How Elected Officials Scored On American Civics Literacy

Yesterday, I did a post on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI) American Civics Literacy Quiz. Many of you took the quiz. This blog’s regular commenters all did spectacularly well, scoring much higher than both the average American (49% right) and college educators (55% right).

One commenter, James Habermehl, wondered how America’s politicians would do on the quiz.

Before you read further, if you haven’t taken the quiz, PLEASE DO SO NOW!!

Note (June 13, 2019): For some reason ISI took down the quiz and the results. But you can take the quiz and calculate your score by going here.

The answer surprised even ol’ cynical me:

Elected officials scored lower than the general public

This is from the ISI website (Note on June 13, 2019: ISI had taken down that page, but you can find both the quiz and the results here):

The ISI civic Literacy survey was not designed to test the civic knowledge of elected officials, but it did discover evidence of an interesting pattern that may merit further exploration.

All survey respondents were asked whether they have ever engaged in any of 13 different political and civic activities. These included, for example, registering to vote, signing a petition, contacting a public official, publishing a letter to the editor, and whether they have ever been elected to a government office.

Among the 2,508 respondents, 164 say they have been elected to a government office at least once. This sub-sample of officeholders yields a startling result: elected officials score lower than the general public. Those who have held elective office earn an average score of 44% on the civic literacy test, which is five percentage points lower than the average score of 49% for those who have never been elected.

Of the 2,508 People surveyed, 164 say they have held an elected government office at least once in their life. Their average score on the civic literacy test is 44%, compared to 49% for those who have not held an elected office. Officeholders are less likely than other respondents to correctly answer 29 of the 33 test questions. This table shows the “knowledge gap” for each question: the difference between the percentage of common citizens who answered correctly and the percentage of officeholders who answered correctly.
Theme of Question Citizens Elected
1. U.S. – Soviet Tension in 1962 70.09% 56.51% -13.58%
2. Declaration of Independence 83.09 69.78 -13.31
3. Sputnik 74.1 62.82 -11.28
4. Definition of Free Enterprise 41.45 32.08 -9.37
5. M. L. King’s “I Have a Dream” 80.5 71.5 -9
6. Electoral College 65.88 57.31 -8.57
7. Scopes “Monkey Trial” 67.76 59.21 -8.55
8. Susan B. Anthony 80.84 72.98 -7.86
9. Power to Declare War 53.6 45.82 -7.78
10. Business Profit 49.11 41.38 -7.73
11. International Trade 37.47 30.45 -7.02
12. FDR’s Government Programs 66.63 59.73 -6.9
13. Abortion 50.77 43.94 -6.83
14. Federal Branches and Foreign Policy 54.71 48.39 -6.32
15. First Amendment Freedoms 79.58 73.32 -6.26
16. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas 29.49 23.29 -6.2
17. FDR and the Supreme Court 25.07 19.24 -5.83
18. Taxes and Government Spending 27.7 22.12 -5.58
19. Free Markets vs. Centralized Planning 16.25 10.71 -5.54
20. Action Prohibited by the Bill of Rights 26.41 21.24 -5.17
21. Commander in Chief 79.04 74.46 -4.58
22. Anti-Federalists and the Constitution 38.22 33.82 -4.4
23. Source of phrase “a wall of separation” 18.92 15.07 -3.85
24. Policy Tool of the Federal Reserve 43.12 40.48 -2.64
25. Powers of the Federal Government 75.01 72.69 -2.32
26. World War II Enemies 68.76 66.58 -2.18
27. The Puritans 19.1 17.32 -1.78
28. Definition of a Progressive Tax 51.26 49.97 -1.29
29. Three Branches of Government 49.65 49.32 -0.33
30. Definition of a Public Good 27.6 28.03 0.43
31. Gettysburg Address 21.06 22.95 1.89
32. Fiscal Policy for Economic Stimulus 36.07 39.93 3.86
33. Lincoln–Douglas Debates 19.06 23.62 4.56

The elected officeholders come from the ranks of Democrats (40%), Republicans (31%), Independents (21%), and those who say they belong to no party or indicate no affiliation (8%). None were asked to specify what office they held, so the proportion in which they held local, state, or federal positions is unknown.

Not all officeholders do poorly, of course. Some elected officials rank among the highest scorers. But the failure rate on the test among those who have won public office is higher (74%) than among those who have not (71%). Officeholders scored lower on all sub-themes of the test: political history, cultural institutions, foreign relations, and market economy.

In each of the following areas, for example, officeholders do more poorly than non-officeholders:

79% of those who have been elected to government office do not know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the U.S.

30% do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.

27% cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.

43% do not know what the Electoral College does. One in five thinks it either “trains those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.”

54% do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. 39% think that power belongs to the president, and 10% think it belongs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Only 32% can properly define the free enterprise system, and only 41% can identify business profit as “revenue minus expenses.”

On some questions, Americans who have held elected office do better than Americans who have not. They are a little more likely, for example, to recognize the language of the Gettysburg Address (23% to 21%) and to know that the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into new territories was the main issue in the Lincoln–Douglas debates (25% to 20%).

Officeholders and non-officeholders find it equally difficult to identify the three branches of government. Only 49% of each group can name the legislative, executive, and judicial.

All of which suggest that too many of America’s elected officials run for office for all the wrong reasons. Now we know why our government is so incompetent and corrupt. We are so screwed….

What do we do about this?

Good people who love America and are informed and knowledgeable about this country’s history, government, and most importantly, the Constitution, must answer the call and run for political office ourselves.

Instead of cursing the darkness, let us be the light!


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Candance Moore
Candance Moore
9 years ago

What I see here is that people were a little sharper with basic facts, but when asked about finances or expected to use logic, the scores drop. I’ve long said conservies lack in the area of defending fiscal policies. We don’t do a very good job of explaining financial consequences in simple terms. The problem with politics is, essentially, anyone willing to do it is not the kind of person you want. Especially thanks to McCain’s campaign finance obsession (aka rigging the system in favor of entrenched incumbents). You talk to smart thinkers fresh out of college about what they… Read more »

Candance Moore
Candance Moore
9 years ago

I don’t think relying on better public schools is a good strategy. You look at the great people in America, our inventors, our innovators, and none of them credit public schools for teaching them. Ask people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, they’ll tell you that they basically tolerated public school for eight hours a day and then went home and played with computers on their own.
The problem boils down to widespread lack of parenting.

Dwight Boud
9 years ago

I spent thirty years teaching members of the generation that is governing the country now. Mea Culpa. My score: 32 out of 33.

9 years ago

No surprise here…when MM interviewed my senator Patty Murray when she first got elected, Murray didn’t know about a certain type of payroll taxes.

9 years ago

Those liberals… “the good and welfare clause” and “you have to pass the bill in order to find out what’s in it,” etc.

lowtechgrannie lowtechgrannie

Maybe all people seeking elective office should be required to pass the citizenship test. They should be required to know as much about civics as naturalized citizens do.

lowtechgrannie lowtechgrannie
Reply to  Dr. Eowyn

I would guess a good number of candidates could not pass even the general test for naturalized citizenship. I’ll bet Obama couldn’t! He said there are 57 states!

lowtechgrannie lowtechgrannie

My friend, Jed Brown, explained the problem with public schools in 1994.

James L Habermehl
James L Habermehl
9 years ago

Further clarification: I wasn’t “wondering” so much as “dreading”! 🙁

9 years ago

I bet President Golfer couldn’t get ten right, unless he was to cheat, in which case he might get twelve.

9 years ago

I took their test and got 33 out of 33 right, it was just not that hard.
Of course I am 61 years old and our educational system was a little different then. As a retired school district employee (Maintenance Department, not teaching) I can tell all of you that United States history is not even a subject at the high school level any more; it is some thing they call social studies,
and about the only thing it teaches kids is that humans cause global warming and we killed and ate all the spotted owls.

8 years ago

33 out of 33. 72 Years old. Several answers I guessed as “nearest to correct” because there were no literally correct answers.
One comes to mind: Levees have a price which is paid whether people perceive them to be or not.

William Bishop
William Bishop
8 years ago

I scored 31 of 33 correct. Not surprising as my parents had me read and study the founding documents till I understood the 287 principles of the constitution. I once stood at the steps of the state capital with a copy of the Bill of Rights and the 10 planks of the Communist Manifesto. I asked state reps which of the two would they support. Surprisingly, or not, the overwhelmingly .majority selected the Marxist Communist Manifesto over the Bill of Rights. A near 98%. 98%!!!! I had the results printed in the local paper. What an uproar . The excuses… Read more »


[…] Only 32% can properly define the free enterprise system, and only 41% can identify business profit as “revenue minus expenses.” – Fellowship of the […]

4 years ago

Well I know I am late in the game and a little embarrassed at my score, but not too bad considering I dropped out of Jr. High had a baby at 17 and was married then way later got my GED and went to a community college and working full time as a single mother got my AAS in horticulture. Maybe that is why I did better than the avg. I left the indoctrination system early. I stated to really dig in in my 30’s wanting to know so many things and almost had to teach myself to read. I… Read more »

4 years ago

Thank you! So happy to have found this wonderful place! I think I came here on a whim looking for info on Sandy Hook and man was there a rabbit hole for me to fall into!

James Young
James Young
3 years ago

Just discovered your website on a reference, and I’m glad I did. As a conservative and Christian (protestant) who appreciates good intellectual discussion (along with political philosophy), I am impressed and delighted with your website. I just took the Civics Literacy survey and then looked thru the responses of ‘average’ citizens compared to ‘elected officials.’ I’ve been around a good while now and have followed politics closely for decades, but I was still very surprised at the low percentages of such officials not realizing just who has the power to declare war, and even more surprisingly, the quite simple definition… Read more »


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