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United States

Author:   Robert Stockwell  
Posted: 1/21/2006; 7:55:28 PM
Topic: United States
Msg #: 89 (top msg in thread)
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Case Study: United States
* World’s largest economy
* Only military superpower
* Large in population (4th) and territory
* Resource-rich
* Incredibly diverse
* Unique among LDs
– Political development/political culture, political system, process, and policies
– US “exceptionalism”?

Political Development

* Colonial Era (1607-1776)
* State-building (1776-1865)
* Reconstruction and Growth (1865-1945)
* Pax Americana (1945-present)
* America’s place in the future?

Colonial Era (1607-1776)

* European (mainly British, but also French, German, etc.) colonization/ settlement
* Colonial resistance to British control led to Revolution (1775) and Independence (1776)


* Articles of Confederation fail
* Constitution (1788) ratified
* 1800s --> westward expansion; economic development/diversification; increasing immigration
* 1861-1865 --> Civil War between North and South

Reconstruction and Growth (1865-1945)

* Mechanization in agriculture
* Industrial economy becomes dominant
* US shirks isolationism (active in Asia, Pacific, Caribbean)
* Great Depression (1929) ushers in FDR’s New Deal (social security, public work programs)
* US joins Allies in WWII

Pax Americana

* Cold War = ideological, political, and economic conflict between U.S. and Soviet Union
– “very hot” in Latin America, Africa, and Asia
* Domestic economic expansion; mass production; consumerism
* Civil Rights movement (1950s-1960s)
* Great Society (Johnson’s war on poverty and discrimination)
* Reagan Revolution (Reaganomics)

U.S. Today

* Growing division between Conservatives and Liberals over role of government; social, economic, and foreign policies (“class and culture wars”)
* Enduring Paradoxes
– Wealth and poverty
– Extensive medical technology and widespread lack of access
– Commitment to equality and discrimination against women, ethnic minorities, gays…
* 9/11 and the War on Terrorism
– Next to impossible to overstate significance

Unique Political Culture

* Most patriotic of all LDs (“the good, the bad, and the ugly”)
* Highly optimistic; forward-looking; faith in political institutions and government despite persistent problems
* Strong sense of individualism; belief in limited government (“frontier mentality”)
* Aspirational politics = opportunity, initiative, hard work will bring success, material wealth
* Puritan streak = salient moral issues (e.g., abortion; criminalization of drugs; gay marriage)

Unique Political System

* Republican = major officeholders are elected (or appointed by elected officials)
– More elected offices than other LDs
* Federalism = sharing of power between federal and state governments (vertical federalism)
* Separation of powers and Checks and Balances (horizontal federalism; “divided government”)
– divides powers and responsibilities between branches of government (legislature makes laws; executive administers laws; judicial interprets constitutionality of laws); each checks the other
* Most LDs have parliamentary executives
– Executive/legislative power fused (see McCormick, 78-79)

U.S. Constitution (1788)

* Defined structures of government
* Defined powers of branches
* Distributed powers between federal government and states
* Described limits on powers of national  government --> Bill of Rights (1791)

The Executive: President

* Enormous resources
* Powers limited by Constitution, Congress, and the Courts
* Must build coalitions of support inside and outside Congress
* 19th Century --> Congress dominant
* 20th Century --> Executive power increased (more active in domestic and foreign policy making; growing executive branch)

Roles of the President

* Head of state (symbolic leader)
* Head of government
* Commander-in-chief
* Chief executive
* Agenda setter
* Foreign policy maker
* Economic leader
* Crisis manager  
* Party leader

The Legislature: Congress

* Powers = make laws; oversight; federal budget (tax and spend, “power of the purse”); confirmation of presidential appointees; override vetoes (2/3s)
* Senate = 100 members; 2 senators from each state; 6-year terms (confirms presidential nominees)
* House of Representatives = 435 members; elected from districts reapportioned every 10 years based on the census
Judiciary: Supreme Court
* 9 members; nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate
* Judicial Review = interpreting constitutionality of laws and actions of government
* Accepts a limited number of cases (from lower federal/district courts and courts of appeal) with constitutional implications

State Governments

* States have their own constitutions, governors, legislatures, and courts
* National government responsible for economic, foreign, and defense policy
* State governments responsible for welfare provision, highways, land use, executing federal laws/regulations, education, and policing
* Advantages and disadvantages to federalism

Unique Political Process

* More elected offices and elections than other LDs (Republicanism)
* Political parties play a weaker role in government than other LDs
* Low voter turnout rates (50-55% presidential elections; 35% mid-term elections) than other LDs
* Few real choices (?; “tweedle-dee, tweedle-dumb”)
* Plurality elections vs. PR (common among LDs)

Ironies of Representation and Participation

* More offices and elections than other LDs; among the lowest turnout rates in the world
* Despite emphasis on democracy and civic duty, number of eligible voters has increased, but turnout has declined
* Old political parties, few real choices and weak parties

Why Citizens Don’t Vote

* Declining party identification
* Differences between political parties are minor (unlike other LDs)
* Parties don’t effectively mobilize voters
* Too many, too long elections
* Registration can be time-consuming
* Economic man/woman?
* Apathy? TV? Declining social capital, “Bowling Alone”

Should We Care About Low Voter Turnout?

* Reduces legitimacy
* Reduces accountability
– Elected officials likely to look like and reflect views of active voters
* Clear Socioeconomic (SES) bias
– SES best predictor of participation at all levels; stronger when you move up the ladder of commitment (voting; working on a campaign; running/holding office)
* Increases power of interest groups and dominant class over policy

Elections and Electoral System

* Winner-take-all rule = whoever wins a plurality (the largest number of votes); unlike most LDs, which use PR voting systems;
* Plurality elections in single-member districts perpetuates two-party system
* Elections longer, more numerous, and more expensive than any other LD
* Increasing personalization and professionalization of campaigns (weak parties, declining party id)
* Need for electoral system reform and public financing of elections

Political Parties

* Relatively weak; political face of class politics
* Republicans (GOP)
– minimize role of government in the economy;
– new conservatives motivated by need to return to “traditional” moral values
– tend to gain support from higher SES individuals
* Democrats
– moderate left-wing party
– supports welfare provision, regulation of big business, environmental protection
– support from lower SES individuals
* Minor parties = Greens, Libertarians, Reform

Interest Groups

* = Organized groups who attempt to influence policy/policymakers to their advantage; power function of resources and numbers
– Institutional interests
– Economic interest groups
– Single- and multiple-issue groups
– Public interest groups
* Dominant interest groups = Corporations and business/professional associations


* Diverse and active mass media
* TV particularly important/dominant
* Shape public opinion, set public agenda, provide a political forum
* Coverage tends to be highly superficial
* Main goals = entertainment and profits

Policies and Policymaking

* Actors = public opinion, elected officials, voters, parties, interest groups, media, private corporations
* Limited expectation regarding the role of government makes U.S. unique among LDs
* Government action = regulation; welfare; subsidies to states; contracts

Factors that Influence Policy/Policymaking

* Diverse needs
* Action at all levels constrained (due to horizontal and vertical federalism)
* Entails compromises for continued cooperation
* Budget constraints (limited uncommitted funds)
* Global responsibilities
* Incredible influence of private sector

Economic Policy

* Classical liberalism (free-market capitalism) until Great Depression
* Keynesian policy (demand-side government involvement; taxing/spending aimed at maximizing employment) until 1970s
* Reagan revolution and supply-side economics
– lower taxes and “trickle-down” theory
– Reduce federal spending except on defense
– Result: growing trade deficit, national debt
* Clinton returns to demand-side policies

Current Economic Policy

* Return to supply-side economics under Bush II (what his father called, “voodoo economics”)
* Growing trade deficit (value of imports exceeding exports)
* Lack of comprehensive energy policy/dependence on foreign oil
* Steady loss of manufacturing jobs
* Increasing gap between rich and poor
* Increasing international competition

Foreign Policy

* Isolationism (1776-1941)
– Monroe Doctrine; ended with WWII
* Cold War (1945-1990)
– US/Soviet global confrontation (“hot wars” throughout the world)
* New World Order (Disorder?) (1990-present)
– Multiple centers of power; new/emerging issues (economic, environmental, regional conflicts)
* World’s policeman
* War on Terrorism
* Increasing unilateralism
* Policy of pre-emption?

Discussion Questions -- Looking In

1. How is the U.S. unique, even among LDs?
2. How does American political culture impact government and politics in the U.S.?  How might it explain the limited role of government?
3. Is the governmental system of the U.S. as good as it gets?  What features should be emulated/avoided by other nations?
4. What is the relationship between national and state levels of government in the U.S.?  What are the advantages/disadvantages of federalism?
5. Why don’t citizens participate more in the U.S. political process?  Is low voter turnout a problem?
6. How does money impact the political process and what can/should be done about it?
7. Why are the Democratic and Republican parties dominant in the U.S.?  How might minor parties become more competitive?

Discussion Questions -- Looking Out

8. To what extent should the U.S. involve itself in the affairs of other nations?  What types of actions/goals are acceptable?
9. Has the U.S. government effectively responded to the events of 9/11?  What might it do differently?
10. What are the causes of the terrorism that the U.S. has faced since 2001?
11. Should the U.S. be taking a unilateral or a multilateral approach to addressing global problems?
12. What factors point toward the 21st century being another American Century?  What factors indicate the time of U.S. dominance is over?
13. What issues (domestic or foreign) do you think are the most pressing for politics in the U.S.?

 Updated Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 7:55:28 PM by Robert Stockwell -
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