The future of American liberty rests in the hands of young people more familiar with the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. According to a 1998 Luntz Research survey, 59 percent of 13-to 17-year-olds identified Moe, Larry, and Curly while only 41 percent correctly cited the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
As America celebrates 224 years of independence, one wonders if this nation’s citizens are equipped to defend their freedoms against the state’s natural penchant for mischief. The evidence should make you drop your hamburger.
The National Constitution Center interviewed 1,000 adults and found that 24 percent cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Only 6 percent can cite freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion. Fifty-two percent do not know the Senate has 100 members. One in six believes the Constitution created a Christian nation.
Even well-educated adults seem confused about America’s experiment in limited self-government. The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches explained during the Elian Gonzalez saga that Juan Miguel Gonzalez planned “to simply ask now that the attorney general issue a court order and that the boy be returned immediately to him.” Neither Campbell nor Brian Knowlton’s April 13 International Herald Tribune story observed that attorneys general may not issue court orders any more than judges may prosecute suspects.
Indeed, no matter what people wished for Elian, one likely reason that two-thirds of Americans applauded his abduction by a federal SWAT team is that they did not grasp the case’s basic legalities. The Justice Department should have secured a court order to transfer Elian from his great-uncle to his father. Instead, Justice used a fraudulent search warrant that falsely called Elian “an illegal alien” and “a concealed person,” presumably hidden atop Lazaro Gonzalez’s back yard jungle gym.
Unaware of what the Constitution entails, affluent and disengaged Americans seem rather comfortable with a kind of elective monarchy. Every four years, they pick a king who governs largely as he wishes. Members of Congress — like an American House of Lords — breezily conduct their own affairs. The two divisions of the royal family occasionally cooperate, usually — but not always — within the law. Every other November, Americans decide which among them may keep their orbs and scepters and continue ruling at their whim.
In August 1993, for instance, a Democratic Congress approved Bill Clinton’s proposed hikes in top income and estate tax rates retroactive to January 1, 1993, despite the Constitution’s explicit instruction that “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” Indeed, Clinton’s measure actually raised taxes on moneys earned during the final days of the Bush Administration, before Clinton’s inauguration!
After the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to approve Justice Department nominee Bill Lann Lee, Clinton defiantly named him acting assistant attorney general in December 1997. Lee serves today as America’s most powerful squatter, without constitutionally-required Senate confirmation.
Although the Constitution unambiguously states: “The Congress shall have the Power To lay and collect Taxes,” the Federal Communications Commission in 1998 imposed the $2.25 billion-per-year “Gore Tax” on telephones. Worse yet, the FCC forbids phone bills from separately identifying this roughly 5 percent telephone tax as a tax, never mind the phone companies’ First Amendment freedom to communicate with their customers as they like.
Congress voted last July 15 to accept a 3.4 percent salary increase, effective January 1, regardless of the 27th Amendment’s requirement that compensation changes commence after “an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” Congressmen feathered their beds by dubbing this unconstitutional pay hike a “cost-of-living adjustment.” The media and masses snored right through this shakedown.
America’s public cluelessness begins in schools that teach little about English and the sciences and less about government. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.) joined members of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni on June 27 to call on “educators at all levels to redouble their efforts to bolster our children’s knowledge of U.S. history and help us restore the vitality of our civic memory.” A major overhaul of America’s classrooms — through charter schools, vouchers or total privatization — would boost the odds that citizens will learn why this country is so special and how to keep it that way.
Meanwhile, Americans would be wise to heed the man who penned the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson said, “it expects what never was and never will be.”
— Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.