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AP American Government and Politics

Study Guide for:

Introducing Government in America

Edwards, Chapter 1

Learning Objectives

LO1: Identify the key functions of government and explain why they


LO2: Define politics in the context of democratic government.

LO3: Assess how citizens can have an impact on public policy and how

policies can impact people.

LO4: Identify the key principles of democracy and outline theories

regarding how it works in practice and the challenges democracy

faces today.

LO5: Outline the central arguments of the debate in America over the

proper scope of government.
In addition to the learning objectives listed above be sure to review the key terms listed on p. 27 of the text.

Content Overview

Politics and government matter. By emphasizing the role of public policy, Edwards’ text helps students understand how government and politics affect their everyday lives. To that end, Chapter 1 establishes the foundation for the balance of the text by introducing questions fundamental to the study of politics, government, and public policy. We begin by exploring the key functions of government. We then turn to consider the nature of American democracy, focusing on three specific questions: What is the nature of a democratic politics? How can citizens affect policy? And conversely, how does policy affect citizens? We conclude by exploring contemporary debates over the limits of democracy and the proper role of government in the United States today.

Identify the key functions of government and explain why they matter.

  • 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).

Fundamental questions about government arise from Harold Laswell’s famous definition of politics as “who gets what, when, and how.” How should we govern?

What is the proper role of government in regard to these central economic questions??

  • 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 which economists refer to as transfer payments.

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.

What should government’s role be in the provision of public goods?

Are there alternative mechanisms for the provision of public goods?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. A quick review of the news today reveals a growing sense of alarm in Europe regarding the flood of Middle Eastern/North African Immigrants.

  • 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”).

  • 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).

Certain traits are 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.

What are the challenges to dealing with diversty in the United States?

What traits help the U.S. in this regard?

  • 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.

  • Consider what you believe are appropriate actions for citizens to take when they feel as though government is not providing essential services.

  • How and why do expectations placed by citizens on the government change over time?

  • Think about your typical daily schedule. For instance, you may wake at 6:00, have breakfast, get ready for school, check your e-mail, and leave the house by 7:30. You drive to school and attend classes from 8:00 to 3:20. Work or participate in after school activities from 3:30 until 6:30 and then do homework. .

  • Think of all the ways in which the government impacts the activities you engage in every day. For example, 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.

With all of this in mind, why do Americans have a “love/hate” relationship with government?

Define politics in the context of democratic government.

  • 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.

  • How do 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.

* Politics was famously defined by David Easton as the “authoritative allocation of value.” More succinctly, politics is often understood as the use of power. Today, the term “politics” often carries very negative connotations, as phrases like “office politics” illustrate.

Other definitions of politics might include “Who could do what to whom” (Vladimir Lenin), “Who gets what, when, and how” (Harold Lasswell), “Ethics done in public” (Bernard Crick), or “The art of finding trouble everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy” (Groucho Marx).

  • How might we define politics based on the definitions above and why politics is important.?

*While Americans are often comfortable with the idea that the United States is a democracy, they often have more difficulty understanding the forms democracy may take.

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

  • In contrast, authoritarian and totalitarian systems lack such principles.

  • Direct and representative democracies are competing forms of democratic government.

Why did 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)?
*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.”

  • The major principles inherent in democracy include 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.

Why did the founders considered and rejected Athenian notions of direct democracy, based precisely on their concern over “mob rule?”
*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.

What is your empirical assessment (which approach do you think more accurately describes how American government functions) and your normative preference (which approach do you think the United States should use).?

Assess how citizens can have an impact on public policy and how policies can impact people.
*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.
*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.

Under what conditions is civil disobedience warranted?
* 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.

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

* The policymaking system can be conceptualized as a cycle in which the interests and concerns of citizens are transmitted through linkage institutions (parties and elections, interest groups, and the media) in order to shape the government’s policy agenda.

Policymaking institutions (Congress, the presidency, the courts) in turn choose issues to address based in part on the interests expressed by citizens.

The policies that are made (laws, executive orders, regulations, and court judgments) then influence people’s daily lives, providing for a new round of possible inputs.

Identify the key principles of democracy and outline theories regarding how it works in practice and the challenges democracy faces today.
* 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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

*Some countries, Russia and other former Soviet Republics, 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.

  • The major features of representative democracy, include 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.

* 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. There are three sources of authority outlined by social scientist 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.

* 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.

  • Conventional forms of political engagement include voting and petitioning, unconventional forms of participation include marches and civil disobedience, and unacceptable forms of participation include rioting and terrorism.

How do each of the forms listed above fit into the idea of American democracy?

Outline the central arguments of the debate in America over the proper scope of government.
* 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.

  • What is the appropriate role of government in the United States?

  • Is the scope of government currently too broad or too narrow? What does government being “too big” mean?

  • 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?
* 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.”

  • In what ways and to what extent has the idea of a culture war influenced American politics over the past decade?

* 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.

  • The graph below shows the breakdown of spending in the 2011 federal budget.

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

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?
* The final results of the 2010 census reveal a number of themes that affect politics in America.

  • 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).

Class Discussion

CLASS DISCUSSION 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?
CLASS DISCUSSION 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.

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.

CLASS DISCUSSION 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?

CLASS DISCUSSION 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.

  • Identify examples of cases where you believe the exercise of some rights violates the protection of others.

    • How do we balance competing rights claims?

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

CLASS DISCUSSION 5: Small group: each group will examine a different set of assumptions about human nature, the nature of social interaction, and preferred goals of social cooperation.

Group 1: start with the assumption that human beings are self-interested and cooperation is difficult to achieve without coercion.

Group 2: start with the assumption that human beings naturally seek to cooperate and that violence and conflict are not inherent to human relations.

  • Develop a social contract that meets the needs of humans in the context of the assumptions about human nature that your group started with.

  • Present your results to the class.

what assumptions would lead to something like the Constitution of 1787.
CLASS DISCUSSION 6: 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?

  • Discuss, using contemporary examples, what is meant by government being “too big.” Present a list of items that you think constitute government that is too big and items that you think government must do.

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

  • What data are necessary to evaluate the statement?

CLASS DISCUSSION 7: Voter turnout in the United States has long been critiqued as abysmal.

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

    • consider both the advantages and disadvantages of such a proposal.

The Following will be submitted for a grade

Research Activities (choose 1)

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 1: 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. Write a short reflection paper in which you consider what you learned from these sites. Can the Internet improve the quality of democracy in the United States. Why or why not?
RESEARCH ACTIVITY 2: Many people are talking about the impact of the Internet on democracy. 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. 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?

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 3: 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, write a short essay that summarizes the tone of your 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?

Short Answer Questions (Respond to all 6)

1.What are the five major functions provided by all governments? Give one example each of how these functions are performed in the United States.

  1. What is Harold Laswell’s definition of politics?

  1. What is a single-issue group? Give an example of a single-issue group.

  1. See Figure 1.4, The Policymaking System. According to the figure, how does government policy come into being and become part of a policy agenda?

  1. Compare and contrast majority rule and minority rights. How does democracy provide for both?

  1. What is the role of wealth in pluralist theory vs. elite theory? Which do you find most convincingly portrays the reality of contemporary U.S. politics and why?

Essay Questions (Respond to all 4)
1.Describe the five principles of traditional democratic theory as understood by Robert Dahl. To what extent does the United States fit this theory?

2.What is American political culture? What is its nature? How is it construed? Is America experiencing a “culture war”? How do you know?

3.What are the five elements of the American creed? Where and in what ways are each of the five elements evidenced in contemporary American politics? Provide examples.

4.Those who are inclined to support an active role for government argue that its intervention is sometimes the only means of achieving important goals in American society; others argue that such increases in the scope of the federal government result in less freedom and prosperity. In the case of the 2009 economic stimulus package, which argument do you agree with? Why?

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