U. S. Government a look Inside By Thomas J. Byrnes Table of Contents

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U.S. Government

A Look Inside

By Thomas J. Byrnes

Table of Contents
Critical Thinking 3-19
Communicating about Sensitive Political Matters 20-24
Origins 25-31
The Federalist: Paper #51 32-36
Federalist #51 Explained 37-40
The U.S. Constitution 41-60
Notes on the Constitution 61-67
Federalism 68-72
Democracy 73-79
Rights of Citizens 80-85
Ideology 86-92
Political Parties 93-105
Polls, Programming and Campaigns 106-118
Federal Courts 119-117
Rights of Citizens in Criminal Procedures 126-134
Congress 135-146
The Presidency 147-155
Fiscal and Monetary Policy 156-162
International or Foreign Policy 163-175


In this brief chapter about critical thinking this author makes no claims that what is written in the following pages is universally accepted. There is no universally accepted definition of critical thinking and there is no generally accepted list of critical thinking attributes or characteristics. There is, however, some basic agreement among many who think and write about critical thinking regarding both the definition of critical thinking and the traits or attributes of a critical thinker. The following is an attempt to apply these concepts to the social sciences in general, and more specifically to Political Science and U.S. Government.

One can look at critical thinking from at least two perspectives. One is looking at it as a process. This involves looking at the different steps or sequences that one would take in applying critical thinking to solving a problem. The second perspective is to examine the traits, attributes or characteristics of a critical thinker. In this chapter I will start off with traits or characteristics of critical thinkers and then explain a procedure that one can use to apply critical thinking to problem solving.

In the opinion of this author there are five major attributes or qualities that critical thinkers must possess. They are intellectual humility, an attitude of skepticism and questioning, awareness of bias, intellectual courage and metacognition.

Intellectual Humility

Intellectual humility is the ability to admit that the knowledge one possesses on almost all topics is incomplete and possibly incorrect, at least in part. Critical thinkers assume that they are ignorant about many things. They understand that their knowledge and wisdom is limited by the time they live in, the people they have met, their own intelligence and many other factors. Excessive pride in one’s knowledge is often the mother of ignorance. People who think that they know answers usually don’t look for alternative explanations.

It may seem odd, but one should take pride in the ability to admit that he or she is ignorant about many topics. Wisdom (or critical thinking) begins with appreciating how little we know.

A logical extension of this line of reasoning is that little critical thinking is possible without substantial knowledge or information that is specific to the subject. One might possess a PHD in sociology but have very little knowledge of economics. This person would find it difficult to evaluate the merits of supply-side economic theory. An economist is not an expert on automobiles or raising children or U.S. policies towards China. A renowned psychologist will not be able to explain the behavior of a particular person without knowing quite a bit about this person. One cannot expect to make an informed decision about the merits of a political issue or any issue unless one has substantial information and understanding of subject involved. It is impossible to think critically about a topic that one knows little about. For this reason, social scientists place a high value on research—the cure for much ignorance. 

What happens with many of us (and probably all of us some of the time) is that we come to conclusions or opinions without taking into consideration factors that we are unaware of or haven’t fully appreciated or understood. We then start defending these opinions and become defensive when others disagree. We become defenders of positions rather than truth seekers. We become debaters rather than critical thinkers.

Critical thinkers understand that the knowledge they possess on virtually all topics in the social sciences is incomplete and therefore they are open to new ideas and are respectful of the opinions of others.


Skepticism is an intellectual trait that often comes with age and training, but it is an ability that can be improved at any age. It is the mental state that does not accept information received from most sources as being completely true or accurate. To be skeptical means to be doubtful as to whether the information one receives is completely accurate. It also means understanding that the information given to us by others is always going to be biased and incomplete to some extent.

This begins with the "knowledge" that we ourselves possess. All of us cannot possibly be completely correct about our religious beliefs, for example. Most of us have very different beliefs on many religious topics. Therefore, many of our religious beliefs are probably wrong or at least somewhat so. The same is true in politics, raising children, and our beliefs about abortion, drugs, and sexual practices. Some of us must be wrong; therefore one must be skeptical about many of the deep-seated beliefs and values we hold dear. YOU AND I ARE OFTEN WRONG. Believe it. Assume it.   

If we are often wrong, so are others. Information in newspapers and books is frequently incorrect, at least partially. This author has often found incorrect information in textbooks and in scholarly articles published in the most respected journals and newspapers. Needless to say, if one trusts what our politicians say to be the whole, unadulterated truth, then one is not a critical thinker. Parents are often wrong; "experts" who have doctorates completely disagree at times. Teachers are sometimes wrong, so are priests and ministers, doctors and lawyers, scientists and philosophers.

Simply put, just because you read it in the newspaper, saw it on CNN or heard it from your teacher, doesn’t mean it’s true. Don’t assume that the information you receive is exactly correct or aptly applied in context. This does not mean that one should doubt all information from all sources. Life is too short to question everything. If your mother tells you that she cooked dinner, you can probably be sure she did. On the other hand if she tells you that God favors Republicans or Democrats…

In the social sciences there isn’t one person or one book that has all the answers. One cannot trust a particular newspaper or news program to be right all the time. Determining to what extent one can trust particular people or sources is a life-long process.

Skepticism and questioning are logical partners. Critical thinkers are wary of easy, pat, or traditional answers and find questions that they think are unanswered. If the important questions are not asked, or are ignored, then new, creative solutions or answers will never be found. The future may well belong more to those who ask the right questions than to those who are good at finding answers.  

The key is the identification of the important questions. Once one has identified the major points of an argument or the important assumptions of a position then one can start finding the key questions. These questions can seldom be answered completely; in the social sciences, in particular, one must often be satisfied with some amount of uncertainty.

Critical thinkers question—themselves, their colleagues, experts, textbooks, accepted doctrine. They welcome questions about their own opinions. They are deliberately, consciously, open-minded. They are skeptical about most opinions, especially their own.



The third quality that a critical thinker in the social sciences must possess is the awareness that everyone is biased and prejudiced in some form. It should be understood here that the words “bias” and “prejudice” are used in the academic sense, meaning preferences, inclinations, or predispositions. To be biased simply means that we are predisposed to think in a certain way. Not all biases or prejudices are negative. For example, if a woman falls in love with an Ethiopian man named Mohamed, the way she looks at all Ethiopians and all people named Mohamed will be affected in a positive way. She will be biased by her experiences and feelings. Every experience changes how we see things. Every experience we have prejudices us in some way.

Humans can never be completely objective. We are always affected by what we have been taught, by what we have experienced. We are subjective. It doesn’t make sense to ask if opinions or observations are objective or subjective. All of our observations and those of others are to some extent subjective or biased. What we need to be asking is to what extent is the information we receive biased and in what ways?

There are many types of biases. Four important ones are self-interest, cultural bias, national bias, and personal bias. Each deserves a few words of explanation.

Self Interest

In the social sciences, and particularly in Political Science, it is axiomatic that people favor whatever is in their perceived self-interest. College students easily see the benefits of reductions in tuition or tax credits for college courses. Businesspersons tend to believe that the government places unnecessary restrictions on business activities and overtaxes private enterprise. Senior citizens generally see increases in social security payments as positive. U.S. citizens find it easy to believe that the United States is the best country in the world. Young women usually favor tough laws against sexual harassment, while business owners and male supervisors often look upon such laws with something less than total enthusiasm. Republicans and Democrats are inclined to believe positive things about their party and negative things about the other political parties. Critical thinkers need to aware of the natural bias that we humans have to favor ideas and beliefs that are in our own perceived self-interest. (Please note the word “perceived.” What we believe or perceive to be in our self-interest may in actuality not be.)

This is particularly true in how we explain our own behavior or that of loved ones. We have a natural tendency to rationalize, that is, to explain what we do in the best possible light. As a parent I tell myself at times that I shouldn’t clean up so much, it would be better for my children to learn this all-important value. Of course the more my children clean up the less I have to do. If my students are not doing well in my classes there is the tendency to blame the students. After all, if it isn’t the students’ fault then….As a manager of a youth soccer team I am frequently surprised at how great parents think their children are—versus how good I think they are. Of course I have a very realistic view of my children

The easiest way to predict the positions of political parties is to understand what is in the perceived self-interest of the people who tend to support that party. For example, Democrats tend to be more supportive of spending money on public education and most public school teachers tend to support the Democratic Party. Republicans tend to be more supportive of military spending; people in the military and military contractors tend to support the Republican Party.

In short, we tend to view things that we believe favor us in a positive light. So do others. We must examine very carefully policies or beliefs that we perceive beneficial to ourselves and do the same for other people. Generally we tend to believe what we want to believe and usually we want to believe things that favor us or make us feel better about ourselves.

Cultural Bias

All of us have been biased by the general culture that we live in. A culture is a group of deep-seated beliefs, values, and customs that have been transmitted by past generations. It is a way of thinking, of valuing. Different cultures teach distinct ways that men, women, children, mothers, fathers, and others should be treated. In the USA, men and women are viewed primarily as social and political equals-- in the 21st Century. This was not generally true during the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th Century. Today women are not considered equal to men by most people in India, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. In the main U.S. culture, monogamy is the law as well as the cultural norm. This is not so in Morocco or Iraq. The USA stresses individualism. The Japanese stress group values. Cultures teach different values relative to sexual relations, drug use, abortion, homosexuality, honesty, and many other subjects.

We have been taught to see things in certain ways by our culture. Culture is a subtle form of brainwashing, of indoctrination.  It is impossible to completely undo its effects. Often we are not aware of the powerful effects that our culture has on us until we are exposed to other cultures or ways of thinking. For example, reading these words will probably make little impression on you unless you have lived in another culture or experienced other people of different cultures for a long or intense time period.

Language is part of a culture. It is not only a vehicle for communication; each language has a view of the world inherent in it. English, for example, is a very straightforward, practical, egalitarian language. Most other languages have many different ways of saying the word “you.” There is “you” that people of inferior status use to address their social superiors or elders. There is a “you” for close friends, a “you” that should be used for professional meetings and introductions. Lovers have a special “you,” as do mothers and fathers for their children. Two Japanese or Vietnamese may need to talk with each other for a half hour before they know how to address each other. In English, we just say “you”-- simple, time saving, direct, and equal. The predominant culture in the United States tends to consider all humans as possessing the same intrinsic value. Our “you” expresses this sentiment. It is part of the way our culture looks at humans.

 Most languages think of almost all things as having a gender. For example, in Spanish, one’s nose is feminine (la nariz) while one’s foot is masculine (el pie). A house is feminine and a tree is masculine. In English, we don’t have male and female things; we just have “things.” In this sense our language objectifies “things.” Other cultures look at homes and trees, for example, as a more organic part of life.

You and I are also part of sub-cultures. We are from a specific area of the country, from a particular ethnic group or groups. We have been brought up in a certain religion or a certain non-religion. In short, there are types of people who have brought us up and whom we think of as “us.” Sub-cultures can be very different. Think of the sub-cultures of Florida —African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Haitians, Jews, Cubans, Indians, White Southerners and others. We may have the same overall culture, but our sub-cultures are often very different. This means that we think, value, and believe differently. These values and ways of thinking are put into our heads much like chefs stuff portabella mushrooms with crabmeat stuffing. We didn’t choose the culture. It was fed (given) to us.

Cultures create bias. They create preferences, prejudices, ways of thinking and believing.  Critical thinkers understand that their cultures have taught them beliefs and values that may make a lot of sense, little sense or nonsense.

Personal Bias

We are also products of a personal culture--a way of thinking that was given to us by our parents and those who raised us. Each family has its own special customs and values. For example, your parents may be strong Republicans, ardent conservationists, and fishing enthusiasts. They may have taught you the value of saving your money, treating your elders with respect and the importance of cleanliness. Or not. But your family was certainly different than mine. This means that even though we may come from the same area, be of the same ethnic group, and go to the same church, we will have somewhat different values and biases because of our family. Again, we didn’t choose our relatives and we didn’t choose the people who raised us, yet they had (have) a great influence on how we think and what we view as important.

National Bias

All of us are members of a particular country or nation-state. Usually we identify with this country, its government, and the people in it. We want to believe good things about our country and our people. They are usually considered an extension of ourselves. Countries, organizations, or individuals who seem to be opposed to our country are usually easily disliked and certainly mistrusted. Also, each country has a different media, a different history, and a different government that try to tell us how wonderful it is and how lucky we are to be from this country. Nationalism is created, learned. If you were Bolivian you would think very differently about the United States. And very differently about Bolivia.

In one of the latest military conflicts that the United States has been involved in (Iraq) France and Germany, two traditional allies, did not support the Bush administration’s actions in the United Nations. Many people in all three countries have taken their government’s position as their own and felt offended that other people and other countries took different positions. In fact, there were many negative things said and written in all three countries. 

Many politicians try to take advantage of this tendency that we have to think of nations as “us” and “them.” Critical thinkers need to be aware of this bias. It contributed to fascism and other historical disasters. The word “we” in the context of nationalism can lead to a collective closing of the mind—a blindness to the humanity and wisdom of others.


In summary there is no such thing as an “objective” person. We are all subjective. No human has an objective opinion of any social issue. We come into every situation with beliefs, values, and customs that affect our view. Generally we did not choose the biases that we have. They were created by the people who raised us, the country and area inside that country we are from. We are biased by the times we live in, by the people we encounter at school at work and in other areas. We are clearly biased by our own self-interest, although we frequently deny this. Mostly we did not choose these values or biases (remember biases can be positive, negative or somewhere in between.) We can be certain, however, that we are biased and that our biases are not the same as those of other people.

Critical thinkers are aware of these biases. In attempting to form opinions on different issues, our biases and the biases of others must be taken into account. Discovering one’s biases and trying to compensate for them is a life-long process.


Intellectual Courage

This attribute of a critical thinker is the ability to think, and then voice and act on thoughts or beliefs that are unpopular. It is the capability to challenge beliefs that one holds dearly or that one’s group or country accepts—often without question. It is the courage to question commonly accepted convictions or dogma in the face of ridicule or at the cost of great personal anguish. One of Albert Einstein's most famous quotes was this, "Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocre minds. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence."

It is often said that it takes courage to act on one’s true beliefs. While there is truth in this, it takes often takes more courage to doubt the beliefs taught by one’s parents, family, friends, and country. It is usually more difficult to choose beliefs and values than it is to act on them. Although we normally think that we chose the values and beliefs we hold dear, in truth they have usually been given to us by our family, friends, or culture. We can see very easily that others are conditioned to think in certain ways. It is much more difficult to see this in ourselves. We understand that a child born to Hindu parents, in a Hindu village in India would grow up to be a Hindu. We understand that a Palestinian child brought up in a Palestinian refugee camp by parents who hate Israelis would grow up to hate Israelis. We see that these people did little to choose their beliefs, but we think that they should try to rise above their current situations and try to see the value of other religions, other cultures. In reality these people are us. It is we who must understand how conditioned we are. Our circumstances are different from the people mentioned above, but the indoctrination was (is) there. Our task is to recognize the indoctrination and rise above it. This often means spending substantial time and energy thinking and researching; it is much easier to simply go along with what we have been taught.

In early November of 2001 there was a controversy caused by Bill Mahr, the host of a late-night television show in the United States called Politically Incorrect. Mahr said that the suicide bombers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon weren’t cowards “since they had been willing to die for a cause.” He went further saying: “...we have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it. Not cowardly...” His comments created a great deal of public anger. Because of this a number of advertisers said they would no longer have their products advertised on his show and some network affiliates of ABC refused to carry his program. It took intellectual courage on the part of some Americans to entertain the possibility that Mahr could have been correct, at least in part.

Can someone who is willing to give his or her life for a cause be a coward? They certainly were not cowards in the physical sense, since they gave up their lives consciously, voluntarily. Perhaps, though, they were cowardly in the sense that they did not question what they were taught. Possibly they did not have the courage to doubt their superiors, friends, and associates. Were they brave enough to doubt themselves? It is not possible to know the answers to these questions with total certainty, but they are the kind of questions that we must ask.

Critical thinkers cannot shy away from unpopular, uncomfortable questions. They question the actions and beliefs of their parents, their country, their friends, their teachers and themselves. They have the courage to voice their opinions even when they know they may be publicly criticized.  




Metacognition involves all the traits and skills of critical thinking. Perhaps the best short definition of it is “thinking about thinking.” Another definition would be the conscious and deliberate monitoring and regulating of one’s thinking. In the Social Sciences this is one of our ultimate goals. We want to be aware of why we are thinking in a certain way. We want to make ourselves aware of how we and others have reached conclusions or have the opinions we do. We want to pay attention to the methods we use to analyze or interpret information. In short, we wish to inform and improve our thinking by being conscious of the thinking procedures that we employ. This is metacognition.

For example, you have an opinion about the use of marijuana. Metacognition involves analyzing why you have this opinion. How is it that you came to the conclusion that marijuana should or should not be legalized? What biased you? Have you carefully researched the topic? Are you afraid to change your opinion because it would make your past statements about marijuana (and therefore you) look foolish? Were you exposed to a culture that pushed you towards this belief? Do you have direct experience to validate your beliefs? Did you take the word of some “expert” like a teacher, minister or parent?

Metacognition involves stepping outside of ourselves (figuratively, of course) and watching ourselves think. One starts with the realization that in major part most of what we believe and how we think has been determined by factors that we had little control over. Metacognition means that we pay attention to the processes that we use when we think or when we attempt to solve a problem. It means that we are aware of the methodology we are using when we try to answer important questions.

Suppose, for example, that a friend of yours calls you and tells you that she just had an argument with her boyfriend about the United States giving foreign aid to African countries to help them fight the AIDS epidemic. She thinks that we should spend the money here in the United States to solve our own problems; her boyfriend believes that the United States should greatly increase our financial assistance to the African countries that are most affected. She says she wants to come over to talk to you about this issue. She trusts your opinions and wants to know what you think. She wants you to help her examine her thinking.

As stated above, metacognition involves considering all the other traits of critical thinkers as one watches oneself think. To start off, one might use intellectual humility. What do you know about AIDS? Do you know how serious the problem is in Africa? Does what happens in Africa affect us in the USA? If so, how much and in what ways? How badly is the money needed? How likely is it that our financial assistance will do what it is supposed to do?

Being aware of your ignorance, you decide to find some information. You know your U.S. government teacher is generally knowledgeable about these topics so you decide to call him. He doesn’t have much time to talk since he is on his way to a meeting, but he briefly tells you that he is in favor of much more financial assistance and gives you his reasons. They sound like sensible reasons, but you know that your teacher is a liberal. He is clearly biased, so you are somewhat skeptical of his opinion. You therefore begin to do some research on the Internet. You find many articles written by Africans who see this as a major international issue. You find articles written by Libertarians and conservatives in the USA who recommend that Africans learn to deal with their problems and we should worry about our own. You are considering the biases of all of these people while you are reading their words.

You come to the tentative conclusion that the USA should increase financial assistance to those African countries that are most in need and to international organizations that are in the forefront of combating the AIDS epidemic. A thought then occurs to you. If the United States should contribute more money to this cause, what about you? Shouldn’t you contribute to one or more of these international organizations? You don’t have a lot of money and any contribution you make will hurt. You think why shouldn’t the government use your tax dollars to do this? Isn’t that what taxes are for?

Then you start to wonder if you are copping out. Is it easier for you to believe that tax money should be used because you don’t want to make the sacrifice? Because it will make it more difficult for you to buy the new computer you are saving for? You wonder if you have the courage to face the logical consequences of your own beliefs.

You are metacogitating.

How about that for a word? Put it into your word-processing software and watch it cogitate.


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