Chapter Study Outline

What Americans Think about Government

  1. Americans historically have been reluctant to grant government too much power and have often been suspicious of politicians, but they have also turned to government for assistance in times of need and have strongly supported the government in periods of war.
  2. Political efficacy is the belief that citizens can affect what government does. In recent decades, the public’s trust in government has declined. As public distrust of government has increased, so has public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance.
  3. Americans today are less likely to think that they can influence what the government does. This view has led to increased apathy and cynicism among the citizenry.

Citizenship: Knowledge and Participation

  1. Informed and active membership in a political community is the basis for citizenship. Citizens require political knowledge to be aware of their interests in a political dispute, to identify the best ways of acting on their interests, and to know what political action can and cannot achieve. However, today many Americans have significant gaps in their political knowledge.


  1. Government is the term used to describe the formal institutions through which a land and its people are ruled. Governments vary in their structure, in their size, and in the way they operate.
  2. Beginning in the seventeenth century, two important changes began to take place in the governance of some Western nations: governments began to acknowledge formal limits on their power, and governments began to give citizens a formal voice in politics through the vote.
  3. As Harold Lasswell, a famous political scientist, put it, politics is the struggle over “who gets what, when, how.” The term politics refers to conflicts and struggles over the leadership, structure, and policies of governments.
  4. Political participation can take many forms: the vote, group activities, and even direct action, such as violent opposition or civil disobedience.

Who Are Americans?

  1. As the American population has grown it has become more diverse. In the early years of the Republic, the majority of Americans were European settlers, mainly from northern Europe. One in five Americans was of African origin, the vast majority of whom had been brought to the United States against their will to work as slaves. There was also an unknown number of Indians, the original inhabitants of the land, who were not initially counted by the Census.
  2. In the 1800s and early 1900s, a large wave of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and later from Southern and Eastern Europe changed the demographic profile of the United States. As the population of foreign-born residents reached 14.7 percent in 1910, a movement to limit immigration gained ground. After World War I, Congress placed sharp limits on immigration. It also established the National Origins Quota System, designed to limit the numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.
  3. From the start, the American government used racial and ethnic criteria to draw boundaries around the American population. Until 1870, nonwhites could not become naturalized citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 outlawed the entry of Chinese laborers to the United States, a restriction that was not reversed until 1943.
  4. In 1965, Congress opened the doors to immigrants once again. At the same time, it greatly expanded the number of immigrants who could come from Asia and Latin America. The American population has become much more diverse as a result. European Americans accounted for only two-thirds of the population in 2008. The African American population stood at 12.2 percent, and, reflecting the new immigration, Hispanics accounted for close to 15 percent, with Asian Americans at 4 percent of the American population. In 2005, 12 percent of the population was foreign-born. A small percentage of the population now identifies itself as of “two or more races.” The biracial category points toward a future in which the traditional labels of racial identification may be blurring.

Thinking Critically about American Political Culture

  1. Three important political values in American politics are liberty, equality, and democracy. Liberty means personal and economic freedom, both of which are closely linked to the idea of limited government. Most Americans share the ideal of equality of opportunity, the notion that each person should be given a fair chance to use his or her talents to reach their fullest potential. In a democracy, power ultimately comes from the people, an idea known as popular sovereignty.
  2. At times in American history there have been large gaps between the ideals embodied in Americans’ core values and the practice of American government.
  3. Many of the important dilemmas of American politics revolve around conflicts over prioritizing and applying fundamental political values. One such conflict involves the ideals of liberty and equality. Over time, efforts to promote equality may threaten liberty.