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The Study of American Government

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A0. Politics exists because people differ about two great questions 0

B0. Who governs: those who govern will affect us

C0. To what ends: tells how government affects our lives

D0. The text focuses on who governs and, in answering this question, looks at how the government makes decisions on a variety of issues

II0. What is political power?0

A0. Power: the ability of one person to cause another person to act in accordance with the first person’s intentions

10. May be obvious: president sends soldiers into combat

20. May be subtle: president’s junior speechwriters take a new tone when writing about a controversial issue

B0. Text’s concern: power as it is used to affect who will hold government office and how government will behave

C0. Authority: the right to use power; not all who exercise political power have authority to do so

D0. Legitimacy: what makes a law or constitution a source of right

E0. Struggles over what makes authority legitimate constitute much of U.S. history

F0. Necessary for government to be in some sense “democratic” in the United States today in order to be perceived as legitimate

III0. What is democracy? Describes at least two different political systems. (THEME B: THEORIES OF DEMOCRACY)0

A0. Direct or Participatory Democracy (Aristotelian “rule of the many”) 0

10. Fourth-century B.C.E. Greek city-state, practiced by free adult male property owners

20. New England town meeting

B0. Representative Democracy or Elitist Theory of Democracy

10. Defined by Schumpeter: acquisition of power by leaders via competitive elections

20. Justifications0

a0) Direct democracy is impractical for reasons of time, expertise, etc.

b0) The people make unwise decisions based on fleeting emotions

IV0. Is representative democracy best?0

A0. Text uses the term “democracy” to refer to representative democracy0

10. Constitution does not contain word “democracy” but “republican form of government” (meaning what we call representative democracy)

20. Representative democracy requires leadership competition if system is to work—requires meaningful choice for voters, free communication, etc.

B0. Framers favored representative democracy0

10. Government would mediate, nor mirror, popular views

20. People were viewed as lacking knowledge and susceptible to manipulation

30. Framers’ goal: to minimize the abuse of power by a tyrannical majority or by officeholders

C0. Were the framers right?

10. Do people today have more time, information, energy, interest and expertise to gather together for collective decision making?

20. Was the Framers’ faith that representative democracy would help protect minority rights and prevent corruption misplaced?

V0. How is political power distributed?

A0. Focus on actual distribution of power within American representative democracy

B0. 0Majoritarian politics0

10. Leaders constrained to follow wishes of the people very closely

20. Applies when issues are simple and clear

C0. Elitism0

10. Rule by identifiable group of persons who possess a disproportionate share of political power

20. Comes into play when circumstances do not permit majoritarian decision making

30. Theories of elite decision making

a0) Marxism: founded by Karl Marx; argues that government is merely a reflection means of production; government is controlled by the dominant social class (the capitalist class in the U.S.)

b0) Power Elite theory: founded by C. Wright Mills; argues that a power elite, composed of key corporate leaders, military leaders, and political leaders, control and are served by government; the power elite has been expanded to include media chiefs, labor union officials and many others

c0) Bureaucratic view: founded by Max Weber; argues that power is mainly in the hands of appointed officials who are able to exercise vast power when deciding how public laws are to be turned into administrative actions

d0) Pluralist view: has no single intellectual parent; argues that no single elite has monopoly on power; hence all elites must bargain and compromise while being responsive to followers

VI0. Is democracy driven by self-interest?

A0. All elite theories of politics may lead to the cynical view that politics is simply a self-seeking enterprise in which everyone is out for political gain

B0. Policy outcomes do not necessarily reflect their authors’ motives

C0. Self-interest is an incomplete guide to decision-making (de Tocqueville’s argument: Americans are more interested in justifying theory of self-interest than in honoring their own disinterested actions) 0

10. Peoples’ actions on 9/11 clearly demonstrated this

20. AFL-CIO supported civil rights in the 1960s, without personal or organizational gain

30. Many of the most important events in U.S. history (including the revolutionary war and the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s) were led by people who risked much against long odds

VII0. What explains political change0?

A0. Historical perspective makes it difficult to accept any simple explanations of political change

B0. Changes in elite and mass beliefs about what government is supposed to do have resulted in changes in the character of government

10. The growth of federal power in 1932 and the effort to cut it back beginning in 1981 have no simple explanation

20. Foreign policy has swung between isolationism and strong internationalism0

C0. Politics is about defining the public interest, not just “Who gets what?”

VIII0. The Nature of Politics 0

A0. Often we have only partial or contingent answers

B0. Must understand how preferences are formed: preferences and shared understandings are the underlying basis of most power

C0. Political power cannot be equated with laws on the books

D0. Sweeping claims are to be avoided; judgments about institutions and interests can only be made after observing a wide range of behaviors

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