Am Gov Outline

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American Government Outline

My lectures on American Government and Politics begin with a description of the systems model.

Basic Concepts of American  Government

Political system
Structure and Function
Federalism, Unitary Systems, and Confederations
Republics and Monarchies
Rule by One, Few, and Many
Legitimate and Illegitimate Governments
Presidential and Parliamentary Systems
Political Party Systems

Political System

David Easton developed the idea of a political system in several books. A system is any entity which has parts that connect with each other. A system has cohesion and covariance. Almost anything can be viewed as a system.

Every state on this planet has a political system, an economic system, a system of social structure, and a cultural system.

Political systems can be analyzed by their structures and functions.

    Functionally, the political systems may be defined as:

        1. authoritatively allocating values (David Easton).

        2. determining "who gets what, when, and how. (Harold Lasswell).

        3. the steering mechanism which controls the ship of state.  (Aristotle, Deutsch).

        4. having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

    Structurally, political systems may be defined in terms of input, conversion, output, and feedback operating in at least three different environments.


|                                                 | 2.  CONVERSION   |                                         |

|                                                 |               or                  |                                        |

|        1. INPUT--->                  |       DECISION-           |--->---3.> OUTPUT      |

|          a. demands                  |       MAKING             |         governmental       |

|          b. supports                   |     STRUCTURES      |             policies             |

|                  ^                             |___________________|            and laws           |
                     ^                            /                                          /                                    |
|                   ^                       4. F E E D B A C K          /                                          |      

|                   /<-----------------<-------------------<---/                                                    |

|                5. E N V I R O N M E N T                                                                       |
|                        a. domestic environment                                                                |
|                        b. international environment                                                         |
|                        c. natural environment                                                                    |


Characteristics of the American Political System

The United States is a:

The US Constitution is the "supreme law of the land." Constitutional governments are limited in power.  They follow the rule of law and due process.  They are differentiated from various forms of tyranny, dictatorship, absolutism, and totalitarianism.

The US Constitution is above conflicting State law and above other federal laws like U.S. Statutory and U.S. Administrative law.  It outlines the basic structure and functions of our national government.

Federalism is a division of power between the national and state levels of government.  It means the US is neither a unitary system nor a confederation.

Democracy refers to political systems where the rulers are popularly elected by a majority of the voters.  The franchise refers to who has the right to vote.  Today the franchise has been given to all US citizens above the age of eighteen, who have registered to vote and who who are literate. In George Washington's day, the franchise was limited to property owners who paid the requisite property taxes.  Women, slaves, and males who did not own sufficient property could not vote.  Were we a democracy in George Washington's time? 

Republic refers to a political system that is not a monarchy or other hereditary form of government.  In a Republic, the rulers are elected in some fashion.  A republic is not necessarily a democracy.  But republics carry the seeds of democracy within themselves.  If the franchise is enlarged to include most adults, then the system becomes a democracy.  Republics, in addition to not being monarchies, usually provide for a mixed constitution of various checks and balances.  Simple rule by a majority is usually rejected.  The tyranny of the majority is to be feared as much as the tyranny of one person or the tyranny of factions.

Parliamentary and Presidential Systems

Presidential Systems have a chief executive who is directly elected by the voters and who is in control of the executive or administrative branch of government.  Presidential systems usually have a legislative branch of government, which operates independently.  If the legislature is independent of the president, then we can talk about separation of power.  In some presidential systems, the president controls the legislature.  The legislature is merely a rubber stamp for everything the president wants.  A strong political party can be used as a tool to coordinate executive/legislative relationships.

In a Parliamentary System, the leader of the majority party of the lower (popularly elected) house of the legislature is the prime minister (United Kingdom), premier (France, or Chancellor (Germany).  The prime minister is the head of the government.  The prime minister and the other chief (cabinet) ministers all serve in the legislature.  They also control of executive or administrative apparatus of the government.  There is no separation of power in a parliamentary system.  If the prime minister loses a majority vote in the House of Common (lower house of Parliament in the United Kingdom), he must either resign or call for new elections.  In addition to the prime minister, there is also a ceremonial chief of state.  This can be either a king or queen in monarchies or a president in republics.

The President is a ceremonial leader.  Real power resides in the Prime Minister.  Thus in a parliamentary system, the executive is a committee of the legislature.  There is what we might call fusion of power.


Democracy means rule by the people.  The ancient Greeks, particularly the Athenians, were the first people to develop democratic forms of government.  Demos means people.  Kratia is rule by.

Aristotle developed a classification of types of government, which included democracy as one of the variants.


                               (for benefit of all)                                                 (for benefit of rulers)

ONE             MONARCHY                                            TYRANNY (DICTATORSHIP)

FEW             ARISTOCRACY                                       OLIGARCHY

MANY            POLITY                                                    DEMOCRACY


There are many types of Democracy.

1.  Direct Democracy
2.  Representative Democracy
3.  Liberal Democracy
4.  Constitutional Democracy
5.  Populist Democracy
6.  People's Democracy

We will discuss these in class.


Politics is the art of the possible.  Politics is connected to the idea of power.  Politics requires bargaining and compromises.  Politics is the process which animates the political system.  It makes the system dynamic.

Political Party Systems

One Party Systems
Two Party Systems
Multi Party Systems

Comparison of US and UK

United States

United Kingdom

Written Constitution Unwritten Constitutionalism
Federal System Unitary System
Republic    Monarchy
Presidential System Parliamentary System
Two Party System Two Party System
Democracy Democracy

Outline of the Course
GOV 201 and 202

GOV 201

I:  Structure

        1.  Introduction
        2.  U.S. Constitution
        3.  Federalism
        4.  State and Local Government

II:  Inputs
        5.  Demographics
        6.  Social Groupings
        7.  Interest Groups
        8.  Political Parties
        9.  Campaigns and Elections
        10.  Media
        11.  Political Socialization
        12.  Public Opinion
        13,  Voting Behavior

GOV 202

III:  Conversion Structures

        14.  Congress
        15.  Presidency
        16.  Bureaucracy

IV:  Outputs

        17.  Economic Policy
        18.  Foreign and National Security Policy
        19.  Other Domestic Policies

V:  The Judicial System

        20.  The Dual Court System of the United States
        21.  The Federal Court System
        22.  The U.S. Supreme Court
        23.  The Bill of Rights
        24.  First Amendment Freedoms
        25.  Due Process and Fair Trial
        26.  Equal Rights
        27.  The Umpire Role of the Judiciary

VI:  Conclusion

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August 10, 2009
Updated January 3, 2011
Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016