One easy way to get a laugh on late-night TV is to send a camera crew out into the streets and ask passersby questions about civics or American history. Only the comically wrong answers get broadcast, of course, but producers don’t have to look too far for those. “Who is the vice president?” undergrads in Texas were asked in a similar exercise. “No idea,” they responded. “Is that a trick question?” The interviewer followed up: Who won the Civil War? One answer: “Who was even in it?”
A more systematic 2012 survey of college graduates showed that only 38 percent knew how long U.S. House and Senate terms were. Half thought Thomas Jefferson (who was not at the Constitutional Convention) was “the Father of the Constitution.”
None of this is new. In fact, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter’s 1996 book “What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters” found that the answer to the first part of its title has always been “not much.” The authors reviewed decades of political science survey research, documenting that “levels of information about public affairs are … astonishingly low.” A famous study of the 1948 election by Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee concluded that if “the democratic citizen is expected to be well informed about political affairs,” then “by such standards the voter falls short.” Indeed, “individual voters today seem unable to satisfy the requirements for a democratic system of government outlined by political theorists.”
That makes public ignorance about the public sphere a lot less amusing. While on-camera pop quizzes are hardly the best way to measure democratic competence, it’s hard to dispute a basic premise laid out in 1822 by James Madison (the actual father of the Constitution, or one of them). “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,” Madison wrote, “is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.”
Bowdoin College’s “Founding Principles” video series is one small effort to remedy this constitutional illiteracy. Here, each week, you will find one of 15 short episodes, vaguely TED talk-length with humor (well, you decide) and high-quality graphics and animation (for sure, thanks to Bowdoin’s production partner, Emerson College in Boston).
The series lays out what the Constitution says; why it says it; how (and how well) it works now; and how that matters.
The first episode, below, is on the most basic of the Constitution’s principles: the separation of powers. The topics in future weeks cover federalism and the branches of government, elections and other mechanisms for public engagement, civil rights and liberties, and the processes of policymaking and implementation. The series wraps up by summarizing a shortlist of key things to remember about American politics.
Nearly every episode goes back to the framing of the Constitution and thus to the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay — and to their anti-Federalist critics — to show why the system was set up as it was. Nearly all use historical jurisprudence to illuminate important constitutional questions and developing debates. The series emphasizes the need for building consensus across the U.S. system of separated powers, which requires widespread, informed and civil participation in the political process.
Over the summer, the Monkey Cage will present an episode of Founding Principles every Tuesday morning. (If you want to binge-watch, well, that’s an option too.) Watching and sharing the series might not — despite what my course syllabus claims for the Federalist Papers — “make you both smarter and (if possible) better-looking.” But watching it and sharing it with students, friends and other fellow citizens might just make our nation’s political process a little better.
These days, that could matter a lot.