Chapter Study Outline


American government and politics are extraordinarily complex. The framers of the United States Constitution divided governmental power and responsibility both among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and, again, federally between the national government and the states. Although this complexity was designed to disperse power in American politics, it has also placed significant burdens on citizens seeking to participate in politics and to influence government policy. Understanding these complexities is the aim of this book.

  1. Making Sense of Government and Politics

    What is government? What types of governments exist? Why is government necessary? What is politics?

    • Government is the term generally used to describe the formal political arrangements through which a land and its people are ruled; the term refers just as well to simple institutions like a tribal council as to more complex establishments known as "states."
    • Governments vary both in terms of the number of people included in government decision-making and the extent of the government’s authority.
      • Autocracies vest political authority in a single individual. Oligarchies are governments controlled by a small group of people. Democracies permit citizens to play a significant part in governmental decision-making.
      • Constitutional governments recognize and often codify broad limits on their authority. Authoritarian governments are checked (often reluctantly) by other political and social institutions. Totalitarian governments recognize no formal limits on their authority.
    • The two primary components of government are a means of coercion (the ability to get people to obey the law and punish them if they do not) and a means of collecting revenue (to pay the costs of government institutions and programs).
    • Government makes it possible for people to live together by accomplishing three key goals: maintaining order, protecting property, and providing public goods.
    • Politics refers to the conflicts within organizations over issues of leadership, structures, and policies. This book focuses on such conflicts and struggles as they relate to governments.


  2. From Coercion to Consent

    What are the key forces in a constitutional democracy? How does democracy relate to a strong government?

    • Limits on government power came about with a new social class, the “bourgeoisie” (or “freeman of the city”), that advanced individual freedom.
    • The expansion of democratic politics was aided by three factors: the internal threat of conflict and disorder, the external threat of other nation-states, and the promotion of national unity and development.
    • Democracy may be tied to the expansion of government. Once citizens perceived that governments could operate in response to their demands, they became increasingly willing to support the expansion of government.


  3. Does American Democracy Work?

    What are the trade-offs involved in democracy? Are there unintended consequences of too much democracy?

    • American democracy is a representative democracy for very pragmatic reasons. Most citizens do not have the time to devote to government, so we “hire” people to act on our behalf (thereby creating a principal-agent relationship).
    • Ensuring that the government maintains order, protects property, and provides public goods requires a degree of coercion that limits individual liberty.
    • Majority rule can be unstable at times, and collective choice is not always fair. In American democracy, we put a great deal of faith in frequent elections, checks and balances among government institutions, and multiple levels of government.