TAMPA, Fla. — They say they stand for a return to constitutional principles, but it turns out tea party supporters are just as confused as to what rights and powers are in the federal government’s founding document, according to the latest The Washington Times/JZ Analytics poll.
Most Americans say they’ve read all or most of the Constitution, but they tend to see more rights than the document actually guarantees, and struggle over what the Constitution says about the powers and structure of government itself.
For example, 92 percent of those surveyed said the Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial, but only 40 percent knew that it grants Congress the power to coin money, and just 53 percent said it establishes Congress’ power to levy an income tax.
And voters thought they had protections that they don’t have — at least not in the Constitution: 71 percent said the it protected the right to a secret ballot and 58 percent said it guarantees a right to education, though neither appears in the document.
“What most studies find is that many people think they know a great deal about the Constitution, but when asked specific questions about our founding document as a country they really miss the mark,” said Doug Smith, executive director at the Center for the Constitution, based at James Madison’s Montpelier home. “I think that speaks to a lot of government legend, a lot of misunderstanding of Supreme Court decisions — typically because people don’t read the decisions themselves — and a real deficiency we have in civic education.”
The Constitution was supposed to get a boost in 2010 when the GOP, backed by tea party supporters, won major victories in that year’s elections. They promised to instill a new appreciation for the document and the limits it places on the federal government.
House Republicans even held a reading of the Constitution on their chamber floor the first week they were in session.
But The Times/JZ Analytics poll found self-identified Republicans and self-identified tea party sympathizers often shared the same views as other voters. For example, 66 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of tea party supporters said the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy, which was almost identical to the 68 percent of all voters who said the same thing.
The same held true on Congress’ power to coin money and the right to a secret ballot.
Republicans, though, were far less likely to say the Constitution guarantees the right to education — which it does not — than the general public. While 71 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents said education was in the Constitution, only 47 percent of Republicans did.
John Kaminski, founder of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said many Americans create in their minds their own version of what they think the Constitution should say.
“They interpret the Constitution the way they want the Constitution to have been written, and they won’t get it right. They’ll rewrite the Constitution,” he said.
Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, said he wasn’t shocked that the tea party showed about the same level of knowledge as other voters.
“I would love to see people with a stronger knowledge,” he said. “But I also understand what the reality of life is. If you’re worried about your job, if you’re worried about losing your home, things like that, honestly studying the Constitution is not going to be your top priority.”
He also said civics education has deteriorated, adding that he learned about the Constitution in ninth grade, but his daughter, who just completed that grade, did not.
Mr. Kaminski said part of the problem is the federal government is cutting programs that teach the document. He said American history teaching grants and the We The People program, run by the Center for Civic Education, had been phenomenal in inculcating an understanding of the Constitution.
Seven out of 10 voters in The Times survey said they received their knowledge of the Constitution from school, while most of the others said they did from reading on their own. That was about the same for tea party supporters, too.
Mr. Smith, at Montpelier, said that is both a credit to teachers, but also a challenge. He said the key is to teach not just what the Constitution says, but the history and reasoning of those who wrote and shaped it.
Virgil Goode, a former congressman who is the Constitution Party’s presidential candidate this year, said he wasn’t surprised that many of the questions flummoxed voters, particularly with all of the confusion Supreme Court precedents add into the mix.
For example, the right to privacy — which majorities in most demographics said was guaranteed by the Constitution — is not in the actual text, but the Supreme Court said it exists in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of other protections from government intrusion.
“I think most people have a general idea of the Constitution, and somewhat of the Bill of Rights. But you’ve got to have done some reading or have had … some college courses to know some of the cases,” Mr. Goode said.
Another complex question was the separation of church and state.
Among all voters, 82 percent said that is guaranteed in the Constitution, even though it is not explicitly part of the document. Instead, the First Amendment prohibits an establishment of religion, but also guarantees individuals’ free exercise of it.
It was Thomas Jefferson — who wasn’t part of the drafting of the Constitution — who said there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state. The Supreme Court has since written opinions that have drawn up tests for when the two get overly entangled.
Mr. Kaminski said for most Americans the Constitution is the list of rights it protects, but they forget about the original document written in 1787 and ratified a year later that created Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court.
“I would think that the vast majority, if you ask them what is part of the Constitution, they’ll say the Bill of Rights, and that’s what they equate the Constitution with being,” he said. “They have lost sight of the original seven articles and what they propose. They have sort of equated the bill of rights with the Constitution.”
The poll of 800 likely voters was taken Thursday through Saturday, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The results were weighted for demographics.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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