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Chapter 1 Vocabulary
- common goods
goods that all people may use but that are of limited supply
a form of government where political power rests in the hands of the people
the beliefs and ideals that help to shape political opinion and eventually policy
- intense preferences
beliefs and preferences based on strong feelings regarding an issue that someone adheres to over time
- latent preferences
beliefs and preferences people are not deeply committed to and that change over time
- majority rule
a fundamental principle of democracy; the majority should have the power to make decisions binding upon the whole
- minority rights
protections for those who are not part of the majority
a form of government where one ruler, usually a hereditary one, holds political power
a form of government where a handful of elite society members hold political power
strong support, or even blind allegiance, for a particular political party
- pluralist theory
claims political power rests in the hands of groups of people
- political power
influence over a government’s institutions, leadership, or policies
the process by which we decide how resources will be allocated and which policies government will pursue
- private goods
goods provided by private businesses that can be used only by those who pay for them
- public goods
goods provided by government that anyone can use and that are available to all without charge
- representative democracy
a form of government where voters elect representatives to make decisions and pass laws on behalf of all the people instead of allowing people to vote directly on laws
- social capital
connections with others and the willingness to interact and aid them
- toll good
a good that is available to many people but is used only by those who can pay the price to do so
a form of government where government is all-powerful and citizens have no rights
Chapter 1 Outline
1.1 What is Government?
1.2 Who Governs? Elitism, Pluralism, and Trade-offs
1.3 Engagement in a Democracy
Since its founding, the United States has relied on citizen participation to govern at the local, state, and national levels. This civic engagement ensures that representative democracy will continue to flourish and that people will continue to influence their government. The right of citizens to participate in government is an critical feature of representative-democracy – and over the centuries many Americans have fought to acquire and then to defend this right. During the American Revolution (1775–1783), British colonists fought for the right to govern themselves. In the early nineteenth century, agitated citizens called for the removal of property requirements for voting so poor men could participate in government just as wealthy men could. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women, African Americans, Native Americans, and many other groups fought for the right to vote and hold office in our Constitutional Republic.
The poster shown above, created during World War II, depicts voting as an important part of the fight to keep the United States free. The purpose of voting and other forms of political engagement is to ensure that government serves the people, and not the other way around. But what does government do to serve the people? What different forms of government exist? How do they differ? How can citizens best engage with and participate in the crucial process of governing the nation? This chapter seeks to answer these questions.
1.1 What is Government?
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain what government is and what it does
- Identify the type of government in the United States and compare it to other forms of government
Government affects all aspects of people’s lives. What we eat, where and how we can obtain an education, what kind of education we receive, whether we can homeschool our children, how much in taxes we must pay, how our tax money is spent, who we can marry, how much of our own money we can keep, what we do in our free time, and whether or not we can exercise our natural liberties is all affected or controlled by our government. Americans are often unaware of the pervasiveness of government in their everyday lives, and many are unsure precisely what it does.
In this section we will look at what government is, what it does, and how the government of the United States differs from other kinds of governments.
The word govern comes from the Latin gubernare, meaning to direct, rule, guide, or govern.
The original word was Greek (kybernan) meaning to steer a ship.
The term government describes the means by which a society organizes itself and allocates (hands out) or is forced to allocate authority in order to accomplish societal goals and provide benefits that the society as a whole requires or demands. Among the goals that governments around the world seek to accomplish are economic prosperity, security & integrity of national borders, and the safety and well-being of citizens and/or their leaders. Governments also should provide benefits for their citizens. The type of benefits provided differ according to the country and their specific type of governmental system, but governments commonly provide such things as defense, education, health care, and an infrastructure for transportation. The term politics refers to the process of gaining and exercising control within a government for the purpose of setting and achieving particular goals, especially those related to the division of resources within a nation.
The word politic comes from the Greek politikos, meaning pertaining to the administration of the state and public life. The Greek word polites means citizen.
Sometimes governmental systems are confused with economic systems. This is because certain types of political philosophy or governmental organization are closely related to, or develop within, certain types of economic systems. For example, the economic system of capitalism in Western Europe and North America developed at roughly the same time as ideas about democratic republics, self-government, and natural rights. During that period, the idea of personal freedoms and individual liberty became an important concept. It is this concept on which America is based and governed to this day.
According to John Locke, an English political philosopher of the seventeenth century, all people have natural rights to life, liberty, and property. From this came the idea that people were therefore free to consent to being governed but that the power flowed from the people up, not from the government down. In the eighteenth century, in Great Britain’s North American colonies, and later in France, this concept developed into the idea that people should govern themselves through elected representatives and not a king or autocratic potentate; only those representatives chosen by the people had the right to make laws to govern the people.
Similarly, Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher who was born nineteen years after Locke’s death, believed that all people should be free to acquire property in any way that they wished. Instead of being controlled by government, business, and industry, Smith argued, people should be allowed to operate as they wish and keep the proceeds of their own labors. Competition would ensure that prices remained low and faulty goods disappeared from the market. In this way, businesses would reap profits, consumers would have their needs satisfied, and society as a whole would prosper. Smith discussed these ideas, which formed the basis for industrial capitalism, in his book The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, the same year that the Declaration of Independence was written.
Representative government and capitalism developed together in the United States, and many Americans tend to equate democracy, a political system in which people govern themselves, with capitalism. A democratic republic form of government promotes individualism and the freedom to act as one chooses instead of being controlled, for good or bad, by government. Capitalism, in turn, relies on individualism. At the same time, successful capitalists prefer political systems over which they can exert at least some influence in order to maintain their own liberty.
Socialism, on the other hand, is a much different type of economic system. In socialist societies, the physical means of generating wealth, such as factories, large farms, and banks, are owned by the government and not by private individuals. The government, instead of the people themselves, accumulates almost all of the wealth and then chooses to redistribute money to citizens as the government itself sees fit. This is done primarily in the form of creating and funding social programs that provide such things as free or inexpensive health care, education, childcare and more.
In socialist countries, the government also usually owns and controls utilities such as electricity, transportation systems like airlines and railroads, and telecommunications systems. In many if not most socialist countries the government is an oligarchy where only members of a certain political party or ruling elite can actually participate in their government. For example, in China, the government is run by members of the Chinese Communist Party. Socialist and Communist governments by their very nature must maintain much tighter controls of individuals and companies in order to remain in power. History shows that most socialist governments at some point become oppressive if not tyrannical in order to maintain their status quo.
The word oligarchy comes from the Greek oligarkhia, meaning government by the few.
An ancient example of an oligarchy are Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta. They were ruled by groups of rich men who shared power like a king.
In the United States, the elected government works closely together with our capitalist economic system. The interconnectedness of the two affects the way in which goods and services are distributed. The market provides many goods and services needed by Americans. For example, food, clothing, and housing are provided in ample supply by private businesses that earn a profit in return. These goods and services are known as private goods. People can purchase what they need in the quantity in which they need it.
An example of private goods is food. You can buy food from a fast-food restaurant, or you can buy the ingredients to make a meal from the grocery store.
You can’t walk into a Burger King and grab a free meal. You have to pay for it.
This, of course, is the goal. In reality, those who live in poverty cannot always afford to buy ample food and clothing to meet their needs, or the food and clothing that they can afford to buy in abundance is of inferior quality. Also, it is often difficult to find adequate housing; housing in the most desirable neighborhoods—those that have low crime rates and good schools—is often too expensive for poor or working-class (and sometimes middle-class) people to buy or rent.
Having said that, Americans as a whole generally enjoy the highest standards of living on balance than any other people-group on the planet.
Thus, the market cannot provide everything (in enough quantity or at low enough costs) to always meet everyone’s needs. Therefore, some goods are provided by the government. Such goods or services that are available to all without charge are called public goods.
Two such public goods are national security and education. It is difficult to conceive how a private business could protect the entire United States from attack. How could it build its own armies and create plans for defense and attack? Who would pay the men and women who served? Where would the intelligence come from? Due to its ability to tax, draw upon the resources of an entire nation, and compel citizen compliance via taxes and other laws, only government is capable of protecting the entire nation.
Similarly, public schools provide education for most children in the United States. Children of all religions, races and ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, and levels of academic ability can attend public schools free of charge from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. It would be impossible for private schools to provide an education for all of the nation’s children. Private schools do provide some education in the United States; however, they charge tuition, and only those parents who can afford to pay their fees (or whose children gain a scholarship) can attend these institutions. Some schools charge very high tuition, the equivalent to the tuition at a private college. If private schools were the only educational institutions, most poor and working-class children and many middle-class children would be uneducated. Private schooling is a type of good called a toll good.
Toll goods are available to many people, and many people can make use of them, but only if they can pay the price. They occupy a middle ground between public and private goods. All parents may send their children to public schools in the United States. They can choose to send their children to a private school, but the private school will charge them. On the other hand, public schools, which are operated by the government, provide free education so all children can attend school. Therefore, everyone in the nation purportedly benefits from the publicly educated voters and workers produced by the public school system. Another distinction between public and private goods is that public goods are available to all, typically without additional charge.
Of course in a free society people can create exceptions to the above generalizations. People can and do work extra hard and lift themselves out of poverty and thus benefit from higher levels of income. Others can and do sacrifice and homeschool their children in order that they can receive what is either a better, or more customized educational experience.
SIDEBAR: An alternative to public and private school of course is homeschooling. The benefits of homeschooling are many and the parents, rather than the bureaucracy of a government agency get to determine much of the curriculum choices in order to best meet the individual needs of their students. Homeschooling requires great sacrifice in both time and money for the parents who choose to do it.
However, when they can afford to do so, parents who homeschool have the opportunity to specifically tailor the education of their children to individual needs and not to a “specific agenda”‘ or to the needs of an unattainable and ill-defined “average student” as public schools do. In many cases, a homeschool’s customized individualized education will result in a better educational outcome for the children.
There is an ongoing public policy debate as to whether government should help pay for individual family homeschooling. Homeschool parents pay taxes toward education but do not see any financial benefit from those taxes – unlike parents who send their children to public school.
Another example of a toll good is some of the national parks. Though originally conceived as a free resource, nowadays you usually must pay to access these national treasures.
What other public goods does government provide in the United States? At the federal, state, and local level, government provides stability and security, not only in the form of a military but also in the form of first responders such as police and fire departments. Government provides other valuable goods and services such as public transportation, mail service, food programs, housing, and health care for the poor. In most locations, if a house catches on fire, the fire department does not demand payment before they put the fire out. If someone breaks into a house and tries to harm the occupants, the police will try to protect them and arrest the intruder, but the police department will not request payment for services rendered under normal circumstances. The provision of these goods and services is funded by citizens paying into a general tax base.
Government also performs the important job of protecting common goods: goods that all people may use free of charge but that are of limited supply, such as fish in the lakes or clean drinking water. Because everyone can use these goods, they must be protected so a few people do not take everything that is available and leave others with nothing. Some examples of common goods, private goods, public goods, and toll goods are listed below.
LINK TO LEARNING
This federal website shares information about the many services the government provides.
FINDING A MIDDLE GROUND – Fishing Regulations
One of the many important things government does is regulate public access to common goods like natural resources. Unlike public goods, which all people may use without charge, common goods are in limited supply. If more public schools are needed, the government can build more. If more firefighters or mail carriers are needed, the government can hire them. Public lands and wildlife, however, are not goods the government can simply multiply if supply falls due to demand. Indeed, if some people take too freely from the supply of common goods, there will not be enough left for others to use.
Fish are one of the many common goods in which the government currently regulates access. It does so to ensure that certain species are not fished into extinction, thus depriving future generations of an important food source and a means to make a living. This idea is known as sustainability. Environmentalists want to set strict fishing limits on a variety of species. Commercial fishers resist these limits, claiming they are unnecessary and, if enforced, would drive them out of business. Currently, fishing limits are set by a combination of scientists, politicians, local resource managers, and groups representing the interests of fishers.
Fishing provides income, as well as food, for many Americans. However, without government restrictions on the kinds and number of fish that can be caught, the fish population would decline and certain species could become extinct. This would ultimately lead to the loss of jobs and income as well as a valuable source of nourishment. (credit: Michael L. Baird)
Should the government regulate fishing? Is it right to interfere with people’s ability to earn money today in order to protect the access of future generations to the nation’s common goods?
Besides providing stability of goods and services for all, government also creates a structure by which goods and services can be made available to the people. In the United States, people elect representatives to city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. These bodies make laws to govern their respective jurisdictions. They also pass measures to raise money, through the imposition of taxes on such things as income, property, and sales. Local, state, and national governments also draft budgets to determine how the revenue taken in will be spent for services. On the local level, funds are allotted for education, police and fire departments, and maintenance of public parks. State governments allocate money for state colleges and universities, maintenance of state roads and bridges, and wildlife management, among other priorities. On the national level, money goes to such things as defense, Social Security, pensions for veterans, maintenance of federal courts and prisons, and management of national parks. At each level, representatives elected by the people try to secure funding for things that will benefit those who live in the areas they represent. Once money has been allocated, government agencies at each level then receive funds for the purposes mentioned above and use them to provide services to the public.
Local, state, and national governments also make laws to maintain order and to attempt to ensure the efficient functioning of society, including the fair operation of the business marketplace. In the United States, for example, Congress passes laws regulating banking, and government agencies regulate such things as the amount of toxic gases that can be emitted by factories, the purity of food offered for sale, and the safety of toys and automobiles.
In this way, government checks the actions of business, something that it would not do if capitalism in the United States functioned strictly in the manner that Adam Smith believed it should…almost entirely unregulated.
If you are using Guest Hollow’s Government, Economics, and Personal Finance Curriculum, you may want to take a look at the unscheduled book called The Poison Squad about the development of the F.D.A. (Food and Drug Administration).
“By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. “Milk” might contain formaldehyde, a chemical most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by “embalmed milk” every year. Citizens–activists, journalists, scientists, and women’s groups–began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.”
Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.”
Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying “David and Goliath” tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.”
Besides providing goods to citizens and maintaining public safety, some governments also provide a means for citizens to participate in government and to make their opinions known to those in power. Western democracies like the United States, Britain, France, and others protect citizens’ critical freedoms including freedom of speech and of the press. These nations, and others in the world, also allow citizens to vote. At least three countries, including the United States, even enumerate the individual rights of their citizens to keep and bear the means by which their population may resist an out-of-control and repressive government via constitutional provisions like our own second amendment. (See DC vs Heller page 24.)
As noted earlier, politics is the process by which choices are made regarding how resources will be allocated and which economic and social policies government will be pursued. Put more simply, politics is the process of deciding who gets what and how they are to obtain it. Politics involves choosing which values government will support and which it will not.
- If government chooses to support an ideal such as individualism, it may choose to loosen regulations on business and industry or to cut taxes so that people have more money to invest in business.
- If it chooses to support an ideal such as egalitarianism, which calls for equal treatment for all and the destruction of socioeconomic inequalities, it may raise taxes in order to be able to spend more on public education, public transportation, housing for the poor, and care for the elderly.
- If, for example, the government is more concerned with national security than with individual liberty, it may authorize the tapping of people’s phones and impose restrictions what newspapers may publish as well as outlawing any means by which citizens might resist or defend themselves against the government itself.
- If liberty is more important, then government will place greater restrictions on the extent that law enforcement agencies can intrude upon citizens’ private communications or their right to be free of many types of searches and seizures as well as enforcing other civil rights. Citizen input through elections and petitioning as well as lawful documents enumerating freedoms are key in safeguarding individual liberties..
Civic engagement, or the participation that connects citizens to government, is a vital ingredient of politics. In the United States, citizens play an important role in influencing what policies are pursued, what values the government chooses to support, what initiatives are granted funding, and who gets to make the final decisions. Political engagement can take many forms: reading about politics. Listening to news reports, discussing politics, attending (or watching televised) political debates, donating money to or participating in political campaigns, handing out flyers promoting a candidate, voting, joining peaceful protest marches, speaking at public meetings, and writing letters to their elected representatives and petitioning their government for redress of grievances are all ways in which people become aware and informed and then take action to secure their personal freedoms.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF GOVERNMENT
The government of the United States can best be described as a republic, or representative democracy. A pure democracy is a government in which political power—influence over institutions, leaders, and policies—rests in the hands of the majority of the people. In a representative democracy, however, the citizens do not govern directly. Instead, they elect representatives to make decisions and pass laws on behalf of all the people.
The word democracy comes from the Greek demos, meaning common people, and kratia meaning rule, power, or authority.
Thus, U.S. citizens have the opportunity to vote people who agree with them into many different positions of power including members of Congress, the president and vice president, members of state legislatures, governors, mayors, members of town councils and school boards who are expected act on the citizens behalf. Most representative governments favor majority rule: the opinions of the majority of the people have more influence with government than those of the minority. If the number of elected representatives who favor a proposed law is greater than those who oppose it, the law generally will be enacted.
However, in representative governments like the United States, minority rights are also protected: people cannot be deprived of certain rights even if an overwhelming number of people think that they should be. This is why ‘pure democracy’ is sometimes called ‘rule by the mob’.
For example, let’s say American society decided that atheists, (people who do not believe that God exists), were all evil and should be imprisoned or expelled from the country. Even though atheists arguably only account for about seven percent of the population, they would be protected due to minority rights secured by the rule of law. Even though the number of Americans who believe in God far outweighs the number who do not, the minority is still protected by the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, and supporting laws.
Put another way: If there are two wolves and one sheep voting on what is for dinner, what do you believe the conclusion would be? How does one protect the sheep’s rights? The answer is a that a constitutional republic governed by rule of law via a representative democracy is the best way to insure the minority (sheep) retains the right to survive and to thrive in American society despite his or her ‘non-conformance’ to the desires of the ‘mob majority’.
Because decisions are made or at least highly influenced through majority rule, making your opinions known by voting only for those men and women who will uphold the Constitution and fairly make decisions that affect all of us is critical. Voting and influential forms of civic engagement are every citizen’s duty in a constitutional representative democracy such as that of the United States.
In a direct democracy, unlike representative democracy, people participate directly in making government decisions. For example, in ancient Athens, the most famous example of a direct democracy, all male citizens were allowed to attend meetings of the Assembly. Here they debated and voted for or against all proposed laws.
Although neither the federal government nor any of the state governments function as a direct democracy—the Constitution requires the national and state governments to be representative forms of government—some elements of direct democracy do exist in the United States. While residents of the different states vote for people to represent them and to make laws in their behalf in the state legislatures and in Congress, people may still directly vote on certain issues. For example, a referendum or proposed law might be placed on the ballot for citizens to vote on directly during state or local elections instead of leaving the matter in the hands of the state legislature. At New England town meetings, all residents are allowed to debate decisions affecting the town. Such occasions provide additional opportunities for civic engagement.
CRITICAL POINT TO UNDERSTAND: Even though there are avenues for direct citizen involvement via ballot measures and other means as described above, it is critical to understand that ANY and ALL such laws in the United States absolutely MUST not breach the rights and protections enumerated in the US Constitution no matter how overwhelming the majority might be.
Most countries now claim some form of prima-facia representative government. At the other end of the political spectrum are elite-driven forms of government. In a monarchy, one ruler, usually a hereditary ruler, holds political power. Although the power of some monarchs is limited by law, and such kings and queens often rule along with an elected legislature that makes laws for the country, this is not always the case. Many southwest Asian kingdoms, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, have absolute monarchs whose power is unrestricted. Another form of elite one-person-rule is a dictatorship. One of the better known examples would be Adolf Hitler who was originally VOTED into power by the citizenry of 1930s Germany, but became the defacto ruler of that land during World War II. Though trite, the saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” proves to be true in almost every case where it has been allowed to gain a foothold.
As discussed earlier, another nondemocratic form of government is oligarchy, in which a handful of elite members of society, often those who belong to a particular political party, hold all political power. For example, in Cuba, as in China only members of the Communist Party are allowed to vote or hold public office, and the party’s most important members make all governmental decisions. Some nondemocratic societies are totalitarian in nature.
The word totalitarianism comes from the Latin totus, meaning all, the whole, or entire.
A totalitarian government has ALL the power.
Under totalitarianism, the government is more important than the citizens, and it controls all aspects of citizens’ lives. Citizens’ rights are limited, and the government does not allow political criticism or opposition. These forms of government are fairly rare today. North Korea is an example of a totalitarian government and arguably so was the former Soviet Union.
Anything that interferes with a free and open elections, including voter fraud or other forms of election rigging such as unreasonably limiting who can be on a ballot, manipulating how ballots are counted, or refusing to allow counting observation and confirmation by representative parties is at best unfair and can open a country up to potential totalitarianism.
LINK TO LEARNING
The CIA website provides information about the types of government across the world.
1.2 Who Governs? Elitism, Pluralism, and Tradeoffs
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the pluralism-elitism debate
- Explain the tradeoffs perspective on government
In the United States citizens can participate in government in many ways. The United States has many different levels and branches of government that any citizen or group might approach. Many people take this as evidence that U.S. citizens, especially as represented by competing groups, are able to influence government actions. Some political theorists, however, argue that this is not the case. They claim that only a handful of economic and political elites have any influence over government.
ELITISM VS. PLURALISM
Many Americans fear that a set of elite citizens is really in charge of government in the United States and that others have little or no influence. This belief is called the elite theory of government. In contrast to that perspective is the pluralist theory of government, which says that political power rests with competing interest groups who battle for a share influence in our government. Pluralist theorists assume that citizens who want to get involved in the system do so because of the great number of access points to government. That is, the U.S. system, with several levels and branches, has many places where people and groups can engage the government.
The foremost supporter of elite theory was C. Wright Mills. In his book, The Power Elite, Mills argued that government was controlled by a combination of business, military, and political elites. Most are highly educated, often graduating from prestigious universities.
According to elite theory, the wealthy use their power to control the nation’s economy in such a way that those below them cannot advance economically. Their wealth allows the elite to secure for themselves important positions in politics. They then use this power to make decisions and allocate resources in ways that benefit them. Politicians do the bidding of the wealthy instead of attending to the needs of ordinary people, and order is maintained by force. Indeed, those who favor government by the elite believe the elite are better fit to govern and that average citizens are content to allow them to do so.
In apparent support of the elite perspective, one-third of U.S. presidents have attended Ivy League schools, a much higher percentage than the rest of the U.S. population. All five of the most recent U.S. presidents attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. Among members of the House of Representatives, 95 percent have a bachelor’s degree, as do 100 percent of members of the Senate. Fewer than 40 percent of U.S. adults have even an associate’s degree. The majority of the men and women in Congress also engaged in either state or local politics, were businesspeople, or practiced law before being elected to Congress. Approximately 75 percent of both the Senate and the House of Representatives are male, and about 21 percent of members of Congress are minorities. The nation’s laws are made primarily by well-educated professionals and businessmen.
The makeup of Congress is important because race, sex, profession, education, and socioeconomic class can have an important effect on people’s political interests. The allocation of revenue affects the rich and the poor differently. Giving more money to public education does not benefit the wealthy as much as it does the poor, because the wealthy are more likely than the poor to send their children to private schools or to at least have the option of doing so. However, better funded public schools have the potential to potentially improve the upward mobility of members of other socioeconomic classes who have no other option than to send their children to public schools.
Currently, about 40 percent of the members of Congress are millionaires; twelve members hold over half of the Congress’s collective net worth. As of 2009, approximately 38 percent of Congress sent their children to private schools. Overall, only 11 percent of the American population did so. Therefore, a Congress dominated by millionaires who send their children to private schools is arguably more likely to believe that increased funding for public education is not a necessity. Their experience, however, does not reflect the experience of average Americans.
The question can fairly be asked however: Are the elite in these high positions simply because they are well educated or wealthy, OR did they become well educated, well positioned, and/or wealthy because they are driven internally to be elite? There are numerous examples in American politics of people who literally came from poverty or minority positions and became very powerful in the US Government. (eg: Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Abraham Lincoln, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton, Herman Cain and many others might arguably fit this mold.)
Pluralist theory rejects this approach, arguing that although there are elite members of society, they do not control government. Instead, pluralists argue, political power is distributed throughout society. Rather than resting in the hands of individuals, a variety of organized groups hold power, with some groups having more influence on certain issues than others. Thousands of interest groups exist in the United States. Approximately 70–90 percent of Americans report belonging to at least one interest group. Members of your family likely are members of a political interest group – though they may not think of themselves as such.
According to pluralist theory, people with shared interests will form groups in order to make their desires known to politicians. These groups include such entities as environmental advocates, groups for the advancement of any number of political goals or ballot initiatives, groups to protect the elderly or the environment, unions, and organizations that represent the interests of various businesses. Because most people lack the inclination, time, or expertise necessary to strategize political issues, these groups will speak for them. As groups compete with one another and find themselves in conflict regarding important issues, government policy begins to take shape. In this way, government policy is shaped from the bottom up and not from the top down, as we see in elitist theory. Robert Dahl, author of Who Governs?, was one of the first to advance the pluralist theory and argued that politicians seeking an “electoral payoff” are attentive to the concerns of politically active citizens and, through them, become acquainted with the needs of ordinary people. They will attempt to give people what they want in exchange for their votes.
LINK TO LEARNING
The Center for Responsive Politics is a non-partisan research group that provides data on who gives to whom in elections. Visit OpenSecrets.org: Center for Responsive Politics to track campaign contributions, congressional bills and committees, and interest groups and lobbyists.
THE TRADEOFFS PERSPECTIVE
Although elitists and pluralists present political influence as a tug-of-war with people at opposite ends of a rope trying to gain control of government, in reality government action and public policy are influenced by an ongoing series of tradeoffs or compromises. For instance, an action that will meet the needs of large numbers of people may not be favored by the elite members of society. Giving the elite what they want may interfere with plans to help the poor. As pluralists argue, public policy is created as a result of competition among groups. In the end, the interests of both the elite and the people likely influence government action, and compromises will often attempt to please them both.
Since the framing of the U.S. Constitution, tradeoffs have been made between those who favor the supremacy of the central government and those who believe that state governments should be more powerful. Should state governments be able to respond to the desires of citizen groups by legalizing the use of marijuana? Should the national government be able to close businesses that sell marijuana even in states where it is legal? Should national government be able to tell people they must wear masks during a pandemic or is one’s own destiny a factor they alone should control? Should those who control the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) be allowed to eavesdrop on phone conversations of Americans and read their email? Should groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which protect citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, be able to prevent this?
Many of the tradeoffs made by government are about freedom of speech. The First Amendment of the Constitution gives Americans the right to publicly express their opinions on matters of concern to them; the federal government cannot interfere with this right. Because of the Fourteenth Amendment, state governments must also protect this right. At the same time, neither the federal government nor state governments can allow someone’s right to free expression to interfere with someone else’s ability to exercise his or her own rights. For example, in the United States, in some states it is legal for women to have abortions. Many people oppose this right, and often protest outside facilities that provide abortions. In 2007, the state of Massachusetts enacted a law that required protestors to stand thirty-five feet away from clinic entrances. The intention was to prevent women seeking abortions from being harassed or threatened with violence. Groups favoring abortion supported the law. Groups opposed to abortion argued that the buffer zone prevented them from speaking to women to try to persuade them not to have the procedure done. In 2014, in the case of McCullen v. Coakley, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law that created a buffer zone between protestors and clinic entrances.
Tradeoffs also occur as a result of conflict between groups representing the competing interests of citizens. Many Americans believe that the U.S. must become less dependent on foreign sources of energy. Many also would like people to have access to inexpensive sources of energy. Such people are likely to support fracking: the process of hydraulic fracturing that gives drilling companies access to natural gas trapped between layers of shale underground. Fracking produces abundant, inexpensive natural gas, a great benefit to people who live in parts of the country where it is expensive to heat homes during the winter. Fracking also creates jobs. At the same time, some people argue that fracking can result in the contamination of drinking water, air pollution, and increased risk of earthquakes. One study has even linked fracking to cancer. Thus, those who want to provide jobs and inexpensive natural gas are in conflict with those who wish to protect the natural environment and human health. Both sides are well intentioned, but they disagree over what is best for people.
Tradeoffs and compromises are especially common in the United States Congress during the process of making laws. Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives usually vote according to the concerns of people who live in their own districts. Not only does this often pit the interests of people in different parts of the country against one another, but it also frequently favors the interests of certain groups of people over the interests of others within the same state. For example, allowing oil companies to drill off the state’s coast may please those who need the jobs that will be created, but it will anger those who wish to preserve coastal lands as a refuge for wildlife and, in the event of an accident, may harm the interests of people who depend on fishing and tourism for their living.
At times, House members and senators in Congress may ignore the voters in their home states and the groups that represent them in order to follow the dictates of the leaders of the political party to which they belong. For example, a member of Congress from a state with a large elderly population may be inclined to vote in favor of legislation to increase benefits for retired people; however, his or her political party leaders, who disapprove of government spending on social programs, may demand a vote against it. The opposite can occur as well, especially in the case of a legislator soon facing re-election. With two-year terms of office, we are more likely to see House members vote against their party in favor of their constituents in hopes of getting re-elected.
Constituent: One who elects a representative
Finally, the government may attempt to resolve conflicting concerns within the nation as a whole through tradeoffs. After incidents of shootings at schools, theaters, churches, concerts, night clubs, and shopping malls, many are concerned with protecting themselves and their families from so-called ‘gun-violence’. Some groups would like to un-constitutionally ban the sale of weapons completely. Others want greater restrictions to be put in place on who can buy guns or how long people must wait between the time they enter the store to make a purchase and the time when they are actually given possession of the weapon. Others represent the interests of citizens who oppose any restrictions on the number or type of weapons Americans may own. So far, state governments have attempted to balance the demands of these groups by placing restrictions on such things as who can sell guns, where gun sales may take place, or requirements for background checks, but they have not attempted to ban gun sales altogether. For example, although federal law does not require private individuals who sell guns but do not derive most of their income from doing so to conduct background checks before selling firearms to people at gun shows, some states have passed laws requiring this.
At the federal level, there has been support in Congress to change the background checking process. Despite objections, the Fix-NICS Act passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Trump as part of an omnibus spending bill in March 2018.
(We’ll cover much more about the Bill of Rights and the the 2nd amendment in later chapters Guest Hollow’s Government, Economics, and Personal Finance Curriculum. 😉 But if you would like to learn about how this right is to be applied as decided by the Supreme Court of the United States right now, you will be well on your way to understanding the 2nd amendment by reading the following three SCOTUS decisions: Washington DC vs. Heller and Otis McDonald vs. Chicago and NYSRPA vs. Bruen These are the three landmark cases decided by the Supreme Court on this issue and thus are the absolute law of the land.)
Editor’s NOTE: Subsequent to writing the above, the US Supreme Court has decided a case called NYSRPA vs. Bruen which dealt with constitutional rights enumerated under the Second Amendment. So some of what is noted above may change or become outdated in the next few years as case-law is decided in light of this landmark case.
1.3 Engagement in a Democracy
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain the importance of citizen engagement in a democracy
- Describe the main ways Americans can influence and become engaged in government
- Discuss factors that may affect people’s willingness to become engaged in government
Participation in government matters. Although people may not get all that they want, they can achieve many goals and improve their lives through civic engagement. According to the pluralist theory, government cannot function without active participation by at least some citizens. Even if we believe the elite make political decisions, participation in government through the act of voting can potentially change who the members of the elite are.
WHY GET INVOLVED?
Are fewer people today active in politics than in the past? Political scientist Robert Putnam has argued that civic engagement is declining. Although many Americans may report belonging to political or interest groups, these groups are usually large, impersonal ones with thousands or even millions of members. People who join groups such as Amnesty International or the NRA (National Rifle Association) may share certain values and ideals with other members of the group, but they do not usually interact directly with these other members. These organizations are different from the types of groups Americans used to belong to, like church groups or bowling leagues. Although people are still interested in volunteering and working for the public good, they are more interested in either working individually or joining large organizations where they have little opportunity to interact with others. Putnam considers a number of explanations for this decline in small group membership, including increased participation by women in the workforce, a decrease in the number of marriages and an increase in divorces, and the effect of technological developments, such as the internet, that separate people by allowing them to feel connected to others without having to spend time in their presence.
Putnam argues that a decline in social capital—“the collective value of all ‘social networks’ [those whom people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”—accompanies this decline in membership in small, interactive groups. Included in social capital are such things as networks of individuals, a sense that one is part of an entity larger than oneself, concern for the collective good and a willingness to help others, and the ability to trust others and to work with them to find solutions to problems. This, in turn, has hurt people’s willingness and ability to engage in representative government. If Putnam is correct, this trend is unfortunate, because becoming active in government and community organizations is important for many reasons.
Some have countered Putnam’s thesis and argue that participation is in better shape than what he portrays. Everett Ladd shows many positive trends in social involvement in American communities that serve to soften some of the declines identified by Putnam. For example, while bowling league participation is down, soccer league participation has proliferated. April Clark examines and analyzes a wide variety of social capital data trends and disputes the original thesis of erosion. Others have suggested that technology has increased connectedness, an idea that Putnam himself has critiqued as not as deep as in-person connections.
LINK TO LEARNING
To learn more about political engagement in the United States, you can read “The Current State of Civic Engagement in America” by the Pew Research Center.
Civic engagement can increase the power of ordinary people to influence government actions. Even those without money or connections to important people can influence the policies that affect their lives and change the direction taken by government. U.S. history is filled with examples of people actively challenging the power of elites, gaining rights for themselves, and protecting their interests. For example, slavery was once legal in the United States and large sectors of the U.S. economy were dependent on forced labor. Slavery was outlawed and black people were granted citizenship because of the actions of abolitionists. Although some abolitionists were wealthy white men, most were ordinary people, including men and women of both races. White women and black people were able to actively assist in the campaign to end slavery despite the fact that, with few exceptions, they were unable to vote.
Similarly, the right to vote once belonged solely to white men until the Fifteenth Amendment gave the vote to African American men. The Nineteenth Amendment extended the vote to include women, and the Voting Rights Act made exercising the right to vote a reality for African American men and women in the South.
None of this would have happened, however, without the efforts of people who marched in protest, participated in boycotts, delivered speeches, wrote letters to politicians, and sometimes risked arrest in order to be heard. The tactics used to influence the government and effect change by abolitionists and members of the women’s rights and African American civil rights movements are still used by many activists today.
The rights gained by these activists and others have dramatically improved the quality of life for many in the United States. Civil rights legislation did not focus solely on the right to vote or to hold public office; it also integrated schools and public accommodations, prohibited discrimination in housing and employment, and increased access to higher education. Activists for women’s rights fought for and won better wages and access to credit.
Peaceful activism can improve people’s lives in less dramatic ways as well. Working to make cities clean up vacant lots, demolish or rehabilitate abandoned buildings, build more parks and playgrounds, pass ordinances requiring people to curb their dogs, and ban late-night noise greatly affects people’s quality of life. The actions of individual Americans can make their own lives better and improve their neighbors’ lives as well.
Representative democracy cannot work effectively without the participation of informed citizens, however. Engaged citizens should familiarize themselves with the most important issues confronting the country and with the plans different candidates have for dealing with those issues. Then they can vote for the candidates they believe will be best suited to the job, and they may join others to raise funds or campaign for those they support.
Through these efforts and others, engaged citizens let their representatives know what they want and thus influence policy. Only then can government actions accurately reflect the interests and concerns of the majority. Even people who believe the “elite rule model” of government should recognize that it is easier for elites to abuse their power if ordinary people make no effort to participate in public life.
PATHWAYS TO ENGAGEMENT
People can become civically engaged in many ways, either as individuals or as members of groups. Some forms of individual engagement require very little effort. One of the simplest ways is to stay informed about debates and political events in the community, in the state, and in the nation. Awareness is the first step toward engagement. News is available from a variety of sources, such as local newspapers, national news shows, and reputable internet sites. Become aware of the current issues with news sources, in that many of them are severely biased or agenda driven. Be sure to research issues and sources!
Another route for individual engagement is to write or email political representatives. Filing a complaint with the city council is another avenue of engagement. City officials cannot fix problems if they do not know anything is wrong to begin with or if they do not believe anyone cares. Responding to official public opinion polls, actively contributing to a political blog, or starting a new blog or social media channel of your own are all examples of different ways to be involved.
One of the most critical ways to engage with government as an individual is to vote. Individual votes do matter. City council members, mayors, state legislators, governors, and members of Congress are all chosen by popular vote.
SIDEBAR: Because the presidency of the United States is a national office, and in order to be fair to all of the citizens of the U.S. including those living in even the tiniest of states, the President of the United States is not chosen directly by popular vote but by a group of electors voted on by citizens in each state. This is called the Electoral College. These elected representatives meet to cast their votes for the U.S. presidency. The votes of individuals in their home states determine how the Electoral College ultimately votes.
Registering to vote beforehand is necessary in most states, but it is usually a simple process, and many states allow registration online. (We discuss voter registration and voter turnout in more depth in a later chapter.)
Voting, however, is not the only important form of political engagement in which people may participate. Individuals can engage by attending political rallies, donating money to campaigns, and starting or signing petitions. Starting a petition of one’s own is relatively easy, and some websites that encourage people to become involved in political activism provide petitions that can be circulated through email. Taking part in a poll or survey is another simple way to make your voice heard.
MILESTONE – Votes for Eighteen-Year-Olds
Young Americans are often reluctant to become involved in traditional forms of political activity. They may believe politicians are not interested in what they have to say, or they may feel their votes do not matter. However, this attitude has not always prevailed. Indeed, today’s college students can vote because of the activism of college students in the 1960s. Most states at that time required citizens to be twenty-one years of age before they could vote in national elections. This angered many young people, especially young men who could be drafted to fight the war in Vietnam. They argued that it was unfair to deny eighteen-year-olds the right to vote for the people who had the power to send them to war. As a result, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age in national elections to eighteen, was ratified by the states and went into effect in 1971.
Are you engaged in or at least informed about actions of the federal or local government? Will you register to vote? How would you feel if you were not allowed to vote until age twenty-one?
Some people prefer to work with groups when participating in political activities or performing service to the community. Group activities can be as simple as hosting a book club or discussion group to talk about politics. Coffee Party USA provides an online forum for people from a variety of political perspectives to discuss issues that are of concern to them. People who wish to be more active often work for political campaigns. Engaging in fundraising efforts, handing out bumper stickers and campaign buttons, helping people register to vote, and driving voters to the polls on Election Day are all important activities that anyone can engage in. Individual citizens can also join interest groups that promote the causes they favor.
GET CONNECTED! Getting Involved
In many ways, the pluralists were right. There is plenty of room for average citizens to become active in government, whether it is through a city council subcommittee or another type of local organization. Civic organizations always need volunteers, sometimes for only a short while and sometimes for much longer.
Political activity is not the only form of community engagement, and many people today seek other opportunities to become involved. This is particularly true of young Americans. Although young people today often shy away from participating in traditional political activities, they do express deep concern for their communities and seek out volunteer opportunities.
Although they may not realize it, becoming active in the community and engaging in a wide variety of community-based volunteer efforts are important forms of civic engagement and can help government do its job or take up the slack where it falls short. The demands on government are great, and funds do not always exist to enable it to undertake all the projects it may deem necessary.
Even when there are sufficient funds, politicians have differing ideas regarding how much government should do and what areas it should be active in. Volunteers and community organizations help fill the gaps. Examples of community action include tending a community garden, building a house for Habitat for Humanity, cleaning up trash in a vacant lot, volunteering to deliver meals to the elderly, and tutoring children in after-school programs.
Some people prefer even more active and direct forms of engagement such as peaceful protest marches and demonstrations, including civil disobedience. Such tactics were used successfully in the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and remain effective today. Other tactics, such as boycotting businesses of whose policies the activists disapproved, are also still common. Along with boycotts, there are now “buycotts,” in which consumers purchase goods and services from companies that give extensively to charity or help the communities in which they are located.
INSIDER PERSPECTIVE – Ritchie Torres
In 2013, at the age of twenty-five, Ritchie Torres became the youngest member of the New York City Council. Torres became interested in social justice early in his life. He was raised in poverty in the Bronx by his mother and a stepfather who left the family when Torres was twelve. The mold in his family’s public housing apartment caused him to suffer from asthma as a child, and he spent time in the hospital on more than one occasion because of it. His mother’s complaints to the New York City Housing Authority were largely ignored. In high school, Torres decided to become a lawyer, participated in mock trials, and met a young and aspiring local politician named James Vacca. After graduation, he volunteered to campaign for Vacca in his run for a seat on the City Council. After Vacca was elected, he hired Torres to serve as his housing director to reach out to the community on Vacca’s behalf. While doing so, Torres took pictures of the poor conditions in public housing and collected complaints from residents. In 2013, Torres ran for a seat on the City Council himself and won. He remains committed to improving housing for the poor.
FACTORS OF ENGAGEMENT
Many Americans engage in political activity on a regular basis. A survey conducted in 2018 revealed that almost 70 percent of American adults had participated in some type of political action in the past five years. These activities included largely non-personal activities that did not require a great deal of interaction with others, such as signing petitions, expressing opinions on social media, contacting elected representatives, or contributing money to campaigns. During the same period, approximately 30 percent of people attended a local government meeting or a political rally or event, while 16 percent worked or volunteered for a campaign.
Americans aged 18–29 were less likely to become involved in traditional forms of political activity than older Americans. A 2018 poll of more than two thousand young adults by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics revealed that only 24 percent claimed to be politically engaged, and fewer than 35 percent said that they had voted in a primary. Only 9 percent said that they had gone to a political demonstration, rally, or march. However, in the 2018 midterm elections, an estimated 31 percent of Americans under thirty turned out to vote, the highest level of young adult engagement in decades.
One reason for low youth voter turnout in the past was that younger Americans did not feel that candidates generally tackle issues relevant to their lives. When younger voters cannot relate to the issues put forth in a campaign, such as entitlements for seniors, they lose interest. This dynamic changed somewhat in 2016 as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders made college costs an issue, even promising free college tuition for undergraduates at public institutions. Senator Sanders enjoyed intense support on college campuses across the United States. After his nomination campaign failed, this young voter enthusiasm faded.
While some Americans disapprove of partisanship in general, others are put off by the ideology—established beliefs and ideals that help shape political policy—of one of the major parties.
Democrats tend to favor abortion and gay marriage and are usually in favor of more strict gun control. Republicans are usually against abortion, believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, and understand that the constitution says (via the 2nd amendment) that gun ownership is an individual right that may not be infringed.
The word infringe comes from the Latin infringere, meaning to damage or break.
If you infringe on something, you are acting to limit or undermine it.
The likelihood that people will become active in politics also depends not only on age but on such factors as wealth and education. In a 2006 poll, the percentage of people who reported that they were regular voters grew as levels of income and education increased. Political involvement also depends on how strongly people feel about current political issues. Unfortunately, public opinion polls, which politicians may rely on when formulating policy or deciding how to vote on issues, capture only people’s latent preferences or beliefs.
The word latent comes from the Latin latere, meaning to be concealed or hidden.
In biology, latent means to lie dormant or hidden until the right circumstances for development, like the bud of a flower. That can help you remember the meaning of the word when applied to government. Think of how a bud changes. Latent preferences can also change over time.
Latent preferences are not deeply held and do not remain the same over time. They may not even represent a person’s true feelings, since they may be formed on the spot when someone is asked a question about which he or she has no real opinion. Indeed, voting itself may reflect merely a latent preference because even people who do not feel strongly about a particular political candidate or issue vote.
On the other hand, intense preferences are based on strong feelings regarding an issue that someone adheres to over time. People with intense preferences tend to become more engaged in politics; they are more likely to donate time and money to campaigns or to attend political rallies. The more money that one has and the more highly educated one is, the more likely that he or she will form intense preferences and take political action.
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1 thought on “Chapter 1: American Government and Civic Engagement & Introduction”
very good information