Policymakers | General Education

Saving our ignocratic republic

Can a book, even one endorsed by Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito, teach voters that Judge Judy doesn't sit on the Supreme Court? Or is it already too late?
USA TODAY   |  October 26, 2015 by Glenn Harlan Reynolds

If a nation has a constitution, and nobody reads it or follows it, does it matter?

America was designed as a constitutional republic. The powers that the federal government enjoys were delegated to it by the people via the Constitution, which describes what powers the government has, how those powers are divided among the three branches and what powers the federal government doesn’t possess. The Constitution speaks to courts, but also to officials and to voters.

But what if voters don’t know what the Constitution says?  A recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that college graduates are shockingly ignorant about the Constitution. According to the study, “nearly 10% of college graduates think Judith Sheindlin — commonly known as Judge Judy — is on the Supreme Court; one-third of college graduates can’t identify the Bill of Rights as a name given to a group of constitutional amendments. … Shockingly, 46% of college grads don’t know the election cycle — six years for senators, two years for representatives. Turning to the general population, the report finds that over half (54%) of those surveyed cannot identify the Bill of Rights accurately, and over 1 in 10 (11%) of those ages 25-34 believe that the Constitution must be reauthorized every four years.”

Well, that’s just sad. But what should we do about it? After all, politicians are probably fine with a public that doesn’t understand the Constitution that limits those politicians’ freedom of action. (Following the Constitution faithfully might offer insufficient opportunities for graft.) And while, say, lawyers know better, most Americans aren’t lawyers.

Enter law professor Michael Paulsen and his son Luke Paulsen, who isn’t a lawyer but a software engineer in Silicon Valley. Their new book, The Constitution: An Introduction, is a clear and readable explanation of the Constitution — its text, its history, and how the courts and government have gotten it right and wrong — in a succinct popular treatment.

Why a father-son collaboration? That’s what I wanted to know, too, so I asked the elder Paulsen, who was a year ahead of me at Yale Law School. Mike reported that he had given a lecture at Princeton in 2006, after which the law professors and college professors at dinner complained about their students’ “goofed-up ideas” about the Constitution. The law professors blamed the college professors, the college professors said “they came to us this way,” and blamed pervasively bad ideas about the Constitution in the culture, the media and even textbooks. Stuck in an airport the next day, Prof. Paulsen killed time writing an outline.

When he returned home, his teenaged son Luke had a lot of ideas, and the project turned into a father-son collaboration that spanned nine years. The idea is to educate people without turning them into lawyers. As Luke explained, “The less ordinary people citizens know about the Constitution, the more they’ll defer to the interpretations of judges and academics, right or wrong. That takes power out of the hands of ‘we the people’ and makes us feel that we shouldn’t care about the Constitution’s meaning, that it’s solely the job of these elites — which just promotes more ignorance. It’s a vicious cycle and we’re trying to help break it.”

Well, I’m on board. And the Paulsens’ book has gotten a strong review from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who writes that it “does not tell Americans what to think, but it provides invaluable help as they think for themselves.”

Thinking for themselves. If more Americans start doing that, the politicians will have reason to tremble.


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