Understanding the US Government
Jennifer Nicoll Victor is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks and coauthor (with Nils Ringe) of Bridging the Information Gap: Legislative Member Organizations as Social Networks in the United States and the European Union. She also serves on the board of directors of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
01: Why Have Government?
As context, begin by looking into the nature of governments, and the major types of government. Consider why governments exist and how major political theorists have viewed the roles of government. Examine the founding of the United States and the creation of the Constitution through the lens of “collective action theory,” which helps explain why the US government is structured as it is.
02: The Framework of US Federalism
Study the system of federalism, where sovereign power is divided between the national and state governments. Trace the history of federalism in the United States, as it protects individual liberties, checks government power, and allows for the resolution of political conflicts. Note how the balance shifted in the 20th century, from greater state authority to a much-expanded power of the federal government.
03: Civil Liberties: Freedoms from Government
Probe the concept of civil liberties, as they delineate restrictions that government cannot impose. Learn about “selective incorporation,” the process through which civil liberty protections at the state level have been guaranteed through Supreme Court rulings. Then look at how the judicial system has interpreted and upheld freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
04: Civil Rights: Fairness under Government
Consider how America’s historic record on human rights continues to impact modern politics. Study the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment and how it has been applied. Examine the history and the current landscape of human rights with regard to African-American rights, affirmative action, and women’s rights, as well as Native American, Asian American, and LGBTQ+ rights.
05: How a Bill Becomes a Law
Observe how a congressional bill originates, and how legislators formally submit a bill. Then follow the various stages through which a bill is acted upon by the House, the Senate, by presidential review, and the process of ultimate adoption into law. Finally, learn about the “cloture rule,” a mechanism that forces bills to a vote, and the strategic tactic of filibustering in the Senate.
06: Why Congress Is Such a Puzzle
Explore core issues in the functioning of Congress. First, take account of the inherent tension for legislators between serving their constituents and serving their party. Investigate procedural challenges within this unwieldy organ of government, tasked with solving massive social problems, whose institutional design is in some ways an impediment to progress.
07: How Congressional Elections Work
Learn how congressional elections are structured, and differences between the House and Senate. Examine key factors in the politics of congressional campaigns, such as the high cost of campaigning, the role of incumbency, and how congressional campaigns have become increasingly nationalized. Then delve into the issue of gerrymandering, and the varied record in the United States of the practice of gerrymandering.
08: The Powers of the Presidency
Identify the powers granted to the president by the Constitution, versus other powers that have been implied or have developed over time. Assess the roles of the president as both head of state and head of government, and delve into core topics that include the budget process, the exercise of executive privilege, impeachment, and the president’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
09: How Presidential Elections Work
Grasp the ways in which presidential elections differ from congressional elections. Take an in-depth look at the Electoral College, and the sometimes odd consequences of the system. Observe how presidential nominations are made, and assess election forecasting and the indicators that are most predictive of election outcomes. Also, examine the phenomenon of “fake news” and misinformation.
10: A Road Map of the Federal Bureaucracy
Take an overview of how the vast systems of the federal government operate. First, trace how and why the United States developed such a massive bureaucracy. Study how the executive branch is structured, highlighting the cabinet departments, independent agencies, and government corporations. Finally, analyze the theory of the “principal-agent problem,” which gives insights into bureaucratic control.
11: How the Judicial Branch Works
Investigate the sources of judicial authority that underlie our legal system, and the judicial system’s organization according to three types of legal cases. Learn about the structure of the federal court system, comprising three types of federal courts. Conclude with a detailed look at the Supreme Court, how a case gets to the Supreme Court, and how cases are heard and adjudicated.
12: Where the Supreme Court Meets Politics
Follow the very politicized process that takes place when a president appoints a justice to the Supreme Court. Then look at four categories of influences that bear on the Court and its decisions. Examine how the Court plays a role in policymaking through its decisions and precedents. Finally, trace how the Court’s role in politics and government has changed over the course of US history.
13: The Challenges of Polling Public Opinion
Define “public opinion,” in its various forms, both individual and aggregate. For the measuring of public opinion, note the difference between the theory of the “wisdom of crowds,” and what’s called “groupthink.” Explore the sources of individual opinion and political identity. Then look at what polls are and what they do, highlighting the polling controversy of the 2016 presidential election.
14: How Political Parties Organize Democracy
Why do political parties exist? Dig into this question, and grasp how parties solve three categories of problems for three different groups of political “actors.” Investigate why it is that the United States has two, and only two, major political parties. And, to better understand how parties operate today, trace the history of political parties in the United States, and how they have changed and realigned over time.
15: How Americans Became So Polarized
Delve into the factors that underlie the extreme partisan polarization of current US politics. Define what polarization is, as distinct from partisanship. Focus on three main sources of polarization, and explore how and why polarization tends to self-perpetuate. Examine false assumptions about polarization, its dangers, and consider how possible reforms might break the cycle.
16: The Fundamentals of Elections and Voting
Look first at suffrage (the right to vote) in the United States, including the history of women’s suffrage, African-American suffrage, and suffrage for 18 year olds. Study voter turnout in elections, and how we can account for consistently low voter turnout. Consider what determines a person’s likelihood to vote, the gender gap in voting, and the need of candidates to be appealing to median voters.
17: How Does American Democracy Work?
In assessing the US democratic system, dispel the common myth of a single “will of the people.” Grasp how institutions such as Congress provide stability and an agreed-upon procedure for making major group decisions. Review several fully democratic ways of counting votes, which provide different outcomes, and look into the use and possible benefits of ranked-choice voting in the United States.
18: The Ins and Outs of Campaign Finance
Witness how campaigns have been financed throughout US history. Trace the many campaign finance reforms enacted since the 1970s, which aim to curb corruption and unequal influence on elections. Take account of the problems that arise when sources of campaign funding do not represent the broader population, and the repeating cycle of reforms followed by attempts to work around campaign finance limits.
19: The Pros and Cons of Organized Interests
Revisit the theory of collective action as you chart the seven types of organized interest groups that figure in American politics, and the huge proliferation of interest groups since the 1960s. In grasping how interest groups form and operate, and the problems they address, weigh the valuable things these groups can do for society against the tendency for the power of organized interests to be skewed toward the wealthy and privileged.
20: Politics and the Media
To better understand the complex relationship between media, politics, and government, investigate public trust and distrust of journalism, and the ideological positions of news sources themselves. Note how social media can exacerbate political polarization. Finally, grasp the ways in which the political environment is ripe for conspiracy theories and misinformation, and how we can best respond.
21: How Government Affects the Economy
Examine the US system of free market economics, and the fiscal and monetary policies our government employs to correct for market failures. Learn how Congress and the president address problems such as high unemployment and inflation through government spending and taxation, and how the Fed uses interest rates and the sale of treasury bonds to stimulate or de-stimulate the economy.
22: How the US Social Safety Net Works
The federal social safety net is designed to alleviate poverty among the elderly, needy families, and the disabled. Learn about the TANF program, or “welfare,” and the institutions of Social Security, disability insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Take account of the financial strains on these programs, questions of their future solvency, and the political controversies that surround them.
23: The Major Shifts in American Foreign Policy
Trace the history of the United States in international politics, from early isolationism through America’s global role in the 20th century, to today’s post-9/11 political climate. Observe US participation in international institutions aimed at peacekeeping, trade, and economic growth, and note current US policy trends regarding trade conditions and the negative effects of globalization.
24: The Changing State of American Democracy
Conclude with a look at the biggest challenges that American politics and government will face in the coming years, such as racial, environmental, and economic justice. Assess possible reforms for greater income and racial equality, and the benefits of a stronger role for political parties. Consider the dangers of the current degradation of democratic norms, and how they might be restored.