Chapter 1. Introduction to A Republic, If You Can Keep It

Last Updated: 1-21-2014

Copyright 2008-14

 

 

OUTLINE

 

I. Purposes of This E-Text

 

II. Some Basic Terms and Ideas

 

A. Republics and Democracies–The Question of Who Should Govern

 

B. Politics and Power–Personal and Public

 

C. Government

 

D. Ideology and Party–Differences and Similarities

 

E. Federalism–What Level of Government Should Have Power

 

III. Plan of the Text–Chapter Organization

 

IV. Policy

 

A.    Policy and the text

 

B.    Health Care Policy

 

V. Final Introductory Comments

 

 

TEXT

 

I. Purposes of This E-Text

 

Every text has a “hook” to entice students to read it, to create interest, and to improve understanding. This text is no different, except perhaps that it has several hooks. First is the “pocketbook” hook. You’re not going to read a text if you can’t afford to buy it. Affordability is an ever greater problem for college students. This e-book is very affordable—it’s free! If you just read it online or listen to it in MP3 form (forthcoming—not available quite yet), it costs you nothing. If you print it, the major cost is printing. People often say that “you get what you pay for.” This time I hope you get a lot more than what you paid!

 

You do not need $ for this text! (public domain)

 

Second, the text is conversational in style. I tried to avoid complicated wording and terms. I use as little political science jargon as possible. Sentences will usually be short and to the point. Paragraphs will be short. So I will use the first person, saying “I” a lot, and I will address “you” a lot as well. A conversational style also works well for an audio version of the text.

 

Conversational style of text should make reading easier (public domain)

 

Third, if you’re a typical college student, you probably know very little about government and politics in general and American government and politics in particular. You probably know that the national government has three branches. You probably can name them. You almost certainly know the name of the current president and know a two term limit exists. You probably know the first ten amendments to the Constitution are called the “Bill of Rights.” You may even know what some of them are, but not more than a few. You probably know a few other random facts.

 

But that’s about it. You probably don’t know the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House, or the chair of the “Fed” (the nickname for the Federal Reserve System), or even what the Fed does. You probably erroneously think that the president has the power to “declare” war (though in an indirect way you are right—presidents are good at starting many undeclared wars). You may even think that we have a national religion and an official national language—we have neither. You may have a vague idea about the differences between the two major political parties, but little beyond a generalization about an issue or two on which the parties differ, such as abortion or spending on education and health care. And finally, you almost certainly are less than fully aware of the many ways in which government shapes your daily life and your chances in life.

 

For over a decade I and my colleagues gave students a 63 question general knowledge test on the first day of class. The average score on the first day was just over 13 correct answers, a score of 21%. Not very good! The material in this text is designed to improve your factual knowledge.

 

Do you need to know most of these facts? Yes! You can no more understand American politics without some basic factual knowledge than you can understand basketball without understanding the “screen and roll” or music without understanding the difference between treble and bass, or fashion without knowing basic color combinations. 

 

Moreover, these facts are not just formal rules and powers, like you may have learned in a history or civics class. They include principles that help you understand events. They include relationships between government and your daily life. They include strategies and behaviors that can help you influence what government does and does not do.

 

Fourth, the text will not use many current events to illustrate ideas. The events we will use are those that are important enough to be included in texts for many editions. Not including a lot of current events is unusual for a text. Authors typically add current events to illustrate basic themes, concepts, and principles, and then update them every couple of years in a new edition. Of course these frequent new editions drive up the cost of books. Sadly these current events quickly become outdated, sometimes as soon as the text is published. My goal is to write a text that can stand for more than a couple of years without much updating.

 

Not including current events also keeps the text shorter. A short text is good for a couple of reasons. Most college students have a lot of demands on them and not much time. So less to read is good from the student’s point of view! A short text also gives you some extra time to read current news reports in newspapers or on the web (something that you really need to do regularly to be an active citizen) and learn about events that are really current. The ideas, concepts, and principles in the text should help you make sense of whatever the current events are in the news. News stories should begin to fit together in your mind as part of a broad picture of American government and politics. That understanding should last well beyond this course and help you play the role of an active member of our democratic republic.

 

Fifth, a unifying theme—the major hook—of the text is the idea that much of the difficulty in understanding American government and politics rests on the paradoxical nature of our political system. You may not know what that means right now, but it should become clear as we proceed. For now, let’s just say that a paradox is a kind of contradiction that has some truth on both sides. Every chapter will have some paradoxes for you to consider. For example, the old popular quotation that a “government governs best when it governs least” is a kind of paradox.

 

A long time ago as a young political science professor, I had to teach an introduction to political philosophy course. The text I used was based on the idea that most important philosophical questions involved paradoxes. Half the intellectual battle was trying to understand the nature of each paradox. For example, “ignorance may be bliss,” but at the same time “an unexamined life is not worth living.” You cannot resolve that paradox until you understand what both sides of that paradox involve.

 

So it will be in this text. For example, we can’t resolve the paradox of presidential power until we understand both the great powers a president has and the great limits on those powers.

 

Finally, we will use principles in the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and from the discipline of political science to help us understand American government and what we as citizens can do. Let’s briefly preview how each one is built into this text.

 

The Constitution lays out the basic framework and rules for how our government operates. You must know the rules to understand the game. But the Constitution was also a political document that left a lot undefined and papered over many conflicts with compromises and general language. Why? Because those who wrote it had to do what was necessary to get it accepted by people with deep disagreements.

 

This fundamental fact about the Constitution makes it difficult to interpret. How it is interpreted and applied touches virtually every aspect of American politics today. Therefore, the Constitution will touch every chapter in the text. We will organize the text by the organization of the Constitution, covering topics in the same order in which they are covered in the Constitution.

 

The Federalist Papers were a set of essays written by supporters of the Constitution (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) during the battle to ratify it in 1787-1788. Those who favored ratification of the Constitution circulated the essays around the states and printed them in newspapers. They were put together in a book and collectively are called the Federalist Papers because those who supported the Constitution were calling for a federal union of the states as laid out in the Constitution. We will define the term “federal” later in this chapter and have a detailed chapter about federalism later in the text. The essays were arguments in favor of the nature of the proposed new union among the states.

 

Today we can read the papers and see what the supporters of the Constitution had in mind. Courts still cite the papers when interpreting the Constitution. The language is hard to understand because it is highly formal with long difficult sentences using many words and phrases that we rarely use today. But the ideas are still important. We will refer to the papers and the ideas in them fairly frequently. Hopefully you will even make an effort to read one or two of the Federalist Papers before the course is over.

 

Because this is a political science course, the text will examine American Government through political science. Political science is a social science examining human behavior in the area of life we call politics, a term we will define shortly. Political science is different than civics, which you may have studied in high school. Civics focuses on rules and laws and structure. Political science goes beyond this and looks at how people actually behave. The speed limit may be 65 mph, but people actually go much closer to 75, and police rarely stop someone who is less than 10 mph over the limit. Civics would teach you the law, but political science will examine unwritten rules of behavior that both police and drivers follow. You almost certainly know the unwritten rules about speeding. We will cover a lot of unwritten rules political scientists have found. If political science is worth anything, understanding those rules will help you understand American politics as events unfold during your life. That is why these unofficial and usually unwritten rules are critically important. Current events change at a fast pace, but the rules and principles remain relatively constant.

 

 

II. Some Basic Terms and Ideas

 

Before we get started in the details of each chapter, we need to cover a few basic terms and ideas that are common to all the chapters.

 

A. Republics and Democracies–The Question of Who Should Govern

 

The title of this text, “A Republic If You Can Keep It,” is a quotation as well as a title. Using a quotation for a title is unusual. The words are those of Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. After the convention, a woman asked him about the kind of government the convention created. The words are part of his response: “a republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

 

            Benjamin Franklin, whose concern about keeping the republic he and other Founders

created at the Constitutional Convention inspired the title of this text:

A Republic, If You Can Keep It (image in public domain)

 

I chose these words for the main title for three reasons. First, the words distinguish between the actual form of government we have—a republic—and the form you probably think we have—a  democracy.  Understanding the difference is fundamental to understanding the nature of our system of government. People rule indirectly through representatives in a republic. A republic is a representative democracy. In a direct democracy, or just democracy, people rule directly.

 

Second, this difference raises the important question of who should rule. This is a major question that all governments must decide. As we shall see, those who wrote the Constitution (called the “Founding Fathers” or just the “Founders”) did not trust average people enough to rule directly. So the Founders gave average people relatively little political power. The Founders equated democracy with mob rule and feared that a democracy would endanger property and be highly unstable.

 

Down through American history average people have gained more power. In many states and local governments today, citizens have power to propose and pass laws without actions by any legislative body (the initiative process). Sometimes people even have the power to remove elected officials before their terms are over (through a process called recall). States routinely require that popular votes approve measures like amendments to the state constitution. This is called a referendum, which allows people to vote on something proposed by a legislative body. By today’s standards, the Founders can be seen as having favored “elite rule,” wanting only the better people to make laws. By “better,” they meant educated, relatively successful and wealthy. We can also add white and male. Of course, that’s who the Founders were—relatively successful educated white males!

 

Third, the title of the text captures a central purpose for the text and most college level American Government courses. We teach American government so that young adults will have the necessary intellectual tools to be able to preserve it (and hopefully improve it) for one more generation. That means each generation must make the government work for them in the times in which they live. Old Ben Franklin had it just right. If any single generation fails in this ongoing task, our republic will be lost. His words are no less true today than they were in 1787.

 

B. Politics and Power—Personal and Public

 

Politics is a word that we all use, and usually we mean something negative. When we say that someone is being “political,” we usually are thinking about selfish and insincere actions by unethical manipulative power hungry people. Not a pretty picture.

 

I am reminded of the old story told by a country sage who had a simple test to see what a child would grow up to become. The test was to put a Bible and glass of whiskey on a table. If the child picked up the Bible, the future was as a preacher. If the child chose the whiskey, the future was as a drunk. And if the child picked up both, waved the Bible, and then drank the whiskey, the child would be a politician!

 

While this negative stereotype certainly contains some truth, it oversimplifies reality, as do all stereotypes. Politics and power, like many things in life, can be used for good and/or ill. Perhaps we should define both politics and power before going any further.

 

Political scientists have many definitions of politics. Some come from politicians, like President Lyndon Johnson, who said that politics is the “art of the possible.” Not a bad definition, because politics does involve creatively figuring out how you can get the most of some goal. This suggests compromise between what you may want ideally and what is possible practically. It suggests a process in which you work with others and try to influence them in some way using a wide range of tools. It also suggests that to be successful you have to be creative. Johnson was quite good at influencing and often intimidating people to accomplish as much as possible. He was especially good at this when he was Majority Leader in the Senate. He was good at this as President up until his failure in Vietnam. If you saw the 2012 movie Lincoln, you should appreciate how creative President Abraham Lincoln was in creatively finding ways to get as much as he could—in that case the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

 

Another standard definition from a text I once used is that politics is the process of influencing government policy. People do many things to influence what government does and does not do. We shall certainly talk about many of these things throughout this text—including things that you must do to get government to work for you.

 

Both of these definitions imply that people employ tools and techniques to accomplish goals. Those tools and techniques can be thought of as power. A third definition links politics and power directly to each other, that politics is the use of power and what the powerful do.

 

If you think about this simple broad definition of politics as the use of power, you may see that politics is not just what people do with respect to government—the public realm. People also engage in politics privately in dealing with each other in personal relationships and in business. Certainly power relationships exist among friends, in families, in religious institutions, and in job situations. In fact, politics in this sense is universal. That is why Aristotle, the ancient political philosopher, observed that “man is by nature a political animal.”

 

So if politics, both public and private, involves power, what exactly is power? Political scientists sometimes say that power has two faces. The first face is the most obvious, getting someone to do something that they would not otherwise ordinarily do. This kind of behavior is easy to observe and study as a social scientist, because people actually do things that can then be observed and measured.

The two faces of power may be thought

of as a traffic cop who can make you go

or stop you from going (public domain).

 

The second face is less obvious. Power can also be preventing people from doing things that they might otherwise ordinarily do. This is harder to study because nothing exists to directly observe. This kind of power can only be indirectly studied by carefully evaluating social and cultural surroundings, and looking for pressures that restrain people. In a classroom pressure might come from a teacher whose body language intimidates students from speaking out. In the workplace it could be fear of losing ones job or being given unpleasant tasks. In a society, it could be negative stereotypes of some group that prevents them from fully participating in public life or even admitting membership in some group. Note that these examples move from the interpersonal and private to the public realm.

 

You might consider how power affects you in the private and public groups in which you are a member. Do you feel empowered or restrained? Are you afraid to speak up? Do you feel respected? What exactly about the culture and values and actions in the group makes you feel this way?

 

Americans are ambivalent about power. By “ambivalent,” I mean that we respect power and have a great deal of interest in those who have power. But we also say that we fear power and what it can do. We often claim we do not want power because of those fears. One favorite quotation that most Americans believe is that “power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

This discussion of power takes us to a paradox, the paradox of power. Power is both good and bad. That much is certainly true. But because of our ambivalent feelings about power, we have a closely related paradox about getting power in a culture that fears power: you get power by saying that you do not want power. We usually distrust anyone who says they want power. Yet people must get power to accomplish goals.

 

You can see how these cultural attitudes about power make life difficult for politicians seeking power. Politicians seeking power must pretend they do not want power, and so they often seem insincere. They must pretend not to be politicians. Think about this the next time you hear someone accusing a politician of being political or power-hungry, or a politician saying that she or he is not an insider or professional politician or part of the problem in Washington.

 

C. Government

 

Government is a little easier to define. It is an institution that makes decisions about the policies. Policies come in two broad varieties, domestic and foreign. Foreign policies are about how we will relate to other nations economically, culturally and in terms of security.

 

Domestic policy refers to actions that reward some people and/or deprive others through social and economic actions or inactions. Governments provide services to some and impose taxes to pay for these services. Or it may lower taxes for some and reduce services, which is what we have seen at the state level with tax cuts and lower funding of higher education that results in your paying higher tuition. Government passes laws that treat certain behaviors as criminal and deprive people of their freedom or even lives for breaking these laws. Governments pass regulations that allow and disallow actions by people in how they use their property (for example, building a fence of a certain height in front of your house or opening a home business with a sign advertising that business) or how businesses and professionals operate (for example fair lending laws or licensing doctors and lawyers). Government attempts to influence the economy through fiscal policy (taxing and spending) and monetary policy (interest rates, bank regulations and money supply). Government sometimes gives direct subsidies to private institutions like banks or major corporations in times of financial crises, as it did in the near banking collapse of the 2007-8 Great Recession when it bailed out banks and rescued General Motors and Chrysler. 

             President Obama driving a Chevy Volt while touring GM plant in 2010

      (White House photo, public domain)

 

D. Ideology and Party

 

Ideology and political parties are different concepts. But they are also related to each other. In recent years they have become more closely related. Students almost always confuse them with each other. We will define each of them to see how they are different and briefly discuss how they are related. We will go into much more detail on political parties later in the text. Ideology will arise in many places throughout the text.

 

Ideology generally refers to the beliefs people have to what government should do. We will start with a broad generalization involving two kinds of ideology and then move to a more complicated set of beliefs that involve four kinds of ideology.

 

Most broadly, ideology refers to how active government should be. Liberals generally want a more active government. This is because liberals have a greater faith in the ability of people to come together and collectively decide how to improve society. So liberals are generally associated with a willingness to change and try new things.

 

Most broadly, conservatives have less trust in human beings to bring about positive change. They feel that social institutions developed as they did for reasons beyond the understanding of people, and any effort to change very much will usually make things worse. Thus conservatives generally want less government action to change society and want to rely more on private initiative and voluntary action. They prefer to leave traditional ways of doing things alone.

 

Now let’s be a little more precise. Neither of these broad generalizations is universally true. Sometimes we see the opposite of what we would expect. In some areas of life, those who call themselves conservatives advocate more government action, like placing restrictions on abortion. And in other areas of life those who call themselves liberal want less government action, like letting any two adults to get married regardless of sexual preference.

 

This observation suggests that we can improve the way we define ideology by dividing life into two realms, the economic realm and the private moral realm. This gives us four possibilities: government action in both, action in neither, action in economic but not the private, and action in the private but not the economic.

 

Let’s look at each possibility. Each has its own label. (Though these terms are universally used in political science, I should give credit for this four part typology to the authors of an excellent text I once used, Gitelson, Alan R., Robert L. Dudley, and Melvin J. Dubnick, American Government, New York: Houghton-Mifflin.)

 

1. Populists: Action in Both the Economic and Private Areas

 

Of the four labels, the label “populist” is probably the most confusing because the label is used in different ways. Populists generally appeal to popular mass sentiments for widespread government action in all areas. In the late 1800s a political party used the name Populist, and what that party stood for does fit this ideological category. The most well known Populist Party candidate, William Jennings Bryan, supported government action to enforce codes of personal morality and government action in the economic realm to help struggling small farmers of that time.

 

Today, African-Americans are the largest group who generally holds views that might be called populist. They tend to want government to enforce religiously based standards of morality and at the same time help those who face economic hardship. But few African-Americans would recognize or adopt the populist label.

 

In the media, journalists use the populist label in a more general way. They apply it to politicians who try to generate mass appeal, regardless of the role advocated for government. This common practice confuses the meaning of the term. So politicians with rather opposite beliefs get called populists. For example, sometimes President Reagan and President Clinton were both called populists because of their popular appeal. In fact, using the definitions of ideology in this section, Reagan was really a conservative and Clinton a liberal.

 

2. Libertarians: Action in Neither Area

 

Libertarians are much easier to find today. We have had and continue to have a political party by that name which almost perfectly fits the ideological framework. The Libertarian Party is active in all states and always runs a candidate for president.

 

What do libertarians believe? They believe in minimal government action in all areas of life. They prefer private certification to government licensing in the professions and in the areas of safety. So foods and meats would not be government inspected. Instead, they might be certified by private entities. Those who sold these goods could use that certification as part of their advertising. Whether any of this happens is up to the private market. The same would be true of doctors and lawyers and so on. Libertarians want minimal government regulation of business and enterprise, wanting little more from government than enforcement of contracts through the courts. Many would even oppose public education, believing that people should provide that for themselves. Others might support vouchers for education with parents choosing among competing private school systems for their children’s education. Libertarians would oppose all drug laws except those that keep people safe from those under the influence. Many even oppose prohibitions on prostitution, believing that what takes place among consenting adults is their own business. 

 

In addition to an organized Libertarian Party, the Republican Party has a faction that is libertarian in nature. Republican Ron Paul and his supporters are an example. They generally oppose government action, but not as much as pure libertarians. This faction of the Republican Party often has conflicts with the social conservatives in the party, whom we shall describe below.

 

3. Liberals: Action in the Economic Area but Not in the Private

 

Liberals generally support government action to help the disadvantaged in such areas as education, health care, job training, and discrimination. Liberals support economic regulations on business, environmental regulations, and government action to slow global warming. 

 

On the other hand, like libertarians, liberals oppose government action to enforce codes of morality that do not involve behavior that clearly harms others. So while liberals would restrict smoking in public places because of concern for second hand smoke, they would probably oppose restrictions on the private use of marijuana and almost certainly oppose restrictions on its private medical use. They see abortion as a private matter of choice for the woman in consultation with her doctor, not as an action that involves harm to another human being. Of course all this rests on when the fetus begins to have separate rights as a human being. While some liberals might privately oppose abortion for themselves, they do not want government forcing that standard of morality on others. As you can see, this is far more complicated and nuanced (look up this word if you do not know it!) than pro-abortion versus pro-life.

 

Liberals generally gravitate to the Democratic Party. However, a few northern and western Republicans still agree with some liberal values. This would be especially true in such issue areas as environmental protection, gay rights, and abortion. A California Republican who is seen as conservative might be far more liberal than a Democrat in Georgia or South Carolina.

 

4. Conservatives: Action in the Private Area But Not the Economic

 

 These people are often called “social conservatives,” which is perhaps a more accurate term. These conservatives wish to have an activist government in defining marriage, in prohibiting abortion, in prohibiting the use of drugs, in outlawing gambling, having “blue laws” prohibiting Sunday sales, and a range of other areas of life that could be seen as involving private moral behavior. Of course, they would dispute the claim that these behaviors are purely private. They see most of these actions as harming other people. Many of these beliefs are based on religious values. 

 

Most conservatives find their home in the Republican Party. However, some Democrats, especially African-American Democrats and Hispanics, hold most of these values and are also members of evangelical and fundamentalist religious institutions.

 

Figure 1. Four Ideological Groups on a horizontal plane of government activity in Economic Areas of life and a vertical plane of government activity in Private Areas of life

Populists:

Government is

 

Active in Economic area

 

Active in Private area

 

Conservatives:

Government is

 

NOT active in Economic area

 

Active in Private area

Liberals:

Government is

 

Active in Economic area

 

NOT Active in private area

Libertarians:

Government is

 

NOT active in Economic area

 

NOT Active in private area

 

 

As you can see in reviewing these labels and value positions, these four ideological groups are related to the two major parties. However, enough overlap exists so that one would be wrong to say, as many people do, that all Democrats are liberals and all Republicans are conservatives. Many Republicans are libertarian, a few are liberal, and some even populist. Many Democrats, especially religious minorities, are more populist than liberal. About the best generalization one can make is that Republicans tend to be conservative or libertarian while Democrats tend to be liberal or populist.

 

 In recent decades the relationship between ideology and party identification has grown stronger. Former conservative white southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party. Less conservative northern and western Republicans no longer felt welcome in a party that took very conservative and uncompromising positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights. This is what observers mean when they say that partisan polarization has increased in the nation.  As each of the two major parties became filled with relatively more people with a single ideology, compromise with the other side became more difficult.

 

Nevertheless, because many more people are familiar with party labels than with ideological labels and because many people have a broad collection of issue positions along with a party label that ideology cannot fully explain, we should be very careful in using just ideology to distinguish who supports which political party. For example, I know quite a few students who take quite liberal positions on a range of issues, yet consider themselves to be strong Republicans because of a few other issues or because of family influence. In addition, about a third of the population claims to be independent, or at most have a very weak party attachment. Their positions are even less understandable in terms of ideology.

 

Political scientists have studied ideology quite a bit. They have found that while most people use the terms liberal or conservative and even put themselves into one group or another, many are confused about what the terms mean and hold issue positions that are only roughly consistent with the terms. 

 

You might consider your own understanding of ideology. How do you define it? Do you use ideology to help you sort out where and when government should act? Do you fit into one of these four categories? Or do you have some unique collection of views with no obvious principles to explain or connect them? Perhaps you just collected views handed you by parents and others who have had an influence on your life. Thinking about how you think about political positions might be a useful writing exercise.

 

E. Federalism—What Level of Government Should Have Power

 

Almost every nation-state has different levels or layers of government. Only very tiny nations can operate with just one level of government. Below a central national government are some kind of regional governments. And below regional governments are some kind of local governments.

 

Regional governments go by a variety of names. Sometimes the regional governments are called provinces, like in Canada. In the U.S. we call them states. The relationships among all these different levels are critical to how a nation-state operates. Three general options exist.

 

The unitary system centers all power in the central government. It stresses uniformity and works best where people have similar views and customs throughout the country. Many European countries employ this option. The central government can, however, grant powers to regional governments and allow them to make a lot of decisions for themselves. But at the same time the central government can also take away those powers. For example, in Great Britain the British Parliament has granted significant powers to a regional Scottish Parliament. 

 

The opposite extreme is a confederal system. In this system the power is centered in the regional governments and the central government can only do those things that the regional governments allow it to do. Because this arrangement makes national actions slow and difficult, it is relatively rare in the modern world. It was the system we had under the Articles of Confederation, which operated between the end of the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the existing Constitution in 1788. We will have more to say about the Articles of Confederation in the chapter on the Constitution. A confederal system is also the system that the Confederate States had in the American South during the Civil War in the early 1860s. The United Nations can be seen as a kind of confederal system. The U.N. can only do those things that the member states, in particular, the members of the Security Council and the “perm five” member states in the Council, agree to allow it to do. A confederal system is about the best one can do when member states do not want to give up much power and do not want some central authority dictating things.

 

What we have in the United States is an American invention. It was created under the Constitution written in 1787. It is a compromise between the two polar opposites of the unitary and confederal forms. It is a federal system. In a federal system the regional governments, or states, have reserved some powers for themselves, the central or national government has some powers, and both share some powers.

 

Figure 2. What Level of Government Has Power and Problems

Type:

Confederal

Federal

Unitary

Power:

Regional governments

Shared

Central Government

Problems:

·        Internal conflicts among regions

·        Economic chaos

·        Inability to defend nation

·        Political struggle over what level does what

·        Regional differences may get ignored

·        Unwise national policy hurts entire nation

 

Sadly for you as a student, a federal system is the most complex kind of system to understand. But if you are to play an active role, understand it you must. As we shall see in the chapter on federalism, this complex relationship has created a lot of confusion and conflict throughout our history. Levels of government struggle over the question of which level is responsible to do what on virtually every political question we have faced: racial and gender equality, marriage, environmental protection, workplace safety, standards for drivers’ licenses, immigration enforcement, drug laws, health insurance, and even the deployment and support of National Guard troops. That is just a start. The list is as endless as the possibilities for what government could do. 

  

 

III. Plan of the Text–-Chapter Organization

 

The organization of the Constitution serves as the major organizing principle for this text. So we will start with a chapter on the Constitution. We will focus on why and how it was written, and look at the long list of compromises that were necessary to get it adopted.

 

Then we shall turn to the legislative branch, the subject of Article I in the Constitution. That is the longest article in the Constitution, the one that gives the most detail on how a branch is organized and what it can and cannot do.

 

Article II is about the executive branch, which might be seen as having two parts, the office of the president and the executive bureaucracy. So we will have two chapters on this article, Chapter 4 on the executive and Chapter 5 on the bureaucracy.

 

Chapter 6 focuses on the judicial branch, which is created in bare bones form in Article III. This is one of the shortest articles in the Constitution.

 

Article IV covers relationships among states and between the states and the national government. This complex and evolving set of relationships is what we call federalism, which we just defined a few paragraphs ago. So Chapter 7 will cover federalism.

 

Constitutional Articles V (the amendment process), VI (a very short miscellaneous kind of article covering debts, the supremacy of the national government, oaths of office and prohibiting any religious test for office), and VII (specifying what was necessary for ratification to put the Constitution into effect) are covered elsewhere in the text. They do not have enough material in them to merit a separate chapter.

 

Many of the amendments, certainly including the Bill of Rights, are about expanding civil liberties and rights. Therefore Chapter 8 is about civil rights and liberties.

 

Having covered the major articles and the amendments, we have run out of Constitution. Nevertheless, several subjects remain that need to be covered in order to understand how American government actually works. These include important groups and processes, and the policies that government produces. So in Chapter 9 we will look at interest groups, what the Founders called “factions.” The Founders did not like factions any more than Americans today like interest groups. The problem the Founders faced was how to control them without reducing freedom of people to create groups to pursue political goals. We continue to struggle with that problem. Interest groups are so central to the operation of American government today that one cannot understand how American politics operates without understanding how interest groups operate. And if you want to influence government, understanding interest groups is a must. 

 

Chapter 10 examines another kind of group that Americans also generally dislike, political parties, and also the process that most concerns political parties, elections. The Founders hoped we could operate without political parties, which they also lumped in with the idea of factions. But parties proved necessary in the organization of elections back then. They still do today. So we will also examine elections in this chapter. We will pay particular attention to election rules and to the question of citizen participation in elections. Rules are very important, and they vary a great deal across different kinds of elections and across the states. This variation reflects our federal system. Voting is central to elections. Voting can be seen as a question—to vote or not to vote. On the one hand, voting participation is critical to our keeping our democratic republic. But on the other hand, voting is an irrational act in terms of the time and trouble required. This poses another paradox we will examine in that chapter: the survival of a democratic republic requires citizens to act irrationally.

 

Chapter 11 examines public opinion, political socialization, and the media. Political socialization refers to the process by which we get our political opinions and identifications. The media have a great influence on what we know about the world, and the computer age is bringing about a revolution in how we get information and the amount of available information and misinformation. In a democratic republic politicians must pay attention to what the public wants, or else they will not stay in office for long. But the public is ill-informed on most issues. So the paradox that political leaders face every day involves respecting and honoring a public that is usually ignorant on most issues. This involves some delicate balancing.

 

IV. Policy and the Text—Health Care

 

A.    Policy and the Text

 

Almost all American government texts end with several chapters on the product of government activity—public policy. Often texts have a chapter on economic policy, a chapter on social welfare policy, and often a chapter on foreign policy. Longer texts may have additional chapters on education policy or environmental policy. This text will cover public policy differently. Rather than put policy off until the end of the text in separate chapters, we will cover various policies in the middle of chapters to illustrate points and at the ends of several chapters in sections called “policy implications.”

 

I chose to integrate policy into many chapters for several reasons. I want to encourage you to think about what government does as you are considering the various parts and processes of our government. Second, because keeping up with current events is a central part of what we will be doing every day and because many news stories are about government policies, thinking about policy throughout the course fits the goal of daily news consumption. Finally, because policies are changing all the time, relying on the news rather than the text to cover the latest wrinkles in policies helps prevent the text from going out of date so quickly. So our focus in the “policy implications” sections will be more about long term historical changes and forces that shape policies than current policy content.

 

B.    Health Care Policy

 

We are in the middle of a very important step in a long term historical change in health care policy. So we will talk about that policy now. It illustrates many of the ideas in this introductory chapter: living in the republic rather than a democracy, ideological differences, the two faces of power, and federalism.

 

The struggle to provide universal health insurance has been an ongoing story since the early 1900s when Republican Teddy Roosevelt argued for universal health care. If majority opinion was all that’s required to pass a policy, we would have had universal health care long ago, because popular majorities have favored universal care since the early 1900s. But we do not have a democracy where public opinion directly determines government policy. Rather we have a republic where the link between opinion and policy is indirect and much less certain. Political leaders have to be political—they have to practice the “art of the possible” to bring about change.

 

Government guaranteeing access to health care was not possible for a long time. Franklin Roosevelt decided that it was too difficult. Interests that preferred the status quo, which included doctors and hospitals who feared government control of prices, were adept in the exercising the second face of power, preventing things from happening that otherwise might have happened.

 

Nevertheless, government policy did indirectly encourage expanded access during the Roosevelt years. Many workers began to receive health insurance through employment. This was an historical fluke that happened during WWII.  Wages were frozen as part of the government war effort. But government allowed companies to add health benefits to attract workers. Companies needing workers did this, and the practice has continued. While many workers were covered in this arrangement, the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, and many self-employed, were simply not covered, unless they could afford their own individual policies. Most could not.

 

After many failed starts, the first major change in the direction of direct government involvement took place in 1965 following Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide election that gave the Democrats large majorities in both houses of Congress. Johnson had enough supporters in Congress with liberal and populist ideological beliefs about what government should do to bring about change. This included mostly Democrats but also significant number of Republicans who were not as conservative as most Republicans are today. With Johnson’s skills at the “art of the possible,” Congress passed Medicare, which covered the elderly, and Medicaid, which covered the poor.

 

The 1960s reforms still left many uncovered, and their numbers grew. The unique American arrangement of health insurance through employers was under increasing pressure as health care costs rose with new health technology and increasing longevity and as companies tried to trim employment costs to be competitive in a global market. Companies in most nations were not burdened with health care plans.  In 1994 President Clinton tried to expand coverage, but the effort failed. He did not have the majorities he needed in Congress.

 

President Obama promised to address the problem after his election in 2008. He did, but with great difficulty and at great political cost. He did not get all that he wanted, but he got about as much as he could—again illustrating the art of the possible. The process of getting there had to overcome several challenges. Conservatives and libertarians, who comprised nearly all Republicans, bitterly opposed more government action in health care. Using every procedural ploy possible, Obama and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 (popularly called “Obamacare”).

 

President Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on

March 23, 2010 (photo by Keith Ellison, Creative Commons)

 

A majority of the public wanted more access to health care and liked parts of the plan, such as extending coverage to children up to the age of 26, doing away with lifetime benefit limits, and prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. But a majority opposed the “individual mandate” that required everyone who could afford to do so to buy health insurance (excluding those who had insurance through employment and those on Medicare or Medicaid). In fact, the mandate was necessary to pay for the things that the public did like. Without a mandate, people would buy insurance only when they were sick. That would make insurance unaffordable.

 

Those interests opposed to the new law challenged it in court. In a landmark decision, National Federation of Independent Business et al v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services (2011), the Supreme Court narrowly ruled most of the law to be constitutional under the taxing powers of the national government. We will discuss this case in more detail later in the text. Though the law was upheld, the political battle continued.

 

Popular opposition to the mandate provision had already hurt the Democrats in the 2010 congressional election. Exploiting this opposition, Republicans took over the House and narrowed the majority Democrats had in the Senate. Republicans hoped that continued popular opposition to the mandate would enable them to win both the White House and Senate in 2012. A promise to repeal the law became a centerpiece of their 2012 campaign. But public opinion had changed. A clear majority no longer simply wanted to repeal the law. For this and a variety of other reasons, including Obama’s political skill, he survived. The Democrats narrowed the Republican majority in the House and widened their majority in the Senate.

 

But again, the battle was not over. Implementing a policy in a federal system often requires cooperation of state governments. The Affordable Care Act had included greatly expanding Medicaid to cover more poor people who could not afford to buy insurance in the insurance pools that states were to set up for consumers. The 2011 Supreme Court decision undercut this Medicaid expansion by ruling that states could opt out of the expansion. Moreover, only about half the states were setting up insurance pools from which those who could afford insurance could buy a policy. As of this writing, the national government is setting up many of these pools. Evolving health care policy illustrates the complex relationship between national and state actions in our federal system.

 

Health care policy also illustrates many of the other topics in this text: interest group action, political parties, constitutional checks and balances, the congressional law making process, the dynamics of shifting public opinion, and the operation of bureaucracy. We can add deficits, taxing, and spending to the list because health care is a major portion of the national budget.

 

 

V. Final Introductory Comments

 

Each chapter begins with a detailed outline that provides an overview of the chapter. The body of the text is the outline again with the text filled in. Students tell me that this organization helps them in their reading and understanding. In the text I have bold faced key terms and ideas, which I repeat following the text. Quite often I will underline simple definitions. You should have already noticed the bold faced terms and ideas in this introduction. Some ideas are repeated in more than one chapter, which is okay because they relate to more than one topic. Moreover, repetition and reinforcement help people learn.

 

 

I want to thank the University of South Carolina Aiken for providing me with a one semester sabbatical to get a first draft of this text written in the Spring of 2008. It would not have been possible without that help. I also want to thank my students for giving me feedback on previous online texts I have written for other courses (Introduction to Politics, Southern Studies, and Research Methods). Their feedback has helped me understand what works and does not work. They also found many unintentional errors that slipped by, as I am sure they will in this latest edition! I also should thank my colleagues in political science at USC Aiken, Professors Steven Millies and Carol Botsch for making suggestions. In particular, I want to thank Carol Botsch, my colleague/spouse, who suggested the way to integrate policy into the other chapters, suggested ways to combine some chapters that are usually separate chapters in other texts, and finally for a massive editing job that spotted numerous errors of all kinds, ranging from simple typos to factual mistakes to ideas not clearly expressed.

 

Despite all this excellent help, the text will have errors and shortcomings. These are mine and mine alone. If you find errors, please let me know by email at bobb@usca.edu. Suggestions are also welcome, though I make no promises to follow them. One of the very nice things about an e-text is that unlike paper texts, errors can be quickly corrected.

 

 

KEY TERMS AND IDEAS

 

paradox

Federalist Papers

political science

civics

republic

democracy

initiative process

recall

referendum

politics

Aristotle

power

paradox of power

government

ideology

populists

libertarians

liberals

conservatives

partisan polarization

unitary system

confederal system

federal system

the Affordable Care Act of 2010

 

Possible Web Exercises

 

1. Find the names of your member of Congress and your two United States Senators, if you do not already know them. Then find the names of your state legislator and your state senator (using your home address). Students often confuse state legislators with national legislators, just like they confuse their state legislature with the Congress.

 

2. Political scientists have developed much more complex ideological schemes than the one presented in this chapter. You can find one at the Pew Research Center that allows you to take a test to see where you fit in with other Americans by clustering nine groups together who have similar opinions on a range of issues. Take the test and see where you fit in and what the groups are at: http://typology.people-press.org/typology/

 

3. Here is a simpler quiz asking 20 questions that uses the four same terms to those I used in the chapter (liberal, populist, libertarian, conservative) plus socialist (which seems to be an extreme version of what we called liberal) and moderate or centrist (whatever ideological type) (which seems to indicate weaker versions of liberals, conservatives, libertarians, or populists). More questions in more issue areas would be better, but these 20 questions do cover a pretty good range of issues. What this suggests is that while we can have pure types, most people are colorations of these pure types that vary with the set of issues in question. http://www.selectsmart.com/FREE/select.php?client=Politicalideas.