Political Thinking: Becoming a Responsible Citizen
I. Learning to Think Politically
A. Barriers to Political Thinking
B. What Political Science Can Contribute to Political Thinking
II. Politics and Power in America
A. A Democratic System
B. A Constitutional System
C. A Free Market System
D. Who Does Govern?
III. The Text’s Organization
Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:
Describe the importance of political thinking in a democracy and the current barriers to political thinking among the public.
Describe the discipline of political science and how it can contribute to political thinking.
Explain the nature of politics in the U.S. and how it is a struggle for power among competing groups and interests.
Discuss how the culture of individualism developed in the U.S. and how it has affected some public issues like taxation or social welfare policy.
Discuss the major rules of American politics: democracy, constitutionalism, and the free market system, and why rules are necessary in politics.
Explain differing theories of political power, including majoritarianism, pluralism, corporate power, and elitism, and how they may undercut the ideals of democracy in the U.S.
Discuss the nature of the free market system in the U.S. and how it compares to European and other economic systems.
Political thinking is the careful gathering and sifting of information in the process of forming knowledgeable views of political developments. Political thinking is a key to responsible citizenship, but many citizens avoid it by virtue of paying scant attention to politics. The tools of political science can contribute to effective political thinking.
Politics is the process by which it is determined whose values will prevail in society. The basis of politics is conflict over scarce resources and competing values. Those who have power win out in this conflict and are able to control governing authority and policy choices. In the United States, no one faction controls all power and policy. Majorities govern on some issues, while other issues are dominated by groups, elites, corporations, individuals through judicial action, or officials who hold public office.
Politics in the United States plays out through rules of the game that include democracy, constitutionalism, and free markets. Democracy is rule by the people, which in practice refers to a representative system of government in which the people rule through their elected officials. Constitutionalism refers to rules that limit the rightful power of government over citizens. A free market system assigns private parties the dominant role in determining how economic costs and benefits are allocated.
Focus and Main Points
Contemporary American government is placed in historical perspective in this chapter. The value of political science in examining the development of American politics since the country’s earliest years is examined briefly, and concepts such as power, pluralism, and constitutionalism that are central to the study of government and politics are also assessed. In addition, the value of political thinking and the ability of political science to help develop political thinking are discussed. Several comparisons between the cultural development of political institutions and financial systems of the United States and Europe are made to help illustrate the different forms of government and economic organization. The main points of this chapter are as follows:
The development of political thinking is important for functioning democracies, which rely on the informed choices of citizens for the formation of government. There are powerful barriers to political thinking, such as individual unwillingness to develop it, changing patterns of media consumption, and “spin” by political leaders. Political science is a discipline that can help develop political thinking among students and also lead to a fuller understanding of political phenomena.
Politics is the process through which a society settles its conflicts. Those who win in political conflict are said to have power, and those leaders that have gained the legitimacy to use that power have authority. The play of politics in the United States takes place in the context of democratic procedures, constitutionalism, and the free market system. Theorists differ in explaining how power is wielded, using elements of majoritarianism, pluralism, corporate power, and elite rule as explanatory models.
Politics in the United States is characterized by a widespread sharing of power through a highly fragmented governing system with extensive checks and balances, a high degree of pluralism, and an extraordinary emphasis on individual rights.
The careful gathering and sifting of information in the process of forming a knowledgeable view about a political issue.
The systematic study of government and politics.
The process through which a society settles its conflicts
The ability of persons, groups, or institutions to influence political developments.
A form of government in which the people govern, either directly or through elected representatives.
The idea that the majority prevails not only in elections but also in policy determination.
A theory of American politics that holds that society’s interests are substantially represented through power exercised by groups.
The recognized right of officials to exercise power as a result of the positions they hold.
The idea that there are definable limits on the rightful power of a government over its citizens.
The use of courts of law as a means by which individuals protect their rights and settle their conflicts.
free market system
An economic system based on the idea that government should interfere with economic transactions as little as possible. Free enterprise and self-reliance are the collective and individual principles that underpin free markets.
The power that corporations exercise in their effort to influence government and maintain control of the workplace.
The notion that wealthy and well-connected individuals exercise power over certain areas of public policy.
Decisions by government to pursue particular courses of action.
(Answers appear at the end of this chapter.)
1. Which of the following could be considered a belief of sociologist C. Wright Mills?
a. Power in democracies conforms to a pluralist model, as it is primarily interested parties that determine what the government does on specific issues.
b. The clear, regular demonstration of majoritarian rule in the form of popular legislation that reflects societal interests demonstrates the weakness of elite theory.
c. Corporate elites pursue society’s broader interests out of a sense of civic duty and in the interest of preserving their positions.
d. Corporate elites have a great deal of influence over governmental policy, but are ultimately constrained by majority will in the form of elected politicians.
e. Corporate elites have more control over economic policy than do the elected politicians.
2. The reality that officials in the United States spend comparatively less money on government programs for the poor than other fully industrialized democracies reflects the American ideal of
3. The two primary sources of political conflict are
a. liberalism and conservatism.
b. partisan differences and philosophy.
c. scarce resources and competing values.
d. ethnicity and geographical differences.
e. libertarianism and populism.
4. How have changes in modern communication affected political thinking in the United States?
a. Increases in access to new forms of media have increased public awareness of news issues and increased political thinking across a wider segment of the population.
b. The extreme bias and popularity of new forms of media such as cable news networks and Internet blogs have led to a rise in faulty perceptions and thus a decrease in political thinking.
c. They have provided a more in-depth and varied analysis of public policy issues, which increases political thinking among those that self-inform.
d. They have resulted in better fact-checking and more transparent news gathering, which results in more objective reporting and an increase in political thinking.
e. They have resulted in a drop in political thinking among some, and a rise among others, based on increased access to new forms of media only among the wealthier economic groups.
5. In a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, what percent of Americans expressed “complete agreement” when asked whether government has a responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves”?
a. roughly one-tenth
b. roughly one-half
c. roughly one-quarter
d. roughly three-quarters
e. roughly five percent
6. Over the many decades of public debate and conflict over the American health care system, what has been the one constant?
a. Almost every president has attempted some form of health care reform aimed at bringing greater government coverage to those that do not have it.
b. A majority of Americans consistently express support for a government-run health care system, but have opposed new taxes to pay for such a system.
c. A majority of Americans have expressed a desire to end the Medicaid program.
d. Never has a majority expressed a willingness to entrust health insurance fully to government.
e. Almost every president has attempted to make cuts in health care programs in order to improve budget deficits, but has been opposed by popular opinion.
7. Which of the following statements provides the most accurate description of democracy as practiced in the United States?
a. The people directly govern themselves.
b. Elitist institutions are absent from the American government.
c. The power of the people to make and enforce laws is checked by nothing except the will of the people.
d. The people govern through elected representatives.
e. The will of the majority always prevails.
8. Which of the following forms of government admits to no limits on its power?
9. As described in the text, the issue of agricultural price-supports suggests that the exercise of government power conforms to which of the following models?
d. corporate power
10. What point is the author trying to make when he makes note of the fact that the White House Press Office was once run by a single individual?
a. It requires a much larger organization to communicate policy messages to the public because public policy has become more complex.
b. The level to which political leaders spin their messages has increased dramatically.
c. It takes a larger press office now because the means of communicating the news has expanded dramatically.
d. The White House has been forced to take a more dramatic defensive position against biased news reporting.
e. The Office of the President has become much more powerful over time, requiring a larger political apparatus behind it.
11. Pluralists such as ________ argue that it is the preference of the special interest that largely determines what government does.
a. G. William Domhoff
b. Max Weber
c. C. Wright Mills
d. Robert Dahl
e. All these answers are correct.
12. Why did President Lyndon Johnson choose not to pursue comprehensive government-based health insurance?
a. He opposed this form of government-based health insurance on the basis of budgetary concerns.
b. He believed strongly in the American ideal of individualism and self-reliance, and thought that government-based health insurance contradicted this ideal.
c. Most Americans were happy with their health insurance coverage and he felt it would be unpopular politically.
d. There was no precedent for a president attempting to achieve such a system before.
e. He was convinced that it could not be achieved politically.
13. Roughly what percentage of Americans has a college degree—the world’s highest rate?
d. 10 percent
e. 1 percent
14. Which of the following could NOT be considered one of the aspects of the American system of government or political culture?
b. judicial action
d. free market
15. Which of the following is enhanced by a democratic form of government?
a. corporate power
b. a leader’s authority
c. a leader’s power
d. the free market system
16. A handwritten note by a penniless convict brought about the Gideon v. Wainwright Supreme Court case, in which the Court ruled that
a. Gideon’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated.
b. Gideon’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search had been violated.
c. Gideon’s Fifth Amendment right to due process had been violated.
d. Gideon’s Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment had been violated.
e. Gideon’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated.
17. Which of the following is a major limit on majoritarianism in the United States?
a. the strong bias of news media
b. the lack of access individuals have to the voting process
c. the fact that most of the public pays attention to only a small number of issues
d. that elected officials generally have no interest in determining the public’s interest on policy issues
e. that most elected officials deliberately act against the wishes of the majority once they have been elected to office
18. Under communism, the government
a. owns most or all major industries and also takes responsibility for overall management of the economy.
b. owns most or all major industries but takes little responsibility for overall management of the economy.
c. owns most industries but allows the economy to run mostly on private transactions.
d. allows firms to make their own production and distribution decisions, but tightly controls pricing.
e. leaves individuals to rely largely on themselves for economic security.
19. Which of the following is true of majoritarianism in the United States?
a. Majorities do sometimes rule in America.
b. In many policy areas, majority opinion is ignored by policy makers.
c. When majority opinion on major issues changes, policy tends to change in that direction as well.
d. The public is interested in and well-informed on all policy issues.
e. All these statements are true, except for the statement that the public is interested and well-informed on all policy issues.
20. How does the number of lawyers in the United States compare to those in Britain, Italy, or Germany, on a per capita basis?
a. There are about a tenth as many lawyers in Britain, Italy, or Germany as in the United States.
b. The amount of lawyers is roughly equal.
c. There are half as many lawyers in the United States.
d. There are twice as many lawyers in the United States.
e. There are about a fifth as many lawyers in Britain, Italy, or Germany as in the United States.
1. Americans prefer wealth to be allocated by government direction and control rather than through the marketplace.
2. Compared with European democracies, Americans show a much smaller commitment to social welfare programs.
3. A major characteristic of the American political system is its extraordinary emphasis on individual rights.
4. The concept of constitutionalism allows for some restrictions to be put on the exercise of majority rule.
5. Americans practice democracy by using the representative model rather than by direct rule.
6. In American society, political conflict occurs primarily over scarcity of resources and access to a guaranteed minimum standard of living.
7. Equality of opportunity is not an important principle in the United States.
8. The United States has one of the most costly and elaborate sets of programs for the poor and disadvantaged of any of the industrialized democracies.
9. Pluralism is the principle that Americans should be free to act and think as they choose.
10. The United States has the world’s most elite system of college education.
What are the major barriers to political thinking?
Why does the United States spend less per capita than European democracies on social welfare programs?
What are the limits to majoritarianism in the United States?
In what ways does the U.S. free-market system affect corporate power, in comparison to European democracies?
What are the core reasons for having a constitutional form of government?
Answers to the Practice Exam
Multiple Choice Answers
1. e 11. d
e 12. e
c 13. c
b 14. c
c 15. b
d 16. a
d 17. c
b 18. a
e 19. e
b 20. d
Multiple Choice Explanations
C. Wright Mills is an elite theorist with a strong belief in the extreme power of elites, and in particular has theorized that corporate elites have more power over financial policy than the elected politicians tasked with controlling it. Therefore, the answer is (e).
Americans have resisted giving government a large-scale social welfare role because of their deep-seated belief in self-reliance and limited government. Thus, the only proper response is individualism (e).
The two primary sources of political conflict are scarcity of resources and competing values (c). The United States is a very diverse nation. Because resources are finite, competition for scarce resources is both inevitable and predictable. Also, people perceive issues quite differently. This is due to the reality that Americans have differences in their beliefs, experiences, and interests.
Half of adult Americans now get most of their news from cable television, talk shows, or Internet blogs, which often show extreme bias. People are keen to receive messages that confirm what they already believe, and thus many consume primarily these news sources, which has led to a rise in faulty perceptions. Thus, the only proper answer is (b).
In a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, only 24 percent of Americans expressed “complete agreement” when asked whether government has a responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Thus, the correct answer is (c).
Time and time again the American public has shown a majority opposition, or disinterest, in having the government fully take control of health care. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson wanted comprehensive government-based health insurance but knew it could not be achieved. Presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton, and most recently President Obama, tried and failed to bring about wholesale healthcare reform. Thus, the only proper answer is (d).
The essence of democracy is that the people govern and are the ultimate sovereign; however, in a large country such as the United States, representative democracy takes the place of direct democracy. Moreover, the will of the people in the United States is
constrained by numerous constitutional limits designed to protect the minority against the majority, so the correct answer is (d).
Totalitarian governments admit to no limits to power, and seek to control every aspect of the daily lives of their citizens, including such areas as religion and family life. Thus, the only proper answer is totalitarian (b).
Farmers have far more influence over the issue of agricultural price-supports than do any other group. This issue, like many, is formulated primarily through the interest of affected groups such as farmers. The majority of voters do not take interest in most issues, and so the nature by which more obscure issues like these are formulated (even though they may have wide-ranging effects) suggests pluralism. Thus, the answer is pluralism (a).
Presidents have always spun their messages, but the White House now has a communication machine that reaches deep into the federal agencies and involves scores of operatives, each of whom is intent on putting a presidential slant on the day’s news. This kind of spin has increased over time; thus, the answer is (b).
Dahl (d) is the pluralist theorist of this group; he argued that democracies more often operate as pluralistic (multi-interest) systems than as majoritarian systems.
President Johnson, like President Franklin Roosevelt before him, wanted comprehensive government-based health care but chose not to seek it because he was convinced it could not be achieved. Thus, the only proper answer is (e).
With more than 3,000 institutions of higher education, the American system has many more two and four-year institutions of higher learning than Western Europe. Over one-quarter (c) of Americans have a college degree. Nearly 40 percent of young Americans enroll in college, double the rate of Western Europe.
The correct response is (c) oligarchy. Oligarchy is a form of government in which a small group of individuals or families wield all governmental power; this is the only one of the five options not currently practiced in the United States. Some theorists may argue that majoritarianism is not the defining form of power in the United States, but it is undoubtedly one of the ways in which governmental policy is decided.
Authority is the recognized right of officials to exercise power. In a democracy, where the people have elected their leaders, that “recognized right” is enhanced because the citizens themselves have had some measure in bestowing it. Thus a leader’s authority (b) is the only proper answer.
Clarence Gideon had been made to stand trial in Florida without the aid of a lawyer for breaking into a pool hall. When he appealed his conviction, the Supreme Court concluded that his Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated; thus the only proper answer is (a).
The public pays attention to only a few of the hundreds of policy issues dealt with by the government each year. This is a major limit to majoritarian decision-making on all but the handful of issues in which the broader public is interested. Thus, the answer is (c).
Under communism, the government owns most or all major industries and also takes responsibility for overall management of the economy, including production quotas, supply points, and pricing. Thus, the proper answer is (a).
The correct response is (e). Sometimes, majority opinion prevails (e.g., the welfare reform bill of 1996). Yet policy makers are able to ignore majority opinion on issues that are not considered paramount by the electorate. The public is not interested, nor well-informed, on a plethora of policy issues in the United States.
The correct answer is that there are twice as many lawyers in the United States (d) as in Britain, Italy, or Germany. There is a greater significance in individual access to legal action in the United States, which can be seen from the size of its legal profession.
1. b 6. b
2. a 7. b
3. a 8. b
4. a 9. b
5. a 10. b
The primary barrier to political thinking is the unwillingness of citizens to make the effort to pay close attention to politics. Cultivating political thinking does require a commitment by citizens to learn about the issues and policy decisions their government is faced with, and many, if not most, fail to make that commitment. Another barrier is the rise in consumption of biased media, such as cable news networks and Internet blogs, that many citizens turn to for their news. These changes in news media are most responsible for the recent rise in faulty perceptions among the public. A third barrier is the spin that politicians and government leaders use when delivering their messages; many put favorable slants on their accomplishments or unfavorable ones on their opponents or their policies in order to influence the public.
The United States spends less on social welfare programs than European counterparts primarily due to a much stronger cultural focus on individualism and self-reliance. This culture of individualism dates back from the earliest formation of American society, which did not have the entrenched aristocracy or masses of peasants of European societies. These cultural roots have survived as a widespread belief that stronger government assistance to ensure equality erodes the self-reliance of the recipients of said assistance.
Majoritarianism is limited in part by the fact that most citizens of the U.S. pay attention to only a handful of the hundreds of policy decisions made by the U.S. each year. Most issues are acted on only by those groups immediately affected by them. Thus for most issues, the beliefs or intentions of the “majority” of people are not the primary influence of government action. This has led some political scientists to theorize that American democracy is more pluralistic, which suggests that on most issues, it is the preference of the special interest that largely determines what government does.
A free-market system operates largely on private transactions in an economy where the government owns or operates very few industries. Although there are similarities between the economies of European democracies and the United States, the U.S. more fully commits to free-market principles, with less government intervention in the economy and greater power for private companies. This has manifested as stronger corporate power in the U.S, which has resulted in, among other things, a lower minimum wage in the U.S. than in European democracies. Another manifestation is the proportionally greater number of corporate lobbyists and resulting influence in the U.S. capital than in European democracies.
A core purpose of constitutionalism is to place legal restrictions on the power of government, thus protecting the rights of its citizens from infringement by the government. Constitutionalism also protects the minority from being overpowered by the majority, especially in those cases where a majority may seek to infringe on the rights of the minority. In the U.S., constitutionalism has also led to the strong use of judicial action, in which individual citizens can use the courts as a means of asserting rights and interests.
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