Do you believe in government "by the people, for the people, and of the people"? Few Americans would say no, especially since these words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his 1863 Gettysburg Address are firmly imbedded in the American political system. Yet governments over the centuries have not always accepted this belief in popularly elected rule.
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Why do governments exist? One major reason is that they create rules. But what rules are necessary or desirable? That is open to question, and different types of governments have certainly created a wide variety of rules.
Democracies are based on "rule of law." The ancient Greeks (particularly Aristotle) valued natural law, the notion that human societies should be governed by ethical principles found in nature.
The American colonies began developing a democratic tradition during their earliest stages of development. Over 150 years later, the colonists believed their experience was great enough to refuse to recognize the British king. The first decade was rocky. The American Revolution and the domestic instability that followed prompted a call for a new type of government with a constitution to guarantee liberty. The constitution drafted in the early days of the independent American republic has endured longer than any in human history.
The great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean created a safe distance for American colonists to develop skills to govern themselves. Despite its efforts to control American trade, England could not possibly oversee the entire American coastline. Colonial merchants soon learned to operate outside British law. Finally, those who escaped religious persecution in England demanded the freedom to worship according to their faiths.
So the freedom that the American Revolution sought to preserve proved to create a government under the Articles of Confederation that could not keep law and order. But the failure of the initial experiment helped the founders to find a more perfect balance between liberty and order in the Constitution they produced in 1787.
Most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention had already risked being hanged as traitors by the British. No wonder that they worried about their states' reactions to their decision to abandon the Articles of Confederation and create a whole new document.
States cherished their new freedom from British control, and ratification of the Constitution by state legislatures was by no means certain. All thirteen states finally ratified by 1790, but only with the addition of ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, that guaranteed citizens' rights and freedoms.
Did you ever wonder why you don't need a passport to go from New York to California, but if you were to move from one state to another, you would need a new driver's license? Or why you can use the same currency in all states, but not be subject to the same speed limits? Or why you have to pay both federal and state taxes?
The founders very carefully divided powers between federal and state governments. They were responding to both the colonial aversion to the tyranny of King George III as well as the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Their careful separating and blending of state and national powers guarded against tyranny, allowed for more citizen participation in government, and provided a mechanism for incorporating new policies and programs.
Some issues have endured throughout American history. What is meant by civil liberty? Does (or should) Congress truly represent the people? Do the courts ensure that justice prevails? How much power should lie with the President?
For almost 200 years, the federal-state relationship has shifted more and more toward national supremacy. But some observers today believe that over the past twenty years, the balance of power is beginning to tilt back toward the states. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush tried to slow down the growth of the national government under the banner of "New Federalism."
Democracy, liberty, equality, and justice. These values are not very controversial. But Americans have vastly divergent viewpoints on the meanings of these core values. Does assisting the poor represent a movement toward equality, or does it create an unfair burden on the middle and upper classes? Does the permission of abortion defend the liberty of American women or endorse the ending of a human life? Do elected officials really represent the people, or are they just out for themselves? These issues and many more reflect a wide range of political attitudes that shape how Americans participate in government and politics.
Famous events from American history åÑ the movement West, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, involvement in World Wars I and II, the New Deal and the Great Society åÑ have been expressions of American political culture. Many events have questioned and answered various interpretations of American values and beliefs. But most of all, the political culture defines political attitudes, institutions, and activities that are most cherished in American political life.
Many factors åÑ including family, gender, religion, race and ethnicity, and region åÑ all contribute to American political attitudes and behavior.
Given the challenges of accurate polling of public opinion, it is amazing that polls that follow the right steps almost always make the right predictions. They've come a long way since George Gallup helped his mother-in-law win her election in 1932.
People may participate in politics in many ways. They can write their Representative or Senator, or work in for a candidate or political party. They can make presentations to their local school board or city council, or call the police to complain about the neighbor's dog. Partly because of our federalist system, people have many opportunities to participate in our democracy on federal, state, and local levels. Some forms of participation are more common than others and some citizens participate more than others, but almost everyone has a voice in government.
Voting is at the heart of democracy. A vote sends a direct message to the government about how a citizen wants to be governed. And yet, only 48.8 % of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in the 1996 presidential election. That figure represents the lowest general presidential election turnout since 1824. In off-year elections (those when the president is not running) the statistics are even worse. Why don't people vote?
Sure, state and local governments allow many opportunities to get in touch with government, but in some ways federalism just makes government all the more confusing and unapproachable. Yet a democracy depends for its very livelihood on meaningful contacts between the people and the government. How does this happen in modern America?
Today many Americans take pride in their status as "independent voters," partly because they see parties as lacking vision for the country. Since many Americans have become disenchanted by partisan politics, they avoid identification as a "loyal Democrat" or a "staunch Republican." These negative attitudes toward parties are rooted in the roles that they play in American politics.
Elections form the foundation of the modern democracy, and more elections are scheduled every year in the United States than in any other country in the world. Campaigns åÑ where candidates launch efforts to convince voters to support them åÑ precede most elections. In recent years campaigns have become longer and more expensive, sparking a demand for campaign finance reform. No one questions the need for campaigns and elections, but many people believe that the government needs to set new regulations on how candidates and parties go about the process of getting elected to public office.
So, the election is over. How can the average American remain involved in politics without waiting for the next election? One chief means of influencing the American government is by joining an interest group an organization that pressures elected officials to enact legislation favorable to its causes.
The influence of the media is increased by the fact that campaigns today have become more focused on the individual than on the party. In order to win primaries, individual candidates seek media attention to gain attention from voters. As a result, do voters hold political power, or has the media simply replaced political parties as the primary force behind candidate selection?
Not since television has an innovation had the potential to impact politics greater than the Internet. With more and more Americans getting wired, the ability to reach millions of voters will be a lure which no politician can resist.
Despite promises made by presidential candidates, the President has no direct power to pass any legislation. This very important power lies solely with the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Constitution specifically grants Congress its most important power the authority to make laws. A bill, or proposed law, only becomes a law after both the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved it in the same form. The two houses share other powers, many of which are listed in Article I, Section 8. These include the power to declare war, coin money, raise an army and navy, regulate commerce, establish rules of immigration and naturalization, and establish the federal courts and their jurisdictions.
Partisanship or fierce loyalty to one's political party generally is not admired in the United States today. Many people today call themselves independent voters, and bickering between the parties in Congress is often condemned. But parties are very important in both the House of Representatives and the Senate today. Even though political parties do not play as big a role in elections as they once did, they still provide the basic organization of leadership in Congress.
Committees help to organize the most important work of Congress considering, shaping, and passing laws to govern the nation. 8,000 or so bills go to committee annually. Fewer than 10% of those bills make it out for consideration on the floor.
A paunchy, older, silver-haired man with no facial hair wearing an ill-fitting dark suit. This is the image evoked in the minds of many Americans when they try to picture a Representative or Senator. This stereotype is actually grounded in truth, although the makeup of Congress has changed a great deal in the past few decades.
Creating legislation is what the business of Congress is all about. Ideas for laws come from many places ordinary citizens, the president, offices of the executive branch, state legislatures and governors, congressional staff, and of course the members of Congress themselves.
The presidency was created in the image of George Washington, the man everyone believed would first occupy the office. Washington's personality shaped the expectation that the President should be wise, moderate, dignified, and nonpartisan. Of course, the President could not be all-powerful like the king of England. This person had to be sensitive to treading on individual rights and liberties. But especially for the fledgling nation, strong leadership was necessary.
The 21st century dawned on a very different presidency than the one created at the end of the 1700s. Constitutional provisions limited the early presidency, although the personalities of the first three George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson shaped it into a more influential position by the early 1800s. However, throughout the 1800s until the 1930s, Congress was the dominant branch of the national government. Then, in the past seventy years or so, the balance of power has shifted dramatically, so that the executive branch currently has at least equal power to the legislative branch. How did this shift happen?
Just as the power of the presidency has grown tremendously in recent years, so have the numbers of people that surround the executive branch. George Washington began his first term with only one aide his nephew who he paid out of his own pocket.
The founders feared the masses. Cautious about granting powers to the general voting public, they created a safety valve against popular will. The American people do not technically elect their President. Electors do.
The evolving power and enlarging scope of responsibilities have made the modern presidency a very big job. Some even say that it is impossible for one person to handle it all.
Harry S Truman man of the people. John F. Kennedy bold, articulate leader with a great deal of charisma. Richard Nixon introspective President with a deep knowledge of and interest in foreign policy. Each person who has held the office of President has brought to it a unique style. Each style reflects a President's character.
A bureaucrat is someone who works in administrative capacity for the government. How important are bureaucrats and their government agencies in actually running the United States government? According to some, they are the real government the ones behind the scenes who go to work when the politicians are enjoying the spotlight.
The original bureaucracy of the federal government consisted only of employees from three small departments State, Treasury, and War. The executive branch employs today almost three million people. Not only have the numbers of bureaucrats grown, but also the methods and standards for hiring and promoting people have changed dramatically.
Congress has the power to create, organize, and disband all federal agencies. Most of them are under the control of the President, although few of them actually have direct contact with the White House. So, the bureaucracy has two masters Congress and the President. The bureaucracy generally falls into four broad types: Cabinet departments, government corporations, independent agencies, and regulatory commissions
The 4 million Americans who work for the federal government have many faces and do many jobs. For starters, over 1.4 million are in military service. Overall, they represent much more of a cross section of the American population than do members of Congress or federal judges. About 43% are women, and 28% represent minority groups.
Bureaucracies move slowly. One hand doesn't always know what the other is doing. Federal employees have so much job security that there is little fear of being fired for incompetence. There are so many agencies organized in such confusing ways.
Under the guidance of constitutional principles, the courts serve as watchdogs for the other branches of government. Without the justice system, democracy might easily veer off course.
The Constitution painstakingly defines the structure and functions of the legislative (Congressional) branch of the government. It clearly (although less thoroughly) addresses the responsibilities and powers of the president. But, it treats the judicial branch almost as an afterthought. Article III specifically creates only one court (the Supreme Court), allows judges to serve for life and to receive compensation, broadly outlines original and appellate jurisdiction, and outlines the trial procedure for and limitations of congressional power against those accused of treason.
Even though the Founders surely intended that Congress hold a great deal of power over the judicial branch, in reality the basic organization of federal courts has remained basically the same throughout U.S. history. Congress has created new courts and reorganized others, and the system has grown increasingly complex. The courts have a great deal of independence, however, and they have established the judicial branch as a strong coequal to Congress and the president.
Despite the Supreme Court's limitations in implementing decisions, the justices often set policies that lead to real social change. So even though justices don't do a great deal of their work in public, and most Americans don't have a good sense of what they do, their decisions are very important. The Supreme Court has real power in the American political system.
The Constitution is silent on judicial qualifications. It meticulously outlines qualifications for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the presidency, but it does not give any advice for judicial appointments other than stating that justices should exhibit "good behavior." As a result, selections are governed primarily by tradition.
The federal courts' most important power is that of judicial review, the authority to interpret the Constitution. When federal judges rule that laws or government actions violate the spirit of the Constitution, they profoundly shape public policy. For example, federal judges have declared over 100 federal laws unconstitutional.
What is the difference between a liberty and a right? Both words appear in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The distinction between the two has always been blurred, and today the concepts are often used interchangeably. However, they do refer to different kinds of guaranteed protections.
The 14th Amendment guaranteed "equal protection of the law" more than 130 years ago. The fact that it took so many years for its effects to be felt is testimony to the complexity of the decision-making process in a democracy. It took all three branches, active interest groups, and concerned individual citizens to bring the country closer to the ideal of equal rights for all.
A careful reading of the First Amendment reveals that it protects several basic liberties åÑ freedom of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly. Interpretation of the amendment is far from easy, as court case after court case has tried to define the limits of these freedoms. The definitions have evolved throughout American history, and the process continues today.
What rights can Americans claim if they are accused of crimes? The 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments provide much of the constitutional basis of these rights.
All countries have rules that determine who is a citizen, and what rights and responsibilities come with citizenship. In the United States, the 14th Amendment gives constitutional protection of the basic rights of citizenship: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside." So citizenship is conferred on the basis of place of birth and the process of naturalization.
Public policy is a goal-oriented course of action that the government follows in dealing with a problem or issue in the country. Public policies are based on law, but many people other than legislators set them. Individuals, groups, and even government agencies that do not comply with policies can be penalized. This complicated process goes through a predictable series of steps:
United States foreign policy has changed dramatically from George Washington's day. Although Americans always pay attention to the advice of their revered founder, the world is of course not the same. The many people that shape American foreign policy today accept the fact that the United States is a member of a world community that cannot afford to ignore the importance of getting along.
Just as developing a coherent foreign policy is problematic in these post-Cold War days, so is the question of defending the country against possible danger from outside its borders. The avoidance of war, as indicated by the 1947 name change from "Department of War" to "Department of Defense" today holds the highest priority, and the hope that the United States can play a role in limiting violent upheavals around the world is reflected in both its foreign and military policies.
Until the 20th century the country abided by the laissez-faire policy, which required a free market with little intervention from government. With the Great Depression came Keynesian economics, or the opposite belief that the government should manage the economy. Today, United States economic policy lies somewhere in between åÑ government should regulate and sometimes manage, but should allow a free market whenever possible. Political and business leaders disagree on how much control is enough.
Does the right to pursue happiness include access to a free public education? Do all Americans have an unalienable right to health care under this happiness umbrella? Should the unemployed be assisted in their times of need?
Beneath the layer of the national government lies a complex web of state and local officials and institutions. The nation's founders concern over tyranny transcended their separation of power among the three branches of government. Power is also divided by level, with each layer performing its designated responsibility. States and communities would even have the freedom to design their own institutions and create their own offices. This creates a multitude of "laboratories" where government leaders at any level could see which systems were successful and which were problematic.
The vast majority of government employees work for local and state åÑ not the federal åÑ governments. Teachers, policemen, clerks at the motor vehicle office. Many of these people are state and local employees. This seems to confirm the general notion that government is in fact "closer to the people," and therefore more democratic. But the real evidence is contradictory.