1 American Government

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American Government
Chapter Overview

Politics and government matter—that is the single most important message of this book. By emphasizing the historical continuity in U.S. politics, O’Connor’s text helps students see beyond the headlines and contemporary debates to understand what is really happening in politics. To that end, Chapter 1 establishes the foundation for the balance of the text by introducing questions fundamental to the study of politics and government. We begin by tracing the historical origins of American government. We then place the U.S. political system in a global context by considering alternative forms of government from around the world. We also consider the unique nature of American political culture and its importance in understanding contemporary U.S. politics. We conclude by considering Americans’ expectations of their government.

Lecture Suggestions

Trace the origins of American government.
LECTURE 1: The notion of the social contract, an agreement between a government and its citizens under which citizens cede certain freedoms to the state in exchange for the protection of others, is deeply rooted in American political thought. The founders drew their understanding of the nature, function, and limits of government from Enlightenment social contract theorists like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, the Constitution is often read as a social contract document.

  • Explain what is meant by the social contract, contrasting the three perspectives offered by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

  • Explain how the social contract theories of the Enlightenment were codified in the U.S. Constitution and how they continue to affect our lives today.

LECTURE 2: The idea of democracy was first articulated by early Greek philosophers, who understood democracy as “rule by the many.” Critics (perhaps including Thomas Jefferson) have quipped that democracy is nothing more than “mob rule.”

  • Outline the major principles inherent in democracy, including protection of individual rights, equal protection before the law, opportunities for political participation, and majority rule based on the principle of one person, one vote.

  • Be sure to consider the reasons why the founders considered and rejected Athenian notions of direct democracy, based precisely on their concern over “mob rule.”

LECTURE 3: In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison warned of the dangers of “pure democracy,” noting that such a system “can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” For Madison, in other words, the danger of direct democracy was that it provided no guarantees against abuse of the minority by the majority.

  • Explain the specific ways in which the founders sought to check the unlimited power of majority rule in direct democracy.

  • Focus in particular on the specific manifestations of limited government expressed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, including

  • the First Amendment (free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press),

  • the Fourth Amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizure),

  • and the Fifth Amendment (due process protections).

LECTURE 4: The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins with the phrase “We the People.” But who are “the People”? Trace the evolution of the notion of “the people” from the earliest inhabitants of the Americas, the indigenous peoples who likely crossed the Bering Strait more than 30,000 years ago, to the first colonists who arrived from Europe in the early 17th century, to the expansion of the franchise in the 20th century. Along the way, pay particular attention to who was excluded from “the People.”
LECTURE 5: Explain how the early experience of the colonists affected the nature of the American political system. How did the experience of the escaping political and religious oppression in Europe, the fighting of a war for liberation from England, and the experience of the American frontier shape both American political culture and the U.S. political system?

Evaluate the different types of governments countries may employ.
LECTURE 1: While students are often comfortable with the idea that the United States is a democracy, they often have more difficulty understanding the forms democracy may take.

  • Begin by outlining the central features of American democracy: principles of political equality, majority rule and minority rights, and equality before the law.

  • Contrast this with authoritarian and totalitarian systems, in which such principles are not in place.

  • Contrast direct and representative democracies as competing forms of democratic government.

  • Consider why the founders established representative democracy rather than direct democracy in the United States, as seen in the Congress (particularly the election of the U.S. Senate prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 and the use of the Electoral College to select the president).

LECTURE 2: Some countries, like the former Soviet Union, claim to be representative democracies. They even hold regular elections boasting near universal voter turnout and resounding victories for the ruling party. Obviously representative democracy requires more than just holding occasional elections.

  • Outline the major features of representative democracy, including the requirements that candidates be selected by the voters, that elections are open to competition from candidates and parties with competing ideologies, that candidates and voters have the freedom to express their own views, and that representatives are subject to regular reelection.

  • Differentiate such democratic systems with political systems that attempt to legitimate themselves through claims of democracy while masking authoritarian and antidemocratic features.

LECTURE 3: Government is the institution charged with making authoritative decisions that extend to all of society. While other institutions may make decisions that apply to specific groups, only government can make wide-ranging decisions that affect everyone. However, the ability of the state to make binding decisions depends on the legitimacy enjoyed by the state. The source of legitimacy has been a central question of interest to political scientists since the days of Machiavelli, who famously asked if it is better for a prince to be feared or loved. Differentiate between the three sources of authority outlined by Max Weber:

  • Charismatic authority, based on the personal qualities of the individual. Examples might include Adolph Hitler or Gandhi.

  • Traditional authority, in which legitimacy is established by belief in the sanctimony of immemorial traditions. Most monarchs claim traditional authority, as does the pope.

  • Legal-rational authority, which is based on the consistent performance of impersonal rules through institutions. Most contemporary democracies, and indeed the very notion of the rule of law, are rooted in legal-rational authority.


Explain the functions of American government.
LECTURE 1: Government is comprised of those institutions that make authoritative public policies for society as a whole. In the United States, four key institutions operate at the national level to make such decisions: Congress, the president, the courts, and the federal administrative agencies (the bureaucracy).

Lecture on the fundamental questions arising about government from Harold Laswell’s famous definition of politics as “who gets what, when, and how.” How should we govern? What should the government do? Include specific examples in your discussion.

LECTURE 2: Perhaps the least controversial element of government policy centers on the provision of public goods—things that everyone can share, such as clean air or national defense. Because of their nonexcludability, there is little incentive for people to pay for public goods. Consequently, the nature of public goods makes them difficult for the private sector to provide. Instead, they are often provided by the government and paid for through tax revenues.

In recent years, however, a number of alternative mechanisms have been developed to shift public goods into private goods to be provided through the market. The creation of carbon markets, for example, attempts to privatize negative externalities associated with pollution to create a cleaner environment. Similarly, the widespread use of private military contractors changes the historical role of the government in the maintenance of national defense.

Discuss the nature of public goods and the historical role of the government in providing them. Then consider alternative mechanisms for the provision of public goods.
LECTURE 3: One of the primary responsibilities of the government is to enforce laws. But what happens when the people no longer believe the government is able or willing to perform its basic functions? In recent years, the perceived failure of government in protecting the southern borders of the United States has led some groups and citizens to take the law into their own hands to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country.

  • Identify the key functions of government. Then identify ways in which government fails to live up to the expectations of some citizens in those areas.

  • Ask your students to consider what they believe are appropriate actions for citizens to take when they feel as though government is not providing essential services. This could also be accomplished as a small breakout discussion during lecture.

  • Conclude your lecture with a discussion of the ways in which expectations placed by citizens on the government may change over time.

LECTURE 4: Start by asking your students to describe their typical daily schedule. For instance, they wake at 6:00, have breakfast, get ready for school, check their e-mail, and leave the house by 7:30. They drive to school and attend classes from 8:00 to 1:00. They work from 1:30 until 6:30 and then do homework.

  • Put a good generic schedule in place.

  • Ask students to identify all the ways in which the government impacts the activities they engage in every day. For example, they can identify how the government ensures our food is safe to consume, regulates (and in many cases directly provides for) the delivery of water to our households, establishes the rules that govern who can drive, builds and maintains the roads, provides student loans and other financial aid programs that help pay for education, and establishes minimum wage and worker protection laws (OSHA) that ensure safe workplaces and fair treatment.

Although students sometimes require prompting, once they get rolling they are often surprised by the vast number of ways we interact, often in very hidden ways, with the government every day.

Describe American political culture and identify the basic tenets of American democracy.
LECTURE 1: American students are not always able to place the United States in the context of other countries around the world. Yet we can learn a great deal about how politics in the United States functions when we contrast U.S. politics with the politics of other countries.

  • Explain that the United States is certainly not the only country to have a population of great ethnic diversity. However, it is unusual in the fact that despite the existence of conflicts, so far the diversity in the United States has not been the source of deep cleavages that threaten to fracture society and polity. (That is, such a threat has not existed since the Civil War.) In fact, public officials of every stripe, at least publicly, bask in the glory of diversity, and both political parties make some effort to capture the major ethnic voting blocs, although with varying degrees of success.

  • Discuss how most of the other democracies in the world have had much more homogeneous populations, and their governments have not had to deal with ethnic conflict. The examples of most of Western Europe and Japan are most notable.

When diversity has grown in some of these countries, governments have had great difficulties in dealing with the social conflict between the dominant group and small but growing minorities. Again, the examples of Western Europe—the presence of Asians and West Indians in Britain, North African Arabs in France, “guest workers” from southern Europe and Turkey in Germany—come to mind.

Each of these countries has had official policies of tolerance but has had occasional outbreaks of violent group conflict. Nationalist parties dedicated to the cause of limiting immigration have attracted portions of the vote, especially in France and Germany.

  • Point out that other countries in Europe not as ethnically homogeneous have had serious problems, at times threatening territorial unity. Belgium is split between French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. Spain has an active, sometimes violent, separatist movement in the Basque-speaking areas of the North and a more peaceful but still serious movement in Catalonia (the regional government of which placed advertisements in U.S. media during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics calling Catalonia “a separate country in Spain”).

  • Describe how in Eastern Europe—which is only recently, and still not totally, democratic—a lid was placed on ethnic conflict by the old authoritarian communist governments. But with the collapse of the old order, the conflicts have surfaced and become, in some areas, very hot.

Czechoslovakia voted peacefully to split into two separate countries, one Czech, the other Slovak. Of course, the recent examples of the breakup of the old Soviet Union and Yugoslavia show the extreme cases of ethnic conflict, resulting in violent confrontations and fragmentation. The tragedy that befell Kosovo in 1999 speaks for itself.

In fact, only a few other democratic countries can point to both ethnic diversity and reasonably well-functioning polities. Australia and Switzerland readily come to mind and to lesser degrees Brazil (only recently democratic) and Canada (certainly democratic and with major success in handling its diversity in all cases except one—Quebec).

Conclude the lecture with those qualities seemingly common to the democratic countries that have handled racial and ethnic diversity well. A culture of tolerance and a system of government allowing substantial decentralization in policymaking and administration are the two most obvious qualities. Other qualities are present in some, but not all, of the countries that have had some success.
LECTURE 2: Compare and contrast elitist and pluralist approaches to the study of American politics. Elitism makes the empirical argument that only a few people are involved in government and often also makes the normative argument that this is a good thing. It does not necessarily mean that leaders exploit the rest of society.

In fact, a strong case can be made that the founders were elitists, as witnessed by their distrust of mechanisms of direct democracy. Yet despite this, many Americans express a preference for the idea of pluralism, that democracy is achieved through competition and negotiation among organized groups operating on behalf of specific interests or members.

  • Outline each approach.

  • Ask your class by show of hands to express their empirical assessment (which approach they think more accurately describes how American government functions) and their normative preference (which approach they think the United States should use).

  • Discuss the results.

LECTURE 3: Explain how the American commitments to liberty and equality were operationalized in the U.S. Constitution. Then contrast how the conception of liberty and equality expressed by the framers (largely as negative liberty, or freedom from government intervention) has evolved into more positive notions of liberty as freedom, meaning guarantees of particular social protections. You may wish to consider in particular the development of the Fourteenth Amendment as a particular manifestation of this general trend.
LECTURE 4: Consider in greater detail the tension between liberty and equality. In what ways might the two be at odds? Do recent trends toward greater economic inequality in the United States undermine the exercise of political equality? Why or why not?


Analyze the changing characteristics of the American public.
LECTURE 1: Democracy requires the active participation of citizens in making public policy. People in the United States have multiple avenues for political participation in order to try to influence policy. These include the following:

  • Electoral politics: people can vote, demonstrate and gather support for candidates, provide campaign funding and other campaign support, or run for office.

  • Lobbying: people can present information or persuasive arguments to government officials.

  • Judicial action: people can initiate litigation to pursue their goals.

  • Cultural change: this form of action involves large-scale changes in public opinion as a result of changes in contemporary values and visions.

  • Grassroots mobilization: people can encourage and mobilize other citizens to support their goals and can form groups to show widespread support for their cause.

Two other themes to consider: first, the diversity of the American public has played an important role in defining issues and determining their outcomes. Second, the long-term stability of the American political system is due to several factors, including the existence of pathways to bring about peaceful change and a shared political culture.
LECTURE 2: Describe the evolution of the American population from the early days of the republic, when just a few hundred thousand people were spread out over a relatively large area, to the current population of more than 300 million.

Consider in particular how the changing demographics of the United States have affected its political system. A particularly powerful example is the original constitutional mandate that set the number of members of the House of Representative at 1 per 30,000 people. The original House of Representatives was thus just 65 members.

Today, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives, or 1 for every 720,000 people in the country. If the original formula were still in place, the House would have more than 10,000 members!
LECTURE 3: The United States is often described as a nation of immigrants. Successive waves of immigration have greatly influenced the shape and character of American politics, from Western Europeans fleeing religious persecution in the 1600s, to slaves brought from Africa in the 1700s, to Chinese laborers arriving following the California Gold Rush in 1848, to Irish Catholics escaping the Great Potato Famine in the 1850s, to immigration from Northern and Eastern Europeans in the 1880s, to the immigration of South and Southeast Asians and Latin Americans today.

Discuss the ways in which immigrants have been greeted historically in the United States. Also, consider how U.S. politics has evolved over time in response to such immigration. You may also wish to visit the U.S. Census website (www.census.gov) and consider how demographic shifts in the United States today are likely to affect U.S. politics moving forward.

LECTURE 4: U.S. politics is often regionally divided. As recent electoral maps demonstrate, Republicans tend to garner their greatest level of support from the southern United States and from rural areas in the Midwest. Democrats, by contrast, tend to secure their support from the Northeast and the Pacific West, as well as from large urban centers.

Describe for your students the geographical divisions of U.S. politics. Consider how immigration and internal migration in the United States (for example, from the Rust Belt to the South and West) is changing the regional dynamics of U.S. politics.

LECTURE 5: The final results of the 2010 census can form the basis of a lecture that draws on the social and economic statistics to show the changes in population characteristics from 2000. Themes that could be developed include the following:

  • The aging of America: the increased median age; the large percentage of the population in the older age cohorts

  • The growth in minority population: this has several aspects, one of which is the increase in African Americans, rising to 13 percent of the total population; the black percentage of the young population (age cohorts of under 30 years) is even higher

  • The growth in the Hispanic population, due both to immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America and the natural population increase of the existing Hispanic population

  • The increase in immigration rates generally over the past decade and the patterns in countries of origin (now a much larger percentage from Latin America and substantial increases in the percentages from Asia and Africa)

  • Patterns in the geographic distribution of the population: one aspect being the relative decline of central cities and the growth of suburbs and exurbs (on the fringe of metro areas) and the decline of rural areas not in commuting proximity to metro areas

  • The growth of the Sun Belt and the relative decline of the Frost Belt (but it should be noted that these patterns are generalizations and hide the facts that some northern areas, such as New Hampshire and Maine, are growing and that growth in the Sun Belt is largely in Florida, Texas, and the metro areas of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia).

More specific detailed trends might be identified from the report of the U.S. Census, available online at the U.S. Census website (www.census.gov).

Assess the role of political ideology in shaping American politics.
LECTURE 1: Traditional democratic theory rests upon several principles that specify how a democratic government makes its decisions. Democratic theorist Robert Dahl refers to five criteria essential for an ideal democratic process: equality in voting (i.e., one person, one vote), effective participation and representation, a free press and the right of free speech, a collective right to control the government’s policy agenda, and an inclusive citizenship.

In addition, democracies must include the principle of majority rule accompanied by protection of minority rights. Students often intuitively grasp these elements of a democratic polis without necessarily being able to specify why they are necessary for democracy.

  • Outline how Dahl’s five criteria play out in the United States.

  • Differentiate between pluralist theories of politics, which argue that many centers of influence compete for power and control in the United States, and elite theories of politics, which argue that despite the prevalence of mechanisms for participation, government remains controlled in practice by a relatively small group of ruling elites.

LECTURE 2: Notions of conservatism and liberalism vary greatly between countries and have changed greatly in the United States over time. Indeed, Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, and President Barack Obama, a Democrat, at different times both argued that beloved conservative icon Ronald Reagan would not be able to win the Republican presidential primary in 2012 because of the party’s stance on social issues.

  • Explain how conservatism and liberalism vary between countries. For example, in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, the national health insurance system is embraced by the left and right alike.

  • Explain how notions of conservatism and liberalism have changed over time in the United States.

  • Differentiate between the (often confusing) meaning of liberalism used in the United States to describe someone on the left end of the political spectrum and the classical meaning of liberalism as one who embraces individual freedom and liberty.

  • Ask students to continue their exploration of the topic by having them find “conservative” and “liberal” websites after class and identify the factors that define them as such.

LECTURE 3: The idea of a “culture war” has gained influence in recent years, culminating in several books published on the topic. James Q. Wilson, for example, contends that the United States is more polarized now than at any time in its history.

The polarization of the United States is usually characterized as the division of the country into red and blue states, corresponding to Republican/conservative (red) and Democratic/liberal (blue). Maps displaying the results of the Electoral College are often colored this way.

However, so called “purple states,” states in which neither party dominates, are also exceedingly common. In an effort to reduce partisan division, in his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention, then senator Barack Obama famously asserted, “There are no red sates or blue states, just the United States.”

  • Explain the idea of the culture war and arguments for and against its existence.

  • Ask students to consider the degree to which the idea of a culture war has influenced American politics over the past decade.

LECTURE 4: Political ideology refers to the coherent set of values and beliefs people hold about politics and the role and scope of government. Usually, it is divided into a political spectrum, from left to right or liberal to conservative.

  • Outline the basic tenets of American liberalism and American conservatism.

  • Explain the four roles of political ideologies in the study of politics; namely, explanation, evaluation, orientation, and political program. Be sure to provide a breakdown of the U.S. electorate (including moderates) as well.

Characterize changes in Americans’ attitudes toward and expectations of government.
LECTURE 1: Contemporary politics often centers on the appropriate role and size of government in American society. The media usually characterize Republicans as favoring a smaller government and Democrats as favoring a larger one.

However, such a picture is often overly simplistic, as Republicans and Democrats both favor a government that performs specific functions corresponding to their party’s platform and worldview.

  • Engage in a lecture and discussion centering on the appropriate role of government in the United States and cover the following questions and information:

  • Is the scope of government currently too broad or too narrow? What does government being “too big” mean? Do students think the U.S. government is currently “too big?” Why?

  • By what criteria might we measure the size of government? By some measures government today is much smaller than it has been historically. In 1988, the year President Ronald Reagan left office, there were 3.054 million employees of the federal government. By 2010, that number had fallen to 2.776 million. (See the U.S. Office of Personnel Management at www.opm.gov/feddata/historicaltables/totalgovernmentsince1962.asp for historical figures since 1962.)

  • By other measures, the size of the government has remained relatively stable. Federal spending was 18.2 percent of gross domestic product in 1988. By 2011, it had fallen to 15.4 percent (See the Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/budget.php for historical figures from 1930 through today.)

  • Why despite evidence to the contrary do Americans hold the view that the size of the federal government has grown beyond control?

LECTURE 2: Is it ever morally justified to break a law? Democratic governments usually enjoy strong legitimacy because their right to rule is based on the consent of the governed, regularly upheld through popular elections. People who oppose a particular course of action by the state can protest, lobby their elected officials, organize a political campaign or initiative, and take other measures to affect political change.

A democratic system, in other words, provides many avenues to affect change from within the system. Yet sometimes political change can only be affected through more direct and confrontational action. The civil rights movement, for example, relied heavily on civil disobedience, breaking laws perceived to be unjust.

  • Start a lecture and discussion organized around the role of civil disobedience in a democratic political system.

  • Draw historical examples from the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century and from the African American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.

  • You could also bring such examples into the more contemporary era by exploring mechanisms for political change employed by those supporting gay rights, rights for the disabled, or the rights of immigrants to the United States.

LECTURE 3: While democratic ideals of individual equality, popular participation, and majority rule have always been strong in the United States, actual participation has declined over time. The Pew Center (http://pewresearch.org) has outstanding public survey results that illustrate the relatively low levels of political engagement.

  • Differentiate among conventional forms of political engagement (such as voting and petitioning), unconventional forms of participation (such as marches and civil disobedience) and unacceptable forms of participation (such as rioting and terrorism).

  • Explain how each fits into the idea of American democracy.

LECTURE 4: When he proposed the $77 billion economic stimulus package in 2009, President Barack Obama said, “It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe.”

Conservatives opposed the measure, arguing that government intervention in the economy resulted in less freedom and prosperity overall. Yet Americans frequently place strong demands on the government.

  • Provide your students with a graph showing the breakdown of spending in the most recent federal budget. A simple pie chart like the one based on the 2011 federal budget that follows will do.

  • Total federal spending in 2011 was $3,598 billion (against revenue of $2,303 billion). Briefly explain each category.

  • Ask student to consider if this is too much. Are we asking our government to do too many things? What should we not ask our government to do? Where should we make cuts? Who, if anyone, would provide those services instead?

Class Activities

CLASS ACTIVITY 1: What are the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in the contemporary era? What can we do about the American political system’s weaknesses that will not undermine our strengths? This could also be used for a reading and writing connection, asking students to keep a journal or blog that focuses on these questions throughout the semester.

  • This activity provides a good way to introduce the key themes addressed in the remainder of the course, focusing in particular on the nature of American democracy.

CLASS ACTIVITY 2: The provision of public goods—like national defense and the construction of roads—has long been the least controversial of the government’s basic functions. Ask your students to identify the roles of government and the concept of “public goods.” Are there other institutions, other than government, that might perform these roles and provide public goods? What are they? Is such a consideration realistic? Also, consider what other kinds of goods might be considered “public” goods, especially in an information/knowledge economy.

  • This discussion item gets students considering the role and basic functions of government.

CLASS ACTIVITY 3: The idea of direct democracy has gained traction recently as the Internet could expand the role of citizens in the development of public policy. But the framers explicitly rejected the idea of direct democracy, even when the United States was a much smaller country.

  • Why did the founders reject the idea of direct democracy? What were their primary concerns?

  • How did their proposals for representative democracy address their concerns?

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of direct democracy?

  • Do recent technological innovations make the idea of direct democracy more attractive and feasible? Would direct democracy be an improvement to the American political system? Why or why not?

  • This discussion item introduces the idea of direct democracy and highlights some of the key decisions made by the founders in shaping the American political system.

CLASS ACTIVITY 4: There is widespread support for the basic concepts of freedom and liberty in the United States. Yet there is often controversy when some rights are seen as a potential violation of other citizens’ rights.

  • Have your class identify examples of cases where they believe the exercise of some rights violates the protection of others. If they are having a hard time identifying specific examples, flag burning and the detention of terror suspects without trial can be used.

  • Assign each example to a group and ask that group to explain why the case might be rights violations as well as why they might not.

  • Have each group report their findings back to the class. Then have a discussion based around the following themes:

    • How do we balance competing rights claims?

    • How has our understanding of rights changed over time? What explains the changes you note?

  • This question encourages students to think about the basic rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution and how those rights often come into conflict.

CLASS ACTIVITY 5: Ask students to find a political cartoon relating to a recent event or issue. Daryl Cagle’s PoliticalCartoons.com website (www.politicalcartoons.com) may provide a useful starting point. Then ask students to bring their cartoon to class and discuss how the cartoon illustrates a central theme in American politics.

  • This activity provides an engaging way to think about the central themes of American politics. It also engages students who learn best through visual media.

CLASS ACTIVITY 6: Within the first days of regular classes, ask students to write a question they have about government. Collect all of the questions and “slot” each of them in the chapter concerning its answers.

  • When one of the written questions falls into the normal sequence of classroom activities, read the question, with the name of the questioner.

  • Address the answer, or even devote the entire lecture, to that individual personally. (Note: this will personalize lectures throughout the semester. It seems to be particularly effective with large introductory-format classes.)

  • More generally, student-created journals can be effective teaching and learning tools. One method is for the instructor to ask students to maintain a journal of work accomplished during the semester.

  • At the end of the semester, the journals should include both the results of assignments made in class and student-initiated research (such as newspaper clippings with key information highlighted and descriptions of Internet resources) and notes on attendance or participation in several political activities (such as attendance at political speeches and forums).

  • This activity could also be assigned through Twitter. Ask students to post questions under a hashtag unique to each topic. Then integrate these tweets into a PowerPoint presentation, creating a moment where each student’s thoughts can be aggregated and addressed and allowing students to raise questions as they do work outside of class that can then be addressed in class.

  • This activity gets students to examine the role of government in their daily lives and to think about the appropriate role and basic services provided by the state.

CLASS ACTIVITY 7: Divide students into small groups and give each group a different set of assumptions about human nature, the nature of social interaction, preferred goals of social cooperation, and the like. One group, for example, might start with the assumption that human beings are self-interested and cooperation is difficult to achieve without coercion, while another might start with the assumption that human beings naturally seek to cooperate and that violence and conflict are not inherent to human relations.

  • Have each group develop a social contract that meets the needs of humans in the context of the assumptions about human nature their group started with.

  • Ask each group to present their results to the class.

  • Conclude with a discussion of what assumptions would lead to something like the Constitution of 1787.

  • This activity encourages students to think about the assumptions that underlie the American political system and the tradeoffs embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

CLASS ACTIVITY 8: Debate over the role and size of government is central to contemporary American politics. Is the scope of government too broad, too narrow, or just about right?

  • Ask students to discuss, using contemporary examples, what is meant by government being “too big.” Have students prepare a list of items that they think constitute government that is too big and items that they think government must do.

  • Do students disagree as to what “too big” is? Why?

  • Ask students to develop a set of criteria, or values, with which they could evaluate what is “too big” about government today.

  • Have them reevaluate their list in light of the values they discuss.

  • Ask them to find the data they say are necessary to evaluate the statement and continue the conversation based on those findings.

  • The debate item provides students an opportunity to consider the appropriate role of the government and the wide scope of services people expect from the state.

CLASS ACTIVITY 9: Voter turnout in the United States has long been critiqued as abysmal. Divide the class into two groups (or multiple groups if a large class)..

  • Have the two groups debate the following proposition: The United States should pass a constitutional amendment requiring all eligible citizens to vote.

  • Be sure the discussion considers both the advantages and disadvantages of such a proposal. It may also be useful for student to prepare for the debate by examining other countries in which compulsory voting is already in place.

  • As of 2012, 23 countries had compulsory voting, though only 10 enforced the requirement. These ten are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Nauru, Peru, Singapore, and Uruguay.

  • This activity provides an opportunity to reflect on the right to vote, the idea that nonvoting may sometimes constitute a form of political participation, and offers a comparative framework within which the American political culture can be situated.

CLASS ACTIVITY 10: Screen the “In Context” video for your class. In it, Prof. Neta C. Crawford of Boston University asks where the basic principles of American government come from. In her discussion, she briefly uncovers the Greek, Roman, and Iroquois roots of our political system. She also traces the expansion of the concept of accountability since the birth of the nation. Then have your class consider the following questions:

  • How specifically did the founders ensure that the government would be accountable to the people?

  • In what ways does the system of checks and balances and separation of powers reflect the political traditions of other societies, including the Greek and Roman political systems as well as the Iroquois Confederation? What principles, if any, are unique to the American political system?

  • How has our understanding of the limits on government evolved from the founding, through the Civil War era, and into the twentieth century?

  • As an alternative, the video can be used as a lecture starter or as a prompt for a short writing assignment using the questions outlined above.

  • This activity prompts students to reflect on the basic structure of American democracy and U.S. political institutions and to consider how those structures and institutions have evolved over time.

Research Activities

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 1: Have students use the Internet to visit some websites of civic groups devoted to encouraging political participation or providing election information and some forums for political discussion such as a comments section on a news website. Ask students to write a short reflection paper in which they consider what they learned from these sites. Can the Internet improve the quality of democracy in the United States. Why?

  • This activity encourages students to connect the abstract ideas of democracy examined in the course and text with the real, everyday practice of democracy in the United States.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 2: Many people are talking about the impact of the Internet on democracy. Have students get online and find examples of the ways in which political information is available on the web. Find campaign sites, party sites, sites about political philosophy, and so on. Ask your students to write a short reflection paper addressing the following prompts:

  • Why each one is political and how it might affect our political system.

  • Which sites are reliable and why.

  • How many people have access to the web, and what are their demographics?

  • This activity provides an opportunity for students to consider how recent technological developments might affect American democracy.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 3: Have students prepare an annotated bibliography of 3 to 5 popular books published during the past decade concerned with the current American political, social, and economic scene.

  • As a second step, have them write a short essay that summarizes the tone of their bibliographical list. Is it optimistic? Pessimistic? Contradictory? How does current writing about the American future compare with the long-standing hopes and aspirations that make up the American Dream?

  • This assignment provides a good opportunity to introduce basic research skills, including scheduling a library visit and orientation for your class.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 4: Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital makes the case that Americans are increasingly disconnected from the social networks in which American democracy was based. His work continues a long tradition of analyzing civil society in the United States, a tradition that can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville’s original observations in Democracy in America.

  • Ask you students to write a review of either de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Putnam’s Bowling Alone, emphasizing the importance of civil society in the establishment and maintenance of American democracy.

  • This research assignment requires students to engage with a classic text on the American political system and to think about the relationship between social networks and political systems.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 5: One way to get students thinking about the political impact of structural factors (such as raising new issues on the political agenda, altering political dynamics, and balances of power between groups and types of people) is to have them consider how simple social changes—irrespective of individual groups, parties, or people in power—force government to act.

  • Gather some trends from actual data from the 2010 U.S. census (either via their web page at www.census.gov or from reference sources in your library) such as change in median income or age of population, percentages of racial and ethnic groups, regional population shifts, and other trends.

  • Break students into groups, each focusing on a different trend, and ask them to think about the possible implications of such trends for future political leaders (perhaps themselves).

  • You can use this exercise as the basis for a stimulating discussion or as the basis for a short group report on potential future developments in American politics.

  • This assignment gets students thinking about the effects that simple population/demographic, economic, and other changes have on politics.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 6: Satire is often one of the most powerful forms of political critique and engagement. Ask your students to watch a recent episode of a political satire show, like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (www.thedailyshow.com) or The Colbert Report (www.colbertnation.com), both of which post recent episodes on their websites. Have them identify the ways in which their critique engages the themes raised in this week’s lesson.

  • This activity requires students to apply the themes raised in this chapter to contemporary political debates through the medium of political satire.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 7: Does democracy require equality of income and wealth? Discuss why democracy might make a country more egalitarian or less egalitarian.

  • Ask your students to find data from countries around the world to defend their position. Possibilities might include the Freedom House index (www.freedomhouse.org), the Gini index of economic inequality, the proportion of women in the national legislature, the level of human development as defined by the Human Development Index (http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics) or other appropriate measures.

  • Have them write a short paper addressing the question of whether democratic countries are more egalitarian or less.

  • This activity provides students with an opportunity to develop data literacy skills while simultaneously thinking about the relationship among democracy, economic development, and inequality in a global context.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 8: In class, ask your students for the percentage of the federal budget they think is spent on the following items: foreign aid, social security, national defense, education, Medicare and Medicaid, interest on the national debt, and other programs. Have them record their estimates. Then, for homework, tell them to visit the website of the Government Printing Office (www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget) and ask them to review the summary tables at the end of the most recent federal budget to find the actual figures for each of these categories. In a short response, ask them to reflect on

    • How close they were to the actual figures

    • Where they were inaccurate and why

    • What the budget allocations say about the priorities of government in the United States

    • This assignment requires student to think about the priorities of the U.S. government as reflected through the budget and encourages students to think about the size, role, and scope of state activity.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 9: How do you measure freedom? Use the infographic from the textbook as the basis for a discussion around the following questions:

  • How do the right to free speech and the right to privacy relate to the idea of freedom in the context of American politics? How has our understanding of free speech and privacy changed over time?

  • The infographic presents two ways of measuring free speech and privacy: support for free speech rights of particular groups and the ability of the state to undertake particular actions in pursuit of a terror suspect. Do these two questions get at the heart of the freedoms presented here? How does support for free speech and individual privacy measure freedom? Is anything missing?

  • This discussion item helps to develop data literacy and encourages students to think about the nature of American political culture and the ideas of freedom and privacy.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 10: Simulation: “You Are a Candidate for Congress.” What fundamental values and beliefs shape our political processes? How do the fundamental values shared by Americans affect our political process? In the “You Are a Candidate for Congress” simulation in MyPoliSciLab, you will learn about shared expectations as you play the role of a candidate running for Congress.

  • Have your students complete the simulation and discover that American political values are grounded in the principles of the framers and live on through our political processes.

  • Have them complete the associated quiz in MyPoliSciLab.

  • As an alternative short writing assessment assignment, ask your students to complete a short response paper in which they discuss the themes raised in the simulation as they relate to the material covered in lecture and the chapter.

  • This activity encourages students to critically reflect on the basic values, beliefs, and assumptions that underlie the American political system.

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