Analyzing American Democracy
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Analyzing American Democracy

Politics and Political Science

Jon R. Bond, Kevin B. Smith, Lydia Andrade

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eBook - ePub

Analyzing American Democracy

Politics and Political Science

Jon R. Bond, Kevin B. Smith, Lydia Andrade

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About This Book

Following one of the most contentious and truth-challenged presidential administrations and elections in U.S. history, there has never been a greater need for an American government text like this--evidence-based, critically thoughtful, and contemporary in tone and touch. This text teaches students to think analytically by presenting current political science theories and research in answering the engaging, big questions facing American politics today. It serves as an introduction to the discipline—covering the Constitution, political behavior, formal and informal institutions, and public policy--by reflecting the theoretical developments and types of empirical inquiry conducted by researchers. For introductory courses in American government, this text covers theory and methods as well.

New to the Fourth Edition

  • Provides 2020 election data updates throughout and examines policy implications of the ensuing changes in election laws across the country.

  • Recaps controversial Trump administration policies and looks into the Biden administration's early days.

  • Offers strategic updates on the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis both in terms of questions of federalism as well as public policy.

  • Considers the rise of new interest groups and social movements as well as the reckoning with racial injustice.

  • Examines contemporary questions of social justice in light of civil rights and liberties as well as in terms of policy.

  • Covers the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the battle to confirm her replacement, the addition of Justice Coney Barrett, and the policy implications of the shift in the ideological balance of the Court.

  • For the fourth edition, a new co-author comes to the book with award-winning experience in diversity and teacher education as well as research interests in the presidency, women and politics, and foreign policy.

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DOI: 10.4324/9781003164432-1
© AP Photo/Julio Cortez
What is politics? What is government? What is a democracy?
What are the core principles of democracy?
How does a representative democracy uphold these core principles?
How can we make sense of democracy and politics in America?
POLITICIANS HAVE LONG been known for exaggerating their own accomplishments and diminishing those of their opponents, but in general the fear of pushback by the public has kept politicians from blatantly lying. This political norm, however, seemed to have faded under the Trump administration. From the first week in office when White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer had a heated exchange with reporters about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (claiming it was the largest in history while standing in front of pic tures comparing the Trump and Obama inaugurations, clearly showing a larger crowd at the Obama inauguration), to the final moments of Trump’s term when he continually spouted unfounded assertions about election fraud to explain his loss, the truth no longer appeared to be a priority.
And following Trump’s incitement of followers to storm the Capitol, the resultant secu rity threat ensured that the Biden inauguration crowd would be pared to near-zero. Never theless, citizens rely on their political leaders to generally speak the truth and acknowledge reality. More and more unfortunately this expectation is not met, and the results have turned deadly. On January 21, 2020, the first known case of coronavirus in the U.S. was reported and the next day President Trump claimed, “we have it totally under control” (Keith 2020). For the next year, the President would continue to deny scientific evidence on the rate of the spread of the virus and the need for wearing protective masks as a pre ventative measure, all the while holding out the possibility of a vaccine as a panacea. Ten months into the U.S. outbreak, with more than 227,000 Americans dead and the number of new coronavirus cases on the rise approaching 60,000 per day, President Trump continued to promote his alternative view of reality, claiming “We are rounding the corner” on the virus. Each time the President was questioned by reporters on the discrepancy between his portrayal of the virus and that of the data and advice from medical and scientific experts, the President simply restated his factual inaccuracies. In the end even wearing a face mask became a political statement with Trump supporters refusing to comply with state and local ordinances to do so. The President’s politicization of a national crisis rose to the point of dramatically misleading the American public, and in the end people needlessly died.
Arial views of the Obama (left) and Trump (right) inaugural crowds demonstrate the differences in attendance. Despite President Trump’s claim that his was the largest inaugural crowd in history, photographic evidence shows otherwise.
Credit: National Park Service.
President Biden was inaugurated in the midst of the worst pandemic in U.S. history when public events across the country were widely prohibited and, when permitted, were restricted in terms of the number of attendees and social distancing. When photos of the day were released the conver sation was not whose inaugural crowd was the largest as it had been four years earlier, but rather right-wing media outlets and social media chatter ignored the role of the pandemic and claimed the small attendance at Biden’s inaugural was proof that he had not in fact won the election.
What were once just plain and simple falsehoods can now be “alternative facts” (as White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway famously described some of President Trump’s state ments), and “truthiness”—believing something to be true because it feels true, even if it is demonstrably not—is an actual thing (Bradner 2017). If anyone says something that contradicts our comforting self-created “realities,” especially if it comes from some know-it-all reporter or academic, you don’t have to worry about taking it seriously. Just call it fake news. Tom Nichols, a political scientist who wrote a book about “the death of expertise,” describes a contemporary America where “policy debates sound increasingly like fights between groups of ill-informed people who all manage to be wrong,” where debate does not distinguish between “you’re wrong” and “you’re stupid,” and where “to refuse to acknowledge all views as worthy of con sideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be close-minded” (Nichols 2017, 25).
That’s kind of a depressing picture. And if it’s even half-way accurate, you need to know from the beginning that this book is going to be swimming hard against the tide. We not only belong to the reality-based community; we also want you to join us. What follows is premised on the idea that whatever we want the world to be, and regardless of how hard we believe it is exactly that, it just ain’t necessarily so. We believe the world is more than the sum of our own prefer ences and biases, whatever they are, and that to act otherwise is not only to deny reality but to potentially put democracy at risk. We believe the world, including the political world, is real. It can be prodded and poked, observed and measured, patterns can be identified, outcome probabilities calculated, and cause and effect systematically assessed. We believe that some perspectives—those emerging from serious study and empirical analysis—are simply better than others. And by better, we mean better informed, better thought-out, and better at dealing with the often uncomfortable reality—and it is reality—that our political world presents us with.
Fair warning: This sort of analytical thinking, especially about a subject like politics, can be hard work. Most people think politics is, or at least should be, easy. It’s just applied com mon sense, right? Well, no. Turns out that most people have it dead wrong. Americans know remarkably little about politics and government other than that they hold pretty much all of it in disdain. We think the fundamental reason for this is that Americans really do not under stand what a democracy is and what a democracy does. Their judgments of politics and gov ernment are not based on hard-nosed assessments of the realities of democracy. Much of the frustration that Americans express about their government is anchored in a misunderstanding of what democracy is supposed to do, an unrealistic expectation of what it can do, and a fail ure to comprehend the dangers of pursuing undemocratic alternatives to solving problems.
This is not too surprising. Democratic politics is messy and contradictory; making reasoned sense of it is never going to be easy and there are other options that require a lot less effort.
For example, it takes a lot less effort to simply see and understand the political world through our biases and pre dispositions, our ideology and our preferences. Putting those aside and trying to rationally and analytically under stand politics requires some intellectual sweat and labor. But it’s not rocket science. We have no doubt the vast majority of citizens—and that definitely includes you—possess the ability to think cogently and logically about politics. Doing so requires knowing something about the machinery of democracy, its institutions and its operating principles. But that’s not enough. If citizens are to really understand how the parts of a democracy fit together and whether they are working properly, they need to learn how to think analytically about politics. And that’s exactly what this book is going to try and teach you to do.
Analytical thinking is not always easy, but if you want to understand politics it’s worth the effort.
© AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Welcome to the reality-based community.


This book is about understanding how democracy works in the United States. We examine what a democracy is, examine what it is supposed to do, and seek to explain how the institutions and processes of the American political system operate in theory and in practice. We also aim to help readers learn how to think systematically about politics, to employ reasoned analysis—as opposed to ideology, personal preference, or wishful thinking—to make their own independent judgments about what is happening in the political system, why it is happening, and whether it is compatible with the core principles of democracy. This first means gaining a firm understanding of three crucial concepts—politics, government, and popular sovereignty—and what their combination means in the American context.

Politics and Government

For many people, the word “politics” is derogatory. To call others “political” is to accuse them of being manipulative and self-serving. Scholars, however, tend to view politics in more neutral terms. Here are probably the two best-known scholarly definitions of politics.
politics The process of making binding decisions about who gets what or whose values everyone is going to live by.
  1. According to Harold D. Lasswell (1938), politics is “who gets what, when, and how.”
  2. According to David Easton (1953), politics is the “authoritative allocation of values.”
Both definitions say the same thing: All groups must have some way to make collective decisions, and the process of making those decisions is called politics. Politics is thus the process of coming to some definitive understanding of who is going to get what or whose values everyone is going to live by. Because individuals often disagree about who should get what or whose values should be binding on everyone, politics is a process of conflict management and resolution: It is a natural outcome of human interaction, not just something in which politicians and governments engage. Three friends arguing over what movie to watch are engaging in a small-scale form of politics; they are figuring out whose values (in this case, taste in movies) will be binding on the group.
Although disagreements among friends over what movie to watch usually can be resolved without the group resorting to formal decision-making institutions and processes, this is not the case for large groups such as nations. How can we decide what to do as a society? Who or what gets to decide which values are binding on everyone? The institution that has the authority to make such decisions is generally referred to as government.
government The institution that has the authority to make binding decisions for all of society.
Government is not the only institution that seeks to manage conflict and make authoritative decisions about who gets what. Churches, for example, make decisions about what behaviors are right and wrong and urge their members to follow church teachings. What makes government different from other decision-making institutions is coercion. Churches can coerce members of their congregation through threats of excommunication and the like, but they cannot extend that power over nonmembers and other organizations. Governments can. A church that decides that abortion or alcohol consumption is wrong can attempt to make such values binding on its congregation. A government can make such values binding on everyone. Act in defiance of government decisions—that is, break the law—and the government can take your property, your liberty, and even your life. Government is the only institution in society that can legitimately use such coercion on all individuals and organizations, making it the ultimate decider of who gets what (Downs 1957, 23).

Popular Sovereignty

The authority to legally wield this coercive power to allocate values is called sovereignty (this is why monarchs are sometimes called “sovereigns,” reflecting the historical role of kings and queens as absolute rulers). Governments can be categorized into three basic forms based on who wields sovereign powers. Vesting sovereignty in a single person creates a form of government called an autocracy. Autocrats rule as absolute monarchs or dictators, personally deciding who gets what. Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin are examples of autocracies. A second option is to vest power in a small group of people, a government called an oligarchy. A military junta (a group of generals) is an example of an oligarchy. The third option is to broadly share power among all citizens, a form of government called a democracy.
sovereignty The legitimate authority in a government to wield coercive power to authoritatively allocate values.
autocracy A form of government in which the power to make authoritative decisions and allocate resources is vested in one person.
oligarchy A form of government in which the power to make authoritative decisions and allocate r...

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