A civics primer

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An Introduction to the

American Political System

by Gary Aguiar

A Role for Citizens?

A Way of Learning about Politics

Defining Power and Politics

Scientific Principles
The Framework: The System Approach

The American Political System

Public Inputs

Public Policies as Outputs

Governmental Institutions

Mediating Institutions

Key Concepts

Learning Objectives:
Define citizenship and describe how citizens affect governmental actions.
Explain and use the four basic scientific principles.
Define power and politics. Apply these concepts to real-world situations.
Describe the parts of the American political system. Provide examples of pressure points.

Why is it important for ordinary citizens to understand politics? Few careers require an understanding of government. Few people will seek elective office or become lawyers. We will learn that the public, the masses, have a role in the political system. However, citizens, a segment of the public, play a special and valued part.


Our government has two distinguishing features: (1) a limited government with (2) popular control. In a limited government, the rulers (those who govern) do not have absolute power. Restrictions, or boundaries that limit their actions, are usually detailed in a written constitution. Popular control means that ultimate power, or sovereignty, resides with the people. Our government rests on the consent of the governed. In a popular government, people have many ways to affect governmental action.

Citizens are people who have special rights and responsibilities in our society. Citizens’ goals are to make their lives better. Usually, people try to improve their lives on their own. For example, they might seek more education, a better job, or a life closer to their family. Sometimes, citizens cannot improve their lives without governmental action. They want government either to get out of the way or to provide some assistance. The goal of citizenship education is to teach students how they can affect government to improve their own lives.

Citizens affect governmental action by using pressure points. Pressure points are locations in our political system where citizens can change government’s behavior. Many pressure points exist in our political system. For example, animal owners might meet with the head of the local animal shelter, a government agency, to improve the treatment of lost pets. Thus, citizens get involved in politics when they seek a change in some governmental policy that affects their lives. The key to being a good citizen is to learn how to express your preferences to the right audience in the right fashion.

Citizens recognize that conflict and compromise are integral features of a democracy. Rarely does anyone get everything they want from a given situation. To get government to pay attention to your needs, citizens must communicate their expectations in a particular way. The goal of this book is to help students identify the best ways to voice their concerns to the most appropriate pressure points in the system.

Citizens who wish to affect public policy require a certain set of skills and knowledge. For example, they must posses math, reading, and technological literacy and also an ability to examine critically facts and policy proposals. We will further develop some of these skills in this book. Moreover, citizens need a basic understanding of the American political system. The political system is the set of political actors and power relationships that produce public policy. This chapter gives students a framework to understand the workings of this system. Students will use this framework to find the best pressure points to affect policy.

1. List the characteristics that define who is a citizen.

2. List the rights that citizens have.

3. List the responsibilities that citizens have.

4. List the kinds of activities citizens might use to affect governmental action.

We all rely on a particular way of understanding the world. That is to say, we use certain values and means to discover meaning in life. For example, religions offer a way to learn about the world. In most religions, certain facts are believed to be true based on faith. Another way of knowing about the world is by using science. In this book, we will use science to understand political events and processes. Our exploration will employ scientific principles, or rules, to discover facts about the political world.

The first rule of science is to define concepts precisely (“one word, one concept”). When scientists agree on their terms, they can speak to each other instead of past each other. For example, political scientists begin their analysis of politics by defining government. Aristotle, an early Greek scholar, defined government as the people, or rulers, who command others.

Concepts are often more complicated than simple definitions. A concept may contain several categories. Aristotle grouped governments into three categories based on the number of people involved in decision-making. One person might govern a country; a group of a few people might rule; or many people might decide. We will return to Aristotle’s conception of government later. For now, note that Aristotle defined government as those who ruled. He grouped the kinds of government into three categories based on the number of people who ruled. Thus, the first rule of science is the precise definition of important concepts.


Two concepts are central to our study of government: power and politics. People often use these words interchangeably. However, they are distinct ideas. Thus, we must define these terms precisely before we can continue. Political scientists agree on the following definition of power:
One person (Person A) has power over another person (Person B) if Person A can get Person B to do something that Person B does not want to do.
We should highlight four features of this simple definition:

1. Power may be applied positively or negatively. That is, the definition above describes the positive application of power: Person A motivates Person B to do something. This is a positive act. For example, an armed gunman could probably convince you to give him your money. However, power could also be applied negatively. That is, Person A might prevent Person B from doing something Person B wants to do. The same gunman may prevent you from running outside to call the police (at least while he is pointing the gun at you).

2. Our definition can be applied to both groups or individuals. Either Person A or Person B could be a group of people. So, we could say that Group A has power over Person B or Person A has power over Group B. This expands our definition to include power situations that are more likely to exist in the world.
3. Power is the product of a social relationship. Power exists between people. By our definition, power is not a keg of dynamite sitting in the corner of the room. It does not include natural forces like a hurricane or a tornado. Our definition suggests that the word “power” can only be used to describe people’s relationships with each other. We cannot use power to describe people’s interactions with nature or God or anything else.

Taking this definition to an extreme, we might argue that whenever two people have a relationship, power is a part of that relationship. So, power is present between friends and lovers. Similarly, power relationships exist in families, social clubs, churches, sports teams, classrooms, and even at the beach. Wherever people interact, power is a part of the relationship.

4. Since power is the product of social relationships, it varies by social situation. Someone powerful in one context may be weak in another. Imagine a college professor racing down the highway at 100 mph.  A young police officer on a motorcycle notices the violation. The officer has some power in this situation, she can decide to ignore the violation. After all, it may be the end of her shift. Or, she can give him a ticket. This will cost him some money in traffic fines and higher insurance premiums. Here, the officer clearly has power over our heavy-footed professor. However, imagine another situation, with the same two individuals. What if that police officer is enrolled in a college course taught by the professor? Then, the professor might have some power over the officer’s grade.
Thus, the social situation affects power relationships. Someone with power in one situation may be in a weaker position, a subordinate, in another social situation. Subordinates often have more power than they think. Imagine the most extreme power relationship: a master and his slave. The slave has some means to resist the demands of the master. However, the slave can refuse to work, run away, or even kill himself! (Admittedly, the consequences of resistance might be painful.)

This last point is an important one for citizens to understand. Some citizens think they are unable to compete with the powerful. However, both sides have power in every relationship! Educated citizens can use this knowledge to change the power relationship in their favor.

In this discussion of power you might notice we did not mention government. Power exists in social relationship, whether we are debating public policy or not. Since our goal is to learn the ways citizens can change governmental action, we must define politics.

We will define politics as “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Let us examine this definition more closely. The term values include a wide range of moral, ethical, and criminal behaviors. Moreover, the term value also includes things we value. That is, we desire certain goods (a fast car) over other goods (a new CD).

By our definition, politics is about defining morals. When someone says, “You can’t legislate morality!” they are using a different definition of politics. In politics, we regularly reward certain kinds of values and discourage others. For example, reading is encouraged by the provision of free public education and libraries. Theft and public nudity are discouraged by legal prohibitions.

According to our definition, politics is the struggle to allocate or distribute these values, goods, and services. In other words, politics is about “who gets what.” However, our definition is more precise than a bully who grabs up all the treasure. Politics is about an authority that decides how things should be divided. This authority determines the rules under which we live: What kinds of goods and services will be illegal? Which morals and behaviors will be rewarded? Which should be punished?

An authority is a body that legitimately decides the allocation of values. Legitimacy means that people accept that a certain person or institution has the right to decide. Who are legitimate authorities in our society? For Roman Catholics, the Pope is an authority over religious matters. For others, a successful business owner like Bill Gates might be perceived as an authority. But, most people would agree that the government is the legitimate source of power in the U.S.


  1. What makes a government legitimate? If a majority agree that the government is legitimate, does that make it an legitimate government for the minority who oppose it?

  2. If some residents do not consider themselves citizens, does this bring the legitimacy of the government into question?

  3. If many people view the government as corrupt, unresponsive, and untrustworthy, does this make the government illegitimate?



Conceptual Precision: Scientists use one word to describe one precisely defined concept.

Empiricism: We can only know facts that we can observe through our five senses.

Objectivity: Facts emerge when independent analysts agree on their interpretations of observable events.

Control of Bias: Facts are accepted when we can control for individual and data collection biases.
Now that we have established some definitions, we can turn to the other three principles of science. These principles describe the methods by which facts are discovered. Scientists use empiricism, the second rule of science, to uncover facts. We only accept things as true if we can observe them using our five senses: touch, taste, vision, hearing, or smell. For scientists, there is no “sixth sense.” Someone might say, “That wall is not a real object. It only exists in your mind.” At which point, a scientist would invite the individual to walk through the wall. When the doubter returns with a bloody nose, the scientist might respond, “Hmm, the wall seems real enough to me!”

Sometimes, people will disagree about the accuracy of a particular fact. Many people would agree that the President of the United States is a powerful person. However, you might think that your teacher has more power than the President. After all, she decides your grade. Another student might disagree; perhaps they think grades are unimportant. Or maybe, they believe that students earn grades and teachers do not “give” them. In cases like these, where reasonable observers disagree, we cannot establish a fact as true. The third rule of science, objectivity, maintains that only when independent observers agree on a fact can it be accepted as true.

The final rule of science indicates that we must control for biases in the interpretation and collection of facts. As observers, we must be aware of our individual predispositions. These biases might lead us to interpret the facts to support our side of the case. Scientists are not lawyers. As advocates for their clients, lawyers use evidence to support their client’s side of a case. Scientists do not have clients, they seek to discover and evaluate all of the facts. They cannot allow their own individual biases to affect their interpretation of the facts.

Moreover, scientists must be careful that the methods they use to collect information are not biased. For example, to understand the power of presidents, we might examine the Johnson administration. Perhaps, we find that throughout his term, President Lyndon Johnson got Congress to agree to his legislative proposals. Based on this evidence, we cannot conclude that all presidents can convince Congress to support their ideas. It might be true of President Johnson, because he had a Democratic Congress or for a number of reasons. However, other presidents might have had a more difficult time convincing Congress to agree to their proposals. The Johnson administration, as a single case study, biases our results. Our conclusions would be more valid if we examined several, or even all, presidential administrations in the last half-century.


Now that we understand the basic principles, let us see how scientists use these principles to understand the world. Scientists develop theories or models to understand the world. These frameworks help scientists connect new and existing facts. We will use the systems approach, a framework or model, to understand political actors and relationships. The systems approach is a simple model similar to the manufacturing process. Raw materials like glass, steel, and rubber are inputs to the manufacturer. These inputs are processed in a factory (a “black box”). The products, or outputs, of the manufacturing process might be an automobile, a personal computer, or a CD player. (See diagram of this model.)

This simple model reflects the parts of the American political system. See the diagram of the entire American political system. We begin our study with public policy. Public policies are governmental actions that affect the public. As citizens, we can try to change public policies. In our model, public policies are the outputs, or the products, of the American political system. So they are represented by a circle in our diagram.

In a government subject to popular control, the public provide inputs to the political system. These inputs have two forms: public opinion and political participation. Public opinion is the internal attitudes that Americans have about particular issues, like abortion and gun control. Political actors, like members of Congress and the president, pay attention to the views of the American public on many issues. Public opinion affects governmental action to some extent.

Political participation, the other input, are external behaviors in which citizens get involved in political activities. The most obvious form of participation is voting. However, citizens can get involved in politics by signing petitions, lobbying government officials, attending public meetings, or running for political office. The list of civic activities is long and varied. Moreover, people can use both legal and illegal means to participate in politics. For example, assassination is one way to get involved in politics! Clearly, it is an illegal form of participation. Nevertheless, it is one way to change politics. If you do not like your leaders, murder them. Obviously, good citizens usually rely on legal activities to affect governmental decisions.

In very few circumstances does the American public have a direct effect on public policy. One example is during the Prohibition era when many Americans ignored laws that made the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. In this case, the people made policy by their own actions. More usually, the direct connection between the public and public policy is weak. In our diagram, it is displayed as a dashed line.


  • The legislature makes the laws

  • The executive enforces the laws

  • The bureaucracy administers the laws

  • The judiciary interprets the laws

It is most situations, public policy is produced by governmental institutions, one of the black boxes in our diagram. This direct effect of government on public policy is represented by a solid line. These governmental institutions are authorized by a constitution. The four branches of government are the legislature, the executive, the bureaucracy, and the judiciary.

The legislature makes the laws that are public policy. Legislators are elected by the people. The U.S. Congress is our national legislative body; each state has its own legislature. The executive enforces the laws passed by the legislatures. Like legislature, executives are elected officials. The president is the chief executive of the United States; governors are the chief executives of their state. The bureaucracy are the agencies that administer the laws passed by the legislature by issuing rules and regulations. Federal departments include the Department of Education, which guides educational policies; most states have a department of education, which oversees schools. Finally, the judiciary interprets the laws. Judges and prosecutors deal with particular cases of violations of the law. The courts decide how to apply the law in contested cases.

Citizens can communicate with governmental actors by writing letters and voting for or against political candidates. However, in most situations, the public has a small effect on government’s decisions. We use a dashed line that represents the weak relationship between the public and governmental actors.

The American political system has another “black box” between public inputs and governmental institutions. This other black box contains political institutions that are outside the government. While not part of the government, these non-governmental institutions play a large and important role in the political system. These mediating institutions connect the public to government’s action. These actors link or connect citizens’ needs with governmental action.

However, occasionally, mediating institutions may also limit the influence of citizens. As gatekeepers, these institutions may determine the kinds of citizens who may participate in politics and the avenues citizens can use to affect political change. Nevertheless, informed and educated citizens can use linkage institutions to change public policy by affecting governmental action. Indeed, these institutions are probably the most important pressure points available to citizens.

Among the most recognizable mediating institutions are “special interests” or “lobbyists.” We will call these groups interest groups. Many interest groups are active in American politics. Some interest groups are dominated by corporations and other powerful economic interests. Nonetheless, citizens’ groups remain the most accessible avenue to affect political change. These include a wide range of associations, clubs, organizations, political action committees, and even some churches. For example, the Sierra Club, National Association of Manufacturers, American Association of Retired People, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Rifle Association, National Education Association, and the Christian Coalition are active interest groups in today’s politics.

Political parties are another of the mediating institutions in our system. They are often blamed for everything that is wrong with politics. In fact, having a democracy without political parties is impossible! We have no examples of large democracies that exist without political parties. Political parties serve to unify the mass of citizens. To win office, parties must present a broad message to unite a diverse coalition of supporters. On the other hand, interest groups gain power by satisfying narrower segments of the public.

Political parties and interest groups tend to receive much attention. However, they are not the only political institutions that connect the public to the government. The mass media is the collection of print, broadcast, and other forms of communication that provide information to the public. The media may provide some useful political information to the public. For example, they may telecast political debates and party conventions. Increasingly, citizens are using some parts of the media as a vehicle to affect politics. For example, people who have a particular concern can use the Web to find like-minded individuals. Also, talk shows on many AM stations, sometimes hosted by colorful personalities, have encouraged many listeners to call in and express their views.

Campaigns and elections are yet another means of linking the public and governmental officials. Campaigns serve both candidates and voters as a means to educate each other. During campaigns, candidates communicate their ideas about government policies to potential voters. They express their views to encourage people to vote for them. On the other hand, politicians also seek out information about voters’ concerns. They may use public opinion polls or talk directly with voters. Many candidates canvass their district by knocking on their doors or visiting with voters at public gatherings, like county fairs and ball games.

Further, election results sometimes serve as messages to politicians. When one party wins by a large majority, it is often as a mandate to govern. For example, in 1994, when Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress, they viewed their election as a message from the country in support of their conservative policies.

As a set, these linkage institutions provide numerous opportunities and avenues for citizens to participate in politics. In our diagram, the public is connected to the mediating institutions by a solid line representing the direct effect the public has on the behavior of these institutions. These institutions are excellent pressure points for citizens who seek political change.

The final component of American politics, the foundational elements, support the system. They are not connected to any one part of the system, but strengthen the overall system. These foundations are permanent, unchanging features of the political landscape.

One of these constants in American politics is our political culture, the set of beliefs and values American have about the role of government. Americans accept certain values: freedom, democracy, and individualism. The widespread agreement on these values distinguishes them from public opinion, which are the attitudes that we have about particular issues. Citizens who seek political change must understand our political culture. Change is possible only within this set of values and beliefs.

The second foundational element is the social structure of America society. The social structure includes both the economic structure and the demographic characteristics of the American population. For example, our capitalist economic structure encourages the development of large corporations. These entities seek to satisfy their stockholders’ desire for more profit. Government policies conform to the power structure of business.

In demographic terms, our social structure is distinguished by the vast diversity of Americans. Americans are among the most diverse peoples in any part of the globe. We differ in so many ways: economically, racially, religiously, occupationally, educationally, ethnically, and in circumstances of immigration. We also differ by where we live. We life in different regions, community settings, and climatic conditions. Imagining a country that contains more different kinds of people living in more different kinds of conditions is difficult.

Another part of our political system is the importance played by the principle of law. The Americans people and their government agree to be governed by legal documents. A constitution sets forth the powers and limits of our governmental institutions. It describes the process by which laws are to be made. The U.S. Constitution details the formal structure of government. However, understanding other historical documents is also necessary, including the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and The Federalist Papers.

Finally, our political system is a federalist form of government. Federalism divides power between two levels of government: the national and state governments. Federalism decentralizes power, putting authority in many hands. This decentralization provides many pressure points for citizens’ action.

To become active citizens in American democracy, students must understand these parts of the American political system. This complex set of political actors and power relationships provide opportunities and constraints on citizen action. The goal for citizens who seek political change is to identify pressure points in this system. Moreover, citizens must communicate their demands in a persistent and persuasive manner to effect change. Since citizens seek to change public policies, we begin our study of politics with a look at the policy making process.

Key Concepts



limited government

popular control

pressure points






conceptual precision



control of bias

systems approach

public policy

public opinion
political participation





separation of powers

mediating or linkage institutions


interest groups

political parties

mass media

foundational elements

political culture

social structure



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