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Governments vary in their structure, their size, and the way they operate. Two questions are of special importance in determining how governments differ: Who governs? And how much government control is permitted?

Some nations are governed by a single individual—a king or dictator, for example. This state of affairs is called autocracy. Where a small group—perhaps landowners, military officers, or the wealthy—controls most of the governing decisions, that government is said to be an oligarchy. If citizens are vested with the power to rule themselves, that government is a democracy.

Governments also vary considerably in terms of how they govern. In the United States and a small number of other nations, governments are limited as to what they are permitted to control (substantive limits) and how they go about it (pro- cedural limits). Governments that are limited in this way are called constitutional governments, or liberal governments. In other nations, including many in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the law imposes few real limits. The government, how- ever, is nevertheless kept in check by other political and social institutions that it is unable to control and must come to terms with—such as autonomous territories, an organized religion, organized business groups, or organized labor unions. Such governments are generally called authoritarian. In a third group of nations, includ- ing the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, Nazi Germany, perhaps prewar Japan and Italy, and North Korea today, governments not only are free of legal limits but also seek to eliminate those organized social groups that might challenge or limit their authority. These governments typically attempt to dominate or control every sphere of political, economic, and social life and, as a result, are called totalitarian (see Figure 1.2).

Americans have the good fortune to live in a nation in which limits are placed on what governments can do and how they can do it. Many of the world’s people do not live in a constitutional democracy. By one measure, just 40 percent of the global population (those living in 86 countries) enjoy sufficient levels of political and personal freedom to be classified as living in a constitutional democracy.13 And constitutional democracies were unheard of before the modern era. Prior to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, governments seldom sought—and rarely received—the support of their subjects. The available evidence strongly suggests that ordinary people often had little love for the government or for the social order. After all, they had no stake in it. They equated government with the police officer, the bailiff, and the tax collector.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, in a handful of Western nations, two im- portant changes began to take place in the character and conduct of government. First, governments began to acknowledge formal limits on their power. Second, a small number of governments began to provide ordinary citizens with a formal voice in public affairs—through the vote. Obviously, the desirability of limits on government and the expansion of popular influence were at the heart of the Amer- ican Revolution in 1776. “No taxation without representation,” as we shall see in Chapter 2, was fiercely asserted from the beginning of the Revolution through the Founding in 1789. But even before the Revolution, a tradition of limiting govern- ment and expanding participation in the political process had developed through- out western Europe.

Limiting Government

The key force behind the imposition of limits on government power was a new social class, the bourgeoisie, which became an important political force in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Bourgeois is a French word for “freeman of the city,” or bourg. Being part of the bourgeoisie later became associated with being “middle class” and with involvement in commerce or industry. In order to gain a share of control of government, joining or even displacing the kings, aristocrats, and gentry who had dominated government for centuries, the bour- geoisie sought to change existing institutions—especially parliaments—into in- struments of real political participation. Parliaments had existed for centuries but were generally aristocratic institutions. The bourgeoisie embraced parliaments as means by which they could exert the weight of their superior numbers and growing economic advantage over their aristocratic rivals. At the same time, the bourgeoisie sought to place restraints on the capacity of governments to threaten these economic and political interests by placing formal or constitutional limits on governmental power.

Although motivated primarily by the need to protect and defend their own interests, the bourgeoisie advanced many of the principles that would define the central underpinnings of individual liberty for all citizens—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, and freedom from arbitrary search and seizure. The work of political theorists such as John Locke (1632–1704) and, later, John Stuart Mill (1806–73) helped shape these evolv- ing ideas about liberty and political rights. However, it is important to note that the bourgeoisie generally did not favor democracy as we know it. They were advocates of electoral and representative institutions, but they favored property requirements and other restrictions so as to limit participation to the middle and upper classes. Yet once these institutions of politics and the protec- tion of the right to engage in politics were established, it was difficult to limit them to the bourgeoisie.

Access to Government: The Expansion of Participation

The expansion of participation from the bourgeoisie to ever-larger segments of society took two paths. In some nations, popular participation was expanded by
the Crown or the aristocracy, which ironically saw common people as potential political allies against the bourgeoisie. Thus, in nineteenth-century Prussia, for ex- ample, it was the emperor and his great minister Otto von Bismarck who expanded popular participation in order to build political support among the lower orders.

In other nations, participation expanded because competing segments of the bourgeoisie sought to gain political advantage by reaching out to and mobilizing the support of working- and lower-class groups that craved the opportunity to take part in politics—“lining up the unwashed,” as one American historian put it.15 To be sure, excluded groups often agitated for greater participation. But seldom was such agitation by itself enough to secure the right to participate. Usually, expan- sion of voting rights resulted from a combination of pressure from below and help from above.
The gradual expansion of voting rights by groups hoping to derive some politi- cal advantage has been typical of American history. After the Civil War, one of the chief reasons that Republicans moved to enfranchise newly freed slaves was to use the support of the former slaves to maintain Republican control over the de- feated southern states. Similarly, in the early twentieth century, upper-middle-class Progressives advocated women’s suffrage because they believed that women were likely to support the reforms espoused by the Progressive movement.

Influencing the Government through Participation: Politics

Expansion of participation means that more and more people have a legal right to take part in politics. Politics is an important term. In its broadest sense, it refers to conflicts over the character, membership, and policies of any organization to which people belong. As Harold Lasswell, a famous political scientist, once put it, politics is the struggle over “who gets what, when, how.”16 Although politics is a phenom- enon that can be found in any organization, our concern in this book is narrower. Here, politics will be used to refer only to conflicts and struggles over the leader- ship, structure, and policies of governments. The goal of politics, as we define it, is to have a share or a say in the composition of the government’s leadership, how the government is organized, or what its policies are going to be. Having a share is called having power or influence.

Politics can take many forms, including everything from blogging and posting opinion pieces online, sending emails to government officials, voting, lobbying leg- islators on behalf of particular programs, and participating in protest marches and even violent demonstrations. A system of government that gives citizens a regular opportunity to elect the top government officials is usually called a representative democracy, or republic. A system that permits citizens to vote directly on laws and policies is often called a direct democracy. At the national level, the United States is a representative democracy in which citizens select government officials but do not vote on legislation. Some states and cities, however, have provisions for direct legislation through popular initiative and ballot referendum. These procedures allow citizens to collect petitions requiring an issue to be brought directly to the voters for a decision. In 2016, 165 initiatives appeared on state ballots, dealing with matters that ranged from gun control and raising the minimum wage to legaliz- ing marijuana. Many hot-button issues are decided by initiatives. For example, in Colorado in 2010, voters passed a referendum that called on the state to sue the federal government to enforce immigration laws. Often, broad public campaigns pro- mote controversial referenda, attempting to persuade voters to change existing laws.

For example, in 2016 nine states considered measures that would either decriminalize marijuana or legalize it altogether. Some 82 million people would be affected by the outcome of these contests. Four states considered additional gun control regulations. Colorado voters weighed an amendment to the state constitu- tion that would create a single-payer health system funded by a tax on employers and employees. In California, voters decided on whether to support a ban on plas- tic bags, the first such statewide ban.

Groups and organized interests do not vote (although their members do), but they certainly do participate in politics. Their political activities usually consist of such endeavors as providing funds for candidates, lobbying, and trying to influence public opinion. The pattern of struggles among interests is called group politics, or pluralism. Americans have always been ambivalent about pluralist politics. On the one hand, the right of groups to press their views and compete for influence in the gov- ernment is the essence of liberty. On the other hand, Americans often fear that or- ganized groups may sometimes exert too much influence, advancing special interests at the expense of larger public interests. (We return to this problem in Chapter 11.)

Sometimes, of course, politics does not take place through formal channels at all but instead involves direct action. Direct action politics can include either violent politics or civil disobedience, both of which attempt to shock rulers into behaving more responsibly. Direct action can also be a form of revolutionary politics, which rejects the system entirely and attempts to replace it with a new ruling group and a new set of rules. In recent years in the United States, groups ranging from ani- mal rights activists to right-to-life advocates to the Occupy Wall Street protesters have used direct action to underline their demands. Many forms of peaceful direct political action are protected by the U.S. Constitution. The country’s Founders knew that the right to protest is essential to the maintenance of political freedom, even where the ballot box is available.

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Elections in America
Describe the major rules and procedures of elections in the United States
Elections are a remarkable feature of demo- cratic government: every few years, the citizens are provided the means with which to change the government and select new leaders. In the United States, tens of thou- sands of political offices at the local, state,
and national levels are subject to popular election. Although most Americans do not often vote directly on specific policies and laws, they exert tremendous influence over political outcomes through the regular selection of their leaders. By allowing citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions, elections are at the heart of democracy.

In the United States, elections are highly routinized events that occur on fixed dates and are subject to specific rules. National presidential elections take place every four years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Con- gressional elections are held every two years, also on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Congressional elections that do not coincide with a presidential election are often called midterm elections. Localities and states can choose when to hold their elections. Most Americans have the opportunity to vote in several elections each year. Voting in elections is the most common form of par- ticipation in American politics.

In the American federal system, the responsibility for running elections is de- centralized, resting largely with state and local governments. Elections are adminis- tered by state, county, and city election boards that are responsible for establishing and staffing polling places, processing mail-in ballots, and verifying the eligibility of voters. State laws influence who may vote, how they vote, and where they vote. For example, states must choose whether to require photo identification to vote and whether or not to allow their residents to cast a ballot by mail, to vote early at an official polling place, and to register to vote and vote on the same day.

Election season begins with primary elections, which are held to select each party’s candidates for the general election. Primary elections are used in races for office at the national, state, and often local levels. A primary election is like a preliminary match in a sporting event. It is used to select the best candidate to represent the political party in the general election. Thus, primary elections are races where Democrats compete against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans (except in states that have “top two primaries,” in which candidates from all parties run against one another and the top two face each other in the general election; California and Washington State use this method). The winners of primary elections face one another as their parties’ nominees in the general elec- tion, the decisive electoral contest. The winner of the general election is elected to office for a specified term.

The United States is one of the few nations in the world to hold primary elections. In most countries, nominations are controlled completely by party officials, as they once were in the United States. Primary elections were introduced at the turn of the twentieth century by reformers who hoped to weaken the power of party leaders; the introduction of primary elections for the first time enabled voters, rather than party elites, to pick the candidates to compete in the general election. In states with closed primaries, only registered members of a political party may vote in a primary election to select that party’s candidates. States with open primaries allow all registered voters, including independents, to choose which party’s primary they will participate in.
What It Takes to Win

On the surface, the basic idea of how an election works may seem simple: voters select their preferred candidate on the ballot, votes are counted, and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. But there are actually many possible varia- tions in how people vote and how the votes are counted. In some countries, a can- didate must receive an absolute majority (50 percent plus 1) of all the votes cast in the relevant district in order to win the election. This type of electoral system is called a majority system. Majority systems usually include a provision for a runoff election between the two top candidates because if the initial race draws several candidates, there is little chance that any one will receive a majority.

In many electoral systems, candidates for office need not win an absolute majority of the votes cast to win an election. Instead, victory is awarded to the candidate who receives the most votes, regardless of the actual percentage this represents. A candi- date receiving 50 percent, 30 percent, or even 20 percent of the popular vote can win if no other candidate receives more votes. This type of electoral system is called a plurality system and is used in most elections in the United States. The winning candi- date needs to win a plurality (the most but not necessarily a majority) of the votes cast in the election. In the 2016 Republican primaries, for example, Donald Trump was fre- quently referred to by the media as the winner, but in most states he only won around 35 percent of the vote because there were three or more candidates in the race.

Most European nations and other advanced democracies employ a third type of electoral system, called proportional representation. Under proportional rules, com- peting political parties are awarded legislative seats in rough proportion to the percentage of popular votes that each party wins. A party that wins 30 percent of the popular vote will receive roughly 30 percent of the seats in the parliament or other representative body. Proportional representation benefits smaller groups and third parties, such as the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, because it usually allows a party to win legislative seats with fewer votes than would be required un- der a majority or plurality system. A party that wins 10 percent of the national vote might win 10 percent of the parliamentary seats. In the United States, by contrast, a party that wins 10 percent of the vote would probably win no seats in Congress. Because they give small parties little chance of success, plurality and majority sys- tems tend to reduce the number of political parties that can hold power. This is one of the reasons that the United States has only two significant political parties (see Chapter 9 for more on the two-party system in the United States).

The Ballot
Before the 1890s, voters cast ballots according to political parties. Each party printed its own ballots, listed only its own candidates for each office, and employed party workers to distribute the ballots at the polls. Because voters had to choose which party’s ballot to use, it was very difficult for a voter to cast anything other than a straight-ticket vote, selecting candidates from the same political party for all offices on the ballot. The advent of a new, neutral ballot at the turn of the twenti- eth century brought a significant change to electoral procedure. The new ballot— called the Australian ballot or long-form ballot—was prepared and administered by the government rather than the political parties. Each ballot was identical and included the names of all candidates running for public office. This ballot reform made it possible for voters to make their choices on the merits of the individual candidates, rather than the overall party.


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Because all candidates for the same office now appeared on the same ballot, voters were no longer forced to choose straight-ticket voting. This practice gave rise to the phenomenon of split-ticket voting, where voters may, for example, vote for a Demo- crat for Senate and a Republican for governor. If a voter supports candidates from more than one party in the same election, he is said to be casting a split-ticket vote.

The actual ballots used by voters vary from county to county. In the United States, it is the states, not the federal government, that run elections. Most states adminis- ter elections at the county level. Some counties employ paper ballots, while most now use electronic or computerized systems. The controversial presidential election of 2000 led to a closer look at different ballot forms and voting systems in use in the country. In 2000, the margin of victory for Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore in Florida was so small that the state ordered a recount. Care- ful examination of the results revealed that the punch card voting machines and butterfly ballot used in Florida had led to many voting and counting errors. The controversy made its way to the Supreme Court, which effectively reversed Florida’s recount order, awarding the presidency to Bush. In the wake of the controversial election, Congress adopted the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) in 2003, requir- ing the states to introduce computerized voting systems. Critics of HAVA feared that such systems might be vulnerable to unauthorized use or hacking. However, computerized voting machines have generally worked well and have significantly updated America’s election system. HAVA also required the states to use computer- ized voter-registration databases that have reduced problems with voter registration.

Legislative Elections and Electoral Districts

The boundaries for some elected offices are straightforward: all eligible U.S. citizens 18 years or older may vote for president; all eligible residents of each such as Texas, may vote for that state’s governor and senators. Other political offices, such as members of the House of Representatives and many state legislatures, are elected from geographic legislative districts whose boundaries are drawn by the states. The boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes, as determined by the U.S. Census.
This redrawing of district boundaries is called redistricting. The geographic shape of district boundaries is influenced by several factors, including population size, the partisanship of the resi- dents who live in different communities, as well as existing government boundaries such as counties.

Federal court decisions have played a major role in how legislative districts are drawn. In a 1962 landmark case Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts can intervene on the issue of drawing legislative districts. In a series of decisions in 1963 and 1964, the Court held that legislative districts for Congress and state legislatures must include roughly equal populations so as to accord with the principle of “one person, one vote.”1 Prior to these decisions, many state legislative districts were simply county boundaries, with each county electing one representative, regardless of the population of the county. Drawing districts with roughly equal populations shifted power from rural areas to urban centers, where the population was higher. Today, average U.S. House districts have roughly 700,000 people (up from 30,000 people in 1800). State legislative districts vary from a few thousand people in some states to nearly a million (931,000) in the
California Senate. During the 1980s the Supreme Court also declared that legisla- tive districts should, insofar as possible, be contiguous, compact, and consistent with existing political subdivisions.2

Despite these legal requirements, state lawmakers who are responsible for drawing the district boundaries for Congress and state legislatures regularly seek to influence electoral outcomes to favor one political party over another (or in- cumbents over challengers). This strategy of drawing legislative districts to favor a political party is called gerrymandering; gerrymandering is named for a nineteenth- century Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, who was alleged to have designed an odd-shaped district in the shape of a salamander to promote his party’s inter- ests. The principle behind gerrymandering is simple: different populations of vot- ers in districts can produce different electoral results. For example, by dispersing the members of a particular party across two or more districts, state legislators can dilute that group’s voting power and prevent it from electing a representative in any district. Alternatively, by concentrating the members of a party in as few districts as possible, state lawmakers can try to ensure that their opponents will elect as few representatives as possible. The widespread practice of gerrymandering has created many “safe” districts in Congress, and state legislatures where incum- bents rarely face a serious challenger. This contributes to the frequency with which members of Congress are re-elected in landslide elections. In 2014, 96 percent of incumbents were reelected.3 When candidates do not face serious challengers in elections there is concern that public officials will not represent the interests of the people but will instead make laws that benefit special interests.

The federal government has often supported congressional districts made up primarily of minority group members, a practice intended to increase the number of African Americans and Latinos elected to public office in accordance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Beginning with the 1993 case of Shaw v. Reno, however, the Supreme Court has generally opposed efforts to force the creation of majority-minority districts.4 The Court has asserted that districting based exclusively on race/ethnicity is unlawful. However, most majority-minority districts in the United States occur naturally in states and geographic areas with large minority populations. Most African Americans in Congress, for example, are elected from majority black districts.


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Presidential Elections

While many of the rules applying to presidential and congressional elections are the same, presidential elections have special rules. The president is technically elected by the electoral college, not by popular vote of the citizens. Moreover, presiden- tial candidates from the two major parties are officially nominated at the parties’ national conventions, following a series of state-by-state primary elections and cau- cuses to select delegates to the conventions. While primary elections are also used to select candidates in Congressional and other types of elections, the national conven- tion delegate system for nominating candidates is unique to presidential elections.

Nominating Presidential Candidates: Primaries and Caucuses How do we pick presidential candidates in the United States? Before the presidential election every four years, the parties must select candidates to represent them in the gen- eral election. The process starts with primary elections and caucuses (essentially a party business meeting) that are held by the major political parties to choose a candidate who will face the nominee from the other major party during the
general election. Most states hold primary elections, but about one-third use cau- cuses instead. Citizens attending local caucuses typically elect delegates to state- wide conventions, at which delegates to the national party conventions are chosen.

The Iowa caucus is especially famous, as the first state to select presidential candidates in the calendar year. The New Hampshire primary is the second election in the presidential nomination process. Both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are characterized by grassroots politics, where presidential can- didates spend a great deal of time in the state to meet with voters face to face. Like the general elections, early primaries and caucuses tend to be highly contested, with high levels of mass media coverage and intensive voter mobilization drives.

The primaries and caucuses traditionally begin in January of a presiden- tial election year and end six months later, in June (see Table 10.1). Iowa and New Hampshire each play a disproportionate role in picking presidential candi- dates because they are the first states to cast votes in the primaries and caucuses. These early voting states are important because they can help candidates gain momentum by securing national media attention, money in the form of campaign contributions, and increased standing in public-opinion polls. This momentum is so important to presidential hopefuls that former president George H. W. Bush called it the “Big Mo” in describing the boost from winning Iowa. Candidates spend months courting voter support in these two states. A candidate who performs better than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire will usually be able to win public support and media coverage for subsequent races. A candidate who fares poorly in these two states may be written off as a loser and drop out of the race. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Ted Cruz gained momentum by winning the Iowa caucuses, while their party rivals Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump did the same by winning the New Hampshire primary. Today, the presi- dential nomination has become “front-loaded,” with states vying to increase their political influence by holding their nominating processes earlier in the calendar year in order to receive more attention from candidates and the media.

One study found that the change in mass media coverage that candidates receive before and after the Iowa caucuses predicts how well they will do in the New Hampshire primary and in presidential primaries nationwide measured by vote share.5 This finding suggests that it is not winning the Iowa caucuses that mat- ters but doing better than expected by the national media. For example, if Barack Obama had not won Iowa in 2008, unexpectedly beating presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, most commentators believe he would not have gone on to capture the Democratic nomination. Similarly, Republican candidate Donald Trump fared much better than expected by political elites and the mass media by placing second in the Iowa caucuses and first in the New Hampshire primary. If Trump hadn’t done well in these states, he likely would not have gone on to win the Republican nomination. In an era of viral digital media—most significantly Twitter— media coverage of early nominating events is even greater than before and may further increase the importance of states holding early primaries and caucuses.

The result of the presidential primary or caucus determines how each state’s delegates will vote at their party’s national convention. In states such as Michigan and Iowa, party caucuses choose many of the delegates who will actually attend the national convention. In most of the remaining states, primary elections deter- mine how a state’s delegation will vote on the first ballot.
As noted in Chapter 9, the Democratic Party requires that state presidential primaries allocate delegates on the basis of proportional representation; Demo- cratic candidates win delegates in rough proportion to their percentage of the pri- mary vote. The Republican Party does not require proportional representation, but many states now use the system. A few states use the winner-take-all system, by which the candidate with the most votes wins all the party’s delegates in that state. When the primaries and caucuses are concluded, it is usually clear which candi- dates have won their parties’ nominations.

Nominating Presidential Candidates: Party Conventions For more than 50 years after America’s Founding, presidential nominations were controlled by each party’s congressional caucus—all the party’s members in the House and the Senate. Critics referred to this process as the “King Caucus” and charged that it did not fairly rep- resent the views of party members throughout the nation. Thus, the King Caucus process was replaced by the system of national conventions. As it developed over the next century, the convention became the decisive institution in the presidential nominating processes of the two major parties. Composed of delegates from each state, the convention was a deliberative body in which party elites argued, negotiated, and eventually chose a single candidate to support. The size of a state’s delegation depended on the state’s population, and each delegate was allowed one vote for the purpose of nominating the party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Between the 1830s and World War II, national convention delegates were gen- erally selected by a state’s party leaders. Usually, the delegates were public officials, political activists, and party notables from all regions of the state, representing most major party factions. Typically, many votes were held before the nomination could be decided. Often deadlocks developed among the most powerful party factions, and state leaders would be forced to compromise, sometimes choosing a little-known candidate. Among the more famous “dark horse” nominees were James Polk in 1844 and Warren Harding in 1920. Although he was virtually un- known, Polk won the Democratic nomination when it became clear that none of the more established candidates could win. Similarly, Harding, another political unknown, won the Republican nomination after the major candidates had fought one another to a standstill.