal Protection guarantees—like all the other provisions in the Bill of Rights—restrain only government. Statutes may or may not address private-sector discrimination.

Essentially, the Equal Protection Clause requires government to treat citizens as individuals, not as members of a group. Laws are supposed to be based upon a person’s civic behavior, not her gender, race or other identity. So long as we citizens obey the laws, pay our taxes, and generally conduct ourselves in a way that does not endanger or disadvantage others, we are entitled to full equality with other citizens.  That guarantee of equal civic rights is one of the aspects of American life that has been most admired around the globe; it has unleashed the productivity of previously marginalized groups and contributed significantly to American prosperity.


13) What is the Difference between Civil Liberties and Civil Rights?

If you aren’t quite certain, you have a lot of company. The distinction is lost on many, if not most, citizens and on a good number of legislators.  Civil liberties are the individual freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights. They are rights that agencies of government must respect. Citizens of the new United States refused to ratify the Constitution unless a Bill of Rights was added, specifically protecting them against official infringements of their rights. Among our civil liberties are the right to free expression, the right to worship (or not) as we choose, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. After the civil war, the Fourteenth Amendment added the Equal Protection Clause, prohibiting government from treating equally situated citizens unequally.  Only the government can violate your civil liberties.

Civil rights took a lot longer to achieve, and were—and still are—a lot more controversial. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Civil rights laws protect people against private acts of discrimination in employment, housing or education. The original Civil Rights Act applied to businesses engaged in interstate commerce—businesses that held themselves out to be “public accommodations” but were, shall we say, “selective” about which segments of the public they were willing to accommodate. State and local civil rights acts followed passage of the federal law. Civil rights laws generally include a list of characteristics that cannot be used to disfavor or discriminate against people: race, religion, gender, and so forth.

Why It Matters.

Knowing the difference between rights that are rooted in the constitution and those that are creations of statute helps Americans better understand our national history, and the arguments being made by groups that remain unprotected by civil rights laws.  For example, GLBT people in states with civil rights laws that do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation can legally be fired just for being gay. Landlords can refuse to rent apartments to them. (The Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits government employers from treating gays and lesbians differently, but it has nothing to say about private employers.)

Similarly, knowing which rights are constitutionally protected should allay concerns expressed by some religious groups that passage of a civil rights law will force them to change their religious beliefs. Since the Free Exercise Clause is a constitutional guarantee, the amendment of a civil rights measure to include protection for gays and lesbians would have no effect on the practices or preaching of churches that consider homosexuality sinful—just as civil recognition of divorce did not mean that the Catholic Church had to change its theological opposition to that practice.


What Everyone Should Know About the American Economic System


14) What is Capitalism?

Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. It is characterized by free markets, where the prices of goods and services are determined by supply and demand, rather than set by government. Economists often define the ideal of free trade as a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both of whom are in possession of all information relevant to that transaction.

Why It Matters.

Understanding the importance of free trade to capitalism is important, because it defines the proper role of government in a capitalist system—as an “umpire” or referee, ensuring that everyone plays by the rules. For example, Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that monopolies distort markets; if one company can dominate a market, that company can dictate prices and other terms with the result that those transactions will no longer be truly voluntary. If Manufacturer A can avoid the cost of disposing of the waste produced by his factory, by dumping it into the nearest river, he will be able to compete unfairly with Manufacturer B, who is following the rules governing proper waste disposal. If Chicken Farmer A is able to control his costs and gain market share by failing to keep his coops clean and his chickens free of disease, unwary consumers will become ill. Most economists agree that in order for markets to operate properly, government must act as an “umpire,” assuring a level playing field.

This need for government is a response to what economists call “market failure.” There are three situations in which Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t work: when monopolies or corrupt practices replace competition; when so-called “externalities” like pollution harm people who aren’t party to the transaction (who are neither buyer nor seller); and when there are “information asymmetries,” that is, when buyers don’t have access to information they need to bargain in their own interest. Since markets don’t have built-in mechanisms for dealing with these situations, most economists argue that regulation is needed.

Economists and others often disagree about the need for particular regulations, but most do agree that an absence of all regulatory activity undermines capitalism. Unregulated markets can lead to a different system, sometimes called corporatism. In corporatist systems, government regulations favoring powerful corporate interests are the result of lobbying by corporate and monied special interests that stand to benefit from them. You might think of it as a football game where one side has paid the umpire to make calls favorable to that team.


15) What is Socialism?

Socialism is the collective provision of goods and services. The decision whether to pay for certain services collectively rather than leaving their production and consumption to the free market can be based upon a number of factors. First, there are some goods that free markets cannot or will not produce. Economists call them public goods, and define them as both “non-excludable” –meaning that individuals who haven’t paid for them cannot be effectively kept from using them—and “non-rivalrous,” meaning that use by one person does not reduce the availability of that good to others. Examples of public goods include fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems and street lighting. If we are to have these goods, they must be supplied by the whole society, usually through government, and paid for with tax dollars.

Not all goods and services that we provide collectively are public goods. Policymakers have often based decisions to socialize services on other considerations: we socialize police and fire protection because doing so is generally more efficient and cost-effective, and because most of us believe that limiting such services only to people who can afford to pay for them would be immoral. We socialize garbage collection in more densely populated urban areas in order to enhance the livability of our cities and to prevent disease transmission.

Why It Matters.

Getting the “mix” right between goods that we provide collectively and those we leave to the free market is important, because too much socialism hampers economic health. Just as unrestrained capitalism can become corporatism, socializing the provision of goods that the market can supply reduces innovation and incentives to produce. During the 20th Century, many countries experimented with efforts to socialize major areas of their economies, and even implement  socialism’s extreme, communism, with uniformly poor results. Not only did economic productivity suffer, so did political freedom. (When governments have too much control over the means of production and distribution, they can easily become authoritarian.)

Virtually all countries today have mixed economies. The challenge is getting the right balance between socialized and free market provision of goods and services.


16) What are the Differences between Socialism, Fascism and Communism?

In our highly polarized politics today, words like Socialism, Fascism and Communism are used more as insults than descriptions. There are numerous disagreements about the essential characteristics of these systems, probably because the theories underlying them were so different from the actual experiences of those who tried them.

Socialism may be the least precise of these terms. It is generally applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden is correspondingly higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” but it differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Three elements commonly identified with Fascism are 1) a national identity fused with racial/ethnic identity and concepts of racial superiority; 2) rejection of civil liberties and democracy in favor of authoritarian government; and 3) aggressive militarism. Fascism has been defined by this radical authoritarian nationalism, with fascists seeking to unify the nation through the elevation of the state over the individual, and the mass mobilization of the national community through discipline, indoctrination, and physical training. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are the most notable examples of Fascist regimes.




Why It Matters.

Understanding the differences among these different political philosophies is important for two reasons: first, we cannot have productive discussions or draw appropriate historical analogies if we don’t have common understandings of the words we are using. Second, we cannot learn from history and the mistakes of the past if the terms we are using are unconnected to any substantive content. When activists accuse an American President of being a Fascist or a Communist, labels that have been thrown at both President George W. Bush and President Obama, it trivializes the crimes committed by the Nazis and the Soviets and it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to engage in reasoned discussion about—or persuasive criticism of—whatever the President is doing that led to the charge.


17) What are the Differences between the Private, Nonprofit and Public Sectors?

Again, this may seem like a silly question, much like “what is government?” but in an era of blurring boundaries, it is important to recognize the distinctions between the sectors. The public sector is composed of government at all levels, local, state and federal. If it is government, it is part of the public sector. (Not to be confused with the public square, which is not a sector at all, but a shorthand phrase meaning the arenas where public debates occur.) Both the nonprofit and private sectors are private, in the sense that they are not government, but the nonprofit sector—sometimes referred to as “civil society”—is composed of voluntary associations dedicated to providing a public good rather than generating a profit. Nonprofit organizations are sometimes said to provide a buffer between impersonal government agencies on the one hand, and individuals and their families on the other. They range from professional associations to charitable organizations to religious communities and volunteer groups. Technically, the private sector is everything other than government and nonprofit and voluntary associations, but usually the term is employed to mean for-profit business enterprises.

Why It Matters.

Knowing whether a particular enterprise is part of government, a nonprofit organization, or a private, for-profit entity tells us a great deal about its mission and purpose, because the sectors have very different reasons for operating. Government, as we have seen, is the collective mechanism through which communities and nations provide services that either cannot be provided privately, or that policymakers have determined should be provided by the state.  Nonprofit organizations also have a social mission, either providing something that government is not or cannot provide, or supplementing government services deemed to be inadequate. Private sector enterprises exist to earn a profit. While we want government and charitable organizations to operate in a businesslike manner, those sectors are fundamentally different from business and pose very different management challenges.

One of the major debates among policymakers involves the effect of outsourcing (sometimes called privatization) on sector identity. Some scholars worry that too much government outsourcing—especially to nonprofit organizations—is both “hollowing out” government’s capacity to manage core government responsibilities, and turning nonprofits into less visible arms of the state. Knowing the differences between sectors and their missions allows citizens to monitor such practices.


18) What are Taxes and How are They Assessed?

Taxes have been called the price we pay for membership in society. How we tax, who we tax and how much, are probably the most hotly-debated political issues we confront, because what seems fair to one person seems unfair to another. Most people agree that governments need revenue in order to provide services, but they don’t necessarily agree on the services government should provide, the amount of revenue government really needs or the way government should raise that money.


Federal, state and local governments all have the power to tax, and policymakers must decide what to tax (earned income, dividends and interest, property, sales, inheritances?), who is taxed (nonprofits, for-profits, individuals, corporations?) and how it is taxed (progressively, regressively, proportionately?). Governments also must decide how much will be spent and for what, in order to determine how much money must be raised through the tax system. All of these decisions, and their economic consequences, are the subject of heated and legitimate debate.

Why it matters.

Americans believe passionately in fairness and equality. The tax system may be complicated, and taxing and spending decisions may be difficult to understand, but a basic knowledge of what the money goes for, how much goes where, and where it comes from is essential if we are to have productive discussions about tax fairness. (For example, surveys routinely show that large percentages of Americans believe we spend 25% of the federal budget on foreign aid, and that a ‘more appropriate’ amount would be 10%. We actually spend less than 1% on foreign aid.)

The American tax system depends upon the voluntary compliance of taxpayers. No constable comes to your door to check your books and calculate what you owe, although you may be audited if your tax return raises red flags. If the system is to work, if we expect people to report their incomes accurately and pay what they owe without coercion, the system must be viewed as fundamentally fair. Widespread misconceptions erode the public’s belief in the system’s legitimacy.

One of the most important misunderstandings of our tax system concerns the difference between the marginal tax rate and the effective tax rate. In a progressive tax system, reported income is divided into brackets. The marginal rate is the rate applied to dollars earned that fall in successively higher brackets. For example, let’s assume you earn $60,000, and there are no exemptions or other adjustments—that the whole 60,000 is being taxed. If the first 20,000 of income you earn falls in a 10% bracket, that first 20,000 will always be taxed at 10% or $2000 no matter how much more you earn. If the next 20,000 is taxed at the next highest rate—say 15%–you will pay $3000 on that 10,000, and if the next 20,000 is taxed at 20%, that amount will be taxed $4000.  Using this (grossly oversimplified) example, your marginal rate is 20%, but your effective rate—the actual percentage of your total earnings that you pay in taxes—is 15%. Your total tax, using this example, would be 9,000; if you were paying 20% on the entire 60,000, your tax bill would be 12,000. In real life, thanks to multiple exemptions, deductions and tax incentives, people making income subject to the highest current marginal tax bracket—36%–can bring their effective rates down dramatically. Millionaires often have an effective tax rate below 15%.

Many people understand this, but many others do not. When they read about the marginal rates of 50% or even 90% that used to be in effect, they think those rates were applied to the taxpayer’s entire earnings.

Another widespread misconception concerns the identification of federal taxes with the income taxes. Personal income taxes are federal taxes, but there are many other kinds of federal tax: the payroll tax, the federal excise tax, and various specialized taxes. While the income tax is mildly progressive—that is, as income rises into successive tax brackets, it is subject to higher rates—taxes like the payroll tax and federal excise tax on gasoline are considered regressive, because they take a larger percentage of the income of those who earn less. Furthermore, people who earn very little money or people with lots of deductions may not pay income tax, but almost everyone pays payroll and excise taxes.


19) What is the Difference between the Deficit and the Debt?

The deficit is the difference between the revenues government takes in (receipts) and what it spends (outlays) on an annual basis. Receipts are all of the money the federal government takes in from income, excise and social insurance taxes, fees and other income. Outlays are all federal spending, from social security and Medicare benefits, defense spending, administering the federal government and all its programs, to interest payments on the debt. When annual outlays exceed revenues, there is a deficit, and the Treasury must borrow the money needed for the government to pay its bills. It does so by selling securities and savings bonds to the general public and other willing buyers both in the U.S. and abroad. (Additionally, the Government Trust Funds are required by law to invest accumulated surpluses in Treasury securities. Securities issued to the public and to the Government Trust Funds then become part of the total debt. The national debt is composed of accumulated deficits.


Why It Matters.

Although pundits like to compare federal spending to the way individuals manage our households, the comparison is not really very apt, or helpful, because money that government spends has a large effect on the economy and job creation. Most economists—conservative or liberal—advise government to spend more or tax less during economic downturns, in order to lift economic performance. (Both government spending and tax cuts will stimulate the economy, although economists debate which approach is more likely to stimulate demand.) On the other hand, too much debt accumulated over too long a period can depress economic productivity by driving up the cost of business and personal borrowing, among other things. When government programs are cut too deeply in order to save money, jobs in the private and nonprofit sectors are lost, with a corresponding loss of tax revenues. (This is one concern with our defense budget, for example. Even though the Pentagon has determined we don’t need to spend so much, large-scale contractors with thousands of employees depend upon defense contracts for their existence.) In order to accurately assess proposals being made by our elected officials, it is important to understand whether we are talking about long-term or short-term spending, and what the effects of suggested reductions or increases in spending are likely to be.

20) What is the Debt Ceiling?

The Constitution requires that Congress make all spending decisions—the President proposes, but Congress disposes. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, Congress authorizes more spending than the government collects in revenue. That requires government to borrow the difference, in order to cover the deficit that Congress has authorized. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Congress also votes to authorize borrowing that will exceed the previously-set debt limit, or ceiling. This may seem a bit silly, since that vote comes from the same Congress that has already voted for the spending that requires the borrowing, but this practice of raising the debt ceiling has generally been uncontroversial, and for years the ceiling has been raised by votes from large, bipartisan majorities. More recently, a significant minority of Representatives has refused to vote to raise the ceiling.

Why It Matters.

It is unclear why some Representatives are refusing to cast the previously “pro-forma” vote to raise the debt ceiling, since failing to raise the debt ceiling would not do anything to reduce the national debt. Instead, it would be a vote for the U.S. to default on what it owes. If Congress were actually to fail to raise the ceiling, the results would be catastrophic; such an act would require the United States to stop paying many of its bills—including amounts owed to senior citizens for social security, defense contractors and members of the military who defend the country, and many others. Economists warn that such a failure to pay our bills could precipitate a worldwide economic collapse.


What Everyone Should Know About Science


21) What is science?

Science has been defined as the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. It requires the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena. Science is generally characterized by empirical inquiry; understood in this way, modern science dates back to the Enlightenment, when figures like Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle applied inductive reasoning to the methodological study of the physical world. The scientific method begins with the identification of a question or problem, after which relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated based upon that data, and the hypothesis is then subject to additional empirical testing.

Why does it matter?

Understanding what human activities can be classified as scientific, rather than philosophical, ideological or religious, is the only way we can determine the appropriate jurisdiction of governmental activities. If the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology is to properly evaluate matters that come before it, members of the Committee need to understand what counts as science and what does not. When public school boards are asked to include alternate theories of planetary and human creation in science curricula, they need to be able to distinguish between theories that are scientific—and thus appropriate for inclusion in a science classroom—and those that are based upon religious doctrine rather than empirical investigation.


22) What is a scientific theory?

Development of a scientific theory is a part of the scientific method. It involves summarizing a group of hypotheses that have been successfully and repeatedly tested.  Once enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, a theory is developed, and that theory becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a particular phenomenon. Scientific theories must be based on careful examination of the facts.

In the scientific method, a clear distinction is drawn between facts, which can be observed and/or measured, and theories, which are scientists’ explanations and interpretations of the facts. Scientists can draw various interpretations from their observations, or from the results of their experiments, but the facts, which have been called the cornerstone of the scientific method, do not change. A theory must include statements that have what scientists call “observational consequences.” A good theory, like Newton’s theory of gravity, will also have unity, which means it consists of a limited number of problem-solving strategies that can be applied to a wide range of scientific circumstances. A sound theory consists of a number of hypotheses that can be tested independently. A scientific theory is not the end result of the scientific method; theories are constantly supported or rejected, improved or modified as more information is gathered so that the accuracy of the prediction becomes greater over time. In order to be considered scientific, hypotheses and theories are always subject to falsification.

Why It Matters

In everyday conversation, the word “theory” means something very different from its scientific meaning. Nonscientists use the word theory to mean speculation, or guess—“I have a theory about that.” When we fail to distinguish between our casual use of the term and its very different scientific meaning, we confuse discussions of science policy and science education. This has been particularly true of arguments surrounding Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Some religious people believe that the theory of evolution is inconsistent with a belief in God. Other religious authorities disagree. They challenge the teaching of evolution in biology classes because they believe that it is “just a theory.” Such debates are seldom enlightening, because participants are using the same term to mean very different things; they are talking past each other.


23) What is falsification?    

Falsification is an essential characteristic of a scientific hypothesis or theory. Basically, a falsifiable assertion is one that can be empirically refuted or disproved. Falsifiability means that the hypothesis is testable by empirical experiment, and that it thus conforms to the standards of the scientific method. Merely because something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather it means that if it is false, then observation or experiment will at some point demonstrate its falsity. It is important to note that many things may be true, or generally accepted as true, without being falsifiable. Observing that a woman or a sunset is beautiful, asserting that you feel sad, declaring that you are in love and similar statements may be very true, but they aren’t science, because they can be neither empirically proved nor disproved. Similarly, God may exist, but that existence is not falsifiable—God cannot be dragged into a laboratory and tested. One either believes in His existence or not. (That’s why religious belief is called faith.)



Context Matters: Pedagogy and Comparative Public Management




In recognition of the increasingly global nature of the economic, ecological and social challenges facing governments, the field of Public Administration has gradually been embracing a more comparative and international approach. (Pierre 1995; Heady, 2001; McGrath, Moss & Harris 2010) Scholars engage in comparative public administration research for two broad and related reasons: the first is scholarly interest in the varieties of institutional approaches to governance, and the consequences of similarities and differences between bureaucracies and political systems. Investigations of those differences allow researchers to draw lessons about governance from an analysis of varying patterns of organization and control.

While the conclusions drawn from such studies eventually make their way into the literature, and hence into the classroom, the second reason is more practical and pedagogical in orientation. This approach involves an examination of the day-to-day, largely technocratic challenges faced by public servants around the globe in an attempt to translate and apply in our own countries the best practices and most effective solutions to those common challenges that have been adopted by others. Those who teach public management increasingly encourage students to consult resources from countries other than their own, and to look around the globe as well as around the corner for answers to local problems of service delivery and agency administration.

This latter approach, while it has much to recommend it, should not be allowed to obscure important differences in national legal and constitutional cultures—differences that reflect the specific value criteria and political framework within which each country’s citizens evaluate their government’s performance. The increase in collaboration between public managers internationally is generally beneficial; however, it is important to distinguish between service delivery modalities that can be improved and informed by reference to broader international practices and those that are rooted in and shaped by the disparate histories, cultures and constitutions of particular nations.  As one scholar has noted

“The comparative study of public administration is, as Heady (1990) argues, struggling to accommodate two seemingly inconsistent tendencies. One tendency is to try to ‘generalize by making comparisons that are as inclusive as possible, and by searching for administrative knowledge that transcends national and regional boundaries’ (Heady 1990, p. 3). The other tendency is that toward case-specific or idiosyncratic analyses ‘with only scant attention, or none at all, to foreign experience.’ (ibid.) Clearly, public administration has never experienced the same significant orientation toward comparative, cross-national analysis which characterizes most other fields of political science. Therefore, in some ways, the field of comparative public administration brings the study of public bureaucracies closer to political science and policy analysis (Peters 1992), a development which will probably infuse energy into this research. (Peters 1988 p.189)” (Pierre 1995)

Admittedly, there are many public administration challenges that transcend political systems, or are only tangentially affected by political culture. Basic public services typically fall within this category. How public managers assure water quality, provide transportation modalities, approach economic and community development, pick up and dispose of waste—these and many similar functions performed by a nation’s bureaucracy will be largely unaffected by differences in historical and constitutional norms. Even some public safety and criminal justice methods and technologies, which are more likely to reflect national understandings of what constitutes crime and what procedures are required by due process, fall into this category. When tasks are largely methodological and managerial, the sharing of “best practices” can help us learn from each other, to the benefit of all.  As Alberi and Bertucci (2006) have noted, however, although he concept of best practice is widely used to distinguish exemplary or improved performance in organizations, the term can be problematic in relation to governance and public administration. This is true for a number of reasons, including the legal and cultural context of the practices being evaluated.

Those who teach public administration need to take care lest emphasis upon cross-cultural commonalities in these large areas of everyday practice end up obscuring important differences in public administration that are rooted in very different approaches to the role of government—differences that reflect nations’ particular histories, philosophies and governing structures. A pedagogy of public administration that focuses solely on surface similarities and ignores these deeply rooted underlying distinctions short-changes students and produces public managers who are ill equipped to deal with important issues in ways that will enhance rather than undermine administrative legitimacy.

A number of scholars from a number of countries have cautioned against such mechanical transfers of administrative practices. (Taube 2002; McGrath, Moss & Harris 2010; Lynn, Jr., Heinrich & Hill 2000.)  Alberti and Bertucci (2006) advise developing “a set of tools and methodologies to identify the validity and transferability of national practices and experiences.” Cortazar (2006) has been even more direct.

“Given the focus on learning about best practices in a specific context in order to transfer lessons learned to another context at a later date, the reader may think that what is most important would be to evaluate the results actually obtained. But is it possible to apply what is learned about one practice in another context without a prior understanding of how and why the practice was able to develop and operate appropriately in its original context? We do not think so. Because the contexts are not equivalent, it does not make sense to merely copy a practice, which is why Bardach (2004) proposes to extrapolate it, that is, to apply our conclusions about a practice in its original context to a different context.”

                                    “Best Practices” in the Classroom

In a very real sense, the study of public affairs and public management will always be particularistic. The field of public administration, after all, is defined as analysis and management of the public’s business as that business is defined by a particular society at a particular time. Efforts to study or replicate “best practices” without due regard for the governing premises of the society within which those practices occur are at best inexact and at worst, counterproductive.

The importance of context presents educators with a significant challenge: how do we learn from each other while recognizing and respecting the effects of cultural distinctions bearing upon governance? The ongoing debate over the proper approach to comparative public administration pedagogy raises both normative and technical questions about what we teach our students. Several such questions come immediately to mind: How do we teach students to approach public policy with an informed sensitivity to the operation of national norms? How do we identify and assess the function and relative importance of mediating institutions—nonprofits and NGOs—in countries with very different understandings of the roles such organizations should fill? How do we ensure that students will recognize and accommodate the systemic structures that empower or constrain public managers in different constitutional contexts? In short, how do we marry citizenship education to public management skills, so that public policy and administration will be informed by both sets of competencies?

A well-regarded American introductory public affairs text describes the policy process as a series of eight steps: 1) establish the context; 2) formulate the problem; 3) specify project objectives; 4) explore alternative solutions; 5) set the policy; 6) develop an implementation plan; 7) monitor and evaluate; and recycle the process. (Bonser, McGregor and Oster 1996).  This prescription and sequence, beginning as it does with an understanding of the context, seems right.

When we talk about “establishing the context,” we necessarily start with national constitutions and legal systems, because they establish a large part of that context. Where they exist, constitutions are controlling declarations of public policy, embodying a society’s fundamental philosophical assumptions about law, legitimacy and government power. Constitutions dictate the ways in which we “formulate the problems” and effectively foreclose exploration of certain “alternative solutions.” To take illustrative examples from America, the United States Constitution does not permit officials to entertain the “alternative solution” of imposing martial law when burglary rates get too high, or the “alternative solution” of censorship when music lyrics are deemed to be too suggestive. It does not permit American deficit hawks to reduce welfare rolls by feeding only Caucasian children, or to combat pollution by appropriating privately owned property. The U.S. Constitution, and especially the jurisprudence it has generated, controls how Americans “set the policy” and how we proceed with the “implementation plan.” In civil law countries, where case law does not constitute legal precedent in the same way court decisions do in common law countries, the guidance provided by the Constitution is textual rather than jurisprudential, but that document nevertheless requires managers to discharge their responsibilities within the framework of rules provided.

Failure to follow those rules, failure to operate within the appropriate constitutional context, undermines legitimacy—the very definition of which is “operational rules rooted in constitutional or societal norms.” A legitimate exercise of authority, no matter how coercive, is different from the exercise of raw power unrestrained by adherence to codes rooted in normative values, and members of the polity can be counted on to see it differently. Being perceived as legitimate is especially critical to the continued effectiveness of those in local government agencies who must make and implement policies having an immediate and concrete impact on citizens with whom they regularly interact.

If constitutions circumscribe the arena within which public policy debate may legitimately occur in a given society, familiarity with applicable constitutional principles also provides a common language enabling meaningful democratic dialogue. Students need not agree with every choice required by a nation’s constitution, but they do need to understand what those choices are, why initial constitutional decisions were made, and why they continue to matter (or not). Without that essential framework, public policy issues cannot be properly framed or their significance clearly understood; they will tend to be viewed as isolated and unconnected challenges rather than aspects of a coherent approach to the use of state power. With constitutional literacy comes recognition that certain underlying principles will be as applicable to discussions of welfare programs and land use as they are to public health or the civil rights of religious minorities.

Unless they are trained to look for inconsistent assumptions, inhabitants of different cultures will take for granted the universality of their worldviews. This is true even of countries that all consider themselves democratic. For example, the term “public affairs” implies the existence of both public and private realms. A generally underappreciated reality is that different legal and constitutional systems define those spheres very differently. In the United States, the legal system draws a constitutionally significant distinction between the public sector, defined as government and its agencies and officials, and civil society, defined as the multitude of nongovernmental, voluntary communal and religious associations through which individuals may act and connect. That distinction is a crucial, if unarticulated, element of most U.S. policy decisions, because only government actors can violate the American Bill of Rights, which limits government actions but not private behaviors. (Kennedy & Schultz 2010, Hartmus 2008, Cross 2001, Kennedy 2006). Based upon this particular understanding of the relationship of public and private behaviors, the American Constitution does not grant affirmative rights; it limits the power of the state to infringe private ones. This is not the case in many other Western democratic states, where it is common to have a constitutional system that both restrains and empowers government (Cross 2001), and where social entitlements frequently are embedded in the constitution. As a consequence of these differences in legal context, public managers working in different countries must confront a different set of questions when they are contemplating collective social action.

                                                Exemplary Cases

An example of the practical significance of such legal worldviews can be seen in the responses of different systems to efforts to privatize previously governmental functions. The move toward greater privatization has gained popularity in a number of countries over the past quarter-century, despite considerable confusion over the precise meaning of the term. Although “privatization” literally means ceding government-run enterprises to the private sector, much as Margaret Thatcher did in England, most of these arrangements are more accurately described as “contracting out.” The government continues to determine the need for the program or service, funds it, and remains ultimately responsible for its management; however, the relevant agency enters into an arrangement—typically a contract, but sometimes a grant or other partnership arrangement—with a private or nonprofit organization to deliver the service or otherwise perform the designated function. In the United States, during the past century, these arrangements have fundamentally transformed governance. The scope of government action has increased at all levels of our federal system, but the means through which agencies of government address service delivery and public problem-solving have changed radically. (Kennedy 2006; Kennedy & Jensen 2005; Salamon 2002: Fredrickson 1993; Kettl 2002).

In the United States, this transfer of sovereignty to nongovernmental agents is more than merely a management problem, as it is in many other countries, because constraints on the use of public authority are fundamental to the United States’ political and constitutional order. The Bill of Rights restrains only government action, making it essential that citizens and public managers alike be able to identify when government has acted. The growth of contracting arrangements has made that identification increasingly problematic, blurring the boundaries between private and public action and making it difficult in many situations to determine whether a particular action or decision can fairly be attributed to government. The result, in the opinion of many scholars (Metzger 2003; Kennedy 2001; Gilmour and Jensen 1998) has been a loss of essential governmental accountability. This is simply not an issue in countries with constitutions that do not rest on foundations of “negative liberty.”  In those regimes, public service delivery by private contractors or NGOs raises management issues, not constitutional ones.

Similarly, most European governments routinely contract with religious organizations; separation of church and state, if it exists at all, is framed very differently than in the United States. American courts have long held that, whatever else the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause may mean, it definitely precludes the use of tax dollars to advance religion or support religious endeavors. On the other hand, faith-based and religious organizations remain free to contract with agencies of government to provide secular services, and local units of government fund thousands of them to provide job training, childcare, adoptions, homeless interventions and a plethora of other human services.  Legally, public managers must ensure that the contracting organizations providing these services are not engaging in constitutionally prohibited activities, i.e., that they are not proselytizing clients, requiring their attendance at church services or engaging them in prayer. The ability of cash-strapped government agencies to assure compliance with these constitutionally required prohibitions is virtually non-existent; as a result, the propriety of governmental partnerships with religious organizations has from time to time become a heated and bitterly contested political issue. (Kennedy & Bielefeld 2006; Lupu and Tuttle 2003, 2004; Lynn 2002)

These outsourcing issues are far from trivial. They do not simply reflect different ways of delivering social services. Instead, they implicate normative understandings of accountability—a concept absolutely integral to public administration theory and practiceIn an important article on outsourcing and the New Public Management, Peters, Guy and Pierre (1998) made precisely this point.

“The basic problem in both theories [outsourcing and NPM] is that the linkage between control and accountability—the heart of democratic theory and a democratic system of government—has been confused. Both models of public administration seek to replace political power derived from legal mandates or elected office with an entrepreneurial style of leadership or—with NPM—a remote and indirect model of leadership. This creates two different problems, derived from different perspectives on governance and citizenship. First, if elected political leaders have such limited control over public administration, is it reasonable to hold them accountable for the decisions and actions of the public service, and if elected officials should not be held accountable, then who is accountable?”

The authors also note that outsourcing and the New Public Management have met with opposition in Europe, due to incompatibility with longstanding traditions of administration there.

Contracting with a third-party surrogate for service delivery is simply one example of the complex interplay between basic governmental institutional theories and managerial efforts to improve service delivery. Peters, Guy and Pierre quite accurately note the problem with assigning accountability—the problem with determining who is responsible for what. There is, however, an even more foundational accountability issue, and it brings us back to the central concern of this article, the role of national political culture in determining accountability. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to identify the person or institution that is responsible for a particular government action. It is even more critical to ask the question “accountable to what?” What is the system of rules, what are the normative expectations, against which we are to measure action and determine accountability?  If we do not understand that legal and cultural context, we cannot form a coherent theory of accountability, and without a coherent theory of accountability—a theory that is grounded in normative expectations and transparent enough to allow citizens to identify responsible actors—we simply cannot teach a discipline called public administration. At most, we can offer technocratic skill training.

                        Instructional Tools and Approaches: Some Conclusions

Unfortunately, conscientious public affairs instructors who understand they must begin any comparative exercise with an introduction to the basic assumptions of a society do not have a wealth of pedagogical materials available to them. Too many books dealing with comparative public administration ignore or slight foundational social and contextual differences, preferring to highlight the more technocratic issues common to public administrators everywhere.  There are, however, a few scholars who have argued for the importance of grounding public management pedagogy in the relevant political theory.  Michael Spicer’s book, The Founders, the Constitution and Public Administration, published in 1995, made a strong case for the importance of a public management rooted in a nation’s constitution. “The purpose of this book,” Spicer noted in his introduction “is to examine the worldviews underlying public administration and the Constitution.” Although Spicer directed his attention to the U.S. Constitution, all legal systems are constitutive of national cultures to a greater or lesser extent, and they all shape the worldviews of those who operate within them. Differences in those worldviews can be seen in the varying attitudes toward government that characterize different countries, even when the countries being considered are all constitutional democracies. In the U.S., as public administration has concentrated on the need to legitimize the administrative state, it has found itself at odds with a polity fixated on the need to limit government power, a central U.S. Constitutional concern. As a result, administrative actions that are taken for granted in European countries with strong administrative traditions often generate accusations of illegitimacy in highly individualistic America.

Constitutional cultures not only dictate perceptions of legitimacy, they also provide the framework within which a polity defines ethical public service. John A. Rohr, one of the pre-eminent American scholars in the field, insisted, “the job of the public manager is to implement the Constitution.”  (Rohr, 1998). Perhaps the most eloquent statement of this theme occurs in Rohr’s essay entitled “A Constitutional Theory of Public Administration.” After noting that adherence to constitutional principles is independent of partisan ideology, and that “The Constitution transcends a given tax policy, a weapons system and food stamps,” he writes

   “The link between subordination to constitutional masters and the freedom to choose among them preserves both the instrumental character of public administration and the autonomy necessary for professionalism. In this way, we can reinstate the great insight of the discredited dichotomy between politics and administration…By suggesting a theory of public administration that combines constitutional subordination and autonomy, I hope to preserve the enduring insight of the venerable dichotomy without succumbing to its naïve view of public administration as apolitical” (89-90)

All constitutions and legal systems rest upon considered normative judgments about the conduct of public affairs, judgments that have their roots in the particularities of that country’s history and experience. Trying to teach public administration without constant reference to those foundational judgments is like trying to teach reading without reference to the alphabet.



Alberti, A., & Bertucci, G. (2006). Replicating innovations in governance. In Innovations in Governance and Public Administration: Replicating What Works (pp. 1-25). New York, NY: United Nations.

Bonser, Charles F., Eugene B. McGregor Jr., and Clinton V. Oster Jr. 1996. Policy Choices and Public Action. Upper Saddle River, N.J. Prentice-Hall.

Cortazar, Juan Carlos. 2006. “Learning from Best Practices in Public Management: A Methodological Approach” in Alberti & Bertucci (eds) Innovations in Governance and Public Administration: Replicating What Works. New York, NY: United Nations.

Cross, F. B. (2001). The error of positive rights. UCLA Law Review, 48, 857-924.

Frederickson, H. George. 1993. “Ethics and Public Administration: Some Assertions” in Ethics and Public Administration, H. George Frederickson (ed). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Gilmour, Robert S. and Jensen, Laura S. 1998. “Reinventing Government Accountability: Public Functions, Privatization, and the Meaning of ‘State Action.’” Public Administration Review

Hartmus, D. M. (2008). Teaching constitutional law to public administrators. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 14(3), 353-360. Retrieved from

Heady, F. (2001). Public administration: A comparative perspective. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Kennedy, Sheila Suess. “Checks and Balances? Or L’etat, C’est Moi?” The Remnant Review Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006. pp. 65-78.

Kennedy, Sheila Suess. (2001) “When is Public Private? State Action, Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships.” George Mason Civil Rights Law Review. Vol. 11 #2, Spring. 203.

Kennedy, Sheila Suess and Wolfgang Bielefeld. (2006)  Charitable Choice at Work: Faith-Based Job Programs in the States. Georgetown University Press, Washington D.C.

Kennedy, Sheila and Schultz, David. 2011. American Public Service: Constitutional and Ethical Foundations. Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Kettl, Donald F. 2002. The Transformation of Governance: Public Administration for Twenty-First Century America (Interpreting American Politics). Johns Hopkins Press.

Lupu, Ira C. and Robert W. Tuttle. 2003. The State of the Law 2003: Developments in the Law Concerning Government Partnerships with Religious Organizations. Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. Albany, NY: Rockerfeller Institution of Government.

Lupu, Ira C. and Robert W. Tuttle. 2004. The State of the Law 2004: Developments in the Law Concerning Government Partnerships with Religious Organizations. Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. Albany, NY: Rockerfeller Institution of Government.

Lynn, Laurence E., Jr. 2001. “Social Services and the State: The Public Appropriation of Private Charity.” Social Service Review.

Lynn, L.E., Jr., Heinrich, C. J., & Hill, C. J. (2000). Studying governance and public management: Challenges and prospects. Journal of Public Administrations Research and Theory, 10(2), 233-262.


McGrath, C., Moss, D., & Harris, P. (2010). The evolving discipline of public affairs. Journal of Public Affairs, 10, 335-352. doi: 10.1002/pa.369

Metzger, Gillian E. 2003. “Privatization as Delegation.” Columbia Law Review 103: 1367-1502.

Pierre, J. (1995). Bureaucracy in the modern state: An introduction to comparative public administration. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Peters, G. B., & Pierre, J. (1998). Governance without government? rethinking public administration. Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory, 8(2), 223-243.

Rohr, John. 1999.  Public Service, Ethics, and Constitutional Practice. University of Kansas Press.

Salamon, Lester M., ed. 2002. The Tools of Government: A Guide to the New Governance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Spicer, Michael. 1995. The Founders, the Constitution, and Public Administration: A conflict in worldviews. Georgetown University Press.

Taube, C. (2002). Baltic Diversity: Comparing Constitutions. Jurisprudencija30(22), 42-46.






Not Mentioned in the Body of the Article:

Frederickson, H. George. 1993. “Ethics and Public Administration: Some Assertions.” In Ethics and Public Administration, ed. H. George Frederickson. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Kennedy, Sheila S. 2000. “Back to Basics: Citizenship, Public Administration and the Constitution.” Journal of Public Affairs Education. Vol. 6, #4. October.

——————. 1993. Sharing Power: Public Governance and Private Markets. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Perry, James L. 1998. “From the Editor-in-Chief.” Journal of Public Affairs Education, Vol. 4, No.4

Putnam, Robert. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy.

Kettl, Donald F. 1988. Government by Proxy: (Mis)Managing Federal Programs. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Salamon, Lester M., ed. 2002. The Tools of Government: A Guide to the New Governance. New York: Oxford University Press.


Civic Literacy and Ethical Public Service: An Under-Appreciated Nexus

A few years ago, the political blog Talking Points Memo established the “Golden Dukes,” an award intended to recognize, as they put it, “great accomplishments in muckiness including acts of venal corruption, outstanding self-inflicted losses of dignity, crimes against the republic, bribery, exposed hypocrisy and generally malevolent governance.” (, 2011) The awards were named for Congressman-turned-inmate Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was identified as an icon of modern scandal, combining, as the blog cheerfully reported, “outlandish corruption, national security, sex, and sheer cartoonish ridiculousness.”1 As that tongue-in-cheek award signifies, over the past few years, Americans have been treated to a steady stream of ethically troubling disclosures involving the federal government, typified by the scandal about Jack Abramoff’s widespread influence peddling.2

It may be comforting to believe that such ethical transgressions occur more frequently in Washington, where well-heeled lobbyists are in a position to fund serious deviations from ethical norms. But in point of fact, there is ample evidence that public officials at all levels, as well as nonprofit managers who do business with government, may engage in behaviors that are ethically dubious, while often seemingly unaware of their mpropriety (Lessig 2011).

In 2011, for example, in Indianapolis city administration negotiated a 50-year lease of its parking infrastructure to a corporation. Leading up to the required City-County Council vote, there was an intense debate about the merits and terms of that agreement, the unusual length of the lease, the bona fides of the chosen vendor, and the wisdom of handing over control of the City’s curb lanes to a contractor. Ultimately, the Council approved the lease by a single vote. The transaction would have failed had the Council President—a lawyer employed by the firm that represented the vendor—recused himself. There was no outcry from local media, although several local legal blogs pointed out that this vote constituted a clear conflict of interest and certainly appeared to be in violation of the applicable Canons of Legal Ethics. To the extent there was any discussion at all about the propriety of this councilor’s behavior, it was shrugged off as “business as usual.”

Also described as “business as usual” was a recent article (Kopsa, 2012) about a multi-year, 1,500,000 grant of Medicaid dollars to the Indiana Family Institute (IFI) for a “Healthy Marriage” demonstration project. The story raised a number of legal and ethical questions concerning this particular use of Medicaid funds, including the multiple roles played by IFI’s Program Director—the person in charge of the “Healthy Families” project. In addition to her duties as contractor—duties requiring that she deliver a taxpayer-funded program in a constitutionally appropriate (i.e., secular) fashion—this individual was a lobbyist for Indiana Right to Life, and a principal of a political action committee that lobbies for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and for the defunding of Planned Parenthood. All three organizations are explicitly grounded in conservative Christian theology. The article identified several elected officials whose support of this grant was seen to be payback for the political support of these organizations and their members.

It is the thesis of this essay that when breaches of the public trust engender the sort of cynicism displayed in these and similar examples, that is not only a situation constituting a genuine, non-trivial threat to the ability of administrators to conduct the business of government, but also a failure of elementary constitutional and civic education.

Much of the available literature on what constitutes ethical behavior has focused upon the teaching of ethics, the effect of contracting out and the New Public Management, or the consequences of increasing “marketization,” and diminishing concern for the public good (Ejka-Ekins 1998; Fredrickson 2005; Metzger 2003; Singer 2003; Smith & Lipsky1993; Zanetta & Adams 2000). These are important topics, but considerably less attention has been paid to the nexus between ethical public behavior and American constitutional culture. Yet as scholars have long recognized, ethical public service is rooted in, and defined by, the founding premises of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights, and is for that reason essential to government legitimacy (Rohr 1988; Rosenbloom Carroll & Caroll 2000; Light 2012). It is important to emphasize the often-conflated distinction between personal and professional ethics in this context. While personal ethics are important to avert what Adams and Balfour (1998) have called “administrative evil,” the professional ethical obligations emphasized by Rohr and Rosenbloom, among others, require fidelity to the principles of the American legal and constitutional system. As Kennedy and Schultz have written,

“The decision-making procedures and substantive protections for rights found in the

Constitution and Bill of Rights define the first layer of duties and obligations that public

Servants have. Together, they define how decisions are to be made (procedural justice)

and what can be decided or done (substantive fairness or justice)…the Constitution and Bill of Rights form the first tier of a public administration or public service ethic.” (2011, 74-75)

Public administrators and those who teach them need to recognize both the constitutional roots of public sector ethics, and the negative systemic consequences of frequent deviations from ethical behavior. Average citizens may not be able to articulate the constitutional bases of their discomfort with conflicts of interest and other ethical departures, but they expect their public servants to understand that they have an ethical obligation to place the public good above private interest.


Ethics and Constitutional Culture

Unlike citizens of countries characterized by racial or ethnic homogeneity, American identity is rooted in allegiance to a particular worldview; it is based upon an understanding of government and citizenship originating with the Enlightenment and subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Understood in this way, “constitutional culture” has a considerably broader scope than law and policy; it is an expression of the ongoing dialectic between a society’s legal norms and the broader culture within which those norms are situated and must be understood. The American “constitutional culture” arises from the operation of our constitutional values in a radically heterodox culture, and the effects of that interaction on policy choice and contestation.

Decisions made by those who designed America’s constitutional architecture have shaped contemporary definitions of public and private, notions of governmental and personal responsibility, and conceptions of human rights. They dictate the manner in which we frame and understand civic responsibility, and allocate collective social duties among governmental, nonprofit and private actors. In short, those initial constitutional choices have been constitutive of a distinctive American culture. What Kennedy and Schultz have called “the Constitutional Ethic” is behavior grounded in, and compatible with, that American Constitution (2011). When significant segments of the population do not know the history, philosophy or contents of the Constitution, they cannot judge the propriety of behavior of public administrators. Available data from a multitude of sources, however, gives evidence of a widespread lack of constitutional competence and civic literacy in the United States.

The statistics are depressing: Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg, 2007). Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism (NAEP, 2006). Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution (National Constitution Center, 1998). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies indicates that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.

Survey after survey adds to the dismal picture, and while the various ways in which the questions are asked and the answers tallied may result in slightly different percentages depending upon the survey, the overall conclusions are consistent and discouraging.  A 1998 study conducted by the National Constitution Center found that more American teenagers were able to name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government (59% to 41%), and more knew the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than could name the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (94.7% to 2.2%). Although 58.3% were able to name Bill Gates as the “father” of Microsoft, only 1.8% could identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution.

During the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, Findlaw fielded a survey assessing public knowledge of the Supreme Court. This was during a time when news about the Court and arguments about the Justices were prominent; despite that heightened public attention, nearly two-thirds of respondents could not name a single member of the Court.

Last year, Newsweek Magazine, in a story titled “How Dumb Are We?”  found that, out of the 1000 Americans who took the test, 29% could not name the Vice-President of the United States, 73% couldn’t identify the reasons for the Cold War, and 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights.

In an article written for the International Journal of Public Administration, William Galston noted that “It turns out that today’s college graduates know no more about politics than high school graduates did 50 years ago, and today’s high school graduates are no more knowledgeable than were high school dropouts of the past” (Galston, 2007).

Some of the available research argues that civic ignorance has remained relatively constant over time. During the 1990s, Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter reviewed thousands of questions from three groups of surveys administered over a four-decade period.

They concluded that there was statistically little difference among the knowledge levels of the parents of the Silent Generation of the 1950s, the parents of the Baby Boomers of the 1960s, and American parents today. (Carpini and Keeter, )

Other research suggests that civic literacy has, in fact, declined, particularly for twelfth grade students.  At the end of the day, however, whether our current low levels represent a decline is less important than the fact that they may be too low to sustain both democratic governance and citizens’ ability to evaluate public sector ethics. Data reinforcing that message is plentiful. As Niemi and Junn wrote in Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn,

More recently, demonstrating the ignorance of the public has become something of a cottage industry, with one researcher after another trying to find a more absurd example of what Americans do not know about politics and government or a more apt metaphor to express their collective ignorance. (1998)



The Issue of Trust

It is significant for public administration that the Constitutional ethic grows out of an approach to government based upon—and structured to so as to minimize—distrust.  The battle to separate from England was triggered by distrust of King George III and the British Parliament.  The weak government of the Articles of Confederation was rooted in distrust of central authority; the Constitution of 1787 was the result of distrust of both weak decentralized government and “majority factions” that could infringe upon the rights of individuals. In fact, our entire constitutional machinery—separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, bi-cameral legislatures—grew out of an effort to address this fundamental suspicion of concentrated power, and the belief that abuses of power are likely in the absence of structural constraints on administrative behavior.

This mistrust could be considered constructive, since it led to the creation of institutional limitations on abuses of power.  But a different form of distrust has quite negative implications for democratic governance: distrust of individuals who are in a position to abuse power for personal gain or to engage in other forms of self-dealing.  That sort of mistrust is corrosive.  It generates public suspicion that those who participate in government are corrupt. When such suspicion or cynicism becomes pervasive, it becomes much harder for government to generate citizen engagement, let alone the voluntary compliance necessary to achievement of public purposes (Scholz 1984; OECC 2000). If it is important for citizens to believe in the honesty of those who serve, if it is important that most officials be viewed as trustworthy public servants, it is obviously important that government officials not only be honest, but that they be seen to be honest—both personally honest and honest in their fidelity to the ethics of public service. And that raises the subject of conflicts of interest.


Conflicts of Interest

Recognition of the problem of conflicts goes all the way back to John Locke, who argued that individuals could not be judges in their own cases, because it is human nature to abuse authority. To a large extent, concern about conflicts of interest is about checking that very human tendency to self-interest and partiality. That concern—that government power would be misused for personal or political gain—is at the very root of our constitutional system of checks and balances. As our society has become more complex, our understanding of the Founders’ concern has evolved. Forty or fifty years ago, a conflict of interest would have been defined as a situation where a person makes a decision in his official capacity that results in personal financial gain.  Classic examples include the purchasing agent who hires a company in which he is a major shareholder, or the city council member who buys property in a certain location because he knows ahead of time—and ahead of others—that the city plans to build a new park on the site. When the council member sells the land to the government for a nice profit, she benefits from special insider knowledge garnered by virtue of her position as a decision maker. That classic definition of conflict of interest required that one personally profit from an official decision.

The concept has a far broader meaning today.  At the very least, it now includes conflicts of roles or duties—precisely the sort of conflict that led the Founders to create our system of checks and balances. Most ethicists today believe a conflict of interest exists when there is a clash in duties owed—where an individual has obligations to others, and those others have interests that are at odds with each other (Kennedy & Schultz 2011; Cooper 2006; Stark 2000).  Today, scholars recognize that public officials fill at least two roles–one as a government official ethically required to serve the public interest, and another as a private citizen or employee–and that the duties owed by virtue of those roles can—and often do—conflict, as in the Indianapolis case cited above.

A number of scholars have described how understanding of what constitutes a “conflict” and an “interest” has expanded over time (Kennedy & Schultz 2010). Increasingly, conflicts of interest are now conceptualized as a form of biased judgment.  If—due to some particular interest or belief—a public official is incapable of rendering a fair judgment or decision, the existence of that bias may constitute a conflict of interest.  This definition of a conflict is rooted in the ideal of government impartiality addressed by Locke and others, an ideal embedded in our Constitutional Culture. In a highly polarized political environment that increasingly rewards politicians with rigid ideologies, this sort of conflict is anything but an abstract concern.

Another aspect of current understanding of what constitutes a conflict of interest is that a conflict need not be personal. Institutional or organizational self-interest can also be a form of conflict.  James Madison and the other constitutional framers understood the concept of an organizational conflict quite well. They recognized that people working in government would inevitably be partial to their own agency and branch.  They addressed this problem structurally, with a variety of checks and balances, including, importantly, the separation of powers, on the theory that the self-interest or “team loyalty” of those working in the three different branches of government would operate to constrain that favoritism.

In the last few years, the Wall Street financial scandals have highlighted these organizational conflicts of interest.  In those cases, supposedly independent stock analysts and rating agencies employed by investment houses were under considerable pressure to give favorable reviews of stocks their companies were selling or rating.  Even if they didn’t receive special bonuses from giving positive reviews, there was an overall institutional incentive to ignore red flags—an organizational conflict of interest. (It is also worth considering what role organizational loyalty paid in the 2011 Penn State child molestation scandals in which people allowed their loyalty to the sports program to over-ride their duty both to the law and to innocent children who were victimized.)

This institutional understanding of conflicts also applies to improper relationships between government agencies and vendors, to take just one example.  If an agency has developed too close a working relationship with a vendor—to the extent that the vendor will have difficulty providing genuinely impartial assistance, or the agency will have difficulty providing appropriate oversight—there is a conflict of interest.  This conflict, a form of biased judgment, occurs even if no specific individual stands to make money.  The conflict in this case is less about personal benefit than it is about institutional bias, but it is no less corrosive to the public trust, and no less a breach of public sector ethics.

Yet another type of conflict may be unique to the public sector. It isn’t even necessarily an actual conflict of interest. It is the appearance of impropriety. Increasingly, government ethics codes address not only actual conflicts, but specific situations or decisions that lead to the appearance of impropriety. A typical “appearance of impropriety” provision reads:

To maintain public confidence in County government, County employees carry out official duties in a manner which avoids both actual conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts of interest. To this end, employees regularly monitor their own conduct to be alert to the possibility of actual or apparent conflicts of interest. When an actual or apparent conflict of interest is presented, appropriate steps are taken to eliminate it. When in doubt as to whether a conflict of interest exists, County employees should err on the side of assuming that a conflict exists. (Dakota County, Minnesota 2009)

Such an appearance of conflict might arise from personal friendship or family relationship. If, for example, an official’s relative is bidding on a contract, there is an appearance of a conflict if that official is involved in awarding the contract. The relative may have been the low bidder and the official may have meticulously followed all applicable procedures. But if citizens see a public administrator awarding a contract to his relative, the facts will not matter. There is a perception that favoritism was involved and therefore an appearance of impropriety. Our entire constitutional system of checks and balances was devised to minimize the abuse of governmental authority and to assure citizens that public affairs were being conducted in the public interest—to keep government both trustworthy and trusted. When public administrators don’t understand the importance of, or reasons for, that constitutional principle, when they act in ways that give rise to the appearance of impropriety, they violate a basic constitutional norm.

Similar observations may be made with respect to the issue of gifts. Gifting, especially in the public sector, is ethically problematic. (Kennedy and Schultz 2010) The public understands that just as there are no free lunches, there are no free gifts.  Gifts, even if given freely and without any nefarious intent, are not without expectations of reciprocation. (Anyone who has received a Christmas present from someone to whom they have not sent one understands the power of gifts.) A gift requires both a thank you and reciprocity—generally with something of similar or greater value. The issue is not the market value of the gift, although its size and timing may lead to serious questions about its intent and whether it actually is a bribe.  Instead, gifting in a professional setting raises problems of conflict of interest, bias, and poor judgment that can give rise to an appearance of impropriety and self-dealing.

Gifts are especially problematic when they are from lobbyists to government officials. Gifts to lawmakers (such as meals, junkets, and other gratuities) smack of influence peddling and buying of votes, and raise concerns that improper influence is determining which bills are heard or squashed, how favors are returned, and how earmarks are allocated—that the mechanics of democratic decision-making are being subverted for private gain.   If a conflict of interest is a situation where interests or duties conflict, gifting can legitimately be considered a form of conflict.  Elected officials have a constitutional duty to serve their constituents; gifts from a lobbyist can put recipients in a position where they feel obligated both to the gift-giver and to their constituents.  In effect, accepting a gift creates a conflicting set of loyalties.  Once again, appearance trumps reality and undermines confidence in government objectivity. Even if there is no genuine conflict of interest, there is an appearance that the gift has compromised the decision-maker’s objectivity.

Actually, the problem with gifts is not that the recipient is personally benefitting in some significant way.  It is the confirmation of a public perception that individual citizens lack power and voice. Polls regularly confirm that large percentages of the citizenry believe public officials are more likely to listen to contributors than to citizens (Newport 2010; Jones 2002; CBS News Poll 2011; Jordan 2011); such attitudes do serious damage to the public’s faith in government and the political process—precisely the consequences that checks and balances were intended to avoid.

An especially troubling category of the gifting problem is what we sometimes call “pay-to-play”.  This refers to the expectation that individuals will make payments—essentially bribes or kickbacks—in order to participate in a governmental activity.  The most common type  involves campaign contributions made in order to secure access to an elected official or in order to insure that a bid for a government contract is successful—or at the very least, considered.

Pay-to-play may not be tantamount to bribery, but it creates concerns about bias, appearance, and all the other problems that gifts raise. As a result, in some states—New Jersey is an example—it is illegal for bidders on certain government contracts to also be political contributors (N.J.S.A. 19:44A-20.3 through 20.25, 2005).  Pay-to-play, besides raising the gifting issues noted above, is about unfair access and the manipulation of democratic processes.  It denies some citizens the ability to compete fairly because of an inability or unwillingness to make a special payment in order to get into “the game,” whatever the game may be. It makes a mockery of another core principle of our constitutional system: governmental neutrality.

These concerns with gifting and pay-to-play are not necessarily remedied with de minimis exceptions.  Small bribes are still bribes, and small gifts still can achieve their desired impact. If sociological claims are correct, small but frequent gifts can eventually affect attitudes (Lessig 2011; Cialdini 1993). Congressional ethics rules adopted in 2007 prevent the accepting of gifts valued at $50 or more.  While $50 is a small sum, cumulatively many of these gifts, whether from one recipient or many, can become valuable. Furthermore, there is evidence that the more gifts an individual accepts, the less likely she is to believe that accepting those gifts has any effect upon her behavior. (Kennedy and Schultz, 2010)  Worse still, in some situations, officials come to expect the gifts as a matter of course, and individuals who fail to provide them are excluded or discounted. At this point, gifting does not look all that different from the sorts of institutionalized systems of bribery and corruption encountered in some third-world nations that have earned justifiable scorn. Worse still, these practices are corrosive of the constitutional premises of American public service.



American citizens have a right to expect public officials to be servants of the public—to discharge their duties on the basis of what is in the public interest, not what will generate private gain. In the United States, behavior that is consistent with the public interest is by definition behavior that is consistent with the terms and underlying philosophical commitments of our Constitution. When there is widespread cynicism about the motives and behavior of public officials, when those officials are believed to be acting in ways that are inconsistent with their constitutional obligations, government legitimacy suffers, and with it, the voluntary compliance with law that makes governance possible. When the checks and balances designed to counter self-serving behaviors are believed to have failed, the term “politician” connotes a less than admirable person.  In such an environment, good people increasingly “opt out” of public service, initiating a vicious cycle in which increasing numbers of sleazy and/or unpalatable candidates reinforce public cynicism and make it ever more difficult for the legions of dedicated and honorable public officials. It is a cycle that must be broken.

If the status of public service is to be elevated, both the ethical behavior of public administrators and the public’s perceptions of that behavior must be improved. That requires that both public administrators and the public understand the constitutional bases of those ethics.

In an environment where the U.S. Congress has an 11% approval rating, it is not enough to point out that a very small minority of public servants acts in ways inimical to the public good, true as that may be.

The discussion of public ethics needs to be elevated and placed squarely within the constitutional culture. The constitutional obligations assumed by public servants should be made explicit, as should the explanation of why fidelity to those obligations—which are in addition to the more generally recognized elements of personal ethics–is so important. In order to accomplish that, we need to take seriously the obligation to improve American civic education—what David Rosenbloom has called “Constitutional Competence” and the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement calls “Civic Learning.” Ultimately, an informed and civically-literate public is the only guarantor of ethical public service.




1 Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham pled guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy in 2009 and was sentenced to 8 years and 4 months in prison. It is estimated that Cunningham collected $2.4 million in money, goods and services during his tenure in Congress.

2 In 2006, lobbyist Abramoff pled guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He spent 3 years in prison and upon his release, worked as an accountant at a kosher pizza restaurant and wrote a book.




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Civic Literacy: Charting the Dimensions and Consequences of a Civic Deficit

Sheila Suess Kennedy

Professor of Law & Public Policy

Erin Braun, MPA Student

Adriene Tynes, MPA Student

School of Public & Environmental Affairs

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis


Available data gives evidence of a widespread lack of constitutional competence and civic literacy in the United States. The consequences of this ignorance are profound; the current polarization in American political discourse has been significantly enabled by widespread ignorance of the most basic American constitutional principles.

Self-government in a liberal democratic state requires an educated citizenry. When a polity is diverse, as in the United States, it becomes particularly important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions; in the absence of other ties—race, religion, national origin—a common devotion to constitutional principles is critical to the formation of national identity. That devotion, however, must be based on genuine understanding of the history and context of our constituent documents.

This paper addresses the deficit in American civic literacy, building upon available survey and anecdotal data; it also explores hypothesized connections between deficits in civic literacy and increases in political polarization and governmental dysfunction.

Introduction: The Problem

Available data from a multitude of sources gives evidence of a widespread lack of constitutional competence and civic literacy in the United States. The statistics are depressing: Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg, 2007). Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism (NAEP, 2006). Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution (National Constitution Center, 1998). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies indicates that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power. (A comparison between the 1998, 2006 and 2010 exams can be found in Appendix 1. The 2010 results were released May, 2011.)

Survey after survey adds to the dismal picture, and while the various ways in which the questions are asked and the answers tallied may result in slightly different percentages depending upon the survey, the overall conclusions are consistent and discouraging.  A 1998 study conducted by the National Constitution Center found that more American teenagers were able to name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government (59% to 41%), and more knew the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than could name the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (94.7% to 2.2%). Although 58.3% were able to name Bill Gates as the “father” of Microsoft, only 1.8% could identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution.

During the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, Findlaw fielded a survey assessing public knowledge of the Supreme Court. This was during a time when news about the Court and arguments about the Justices was prominent; despite that heightened public attention, nearly two-thirds of respondents could not name a single member of the Court.

Earlier this year, Newsweek Magazine, in a story titled “How Dumb Are We?” revealed the sort of survey research results that drive high-school history teachers to drink. Out of the 1000 Americans who took the test, 29% could not name the Vice-President of the United States, 73% couldn’t identify the reasons for the Cold War, and 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights.

In an article written for the International Journal of Public Administration, William Galston noted that “It turns out that today’s college graduates know no more about politics than high school graduates did 50 years ago, and today’s high school graduates are no more knowledgeable than were high school dropouts of the past” (Galston, 2007).

Some of the available research argues that civic ignorance has remained relatively constant over time. During the 1990s, Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter reviewed thousands of questions from three groups of surveys administered over a four-decade period.

They concluded that there was statistically little difference among the knowledge levels of the parents of the Silent Generation of the 1950s, the parents of the Baby Boomers of the 1960s, and American parents today. (Shenkman 2008)

Other research suggests that civic literacy has, in fact, declined, particularly for twelfth grade students[1].  At the end of the day, however, whether our current low levels represent a decline is less important than the fact that they may be too low to sustain democratic governance. Data reinforcing that message is plentiful. As Niemi and Junn wrote in Civic Education and Knowledge,

More recently, demonstrating the ignorance of the public has become something of a cottage industry, with one researcher after another trying to find a more absurd example of what Americans do not know about politics and government or a more apt metaphor to express their collective ignorance. (1998)

Whatever its causes, the consequences of civic ignorance are profound.  Self-government in a liberal democratic state requires a civically educated citizenry. When a polity is very diverse, as in the United States, it becomes particularly important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions; in the absence of other ties—race, religion, national origin—a common understanding of, and devotion to, constitutional principles is critical to the formation of national identity.  Devotion, however, must be based on genuine understanding of the history and context of our constituent documents if it is to enable, rather than impede, deliberative discourse.

Furthermore, although deficits in civic literacy are widely understood to be corrosive to civic life and democratic institutions, scholars have increasingly recognized that such deficits have real and deleterious consequences for fields as diverse as science[2], religion, and public education, as well as for the personal empowerment and agency of individuals (Parker, 2006; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004; Shoemaker, 1998; Ferris, 2010; Prothero, 2007).

As the foregoing paragraphs indicate, scholars and educators have expressed concern over inadequacies in civic literacy and citizenship education for a very long time. Periodically, efforts are mounted to increase requirements for civic and constitutional content, generally in the context of government or “social studies” classes. Most recently, in 2003, the Alliance for Representative Democracy launched the Congressional Conferences on Civic Education[3], an annual meeting funded by the U.S. Department of Education, designed to galvanize stakeholders into improving civic education in the states. Evidence indicates it did originally have an effect.  Between 2005 and 2007, 26 states proposed initiatives related to improving civic education, primarily through the creation of task forces, commissions and councils and/or curriculum development (Representative Democracy in America, 2007). However, these efforts followed the typical trajectory of such reform movements—an initial burst of enthusiasm followed by limited implementation. A handful of these endeavors resulted in new state standards of instruction and/or curricular innovations[4].

As we explain in Section II, one of the problems with these well-intentioned efforts is that there is little or no agreement on what constitutes “civics education.”  Another is that there has been little or no accountability for actual implementation of the standards that do exist, with the result that the vast majority of new initiatives have had a very limited impact.  Worse, despite the plethora of evidence showing a deficit in basic civic knowledge, several states are now reducing social studies and civics requirements in order to focus on subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act, and the federal government’s fiscal deficit reduction efforts have included withdrawal of funding for programs with demonstrated efficacy, including but not limited to the much-lauded We The People: The Citizen and the Constitution program.

Civic Literacy, State Standards and Curricula

Any effort to compare the efficacy of various approaches to civic literacy founders first upon a basic problem in communication: Civics means very different things to different people. If one explores the reams of data and research available, it soon becomes apparent that people are not identifying the same deficits, nor concerned with the same criteria. So we have articles bemoaning low levels of “community engagement” and volunteering (Walling 2007), and others trying to assess “civic skills,” defined as “the ability to gather and interpret information, speak and listen, engage in dialogue about differences, resolve conflicts, reach agreements, collaborate with peers, understand formal government, and advocate” (Civic Youth, 2010). In the process of our literature review, we came across multiple terms that are used interchangeably in discussions of civic education: civic education, civic learning, civic literacy, government, social studies, law-related education, U.S. History, citizenship education and others.

A survey of social studies teachers found broad agreement on five priorities for citizenship education: internalizing core values like tolerance and equality; promoting civic behaviors like voting and community service; instilling good work habits; understanding the key principles of American government; and teaching key facts, dates and major events (Schmitt, Hess, Farkas, Duffett, Miller & Schuette, 2010). Interestingly, from a list of twelve items, 83% of social studies teachers believe it is essential for high schools to teach students to “identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights”. When fewer than half the country’s eighth graders can identify the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and only 6% of participants in a National Constitution Center survey can name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, we are clearly not achieving this essential goal.

Whatever the merits of these broader understandings and skill sets, our focus in this paper is considerably narrower. We define the essential core of civics education as civic literacy, by which we mean an acquaintance with, and an understanding of the history, philosophy and text of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. As we explain in more detail in Section III, we view this core knowledge in much the same way as we might view a common language or common frame of reference—as a necessary condition for genuine communication.

In an effort to find out what the various states are doing to transmit civic literacy, we called the Departments of Public Education in all fifty states[5]. The complete results of that inquiry are attached in chart form and can be found in Appendix 3. The left-hand column lists the states in alphabetical order, the second column describes the graduation requirements in Social Studies generally, and the fourth column notes graduation requirements in civics, specifically. Perhaps the most noteworthy information, however, appears in the third and fifth columns, which note whether there is any state assessment of the achievement of those requirements.  In other words, columns three and five indicate whether a given standard is taken seriously enough for its success to be assessed, or whether the standard is essentially aspirational.

As the chart rather clearly shows, there is very little assessment of either the broader “social studies” requirements or the more specific “civics” requirements. The chart also lays out, in rather stark fashion, the variance in courses considered to be part of “social studies” or “civics” curricula.  While many states offer, and often require, a course in American Government, which frequently includes civic education topics, very few states require students to take a course dedicated exclusively to civic education. Even when accounting for states that offer civics as part of another course, or as standards within the curriculum, less than half the states have graduation requirements in civics courses specifically. Only 14 states provide a course dedicated to civics in some way, and it is most often listed as “civics or government”[6]. Only eight states actually require their students to demonstrate civic literacy through state assessments. In an educational climate teaching largely to the test, this is cause for further concern.

E Pluribus Unum?

If, as many scholars assert, American citizens have always displayed low levels of civic literacy, why the current alarm? Is it really important that citizens recognize, for example, the Enlightenment roots of our constituent documents?  Is it not sufficient that our legal system has fostered what some have dubbed a “Constitutional culture,” (Kennedy, 2007, 2010) in which citizens have internalized values like free speech, religious liberty and equality before the law? Is it really necessary that citizens recognize the Constitutional and historical roots of those values?

We submit that it is, and that the toxic nature of contemporary political discourse is evidence of what happens when different groups of citizens inhabit quite different realities. In 2003, the University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes (Kull, Ramsay, Subias, Lewis, & Ward, 2003) conducted a study that revealed a majority of Americans had significant misperceptions about the war in Iraq. 48% incorrectly believed that links between al Qaeda and Iraq were found, 22% believed that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, and 25% believed that world public opinion favored the United States going to war in Iraq.

However, the study also revealed that the frequency of these misconceptions increased significantly depending on the participant’s primary news source. Fox News viewers had the highest frequency of misperceptions, with 80% of its viewers having one or more. Fox News was followed by CBS (71%), ABC (61%), NBC and CNN (55%), and Print media (47%). PBS-NPR viewer-listeners had the lowest frequency of misperceptions at 23%. Examining the misperceptions individually, Fox News viewers consistently had the highest level, with PBS-NPR viewer-listeners consistently having the fewest (Kull, et al. 2003)

America has always been among the world’s most diverse countries; we are a polity composed of many different ethnicities, races and religions, with different histories, different cultural antecedents. In prior times, those differences were countered to some extent by widely shared cultural experiences: reading the daily newspaper, discussing programs that aired on one of three television broadcast networks, attending public schools, registering for the military draft.  In our increasingly differentiated, “niched” and privatized social landscape, citizens no longer have those or many other avenues of shared communication and experience.

At the same time, the nation’s diversity has grown exponentially.

As recently as 1970, the U.S. population was nearly entirely classified as either White or Black, and the population of races other than White or Black was only 2.9 million, or 1.4 percent of the population. By 2000, the number of people in the United States who were of races other than White or Black had grown to 35 million, comparable in size to the Black population. (Hobbs & Stoops, 2002)

Hobbs and Stoops go on to report that the United States in 2000 is much more racially diverse than in 1900.

At the beginning of the century, just 1 out of 8 Americans was of a race other than White. At the end of the century, the proportion was 1 out of 4. The decade-to-decade trend shows that this increasing diversity is largely a phenomenon of the second half of the century…The Minority population grew 11 times as rapidly as the White non-Hispanic population between 1980 and 2000.

The Bureau of the Census also notes the growth of the Hispanic population. In Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010 Census Briefs, it reports that

Growth in diversity is evident in every region of the United States over the last 10 years.  The Western region tops the charts with nearly 50% of its population identifying as minority in the 2010 census.  In our neck of the woods, the minority population makes up nearly a quarter of residents in the American heartland…Texas, D.C., Hawaii and New Mexico have a “majority-minority” population.

The examination of racial and ethnic group distributions nationally shows that while the non-Hispanic White alone population is still numerically and proportionally the largest major race and ethnic group in the United States, it is also growing at the slowest rate. During the past 10 years, it has been the Hispanic population and the Asian population that have grown considerably, in part due to relatively higher levels of immigration.

There has also been a massive increase in the number of people responding to census inquiries by identifying with more than one race, an option that has only recently been available to them.

In 2008, the Census Bureau issued “An Older and More Diverse Nation by Midcentury,” a report predicting that “Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050. By 2023, minorities will comprise more than half of all children.”  (Recently, the predicted date by which the country will become majority-minority has been moved up.)

Of course, it isn’t only racial identity that differentiates Americans. Religious diversity is growing as well. In 2008, Kosmin and Keysar published the “American Religious Identification Survey”, which found among other things that during the period between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of persons who self-identified as belonging to a religion other than Christianity grew slightly while the number of those self-identifying as Christians declined nearly 10 percent. One of the most significant changes in religious self-identification came from the “none” category, which increased by nearly 7 percent. Furthermore, those statistics ignore the significant differences among Christians, whose allegiances are spread among nearly 2000 reported Christian denominations.  There is a very robust literature detailing the stark differences between the more literalist and modernist Christian denominations, to choose just one example. Those differences have long constituted a fault-line in American politics.

If Americans are to constitute a polity, rather than a collection of tribes—if we are to forge unum from our ever-increasing pluribus, we need an overarching national mythos to which all of our disparate communities can subscribe. If ever-growing diversity poses a significant challenge to America’s social cohesion, we must identify commonalities that enable and define the collective civic enterprise, that define what makes one an American.  The United States’ national motto is e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.” Prominent social and political theorists have long argued that a common belief structure, or “civil religion,” is required in order to turn the many into the one.

The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in “Civil Religion in America,” an article that remains the standard reference for the concept. The proper content of such a civil religion, however, has been the subject of debate since the Revolutionary War. Over the past decades, as the nation’s diversity has dramatically increased, that debate has taken on added urgency, with political theorists, sociologists and scholars of religion all offering their perspectives to political and religious leaders.

In a culture as diverse as that of the United States, a “civil religion” or common value structure is what provides citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and has never been an officially Christian Nation, although it has historically been culturally Protestant.  The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. This constitutionally-required state neutrality has long been a source of considerable political tension between citizens intent upon imposing their religious beliefs on their neighbors and those who reject efforts to enforce religious hegemony. Thus far, no theorized civil religion has been entirely able to resolve that conflict.

But Americans do endorse an overarching ideology or “civil religion.”  It is a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Informed adherence to that belief system provides the mythos essential to national identity. In order for our constitutional system to fulfill this role, however, there must be a shared understanding of American history and Constitutional principles. At the 2009 Opening Assembly for the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting, retired Associate Justice David Souter challenged the organization’s members to “take on the job of making American civic education real again”, and identified the current lack of civic literacy as “a risk to constitutional government” (American Bar Association, 2009). As we have seen, despite the fervent public embrace of the Constitution by various partisans, Americans are woefully, embarrassingly ignorant of the history and philosophical premises of our system. (A 1997 poll conducted by the National Constitution Center concluded that Americans “revere” the Constitution, but have absolutely no idea what is in it. Much, one suspects, like the Bible.)

One of the unfortunate consequences of that profound ignorance is that—rather than operating to bring Americans together—inadequate understanding produces unnecessary conflict. In some cases, constitutionally-required state neutrality is seen as “bias” favoring “the other side.”  Failure to allow government to shut down a “dirty” bookstore or remove an “indecent” book from the local library is seen as an endorsement of smut; failure to prevent a Klan rally is decried as promoting hatred; allowing students to pray around the flagpole before school is trumpeted as evidence of the erosion of separation of church and state. Without a basic understanding of the limits on state action and majority preferences imposed by the Constitution, citizens misunderstand both the role of the judiciary and the context and meaning of judicial decisions.

When citizens do not understand the rules, they are susceptible to arguments that those rules have been broken. The use of so-called “wedge issues” by politicians pandering to various constituencies is enabled and abetted by widespread public ignorance of very basic constitutional principles. It is not necessary that citizens be constitutional scholars, or that they agree with prior court interpretations of constitutional principles, or even that they agree with the principles themselves. But it is critical that they understand them.  We need a balanced, historically accurate conversation that acknowledges the legitimacy of grounded political and philosophical disputes, a conversation that grows out of a shared understanding of the basic architecture of our constitution.   Widespread historical ignorance abets the growing number of partisans who have a vested interest in disinformation.  We see this in the fulminations of politicians pandering to Tea Party activists, and perhaps most clearly in the claims and counterclaims of so-called “culture warriors,” where we get fabricated—or at best, distorted—history from all sides,

Contemporary literalists insist that the Founders were all pious Christians who understood themselves to be writing a Constitution for a specifically Protestant culture, while modernists insist the Founders were all Freethinkers and Enlightenment rationalists whose decision to draft a secular Constitution was an effort to free the new country from the superstitions of the Old World.  An honest civic education would stress the importance of religion to the early settlers, and its continued relevance to the context within which our Constitution was drafted. It would acknowledge the “Godless” nature of the federal constitution, but it would also acknowledge that the Constitutional silence on religion was prompted as much by political considerations as philosophical commitments, and that the document’s secular nature was offset by state constitutions that “established” religion.

An adequate civic education would also help citizens understand the importance and consequences of the Fourteenth Amendment, which some scholars (most notably Akhil Amar) call America’s “second founding.” Partisans are certainly entitled to debate “states’ rights” and local control, but those arguments should at least begin with an understanding of the historical evolution of America’s constitutional system, and should acknowledge that, like it or not, the limits on government action in the Bill of Rights do apply to state and local governments.

Conclusion and Recommendations

There is more than adequate evidence of a deficit in American civic literacy. There are more than enough individuals and organizations trying to address that deficit. (Even an incomplete list would be several pages long.) We even know what curricula have been demonstrated to be effective in promoting constitutional literacy. (See Appendix 4 for a summary of research on educational and behavioral outcomes of the We The People curriculum, for example.)

What we do not have is

  • A nationally agreed-upon definition of the essential elements of sound civics education and civic literacy,
  • a sound understanding of why prior efforts to improve civic and constitutional knowledge have failed to demonstrate staying power,
  • a working hypothesis identifying achievable, sustainable measures to remedy the situation.

It is to those tasks that we must now turn.


2007 Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial Survey. (2007, October 17). Annenberg Public Policy Center. Retrieved from

2010 Census briefs: Overview of race and Hispanic origins. (2011, March). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Enacted Legislation on Civic Education. (2007). Representative Democracy. Retrieved May, 2011, from

Galston, W. A. (2007). Civic knowledge, civic education, and civic engagement: A summary of recent research. International Journal of Public Administration, 30, 623-642


Helping State Leaders Shape Education Policy–Education Commission of the States. (n.d.). Education Commission of the States–Helping State Leaders Shape Education Policy. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Highlights of Survey – National Constitution Center. (1997, September). National Constitution Center – Near Independence Hall in Historic Philadelphia. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Hobbs, F., & Stoops, N. (2002). Census 2000 special reports: Demographic trends in the 20th century (Rep. No. Series CENSR-4). Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Knight, D. B., Mappen, E. F., & Knight, S. L. (2011, January 18). A Review of the Literature on Increasing the Representation of Women Undergraduates in STEM Disciplines Through Civic Engagement Pedagogies. Science Education and Civic Engagement. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (2008). (Rep.). Retrieved May 30, 2011, from Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut website:

Kull, S., Ramsay, C., Subias, S., Lewis, E., & Warf, P. (2003, October 2). Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War. World Public Opinion. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

NAEP – Civics 2006: The Nation’s Report Card. (2006). NAEP – Nation’s Report Card Home. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

NAEP – Nation’s Report Card Home (Rep.). (2011, May). Retrieved May 30, 2011, from National Center for Education Statistics website:

Newsroom: Population: An Older and More Diverse Nation by Midcentury. (2008, August 14). Census Bureau Home Page. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Resources. (2010, May 29). Representative Democracy in America Home. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Schmitt, G. J., Hess, F. M., Farkas, S., Duffett, A., Miller, C., & Schuette, J. (2010, September 30). AEI – Papers. Welcome to AEI. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Souter challenges ABA: ‘Make civic education real again’. (2009, August 3). American Bar Association Division for Media Relations & Communications Services. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Special report: Civic skills and federal policy. (2010, December 15). Civic Youth. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from

Stedman, L.C. (2009). The NAEP long-term trend assessment: A review of its transformation, use and findings. Paper commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the  National Assessment Governing Board. Retrieved from

Appendix 1: NAEP Results: Comparison of Civics Assessments

NAEP civics results

comparison of available Recent data from the nation’s report cards

About NAEP:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a biennial, Congressionally mandated survey, and is considered the nation’s largest test on a range of subjects, including civics. The tests stay virtually the same year to year, allowing decent comparisons. NAEP began in 1964 by an endowment from the Carnegie Corporation, with the first assessment taking place in 1969. States could voluntarily participate as of 1990, a feature that became permanent every two years for NAEP.

NAEP frameworks:

Each NAEP assessment is built around a framework.  Currently, there are frameworks in art, civics, economics, foreign language, geography, math, reading, science, U.S. history and writing.

  • NAEP civics assessment framework: The first national assessments, administered in 1969-1970 tested science, writing and citizenship. Civics has been assessed seven other times, 1972, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1998, 2006 and 2010. Two of these assessments (’76 and ’82) were only part of a larger assessment of social studies. However, in 1988, the assessment focused solely on civics, as did the 2006 and 2010 assessments.
Subjects Years
Citizenship 1969–70
Social Studies (including Citizenship) 1971–72
Citizenship/Social Studies 1975–76
Citizenship and Social Studies 1981–82
Civics 1988
Civics 1998
Civics 2006
Civics 2010
Civics next scheduled to be tested in 2014

Determining trends in the NAEP civics assessments is a complicated task. Throughout the years, the assessments have “shifted from ages to grades, from percent correct to scale scores, and used different scales. Putting them together, however, reveals a rough pattern of a modest decline over several decades followed by level performance” (Stedman, 2009, p. 14). This statement was made prior to the 2010 results being released, however. Those results indicate a statistically significant decline in a number of areas regarding civic literacy. Table is from Stedman’s 2009 report with 2010’s recent results added:

Civics Achievement, Age 17 and Grade 12
Age 17 1969 1972 1976 1982 1988 1998 2006 2010
Citizenship Knowledge (Percent Correct) 73 65*
Social Studies Knowledge (Percent Correct) 64 59
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 100) 61.7 61.3 59.6*
Grade 12
Civics Performance (Percent Correct) 68 66
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 300) 150 151 148*
Civics Achievement, Age 13 and Grade 8
Age 13
Citizenship Knowledge (Percent Correct) 65 62*
Social Studies Knowledge (Percent Correct) 50 48
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 100) 49.1 49.1 50
Grade 8
Civics Performance (Percent Correct) 64 62*
Civics Proficiency (scale score 0 to 300) 150 150 151
*A statistically significant change at the .05 level. Other changes were not significant.

The results of the 2010 Civics Assessment were released in May of 2011. Here is a summary of the findings, taken directly from the report.

  • Fourth graders have significantly increased scores on each of the exams.
  • Eighth graders have not significantly changed since 1998.
  • Twelfth graders significantly declined since 2006.
  • Eighth grade Hispanic students’ scores showed gains. The average score in 2010 for Hispanic students was 5 points higher than in 2006 and 10 points higher than in 1998.
  • At the twelfth grade level, only 24% of students scored at the Proficient level (a decrease from 2006).
  • At the twelfth grade level, the average score for female students declined significantly (p < .05).
  • Despite these results, 97% of twelfth graders reported studying civics or government in high school.
  • The percentage of students studying the U.S. Constitution significantly (p < .05) decreased between 2006 (72%) and 2010 (67).

Appendix 2: Enacted Legislation on Civic Education, 2004-2007

Introduced by Legislator attendees (and others) to the Congressional Conferences on Civic Education. As reported by the Alliance for Representative Democracy.


Kentucky: SJR 80 Introduced by Sen. Jack Westwood*

Urges the establishment of a committee to evaluate existing school civic literacy programs, determine a strategy for enhancing long-term civic education and recommend a plan for implementing a civic education program.

Maine: LD 1915, LR 2688B Introduced by Rep. Cummings.

Resolves to implement the recommendations of the Maine Task Force on Citizenship Education to strengthen civic learning.

Utah: HB 22 Introduced by Rep. LaVar Christensen*

Provides legislative recognition that civic education are fundamental elements of the public education system’s core mission and constitutional responsibility and are required to be

included in the curriculum of the public education system; requires that such education to be

included in social studies curriculum for grades 1-12; consolidates teaching requirements.


California: Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 30 Introduced by Assemblyman Kevin


This measure would urge the State Board of Education and all local school governing bodies to

examine current practice and develop plans to increase and broaden emphasis on principles of

democracy in the schools of California.

Colorado: SB05-200 (amendment to budget bill) Introduced by Sen. Stengel and Sen. Sue


Allocates $200,000 from the State Education Fund to promote the teaching of the US Constitution to Colorado Schoolchildren. Funds allocated to Center for Education in Law and

Democracy (Congressional Conference State Facilitator) to develop professional development

in civic learning.

Illinois: HB 1336 Introduced by Rep. Suzanne Bassi*

Amends the School Code. Requires teachers to teach students character education, which

includes the teaching of respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, and citizenship, in order to raise pupils’ honesty, kindness, justice, discipline, respect for others,

and moral courage for the purpose of lessening crime and raising the standard of good character (now, requires teachers to teach pupils honesty, kindness, justice, discipline, respect

for others, and moral courage for the purpose of lessening crime and raising the standard of

good citizenship)

Kentucky: HR. 109 Introduced by Rep. Tanya Pullin*

Designates October as “Civic Literacy Month;” calls on Delegation and Workgroup to publicize and promote teacher’s civic education activities.

Louisiana: SB 39 Introduced by Sen. Gerald Theunissen*

Creates an 18 member Louisiana Commission on Civic Education. Provides for specific

Commission membership and duties to promote civic education, act as a clearinghouse for

civic education in the State and to promote communication among entities providing civic


Montana: SJR 12 Introduced by: Sen. Sam Kitzenberg*

The Board of Public Education & Superintendent of Public Instruction are encouraged to

promote instruction in government, law, history and democracy; incorporate discussion of

current events into the classroom; provide students with service learning opportunities; offer

extra-curricular activities that provide for involvement in school and the community and

encourage student participation in school governance.

North Dakota: HB 1013 North Dakota Schools Funding Act

During markup on the ND Schools Appropriations measure, ND Senate Appropriations

Committee Chair (and Cong Conf Facilitator) Ray Holmberg* added an amendment

appropriating $150,000 to the State Dept. of Education to develop, publish, and distribute a

North Dakota studies textbook and workbook including civic education for both grades four

and eight.

Rhode Island: Senate Bill 864, House Bill 5748 Introduced by: Senator Hanna Gallo* and Rep.

Susan Story*

Directed the Rhode Island Board of Regents for elementary and secondary education to

develop a curriculum for civic education and to disseminate the curriculum.

Vermont: S.119 Introduced by Sen. Matt Dunne*

Directs the VT Legislative Council to develop and implement civic ed programs, materials and

activities which facilitate connections between legislator’s the and young people of VT. List

types of programs, materials and activities envisioned; calls for a website listing these

materials and provides a $70,000 appropriation to carry out provisions.

Virginia: HB 1769 Introduced by: Delegate James Dillard*

Creates a 21 member Virginia Commission on Civic Education (members are specified and

include the two VA Facilitators); calls for the Commission to identify civic education projects

in the state and offer technical assistance to same, build a network of civic education

professionals to share information and build partnerships and to make recommendations to the

state Dept. of Ed regarding revisions to the Standards of Learning for civics and government.

This measure carries a $50,000 per year appropriations for expenses of the Commission.


Arizona: SB 1562 Introduced by Sen. Tim Bee* (State Facilitator) and others.

HB 2788 Introduced by Rep. Jennifer Burns* and others.

These identical measures created the Arizona Commission on Civic Education and Civic

Engagement. The Commission has 13 appointed members. The Commission is empowered to

promote civic engagement; collaborate with public, private and non profit sectors to develop

and coordinate outreach programs with schools to provide civic education; to identify and

provide technical assistance to civic education programs in the state; to build a network of

civic education professionals and programs to share information and establish a database of

civic education resources, best practices and lesson plans; and make recommendations to

improve civic education to the appropriate officials. The Commission will have a ten-year life.

Idaho: HCR 33 Introduced by Rep. Tom Trail* & Reps. Nielson & Kemp.

Short Description: This measure urges the Secretary of State with the assistance of the State

department of education to convene a state summit on civic learning and to form a committee

to plan and carry out the summit. The bill also calls for a report of the findings of the summit

to the secretary of State and State Superintendent of Education ‘…for future action.’ The bill

calls for the Office of Civics, Service Character and International Education (directed by

Facilitator Dan Prinzing) to ‘facilitate the summit planning committee’.

Legislation passed, not signed by Governor, Summit was held 12/06.

Maryland: SB 47, Introduced by Sen. Gwinn Britt *

Short Description: Recognizing the importance of civic literacy and engagement; encourages

State Officials to convene a summit on civic literacy; tasks CIRCLE and Cong Conf delegation

for assistance with Summit; requires report from summit to state officials.

Massachusetts: S.340 & H5374 by Sen. Richard Moore* and Rep. Mike Rush*

A bill establishing an official state commission on civic education. Note this bill was passed

twice during the 2006 Legislative Session and was vetoed by the former Governor. The

introducers are re filing the bill in the 2007 Session.

New Hampshire: SB 323, Introduced by Sen. Bob Odell* and others, House version sponsored

by Rep. Debra Naro* and others.

Short Description: Establishes a Legislative Youth Advisory Council of 21 members between

the ages of 15-22, one of whom shall be a member of the senate, one a member of the House.

The Council would advise the General Court (legislature) on proposed legislation affecting


Rhode Island: Identical measures H 7620 and S 2990 introduced by Sen. Juan Pichardo, and


Short Description: Both H 7620 and S 2990 creates a commission to examine legislation

relating to youth and would require the general assembly to have an opinion from the

commission prior to acting on the legislative proposal.

Tennessee: SB 2586 and companion HB 2808, Introduced by: Sen. Jamie Woodson); House –

Rep. Les Winningham*

Short Description: This Bill establishes the Tennessee Commission on Civic Education. The

Commission has 15 appointed members. The Commission is empowered to 1. research current

policies and practice; 2. make recommendations to the governor and Legislature of any policies

it deems necessary to correct and deficiencies found; 3. to make a report to the Legislature

within one year of its establishment.

Utah: H.B. 339 Introduced by Rep. LaVar Christensen* ; Senate Sponsor: Sen. Chris Buttars*

Short Description: This bill establishes a seven member Utah Commission on Civic and

Character Education, chaired by the Lt. Governor. The Commission is empowered to promote

supportive coalitions and collaborative efforts to develop public awareness and training

regarding (civic and character education); and to provide leadership to the state’s continuous

focus on civic and character education in the public schools and institutions of higher

education and to make recommendations to local school boards and school administrators. The

Bill calls for the Commission to receive a $50,000 appropriation.

Vermont: H425 (and H867 by amendment), Introduced by Rep. Kathy LaVoie*

Short Description: This measure creates a Council on Civic Education chaired by the

Commissioner of Education with the Secretary of State and other members identified in the

Bill. The Council is empowered to continually assess the status of civic education in Vermont

schools; to make recommendations to policymakers to enhance civic education; maintain an

inventory of civic education resources; assess and recommend best practices in civic education;

build and maintain a network of civic education professionals to share information; help

coordinate an alignment of civic education curricula at all levels including higher education

and prepare an annual report of its activities.

Washington: HB 2579 introduced by Rep. David Upthegrove* and Sen. Stephen Johnson*.

Short Description: This was one of two measures introduced to support the Classroom Based

Assessment in Civic Education developed by the State Department of Public Instruction . This

Bill adds legislative consent to the CBAs and provides financing for the DPI to implement


Enacted legislation.

Wisconsin: SJR 41 Introduced Sens. Luther Olsen* & Bob Jauch* (and others).

Short Description: This Bill calls for an officially recognized state summit in partnership with

the State Department of Public Instruction; and that the Summit prepare a report and list of

recommendations for improving civic education.


Alaska: HCR 06 Introduced by Speaker of the House John Harris

This legislation established a citizens’ advisory task force to review Alaska’s civics content

standards, recommend and develop effective civics curricula, and propose strategies for the

professional development of teachers. Includes appropriation.

Georgia: HR 855 Introduced by Representative Tom Dickson

A resolution recognizing and expressing support for civic education in our public schools,

endorsing continued participation in the Congressional Conference on Civic Education and the

work of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies.

Illinois: HB 2787 Introduced by Rep. William Davis* and others

This measure authorizes Regional Superintendents to make grants from the grant fund

established by HB 606 to schools that complete a ‘Civic Education Audit’ of their school. The

audit will be designed by the Illinois Civic Mission of Schools Coalition (the IL Campaign)

and will be used to fund professional development for civics teachers.

Maryland: SB 492 Introduced by Sen. Gwendolyn Britt*

This bill established a Commission on Civic Literacy, set the membership of the Commission,

and required the State Dept. of Education to provide staff and support to the Commission. The

assigned tasks of the Commission are to develop and coordinate programs in collaboration

with schools to educate students in the importance of, among others: 1) reasoned debate, good

faith, negotiation, and compromise in representative democracy; 2) individual involvement in

creating successful communities; and 3) build a network of education professionals to share

information and strengthen partnerships.

New Hampshire: HB 167 Sponsored by Rep. Tim Dunn

This bill adds civics and economics to the required areas of assessment in the statewide

improvement and assessment program, and specifies that the assessment shall be conducted in

grades 3 through 8 and one grade in high school.

New Mexico: S724, Introduced by Sen. H. Diane Snyder*

This bill creates a $30,000 civic education professional development fund within the State

Department of Education. The New Mexico Campaign will be involved with the establishment

of criteria for the fund. Originally passed by both houses in 2006 and vetoed by the governor,

this bill was reintroduced and passed successfully in 2007.

North Dakota: Appropriations measure for Dept. of Public Instruction

Sen. Ray Holmberg (Facilitator for ND)* introduced and passed an amendment to the

Department’s Appropriation providing $30,000 to “enhance civic education programs in North

Dakota. Last year Sen. Holmberg passed an amendment to the Department’s Appropriations

providing $50,000 for a new civics text and other civic ed projects

Oregon: HB 2584 Introduced by Rep. Buckley, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici*, and others

Creates a Task Force on Civic and Financial Education that will study and make

recommendations about how to increase and improve civics and financial education in K-12

public schools.

Oregon: SB 2584 Introduced by Rep. Buckley, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici*, and others

Increases the appropriations to the Dept. of Education for civic education to $160,000.

Virginia: HR 627 Introduced by Del. Robert Tata*

A joint resolution designating the third week in September as Civics Education Week in


Washington: SB 5969 Introduced by Senators Kilmer, Devlin, Kastama and others

Creates a Civic Education Travel Grant Program within the State Department of Public

Instruction designed to assist school teams competing in state, national and international civic

education programs. This measure was amended onto HB 1052 (introduced by Rep. Dave

Upthegrove*), a measure creating a ‘Legislative Youth Advisory Council’ and passed with an


West Virginia: HR 33 Introduced by Del. David Perry*

This measure established the West Virginia Civic Literacy Council under the Co Chairmanship

of the WVA Secretary of Education & Arts and State Superintendent of Schools; names the

membership of the Council and states that the Council shall assess the status of civic education

in West Virginia, compile an inventory of civic engagement and service-learning opportunities

available to West Virginia students at all levels of education, make recommendations to

enhance civics education, and promote a network of civics education professionals to share

information and strengthen partnerships.

* = Congressional Conference on Civic Education attendee

Appendix 3: State by State Analysis of Civics Requirements and Assessments

[Excel Spreadsheet Included]

Appendix 4: Summary of Survey on We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution

Retrieved from

This evaluation brief represents selected findings from the December 2007 RMC Research Study. For the complete study, contact the RMC Research Corporation at or visit the Center for Civic Education at

We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution promotes understanding of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and American democracy. We the People was developed by the Center for Civic Education and is implemented in all 50 states. We the People programs are administered

by the Center for Civic Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the Education for Democracy Act passed by the United States Congress.

In 2006–2007, the RMC Research Corporation conducted a quasi-experimental study to examine the effects of the We the People program on students’ political knowledge, civic skills, and civic attitudes. The study included 822 program participants who were compared to 735 students in matching high school government classes with similar demographics. In addition, We the People students’ post-survey scores were compared with the scores of 119 political science students at two universities.


  • Participating students made significantly greater gains than comparison students in their understanding of
    • Core values and principles of democracy
    • Constitutional limits on governmental institutions
    • Rights and responsibilities of citizenship
    • Participants also improved their civic skills, including their ability to analyze issues, to debate, to persuade, and to achieve group consensus.



Number of correct responses on Civic Knowledge items (p < .05)

UPDATE: This year, funding for the Center for Civic Education and the We the People program was eliminated.

[1] The 2010 NAEP Civics Assessment results showed that average scores for students in the fourth grade improved from the 1998 and 2006 assessments, with a significant (p < .05) improvement from 2006. Students in the eighth grade have not shown significant change in average scores since 1998. For twelfth graders, average scores and percentage at or above proficient in civics dropped from both the 1998 and 2006 assessments, indicating an alarming trend. In both categories, the 2010 numbers were significantly lower (p < .05) than 2006.

[2] Knight, Mappen & Knight (2011) note that the lens of civic engagement could be used to inspire more female enrollment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, by connecting STEM topics to societal issues and producing a more responsible citizenry in scientific fields. The authors highlight Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER), the signature program of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, a national effort to teach science through the framework of civic issues (

[3] The Alliance for Representative Democracy ( is a partnership between the Center for Civic Education, National Conference of State Legislatures and the Center on Congress at Indiana University. The Alliance administered four Congressional Conferences on Civic Education from 2003-2007. The Conferences were canceled in 2007 when funding was eliminated.

[4] See Appendix 2 for a list of legislation on civic education enacted between 2004-2007 by Congressional Conference attendees and others.

[5] The information in the chart was largely compiled from the Education Commission of the States National Center for Learning and Citizenship’s (NCLC) State Policies for Citizenship Education Database ( The collection and analysis of this database is supported by CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

[6] It is important to note that many states have civics standards throughout their curriculum. We were looking for states that (a) offered a course dedicated to “civics”, (b) required “civics” to graduate, or (c) assessed “civics” as students left K-12 schools. Defining what a state considers “civic education” is a limiting factor of the information compiled and reported by the Education Commission of the States. Further research into this area is necessary.