Whether we participate in it or not, government plays a deeply integral role in how we live. From the taxes we pay and the laws that constrain our behavior, to the federal and state institutions that oversee our communities, to the civil rights and liberties we benefit from, our day-to-day existence is shaped in fundamental ways by the nature, policies, and actions of our government.
If you are like most people, however, you have wondered why the US government works like it does. Regardless of your political leanings, we all have a role to play in protecting our democracy, and by gaining a real grasp of the US governmental system, we’re better equipped to engage with society on a variety of levels. For being a member of society requires more than just a cursory knowledge of government and politics; it requires us to be savvy consumers of news, media, and public opinion, and the ability to discern the deeper content and meaning of the legislation and policies we live with. For those outside of the United States, understanding the internal workings of the US government can give crucial insight into America’s behavior and decisions on the world stage.
But there’s an additional, compelling reason for learning about the structure and processes of the US government: It’s fascinating! The experiment of American democracy has been both historically unprecedented and world-changing, and our political institutions and their development tell one of the most remarkable, intriguing, and complex stories of the modern world.
In Understanding the US Government, prominent political scientist Professor Jennifer Nicoll Victor of George Mason University presents a spirited and comprehensive examination of the ins and outs of the American system of democracy, across 24 revealing lectures, covering both its many institutions and the intertwined political features that have developed as the theory of government designed in 1789 was put into practice.
The Workings of US Democracy
As you take a thorough look at the structure and functions of our government, you will begin with the framing of the Constitution, noting how the document was pieced together as a series of compromises between opposing factions.
From there, you’ll delve into essential topics such as federalism; the nature of our civil liberties and civil rights; the individual functions of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; how government interfaces with the economy; how the federal bureaucracy operates; and how elections and voting work-including a hard look at the enigmatic electoral college. You’ll also examine vital political aspects of our system, including the roles of political parties, campaigning, and money, as well as the landscape of organized interests and the media, foreign policy, and what accounts for the extreme partisan polarization that currently grips US politics.
As an illuminating feature of this course, Professor Victor brings focus to many of the underlying complexities, incongruities, and challenges within our system that offer insights into its workings, such as:
By modern definitions, for decades after its founding, the United States was neither a true democracy nor a democratic republic, due to restrictions on voting rights;
The powers that are formally accorded to the president are surprisingly few, and many of the powers that presidents exercise are simply implied, or have developed over time;
The Constitution’s framers did not intend for political parties to form, and our political institutions were created as if parties don’t exist, causing basic conflicts between our politicians and the institutions in which they operate;
Specific features of our electoral laws that make it inevitable that we will have two, and only two, major political parties; and
The design of the federal system that exists today is deeply tied to the failure of the Constitution’s fr