In the United States, the right to vote is an important feature of the nation’s system of
government, and over the years many people have fought and sacrificed to obtain it. Today,
many people face challenges in exercising this important means of civic engagement. (credit:
modification of work by the National Archives and Records Administration)
• American citizens have the opportunity to participate
in government at the federal, state, and local level.
• Civic engagement—whether through voting,
demonstrating, speaking out on important issues, or
other means—is vital to a thriving and effective
Defining government and politics
• A government is the system by which a society
organizes itself and allocates authority in order to
accomplish collective goals and provide benefits to
• Politics refers to the process of gaining or exercising
control within a government by an association of
persons with shared goals or objectives for society.
Government and economic systems
Certain forms of government are often, though not always,
linked to particular economic systems:
• Democracy, government by citizens, is often associated
with capitalism, an economic system in which the means of
production are controlled by individuals who invest in
business and industry.
• Socialism advocates public or government control, whether
directly or through regulation, over the means of
• Oligarchy is a form of government in which a small class of
political and economic elites control the government.
Goods in a capitalist economic system
• In the United States, our representative democracy generally
adheres to a capitalist economic system.
• In a capitalist system, private businesses produce and sell
most consumer goods and services, earning a profit on these
• Some goods or services, such as public safety and education,
cannot be produced in sufficient quantities or for a profit; the
government provides these public goods.
• Governments also protect common goods such as water and
other natural resources that are used by individuals but must
be protected for the benefit of all.
A fire department ambulance rushes to the rescue in Chicago. Emergency medical
services, fire departments, and police departments are all paid for by government
through the tax base, and they provide their services without an additional charge.
(credit: Tony Webster)
One can distinguish between different types of goods by considering who has access to the goods
(excludable/non-excludable) and how many people can access the good at the same time
Types of government: democracy
A democracy is a form of government in which political power–
influence over institutions, leaders, and policies–is controlled by
• In a representative democracy, such as the United States,
citizens do not govern directly; government institutions and
policy are determined by elected representatives.
Representative democracies, however, often have a check on
the power of citizens in order to protect the rights of
• In a direct democracy, people participate directly in
government decisions, instead of relying on elected
Residents of Boxborough, Massachusetts, gather in a local hotel to discuss issues
affecting their town. New England town meetings provide an opportunity for people to
experience direct democracy. This tradition has lasted for hundreds of years. (credit:
modification of work by Liz West)
Types of government: monarchy & totalitarian
• In an absolute monarchy, a single, usually hereditary,
ruler holds political power.
– Many modern monarchies limit the monarch’s power
with some form of representative government, such
as a parliament.
• Under totalitarian governments, the state, usually
controlled by a single leader or small group of elites,
controls virtually every aspect of citizens’ lives.
Elitism vs. pluralism
• Within a representative democracy, the elite theory of
government holds that a small group of elites controls
power while other citizens have little or no influence.
• The pluralist theory of government holds that
competing interest groups influence the government
and hold political power.
– Citizens may influence the government by becoming
involved with groups that share similar interests and
engaging with their representatives at a local, state,
or national level.
The tradeoffs perspective
• The tradeoffs perspective acknowledges that
competing interests, whether elitist or pluralist, vie
for government influence.
• These competing interests produce government
actions and public policies that are influenced by a
series of tradeoffs or compromises.
A person in Ohio protests fracking (a). An announcement of a public meeting regarding
fracking illustrates what some of the tradeoffs involved with the practice might be (b).
(credit a: modification of work by “ProgressOhio/Flickr”; credit b: modification of work by
Changes in involvement
• Traditionally, citizens engaged in democracy through
membership in and advocacy on behalf of small groups,
such as churches, local labor unions, and other groups.
• Today, changes in society and technology leave many
citizens with less time to be active members of a civic
organization; instead, citizens join larger national
organizations in which each individual typically plays a
Why get involved?
• Social capital is the collective value of all social networks
and the willingness of these networks to work together
toward a common goal
• Civic engagement increases the power of an individual
to influence government policies and actions
• A representative democracy requires an informed
citizenry to vote for candidates and advocate for desired
policies, along with other forms of civic engagement
Pathways to engagement
• Civic engagement may be undertaken individually or as a
member of a group.
• Forms of individual civic engagement include staying
informed about current events, voting, giving to a political
campaign, and contacting elected representatives about
• Forms of civic engagement through groups include
discussing issues, working for a political campaign,
volunteering or fundraising for an organization that shares
one’s goals, registering people to vote, joining protests or
marches, boycotting businesses that do not support one’s
views, and many others.
The print above, published in 1870, celebrates the extension of the right to vote to
African American men. The various scenes show legal rights black slaves did not have.
Factors of engagement: presidential elections
Approximately two-thirds of Americans engaged in
some form of political action in 2008, a presidential
These activities typically included some form of
impersonal action, such as signing petitions or
contributing to a political campaign.
Voters line up to vote early outside an Ohio polling station in 2008. Many who had
never voted before did so because of the presidential candidacy of then-senator Barack
Obama. (credit: Dean Beeler)
Factors of engagement: age
Americans under the age of 30 are less likely to engage in
• In a 2015 survey by the Harvard University Institute of
Politics, more young Americans claimed affiliation with
independents (40 percent) than Democrats (36
percent) or Republicans (21 percent).
• Americans under 30 are less likely to participate in
political action, but many engage in civic activities,
such as volunteering to provide community services.
After the Southern California wildfires in 2003, sailors from the USS Ronald Reagan
helped volunteers rebuild houses in San Pasqual as part of Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat for Humanity builds homes for low-income people. (credit: Johansen Laurel,
U. S. Navy)
Volunteers fed people at New York’s Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street
protest in September 2011. (credit: David Shankbone)
Factors of engagement: wealth and education
In addition to age, civic engagement is also greatly
influenced by wealth and education: wealthier and more
educated citizens are more likely to vote.
Ritchie Torres (a) served alongside his mentor, James Vacca (b), on the New York City
Council from 2014 to 2017, both representing the Bronx.
The latest data show that more younger voters are now choosing to affiliate and identify
with one of the two major parties, especially the Democratic party, rather than choosing
to be independent.
2e Figure 1.6
The map of the world shows the different forms of government that currently exist. Countries
that are colored blue have some form of representative democracy, although the people may
not have as much political power as they do in the United States. Countries that are colored
red, like China, Vietnam, and Cuba, have an oligarchic form of government. Countries that
are colored yellow are monarchies where the people play little part in governing.
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License. Photos and illustrations are usually credited to their source. Where they are not, illustrations
are Copyright 2021, Rice University, and also provided under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0