Chapter 1: Understanding American Politics
At first glance, American politics is complicated and complex. Upon further examination, however, everything that happens in the American political process has a logical and often simple explanation. The premise of this book is: American politics makes sense. The content of this book will demonstrate this affirmation through the application of three key ideas of politics: politics is everywhere, the political process matters, and politics is conflictual.
Why Do We Have a Government?
- To provide order
Government is the system for implementing decisions made through the political process. The Founders of the United States believed the absence of government would result in chaos, as there would be no laws and no system of enforcement even if informal rules were established. The preamble of the Constitution defines two central roles of government: to “provide for the common defense,” and to “insure domestic tranquility.”
The Founders assumed people to be self-interested. In order to satisfy their interests, people tend to form factions, groups of like-minded people trying to get something from the government. In order to prevent any one faction from unjustly prevailing over another, America’s government incorporates three mechanisms to control their effects:
- Separation of powers divides government power across the judicial, executive, and legislative branches.
- Checks and balances gives each branch of government some power over the others.
- Federalism divides power across the local, state, and national levels of government.
- To provide for the general welfare
The self-interested nature of people often prevents the high level of organization necessary to efficiently take care of the poor, the sick, or the aged, and deal with major global events. Government programs designed to address these issues are known as public goods, which upon being provided to one person, become available to everyone. Government is typically needed to provide public goods because they will be under-produced by the free market. The underproduction of public goods by the free market can be explained by three phenomena:
- Collective action problem refers to a situation in which the members of a group would benefit by working together to produce some outcome, but each individual is better off refusing to cooperate and reaping the benefits from those who do the work.
- Free rider problem is the incentive to benefit from others’ work without contributing, which leads individuals in a collective action situation to refuse to work together.
- Positive externalities are benefits created by a public good that are shared by the primary consumer of the good and by society more generally.
What Is Politics?
Politics is the process that determines what government does.
- Key Idea 1: Politics Is Everywhere
Media coverage ensures that people are inundated with political stories. Nine of the top ten stories on Google News in January 2008 had a clear connection to the federal government. Furthermore, the sheer size and budget of the U.S. government means that its actions touch virtually every aspect of your life, from the roads and sidewalks you use, to the financial aid package you receive to attend college, to the taxes you pay, and to your ability to use the Internet (since it was developed under contract with the Department of Defense).
- Key Idea 2: Political Process Matters
The United States’ political process determines the outcomes we receive. For example, because elections allow voters to give fellow citizens the power to enact laws, write budgets, and appoint federal judges, policy is theoretically enacted with the desires of the public in mind. Ordinary citizens can also make their voices heard through voting, donating time or money, and demanding action from their government. Furthermore, the political party in power has extensive control over the policies enacted, as the majority opinion tends to prevail in our political process. Finally, the rules that govern who is allowed to be a part of the political process are very important in determining the policies that result; citizens can vote at age eighteen, the president must have been born in the United States, and so on.
- Key Idea 3: Politics Is Conflictual
Conflict reflects intense differences of opinion rooted in self-interest, ideology, and personal beliefs. Conflict is inevitable in American politics; compromise and bargaining are therefore essential to getting things done, especially in instances where there is no obvious policy to satisfy a majority of citizens or elected officials. In most instances, however, conflict is required to arrive at policies that are in the nation’s best interest.
Sources of Conflict in American Politics
- Economic Interests
While economic equality played an important role in defining our nation’s early history and the United States has remained relatively free from class-based politics, over time the nation has separated into socioeconomic classes that have shaped political ideology. This division of classes exists in part because of a strong commitment to the following principles:
- Free market, an economic system based on competition between businesses without government interference
- Economic individualism, the autonomy of individuals to manage their own financial decisions without government interference
The commitment to these economic policies is countered by redistributive tax policies, frequently favored by democratic politicians, in which taxation is used to attempt to create greater social equality. For example, higher taxation of the rich results in funding to provide programs for the poor.
- Cultural Values
Several sources of cultural differences resulting in controversy can be identified in the American political system:
- Culture wars is the political conflict in the United States between “red state” Americans, who tend to have strong religious beliefs, and “blue state” American, who tend to be more secular.
- Identity politics refers to the association between one’s racial, ethnic, and gender identity and one’s political interests. A debate exists in American politics as to whether ethnic and racial differences should be tied to political interests. Those who oppose identity politics often favor the idea of a melting pot, in which different racial and ethnic groups leave their native languages, customs, and traditions behind as they assimilate into American culture.
- Ideology is a cohesive set of ideas and beliefs used to organize and evaluate the political world. The most obvious example of ideologies is the political party system. Three of the most common political ideologies include:
- Conservative: One side of the ideological spectrum, defined by support for lower taxes, a free market, and a more limited government; generally associated with Republicans.
- Liberal: One side of the ideological spectrum, defined by support for stronger government programs and more market regulation; generally associated with Democrats.
- Libertarians: Those who prefer very limited government and therefore tend to be quite conservative on issues such as welfare policy, environmental policy and public support for education, but very liberal on issues of personal liberty like free speech, abortion, and the legalization of drugs.