Americans historically have been reluctant to grant government too much power and have often been suspicious of politicians, but they have also turned to government for assistance in times of need and have strongly supported the government in periods of war.
Political efficacy is the belief that citizens can affect what government does. In recent decades, the public’s trust in government has declined. As public distrust of government has increased, so has public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance.
Americans today are less likely to think that they can influence what the government does. This view has led to increased apathy and cynicism among the citizenry.
Citizenship: Knowledge and Participation
Informed and active membership in a political community is the basis for citizenship. Citizens require political knowledge to be aware of their interests in a political dispute, to identify the best ways of acting on their interests, and to know what political action can and cannot achieve. However, today many Americans have significant gaps in their political knowledge.
Government is the term used to describe the formal institutions through which a land and its people are ruled. Governments vary in their structure, in their size, and in the way they operate.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, two important changes began to take place in the governance of some Western nations: governments began to acknowledge formal limits on their power, and governments began to give citizens a formal voice in politics through the vote.
As Harold Lasswell, a famous political scientist, put it, politics is the struggle over “who gets what, when, how.” The term politics refers to conflicts and struggles over the leadership, structure, and policies of governments.
Political participation can take many forms: the vote, group activities, and even direct action, such as violent opposition or civil disobedience.
Who Are Americans?
As the American population has grown it has become more diverse. In the early years of the Republic, the majority of Americans were European settlers, mainly from northern Europe. One in five Americans was of African origin, the vast majority of whom had been brought to the United States against their will to work as slaves. There was also an unknown number of Indians, the original inhabitants of the land, who were not initially counted by the Census.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, a large wave of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and later from Southern and Eastern Europe changed the demographic profile of the United States. As the population of foreign-born residents reached 14.7 percent in 1910, a movement to limit immigration gained ground. After World War I, Congress placed sharp limits on immigration. It also established the National Origins Quota System, designed to limit the numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.
From the start, the American government used racial and ethnic criteria to draw boundaries around the American population. Until 1870, nonwhites could not become naturalized citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 outlawed the entry of Chinese laborers to the United States, a restriction that was not reversed until 1943.
In 1965, Congress opened the doors to immigrants once again. At the same time, it greatly expanded the number of immigrants who could come from Asia and Latin America. The American population has become much more diverse as a result. European Americans accounted for only two-thirds of the population in 2008. The African American population stood at 12.2 percent, and, reflecting the new immigration, Hispanics accounted for close to 15 percent, with Asian Americans at 4 percent of the American population. In 2005, 12 percent of the population was foreign-born. A small percentage of the population now identifies itself as of “two or more races.” The biracial category points toward a future in which the traditional labels of racial identification may be blurring.
Thinking Critically about American Political Culture
Three important political values in American politics are liberty, equality, and democracy. Liberty means personal and economic freedom, both of which are closely linked to the idea of limited government. Most Americans share the ideal of equality of opportunity, the notion that each person should be given a fair chance to use his or her talents to reach their fullest potential. In a democracy, power ultimately comes from the people, an idea known as popular sovereignty.
At times in American history there have been large gaps between the ideals embodied in Americans’ core values and the practice of American government.
Many of the important dilemmas of American politics revolve around conflicts over prioritizing and applying fundamental political values. One such conflict involves the ideals of liberty and equality. Over time, efforts to promote equality may threaten liberty.
The Founding and the Constitution
The First Founding: Interests and Conflicts
The American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution were outgrowths and expressions of a struggle among economic and political forces within the colonies.
In an effort to alleviate financial problems, including considerable debt, the British government sought to raise revenue by taxing its North American colonies. This energized New England merchants and southern planters, who then organized colonial resistance.
Colonial resistance set in motion a cycle of provocation and reaction that resulted in the First Continental Congress and eventually the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence was an attempt to identify and articulate a history and set of principles that might help to forge national unity.
The colonies established the Articles of Confederation. The first goal of the Articles was to limit the powers of the central government. Under the Articles, the central government was based entirely in Congress, yet Congress had little power. The relationship between the national government and the states was called a confederation, a system of government in which states retain sovereign authority except for the powers expressly delegated to the national government.
The Second Founding: From Compromise to Constitution
Concern over America’s precarious position in the international community coupled with domestic concern that “radical forces” had too much influence in Congress and in state governments led to the Annapolis Convention in 1786. Delegates from only five states attended, so nothing substantive could be accomplished.
Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts provided critics of the Articles of Confederation with the evidence they needed to push for constitutional revision.
Recognizing fundamental flaws in the Articles, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention abandoned the plan to revise the Articles and committed themselves to a second founding—a second, and ultimately successful, attempt to create a legitimate and effective national system of government.
Conflict between large and small states over the issue of representation in Congress led to the Great Compromise, which created a bicameral legislature based on two different principles of representation.
The Three-fifths Compromise addressed the question of slavery by apportioning the seats in the House of Representatives according to a population in which five slaves would count as three persons.
The new government was to be strong enough to defend the nation’s interests internationally, promote commerce and protect property, and prevent the threat posed by “excessive democracy.”
The House of Representatives was designed to be directly responsible to the people to encourage popular consent for the Constitution. The Senate was designed to guard against the potential for excessive democracy in the House.
The Constitution grants Congress important and influential powers, but any power not specifically enumerated in its text is reserved specifically to the states.
The framers hoped to create a presidency with energy—a president who would be capable of timely and decisive action to deal with public issues and problems.
The establishment of the Supreme Court reflected the framers’ preoccupations with nationalizing governmental power and checking radical democratic impulses while guarding against potential interference with liberty and property from the new national government itself.
Various provisions in the Constitution addressed the framers’ concern with national unity and power. Such provisions included clauses promoting reciprocity among states.
Procedures for amending the Constitution are provided in Article V. These procedures are so difficult that amendments are quite rare in American history.
To guard against possible misuse of power by the national government, the framers incorporated into the Constitution the principles of the separation of powers and federalism, as well as a Bill of Rights.
The separation of powers was based on Montesquieu’s theory that power must be used to balance power.
Although the framers’ move to federalism was a step toward greater centralization of national government power, they retained state power by devising a system of two sovereigns—the states and the central government.
The Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791 as the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
The Fight for Ratification
The struggle for ratification was carried out in thirteen separate campaigns—one in each state.
The Federalists supported the Constitution and a stronger national government. The Antifederalists, on the other hand, preferred a more decentralized system of government and fought against ratification.
Federalists and Antifederalists had differing views regarding issues such as representation and the prevention of tyranny.
Antifederalist criticisms helped to shape the Constitution and the national government, but it was the Federalist vision of America that triumphed.
The Citizen’s Role and the Changing Constitution
Provisions for amending the Constitution, incorporated into Article V, have proved to be difficult criteria to meet. Relatively few amendments have been made to the Constitution.
Most of the amendments to the Constitution deal with the structure or composition of the government.
As the Supreme Court reviews cases, it interprets the meaning of the Constitution and its amendments.
Thinking Critically about Liberty, Equality, and Democracy
The Constitution’s framers placed individual liberty ahead of all other political values. But by emphasizing liberty, the framers virtually guaranteed that democracy and equality would evolve in the United States.