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Chapter One. The Foundations of American Government. What is Politics?. Process of resolving conflicts and deciding, as Harold Laswell put it, “who gets what, when, and how”

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Chapter One

The Foundations of American Government

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What is Politics?

  • Process of resolving conflicts and deciding, as Harold Laswell put it, “who gets what, when, and how”

  • Struggle over power or influence within organizations or informal groups that can grant or withhold benefits or privileges

  • Process that regulates conflict within society (conflict is universal, endemic, pervasive) over the distribution of benefits

  • David Easton = politics is about the authoritative allocation of values for a society

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What is Government?

  • An institution in which decisions are made that resolve conflicts or allocate benefits and privileges

  • Preeminent institution within society; ultimate authority for making decisions and allocating values

  • Power to enforce rules that impose order and stability; authority to make and enforce laws considered legitimate (proper, appropriate)

  • Max Weber = the state (i.e., government) has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence

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Why Do We Need Government?

  • Security

  • Order

  • Liberty, Equality, Property

  • Men/women are not angels

  • Resources are limited, scarce

  • Conflict is endemic, universal

  • All states seek stability, security, prosperity

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Types of Government

  • Totalitarian regime – rule by a small group or an individual dictator; with control over all aspects of life

  • Authoritarianism – only the government (not social and economic institutions) are fully controlled by the ruler

  • Oligarchy – rule by a few elites, who make decisions to benefit their own group

  • Aristocracy – initially rule by the best suited, which meant the wealthy, later it meant titled nobility

  • Democracy – political power is vested in the people

  • Direct democracy – when citizens vote directly on laws (e.g., initiatives, referendums, recall)

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Discussion Question

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of direct democracy?

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Formal Characteristics of American Democracy

  • Consent of the governed

  • Republican (sovereignty rests in the people)

  • Representative (people elect decision-makers)

  • Limited government (constitutionalism)

  • Universal suffrage

  • Majority rule/minority protections

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What Kind of Democracy Do We Have?

  • Majoritarianism – the political theory that, in a democracy, the government should do what the majority of the people want

  • Elite theory – the idea that society is ruled by a small group who exercise power in their self-interest (class theory = dominant class)

  • Pluralism – a theory that views politics as conflict among interest groups, where decisions are made through bargaining and compromise

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Discussion Question

  • What kind of democracy do you think we we have?

    • majoritarian?

    • elite?

    • pluralistic?

  • What are the strengths/weaknesses of each theory?

  • What kind of democracy should we have?

  • How “democratic” is the U.S.?

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What is Political Culture?

  • Collection of beliefs and attitudes toward government and the political process held by a community or nation

  • Learned through political socialization

  • Occurs in many settings, family, schools, etc.

  • Dominant culture = values, customs, and language established by group or groups that have controlled politics and government

  • Subcultures = competing sets of values

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Fundamental Values of American Political Culture

  • Liberty, equality, and property

  • Liberty = greatest freedom of individuals consistent with freedom of others

  • Equality = all people are of equal worth (formal/legal equality and equal opportunity vs. equality of conditions)

  • Property = anything that is or may be subject to ownership

  • Inherent trade-offs, tension between these values

  • Liberty in tension with equality; equality with property (also liberty with order)

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Discussion Questions

  • How is liberty in tension with equality?

  • How is liberty in tension with order?

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What is Ideology?

  • Ideology = comprehensive set of beliefs about the nature of people (human nature) and the role of government

    • Liberalism = advocates government action to improve the welfare of individuals, support for civil rights and tolerance for social change

    • Conservatism = advocates a limited role for the government in helping individuals and support for traditional values and lifestyles

  • Most Americans tend to be moderate

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What this spectrum leaves out

  • From left to right

    • Communism

    • Democratic Socialism

    • Fascism

  • On a line, or in a circle

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Discussion Question

  • How would you identify yourself?

  • What is your ideological orientation?

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Hot Links to Selected Internet Resources:

  • Book’s Companion Site:

  • Wadsworth’s Political Science Site:

  • Government Resources on the Web:

  • Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy: