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Understanding the US Government

Better understand the inner workings of US political institutions in this gripping course taught by a celebrated political scientist, and gain eye-opening insights into America's democratic system.
Understanding the US Government is rated 3.6 out of 5 by 70.
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Rated 2 out of 5 by from Heavy on bias I found the presenter to be heavily biased. I wanted a better understanding of the US government not a biased presentation on why X is right and why Z is wrong.
Date published: 2021-11-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Propaganda mixed with political "science" I teach high school civics, U.S. government, and economics. I have used excerpts from some of these lectures to enhance the classroom experience for my students with great success. Unfortunately, Professor Victor is deeply committed to the modern "progressive" world view (despite being, apparently, unaware of that fact). For example, four of the six issues she identifies as "massive" are seen as problems only by the left (climate change, income inequality, housing crisis, and racial justice). The other two, globalization and student loan debt, are seen as issues to both sides of our current (as of 2021) bitterly partisan divide, but with very different points of view.
Date published: 2021-11-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The political lines have been sadly drawn here This professor , as she is referred to as, is not teaching a course. She is a political pawn being used to get an agenda across and spread propaganda. Whether you swing left or right , it will be quite obvious that this is not a lesson/lecture. This is , however, one woman's own political opinion as she lays out a few basic facts about the make up of our government. She has clearly been bought and paid for and at a low price. More facts and less opinions would have been welcomed.
Date published: 2021-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and Thought Provoking Course This course explains in detail how the US Government operates and where we as a nation are today in politics. The professor is very knowledgeable and her way of explaining various topics in government is easy to follow. The partisanship she explains in this course has apparently translated into mixed reviews of the course. I wish more Americans would understand that extreme partisanship in general makes our country weaker as a whole. The knowledge gained from taking this course will hopefully produce more informed Americans and voters, which is greatly needed in the political environment today. Hopefully, Wondrium will produce additional political science courses in the future!
Date published: 2021-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best dvd sets from the Great Courses, & I have watched a lot of them. Very clear & informative. 6 from 5 stars
Date published: 2021-09-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Biased presenter The presenter has an obvious bias. She disparaged U.S. history without balancing it with the positive. I had to stop watching during her explanations of the electoral college. All she could do was continually talk about how "odd" it was. She never explained why we had it, to give power to minority states. She said it was to give "elites" a say. I stopped when she was going to start comparing the "oddness" of our system compared to other countries.
Date published: 2021-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I want to send Dr Victor a genuine thank you, for your wonderful, clear, and concise (because it had to be, to fit the 30 min parameter). Your explanations strengthened my understanding of much of our founding history, which in turn helped deepen what I am witnessing in the current democratic process. More importantly this course strengthened my desire to help guide the future of this beautiful and incredible country. I loathe suggesting anything be mandatory, but if pressed, I would say that it could be watching this course.
Date published: 2021-06-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative and Thought Provoking This course provides a sweeping overview of key knowledge and information required to understand the US Government as it exists today (exactly as the title states), including: • The purpose, history, evolution, organization, and function of the Federal Government • Role, interaction, and evolution of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches • How the US political system works to prioritize and control government power • Major government policies and deliverable related to economics, social progress, & foreign policy PROS: This is an excellent course; I would rate about 4.5 stars. It covers the basic knowledge that every US citizen should be aware of and better yet, understand, in their role as a citizen, voter, and interpreter of daily (hourly) information and news. Professor Victor is impressively articulate, knowledgeable, clear, professional, and concise -- packing a lot of information into 12 hours. The course is well organized into 4 parts with a lot of useful graphics, illustrations and photos -- much better than Civics courses I have encountered. There were dozens of concepts that were interesting, illuminating, and thought provoking – such as: 1) what is government (power), 2) why have a government (collective action), 3) how do state and Federal government function together 3) the arduous (by design) process to transform ideas into Bills and into Laws, 4) how government functions (or doesn’t) with the enormous workload imposed by an ever larger government, government scope, and complex society, 5) what is the purpose and role of a political party (to voters, politicians, policy), 6) how have political parties completely transformed themselves over the last 200 years, 7) why do US voting methods constrain our country to just two and only two political parties, 8) what are pros and cons of all the various types of organized interest groups . . . The course highlights the structure and role of federal bureaucracy, including dozens of departments and agencies (comprising 2.1 million civilian employees), with nice photos of the various federal buildings and offices (this could be a course in itself -- what do all these people do?). CONS: Professor Victor generally provides a very balanced approach, citing historical evolution, pros and cons of various concepts, and citing academic studies as the basis for many of the political concepts and conclusions – but, some elements in a few sections (lectures 15, 20, and 24 on polarization, media, and final conclusions) seemed to have a progressive political bias (which is probably ubiquitous in the political sciences, academia, and increasingly so in media); specifically, the idea that government CAN and SHOULD engage, resolve, and dictate solutions to our many societal issues and cultural differences – that it can do so without creating unforeseen consequences and corresponding amplification of societal issues, factions, and in turn accelerating government involvement; and that it should do so even at the expense of individual liberties. The political topics of polarization and media are thought provoking. For example: ‘politically biased media is the historical norm’ except perhaps a transitory period around the 1960’s (think Walter Cronkite). A few political conclusions on polarization can be more controversial. For example, stereotypical viewing habits and psychology of conservative vs. liberal TV viewers is summarized, but misses perhaps the larger polarizing issue – that ‘big media’ has become adept at producing polished, addictive, psychologically manipulative news shows. One study cites the appeal of late-night comedy programs for ‘abstract capable’ progressives, but completely misses the polarizing viciousness that has recently permeated late-night comedy. Another study cites that the political right has moved farther from the center than the political left – this may be true, but is thought provoking – does this mean conservatives, the Republican platform, current legislators, voters, or some other radical factions? What is the center – how is it determined and when? If the center is an average, doesn’t it also shift?? Finally, there are elements of ‘identify politics’ in the course, probably as a heuristic to understand political trends and to understand and rectify genuine injustices, but without much on potential downsides of creating durable factions, rent-seeking, tribalism, incivility and increased polarization. SUMMARY: Overall, I highly recommend this course as an overview of government and as a thought-provoking course – as a course should be. There may be some biases in a few parts, but one can view other Great Courses – for example, Cycles of American Political Thought, America’s Founding Fathers, and Thinking about Capitalism to get some additional perspectives.
Date published: 2021-06-15
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By gaining a clear grasp of political institutions, we're better equipped to engage with government and politics. In this course, you'll explore essential topics such as how the federal bureaucracy is organized, the intricacies of Congress and the legislature, the operations of the Supreme Court, the challenge of campaign finance, the media and politics, and America's deep political polarization.


Jennifer Nicoll Victor
Jennifer Nicoll Victor

By learning about the US government, you’ll have a much richer appreciation for our government, the trials we’ve faced as a nation, and the challenges that are yet to come.


George Mason University

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.

By This Professor

Understanding the US Government
Understanding the US Government


Why Have Government?

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.

31 min
The Framework of US Federalism

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.

27 min
Civil Liberties: Freedoms from 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.

33 min
Civil Rights: Fairness under Government

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.

33 min
How a Bill Becomes a Law

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.

29 min
Why Congress Is Such a Puzzle

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.

27 min
How Congressional Elections Work

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.

31 min
The Powers of the Presidency

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.

33 min
How Presidential Elections Work

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.

36 min
A Road Map of the Federal Bureaucracy

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.

32 min
How the Judicial Branch Works

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.

26 min
Where the Supreme Court Meets Politics

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.

30 min
The Challenges of Polling Public Opinion

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.

33 min
How Political Parties Organize Democracy

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.

32 min
How Americans Became So Polarized

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.

32 min
The Fundamentals of Elections and Voting

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.

28 min
How Does American Democracy Work?

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.

26 min
The Ins and Outs of Campaign Finance

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.

30 min
The Pros and Cons of Organized Interests

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.

31 min
Politics and the Media

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.

29 min
How Government Affects the Economy

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.

33 min
How the US Social Safety Net Works

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.

33 min
The Major Shifts in American Foreign Policy

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.

35 min
The Changing State of American Democracy

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.

35 min