Unit Two: Government and Politics

Most people around the world, whether they live in a democracy or under a dictatorship, like to complain about their government.  What is a government?  What forms does it take?  What power does it have?  How does government influence society?  This unit will attempt to make the student more aware of the role of government in society.

Why do we need government?

The existence of disagreements leads to different groups attempting to impose their will on other groups.  Governments have been formed to balance individual rights with the rights of society at large.  The conflict and cooperation in politics are channeled through government.  The government can coerce us to do things because it is supposed to represent the public interest.

Government: Authority and the use of force.

executionWhen studying groups, one of the outcomes of groups is that leadership emerges. Think of the government as a system of leadership.  When a decision needs to be made, the government has the power to enforce that a decision is carried out.  Power means the ability to get your way, even over the objections of others.  The legitimate use of power is called authority.  The illegitimate use of power is called coercion.  For example, as a student you recognize an instructor’s authority to review your homework, correct a test, and administer a grade. However, if the instructor attempted to decide who you should marry, where you should live, and what kind of car to drive, you would recognize that as an illegitimate use of power.  The instructor would have no authority in those areas.

What authority does the government have?  Governments claim to have authority in settling disputes between individuals, or between individuals and institutions.  Governments also claim they have a legitimate right to use force or violence to achieve their goals.  In fact, governments claim to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force or violence in society That is why there are laws against vigilantism, and why the government, and not individuals, conducts executions.

In the past, most government’s authority was based on tradition, that is, authority was passed down from generation to generation to specific groups in society.  With the advent of the industrial revolution most societies have moved to what is called a rational-legal authority.  This is where the government claims authority through a legally set of written rules which have been codified into laws.  The Constitution of the United States would be an example.

Theoretical Analysis of Politics

The issue of power and how it is applied in human society, has created a debate within the field of sociology.  The three major theories on the application of power are described briefly below.

The Pluralist Model

pluralistThis model sees the political arena as a place where negotiation and compromise take place among competing interest groups with the end result of power being dispersed among the groups.  This dispersal of power means that all people have at least some voice in their political system.  Different and varied interest groups form alliances, often temporary, to achieve social and political goals.  This model views the United States government as democratic.

The Power Elite Model

C. Wright Mills coined the term, the “power elite” back in the 1950’s to explain the exercise in power in the United States.  The power elite model refers to a system where power is concentrated among the rich in institutions such as business, government, and the military. This group of people make just about all the important decisions in the United States.   Members of the power elite move from one sector to another, accumulating power as they go.  Power elite theorists would point out that many former generals in the military upon retirement, take important jobs at multinational corporations, many in the defense industry.  Or it could go in the opposite direction as when Dick Cheney gave up his job as CEO of Halliburton to become Vice President of the United States. According to this theory, the power elite (corporations, government, military) dominate our lives, and it is from this control that power is derived. This theory challenges the claim that the United States is a democracy, since most of the power resides in the hands of a few.

In a speech before leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned the country against a special relationship between the military and corporations called the “military- industrial complex“. According to Eisenhower, this relationship produces a situation where both the military and the corporations that make defense products both benefit from a large military budget and from policies favoring military solutions to international problems. Do you think the military-industrial complex exists?  If so, would it fit into C.Wright Mills concept of a power elite? Would the existence of a military-industrial complex threaten the continuation of democracy?

1.  Revolving Door in Government from Opensecrets.org

2.  Government-Industry Revolving Door from Sourewatch

The Marxist Model

Like the power elite model, the Marxist model is from the conflict theory school of thought.  It too, believes that democracy does not exist in the United States. Whereas the power elite model believes that the problem is power being concentrated in the hands of a wealthy minority, the Marxist model sees the problem in the capitalist system.  They believe that power elites are created by the capitalist system itself.

The Connection of Wealth to Power

It often happens that cultural ideas are threatened by the extreme concentration of power in the hands of a few people in the political and economic realms.  When this happens, the result is an abuse of power that works against the interests of the many citizens. The abuse of power is often related to the size and complexity of the government and organizations involved.  The concentration of political and economic power creates many social problems. Today in the United States, one of the organizations that has gained great power is the corporation.  Corporations are business enterprises owned by stockholders who often have large financial resources available to them. These financial resources are used to influence politicians and public policy. Over the last century, corporations have grown and extended their activities into other countries. When they do this they are known as multinational corporations.

1.  Introduction to Corporate Personhood

2.  Recent Supreme Court Decisions Favoring Corporations

Consequences of the Concentration of Power

When wealth and power are concentrated into the hands of a few there are many consequences to society.  These consequences are outlined briefly below.

1.  Effects on Competition: One of the problems with merging economic and political power is that it can restrict competition.  Competition is a cornerstone to a capitalist society. Through competitions, consumers are able to enjoy lower prices and innovations from new products and services.  Without competition, consumers suffer and are at the mercy of large business enterprises.

2.  Conflict Between Societal and Corporate Goals: Because of the concentration of economic power in corporations the question arises whether corporations pursue goals that are broadly beneficial to society or goals that enhance the interests of the corporations or particular groups.  For example, when a corporation closes down production in the United States and moves production to another country that has cheaper labor costs and lower taxes, whose interest is being served?  for the corporation there may be an improvement in the companies bottom line. But for American society the cost will be great. There will be an increase in many social problems, from unemployment and poverty to crime and alcoholism.

3.  Threats to Democratic Institutions: As corporations have grown larger and multinational, their economic power has increased.  Many multinational corporations have more financial resources available to them than many countries.  This gives corporations a great deal of power to demand that nations pursue policies that are favorable to corporate interests. When governments appease the large multinational corporations, it means they cannot respond to the democratic wishes of their citizens. In addition to being able to influence the economies of countries, corporations play a influential role in the political process through the funding of political campaigns.  In the United States, this has led to calls for campaign finance reform. Achieving campaign finance reform may have become more difficult in the United States since the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  In this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not limit the amount of money that corporations can spend on trying to influence political elections. In its ruling, the Supreme Court equated political donations to free speech. In other words, limiting the amount of money that can be donated to a political campaign would be limiting the first amendment right to free speech.

1.  Corporations Among the Largest Economic Entities

2.  Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission at opensecrets.org

4.  Problems for Workers: As corporations move production to where wages are lower, an increasing number of workers in the United States have experienced unemployment or underemployment.  The phrases “downsizing” and “outsourcing” have become familiar to American workers, even for those in white-collar professions.  As the power of unions has waned over the last few decades, corporations will have a freer hand in establishing wages and working conditions.

5.  Abuse of Government Authority:  As governments and corporations get larger and more powerful, there is an irresistible urge to collude.  As the size of corporations and government grows, many citizens find themselves removed from those who actually make decisions.  Those key decision makers are those who control large economic and governmental bureaucracies. for example, think of the Defense Department, where cost overruns are common.  Officials within the Defense Department tend to look the other way when corporations with defense contracts greatly exceed the spending on their contracts.

Who benefits in society when power is concentrated?

Generally speaking, in a society where so much power is concentrated in the hands of a few in economic and political circles, the mass of citizens then have less power and more difficult lives. In the United States wealthy individuals and interest groups tend to get government to work for their interests.  How does this all work?  Politicians need to raise money to get elected.  Since poor people do not have a lot of disposable income to donate to political campaigns, politicians look to wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups.  With respect to political donations, wealthy individuals, corporations and interest groups tend to : 1) give to candidates who are running unopposed, 2) give money to both sides in an election  to “hedge their bets”, and 3) overwhelmingly support incumbents, who win elections over 90% of the time. If wealthy individuals and corporations spend the majority of money on elections, does this mean that the viewpoints and concerns of the  majority of citizens are not represented and that the viewpoints and agenda of the wealthy and corporations dominate our society?


Types of Government.

There are different ways that authority is derived and/or shared amongst the governed.  Below is a brief description of the various types of government.


monarchyMonarchies are a form of government where the authority or right to rule is passed down through family lines generation to generation.  Monarchies have been commonly found in agricultural societies.  As societies pass from agricultural to industrial, the appeal of monarchies begins to fade. Examples would be the dynasties of ancient Egypt, the domains of the various kings and queens of European history, and the various principalities and states of ancient India. Today monarchies still exist in countries in the Middle East such at Qatar and  other countries such as Nepal and Thailand.

1.  A Day in the Life of Louis XIV

2.  Photo Gallery of the Modern Kings and Queens


A theocracy is a form of government where the authority to rule rests with religious leaders.  Under a theocracy,  there is no separation of church and state.  Theocracies appeal to those who want the structure of government to uphold and protect “divine” laws.  Modern examples of theocracies would be the Vatican, which is ruled by the Pope,  Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban, and Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini.


Authoritarian governments are regimes that have a great deal of power and severely limit the civil liberties and freedoms of those governed.  If democracies are characterized by popular participation in government, authoritarian governments are recognizable by their denial of rights and indifference to the needs of the people.  The government functions to serve the needs of those in power.  Sometimes a dictatorship is formed, where a small group or just one person seizes power.  Authoritarian governments are often supported by an outside country who is hoping for a benefit.  During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union supported authoritarian governments.  Iraq, under Saddam Hussein was an example of an authoritarian government.


nazismOver time authoritarian dictatorships usually develop into totalitarianism.  Totalitarianism refers to a government that has total, or complete control over the lives of its citizens. Examples would be Hitler controlled Germany, and the Soviet Union under Stalin.    Totalitarian governments deny the right to be critical of the government, and instead create an atmosphere of isolation and fear.  Obedience and allegiance to the government and or leader is primary.  Totalitarian governments span the political spectrum from fascist Nazi Germany to communist North Korea. Trying to distinguish between a totalitarian government and an authoritarian one is  not easy.  During the Cold War,  governments that were  anti-communist,  used propaganda and punished those who opposed them.  They  were considered authoritarian.  Governments that were communist, and used both propaganda and brainwashing to control the thoughts and beliefs of its citizens were thought to be totalitarian.

Fascism is one example of a totalitarian government.  Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long and furious debates concerning the exact nature of fascism and its core tenets.  The short definition of  Fascism is a government  marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, the state promoting corporate interests, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.  A longer definition has been developed by  Dr. Laurence Britt, a political scientist, studied the fascist regimes of: Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile). He has developed a fourteen point definition of fascism. They are:

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism From the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.

2. Disdain for the importance of human rights The regimes themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.

3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. The methods of choice—relentless propaganda and disinformation—were usually effective. Often the regimes would incite “spontaneous” acts against the target scapegoats, usually communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other religions, secularists, homosexuals, and “terrorists.” Active opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.

4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism Ruling elites always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite.

5. Rampant sexism Beyond the simple fact that the political elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.

6. A controlled mass media Under some of the regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media orthodoxy. Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats. The leaders of the mass media were often politically compatible with the power elite. The result was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’ excesses.

7. Obsession with national security Inevitably, a national security apparatus was under direct control of the ruling elite. It was usually an instrument of oppression, operating in secret and beyond any constraints. Its actions were justified under the rubric of protecting “national security,” and questioning its activities was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.

8. Religion and ruling elite tied together Unlike communist regimes, the fascist and protofascist regimes were never proclaimed as godless by their opponents. In fact, most of the regimes attached themselves to the predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug. Propaganda kept up the illusion that the ruling elites were defenders of the faith and opponents of the “godless.” A perception was manufactured that opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.

9. Power of corporations protected Although the personal life of ordinary citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations to operate in relative freedom was not compromised. The ruling elite saw the corporate structure as a way to not only ensure military production (in developed states), but also as an additional means of social control. Members of the economic elite were often pampered by the political elite to ensure a continued mutuality of interests, especially in the repression of “have-not” citizens.

10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated Since organized labor was seen as the one power center that could challenge the political hegemony of the ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or made powerless. The poor formed an underclass, viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. Under some regimes, being poor was considered akin to a vice.

11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema to these regimes. Intellectual and academic freedom were considered subversive to national security and the patriotic ideal. Universities were tightly controlled; politically unreliable faculty harassed or eliminated. Unorthodox ideas or expressions of dissent were strongly attacked, silenced, or crushed. To these regimes, art and literature should serve the national interest or they had no right to exist.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment Most of these regimes maintained Draconian systems of criminal justice with huge prison populations. The police were often glorified and had almost unchecked power, leading to rampant abuse. “Normal” and political crime were often merged into trumped-up criminal charges and sometimes used against political opponents of the regime. Fear, and hatred, of criminals or “traitors” was often promoted among the population as an excuse for more police power.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption Those in business circles and close to the power elite often used their position to enrich themselves. This corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of government favoritism. Members of the power elite were in a position to obtain vast wealth from other sources as well: for example, by stealing national resources. With the national security apparatus under control and the media muzzled, this corruption was largely unconstrained and not well understood by the general population.

14. Fraudulent elections Elections in the form of plebiscites or public opinion polls were usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite.

In the United States over the past few decades, there has been a debate as to whether the United States has been embracing elements of fascism.  What do you think?

1.   Definition of Fascism


Although many Americans believe their government is democratic, a good case could be made that it is not. The term oligarchy refers to a government ruled by the few.  With an oligarchy, the decisions that shape and influence citizens lives are made by a small, but very powerful group of people.  The decisions are made with the interests of the small group in mind, not the larger society. Is the United States an oligarchy? There is considerable debate on this point.  In theory it is a democracy with every post open to anyone. In practice those standing for election need large amounts of money for campaigning. Most candidates receive money which tends to come from the corporations, whose interests and desires are therefore met by those elected with their money.

1.  OligarchyUSA

2.  America’s Surge Toward Oligarchy (Study on the Concentration of Wealth)


The term “plutocracy” is formally defined as government by the wealthy, and is also sometimes used to refer to a wealthy class that controls a government, often from behind the scenes. More generally, a plutocracy is any form of government in which the wealthy exercise the preponderance of political power, whether directly or indirectly.  In a plutocracy, the degree of economic inequality is high while the level of social mobility is low.

If there are no forms of control within the society, the plutocracy can easily collapse into a “kleptocracy” or a “reign of thieves” where the powerholders attempt to confiscate as much public funds as possible as their private property.  A kleptocratic state is usually thoroughly corrupt, has very little production and its economy is unstable.  Many failed states represent kleptocracies.



democracy1What is a democracy? The ancient Greeks meaning of democracy is that the authority to govern comes from the people.  This definition still serves us well today.  But the type of democracy practiced in ancient Greece is different from the type of democracy practiced today.  Ancient Greece, as well as our early New England towns, practiced direct democracy.  Direct democracy permits citizens to vote on most, if not all, issues. However, in the modern United States, with a population of over 300 million, it is difficult to get everyone to vote.  We currently practice indirect, or representative democracy.  In our society a representative government is often referred to as a republic. Citizens select a representative from amongst themselves to make decisions for them.

Characteristics of Democracy.  Although democracies around the world differ from each other in some respects, they all share certain characteristics.  They are:

Value of the individual.  Our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution emphasize individual liberty over other government goals.  This cornerstone to democracy has attracted immigrants from around the world to come to America to work, play or worship in their own way.

Political Equality.  All citizens have equal standing before the government and are entitled to equal rights.  This element of democracy has evolved over time in our country.

Majority Rule.  After disagreements over policies have been debated, outcomes are then decided by majority rule.  Minorities go along with this because they hope they will be in the majority on other issues.

Minority Rights.  If minorities feel that their expectations are going unfulfilled, then the minorities will be less inclined to tolerate majority decisions.  If this happens there could be social strife and violence.  It is therefore vital to a democracy to include minority rights along with majority rule.

1.  Democracy Speech from the movie The Dictator

2.  Speech from The Newsroom:  Why the United States Is No Longer the Greatest Country

Politics in the United States

Over its history, the United States government has undergone dramatic change.  When the United States first gained its independence from Great Britain, the size and role of government was small.  Today, the United States government has grown into a vast, and complex modern state,  where a range of government agencies and programs provide services to the population. In 1789 there was one government employee for every 1,800 citizens. Today there is one government employee for every fourteen citizens.

The Political Spectrum

The term political spectrum refers to the comparison of different political positions.  People will align themselves either left or right on the political spectrum on both economic issues (taxes, regulation, trade) and social issues (abortion, gay marriage, role of religion).  In the United States, political parties market themselves through a variety of economic and social issues. Most Americans think that the Democratic and Republican parties  have been around forever.  Yet these parties were historical developments after the founding of our country.  In fact, George Washington warned against the harmful effects of political parties and described them as the people’s worst enemies.  In addition, there is no mention of political parties in the Constitution.

1.  Redefining the Political Spectrum

2.  Political Compass Test


What Are Political Parties?

politcalpartiesPolitical parties are a link between people and government.  Political parties are organizations that seek to control government and promote their beliefs.

What Are The Functions Of A Political Party?

Political parties select officials by recruiting and screening candidates and then providing campaign resources.  Political parties help give individuals a sense of power.  Membership in a party makes an individual feel like they can get his/her wishes met.  Political parties help people to vote on the basis of issues.  Political parties can be viewed as having an association with certain issues.  For example, the Republican Party is associated with protecting second amendment rights, while the Democratic Party is associated with protecting the environment.  Knowing that a candidate belongs to a certain political party helps the voter to understand the candidates general views, without needing to know the candidates position on every issue.

Development of the Party System

Most of the Founding Fathers were weary of political parties.  James Madison thought that political parties would pursue selfish interests at the expense of the common good.  The first two major political parties in our country were the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans or Anti Federalists.  In the election of 1828, the Jeffersonian Republicans split into two parties.  By 1832 two new parties were established: the Democratic Party and the Whigs.  The Whig party was replaced by the Republican Party in 1860.  Since then the Republican and Democratic parties have been the two dominant parties in American politics.  Throughout the last 170 years, there have been periods when either the Democrats or Republicans have dominated our government.

The Two Party System

The American party system is essentially a two party system.  This means that Democrats and Republicans win the vast majority of seats in political contests.  One of the main reasons for the development of a two party system is the winner take all arrangement.  This means only one individual is elected, the person who received the most votes, and that individual represents the entire district.  This is in contrast to proportional representation, where seats in the national legislature go to political parties roughly according to the proportion of the popular vote they have received.  The American system of elections make it difficult for third party candidates to win.  Third parties face many obstacles in trying to establish themselves.  They find it difficult to attract members because voters think they are “wasting” their vote on a third party candidate.  Third parties do influence politics however.  Much of the reform legislation passed at the beginning of the 20th century, was taken from the platform of progressive third parties.  And of course, the attention given to the budget deficit in the 1992 and 1996 elections can be attributed at least in part to the influence of Ross Perot’s Reform party.

The people represented by elected officials are called constituents. Whether Republican or Democrat, constituents make their concerns known to their representatives. In turn, elected officials must not only reflect the concerns of their own political party but must also try to attract support from people in their districts or states who belong to the other party. They can attract this support by supporting bipartisan issues (matters of concern that cross party lines) and nonpartisan issues (matters that have nothing to do with party allegiance).

1.  Directory of U.S. Political Parties

2.  The History of American Political Parties

3.  Incumbency Rates for Members of Congress

4.  Americans Are Disgusted With Both Republicans and Democrats

5.  Milwaukee Area Election Results from 1980 – 2012

6.   Two Major Political Parties Trying to Pass Law Saying Only “Top Two” Choices Allowed on Ballot

Interest Groups

In the United States every activity and interest is  organized into a  group.  Each group strives to achieve their goals.  Sometimes to reach their goal, they need the help of government.  This is where interest groups play an important role in American politics.


What Is An Interest Group?

An interest group is an organization that seeks government assistance to achieve a goal.


What Are The Functions Of An Interest Group?

Interest groups try to influence government through lobbying.   Lobbying involves either direct action, such as meeting with a representative, or indirect action such as attempting to sway public opinion through advertisements.  Members of an interest group believe that there is “strength in numbers”.  Members of an interest group believe that if they pool their resources together they have a higher chance of success.

1.  Interest Groups Explained

2.  Corporations That Spend the Most on Lobbying See the Biggest Declines in Tax Rates

3.  Power in Numbers:  Lobbyists Have Congress Covered

Types of Interest Groups

Interest groups represent all types of interests.  Some have large memberships such as the National Rifle Association (NRA).  Others are small.  Some are not even considered an interest group, such as a large corporation like Microsoft, even though they lobby members of our government.  Some interest groups are formally organized, with elected leaders, and others have few formal structures.  Some interest groups are multi-issue organizations, such as Common Cause, while others are single issue organizations, such as the right to life movement.

Tactics of Interest Groups

Interest groups use a number of tactics to achieve their goals.  Some of the strategies include:

Making Personal Contacts–  Having a personal meeting with a government representative.  These types of contacts often carry a lot of influence.

Providing Expertise–  Some lobbying groups conduct research and offer their findings to public officials.  Consumer groups and environmental groups are examples.

Raising Money–  Interest groups solicit money from members to donate to political campaigns of candidates that support issues favorable to the interest group.

Mobilizing Support–  Interest groups believe larger numbers will help their cause.  Grass roots efforts are attempts to communicate ideas and increase membership.

Shaping Public Opinion–  Many interest groups get involved in public relations activities where they attempt to provide the public with information and to present their cause in a positive light.  Some groups will provide information on how candidates vote on issues important to the group.

Protesting and Civil Disobedience–  Many interest groups try to influence members of our government through the use of protests.  Most groups demonstrate their concerns through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, where group members offer themselves up for arrest.

1.  Public Policy and Interest Groups

2. Are Lobbyists a Fourth Branch of Government?


The Influence of Money in Political Campaigns


The election of our representatives is one of the cornerstones to democracy.  The right to choose our government representatives is one in which Americans have fought and died for.  In this section, we will explore the influence and consequences of money in political campaigns.

Perhaps one of the most undemocratic features of the U.S. political system is how political campaigns are financed. Over time the cost of political campaigns have increased dramatically. In 2008, $5.3 billion was raised for presidential and congressional elections. In the 2004 presidential campaign, President Bush and Senator Kerry collectively spent $650 million.  It is estimated that President Obama will raise over $1 billion dollars by himself, for the 2012 presidential election. While some of this money is spent by the candidates, much of the money is raised an  spent by outside groups. In 2002 Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as the McCain-Feingold Act) to limit  the use of outside money in campaigns.  However, the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling effectively invalidated the McCain Feingold Act. It eliminated any spending limits on outside groups for campaign spending.  Corporations, unions, and other organizations can now legally give unlimited amounts of money for ads to sway voters.  When candidates have to raise so much money to run an election, it means that politicians have to go to the wealthy and corporations to fund their campaigns. This means political candidates tend to represent the wealthy over everyone else.

1.  Politiwidgets

2.  The Majority of Congress Now Millionaires

3. Long List Describing How the US Government is Corrupt

4.  New Study Provides Proof That Political Donations (Money) Influences Politicians

5.  Dialing for Dollars:  Members of Congress Spend 4 hours a Day on the Phone Asking for Donations (article and video)

6.  Politician Tells a Group of Bankers He Only Meets With Lobbyists Who Give Him Cash


Voting and the Election Process

The election of our representatives is one of the cornerstones to democracy.  The right to choose our government representatives is one in which Americans have fought and died for.  In this section, we will explore the importance of voting and elections to a democracy, and why, despite its importance, so few people participate in the election process.

Expansion of the American Electorate

It comes as a surprise to many Americans that most citizens at the time when the Constitution was established, could not vote.  The Constitution gave states the right to regulate suffrage.  Thus, many qualifications were instituted to restrict voting.  Such things as property qualifications and religious tests were used to discourage voting.  By the time of the Civil War, these restrictions had been removed and voting was expanded to more white males.  After the Civil War, the right to vote was granted to freed blacks through the 15th Amendment.  However, this was a short term right.  Southern whites began using poll taxes and literacy tests to keep blacks from voting.  Through a number of court decisions and amendments to our constitution, the right to vote has been expanded.  Women received the right to vote with the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920.  The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1964 abolished the poll tax.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965, made it illegal to interfere with anyone’s right to vote.  The passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 opened up voting to 18 year olds.  Throughout our nation’s history, the federal government has gradually assumed the power of regulating elections.   Today only convicted felons, the mentally incapable, and non-citizens are not able to vote.

Voter Turnout

Prior to 1900, elections had high turnouts.  As many as 80% of eligible voters voted in the 1840 presidential election.  Political parties were well organized, and officials handed out “favors” if they won.  The Progressive reforms of the early twentieth century changed election politics.  Such reforms as primary elections, voter registration laws, secret ballots were largely effective in cleaning up elections.  Because of these reforms, many poor people, who had benefited from party patronage, lost interest in the political process.   Voter turnout in the United States has been in decline.  Voter turnout is differs depending on the region of the country.  In the 2012 presidential election, 76% of Minnesota citizens voted, compared to 44.5% in Hawaii.

1.  Project Vote-Smart

2.  Voter Turnout Data

3.  Census Report on Voting Characteristics in 2012 Election  

Why Turnout is Low

There are  a number of reasons to explain low voter turnout.  One way of looking at low voter turnout is that not going to the polls indicates that many non-voters are satisfied with how the government is doing its job.  Another reason is that voters are turned off by political campaigns.  They are too long and often degenerate into mudslinging affairs.  A third reason is that in comparison to other countries, voting is difficult in the United States.  The United States government is the only major democracy where the government does little to help citizens deal with the voter registration procedure. A final reason is that many voters choose not to vote because they believe that neither candidate from the two major political parties represents their political views.

1.  Alliance for Better Campaigns

2.  Better Ballot Access

3.  Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections from 1828- 2008


The Election Process

So who runs for president?  Under the provisions of the Constitution, many Americans would qualify.  But what is the profile of the person who runs?  Presidents of the United States have been white, middle to older, males.  Presidents have usually been of a protestant denomination, and have come from middle or upper class families.  Many have served in other political leadership roles, such as senator or governor.

Most candidates formally announce their candidacies in the year preceding the election.  They then begin the long process of campaigning through the long primary and caucus season.  Candidates carefully choose the primaries they will enter and to which they will devote their resources.  To compete successfully, candidates need considerable media coverage.  They will conduct many interviews with reporters from a variety of media outlets.  They try to win as many delegate votes from the state’s primaries as possible.  The goal is to go into the national convention with a majority of delegates.  And most presidential candidates have been able to do so.  But this has reduced the importance of national conventions.  They are now used to endorse the nominee and his choice for vice-president, construct a party platform, and whip up enthusiasm for voters.

The Electoral College

800px-ElectoralCollege2012svgIn the United States we do not have a direct election for president.  The Constitution has provided that electors from each state meet in December after the presidential election to cast their votes.  Each state has as many electors as it has members in Congress.  Presidential candidates need to win a majority of electoral votes (270) to win.  If a candidate does not win a majority, the election goes into the House of Representatives where each state has one vote and a majority is needed to win.  Because the Electoral College is based on states, it encourages campaigns in states with a large electoral count.  That is why most candidates spend a lot of time in states such as California,  New York, and Texas, and little time in states such as Wyoming and Delaware.

1.  Electoral College Reform

2.  Campaigns and Elections: An Online Magazine

3.  Federal Election Commission



   actionSocial Problems in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

Wag the Dog.  Sex and the Presidency.  Sound familiar?



books03 Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Who Will Tell The People? : The Betrayal Of American Democracy by William Greider

2.  The Best Democracy Money Can Buy  by Greg Palast






Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca      2006  Social Problems  (Tenth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2006  Introduction to Social Problems   (7th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)


Copyright ©2008, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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