Federalism and the U.S. Constitution
"Perhaps American constitutional law can help us rediscover the political principles we share in common and set the bounds of our disagreements. It's an odd thought in this dyspeptic era, but our conflicts may offer an opportunity to engage the citizenry in constitutional education. After all, polarized as we are, the one thing we share in common (if surveys are to be believed) is our ignorance of the Constitution." - George Thomas
In the United States, knowledge of federalism requires knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. But how well do Americans know their own Constitution?
Despite maintaining a robust Constitutional (and arguably federal) culture, the U.S. Constitution is still a next-to-meaningless document to most Americans (Ahranjani 2020; Versteeg 2012). While citizen attitudes toward the U.S. Constitution remain positive and high, Americans score shockingly low in survey after survey of civic and Constitutional literacy. What might explain this seeming paradox - of high Constitutional reverence yet low Constitutional knowledge?
Common answers include: failure to promote civics in America's public high schools; new federal standards, like No Child Left Behind, which have changed the way knowledge acquisition are defined; or a lack of attention to critical thinking, and engaging students with reasons to care about their own political history and how that knowledge affects their daily lives.
We find all of these answers compelling, but we take a slightly different approach in this space. To help answer why Americans' Constitutional knowledge is so low, we have to first recognize that Constitutional knowledge comes in many forms (Dreisbach 2016). Christopher Dreisbach, for example, has catalogued eight "levels" of Constitutional literacy, ranging from the basic ability to distinguish the U.S. Constitution from other documents (Level 1), to a deep philosophical understanding of law, rights, and different philosophical conceptions of justice (Level 7)(see pp. 17-42).
Taking it as a given that we can not adequately address all kinds of constitutional knowledge here, this dashboard focuses on two aspects of constitutional understanding: how we acquire it, and how much we know of the Constitution, with an emphasis where possible on structural components such as federalism.
Federalism as Constitutional Structure
Why care about Constitutional structure? While there are multiple answers to this question, one essential answer is highlighted here. In their dissent to NFIB v. Sebelius (567 U.S. 519), Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito point out that “structural protections – notably those imposed by federalism and separation of powers,” are “central to [protecting] liberty.” Unfortunately, they are “less romantic" and have a “less obvious connection to personal freedom than the provisions of the Bill of Rights or the Civil War Amendments." Because of this "they tend to be undervalued or even forgotten by our citizens." Thus, when we ignore structural protections, or allow them to fall into disrepair, “we place liberty at peril.”
This dashboard provides a starting point for understanding the extent to which the Justices were right about federalism as a "forgotten" form of Constitutional Knowledge. It also offers a test of their claim: Is federalism "undervalued and forgotten" in our schools, culture, and national consciousness?
The first graph below represents...How much would you say you know about the Constitution and the rights and freedoms it spells out? (get the graph in here)
Why this measure?
Constitutional Knowledge and Citizenship in K-12
Does an increase in Constitutional Knowledge lead to an increase in citizenship?
In 2011, a group of authors published the first large-scale experimental test of this question. More than 1000 high school students in 59 classrooms were randomly assigned to an "enhanced civics curriculum," designed to promote awareness of constitutional rights and civil liberties. Their results, however, were mixed: while students' knowledge of the Constitution increased dramatically, the researchers found no empirical support for a change in the treatment group's support for civil liberties.
The study raises a few important questions for supporters of civic and constitutional literacy. First, it raises the question of the relationship between knowledge and attitudes - is knowledge enough to change attitudes? Second, it raises questions about the effectiveness of teaching Constitutional content - is the content of courses actually constitutional content (Supreme Court cases, constitutional text) or is it less focused on ? Third, is the focus on liberties in the Bill of Rights too narrow - are we doing our students a disadvantage by focusing so much on civil liberties, and not enough on the history of constitutionalism, the reasons for the design of the US Constitution, and the structural components of the federal system and the essential role played by state and local government?
Green, Donald P., Peter M. Aronow, Daniel E. Bergan, Pamela Greene, Celia Paris, and Beth I. Weinberger. "Does Knowledge of Constitutional Principles Increase Support for Civil Liberties? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment." The Journal of Politics 73, no. 2 (2011): 463-76. Accessed May 7, 2021. doi:10.1017/s0022381611000107.
Daniel J. Elazar, Exploring Federealism
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan
David B. Walker, The Rebirth of Federalism
David Brian Robertson, Federalism and the Making of America
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In 2022, there were 23 Federal Rules and Regulations for every law passed by Congress.