American Government and Civic Engagement (2023)

American Government and Civic Engagement

Dr. Christopher N. Lawrence

Middle Georgia State University

POLS 1101: American Government

🔊 Disable Narration

What is Government?

American Government and Civic Engagement (1)

A government is the set of institutions and processes that decide and implement decisions on behalf of a particular polity (a given territory or people).

Within the United States, there are many levels of government that exercise authority over communities (such as cities and counties), states, and territories, as well as our national government.

What is Politics?

There is no single definition of politics, but two have proven to be enduring:

    American Government and Civic Engagement (2)
  • 20th century political scientist Harold Lasswell: Politics is about “who gets what, when, and how.”
  • Another political scientist, David Easton: “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.”

What is Political Science?

Modern political scientists apply the methods of the social sciences to the systematic study of the theory and practice of politics.

  • Political science's roots are interdisciplinary, encompassing philosophy, history, law, and economics.
  • Other contemporary social sciences include economics, geography, psychology, and sociology.

The State of Nature

Enlightenment-era philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had competing beliefs about society before (or without) government:

    American Government and Civic Engagement (3)
  • Hobbes famously believed life for most people would be “nasty, brutish, and short” until humans banded together to create governments to protect them from others.
  • Locke and Rousseau believed human nature was more peaceful and benevolent than Hobbes did, and that people did not give up their rights when they formed governments.

The Social Contract

Regardless of why humans chose to form governments, all of the social contract theorists believed that people within a society have agreed to accept certain duties and responsibilities in exchange for their government doing the same.

In our society, the primary obligation of the people is to obey the law. In return, our government protects our fundamental rights and liberties and provides public goods.

Capitalism and Socialism

Historically the development of democracy was linked with growth of capitalism:

  • Economic system in which property, goods, and services are freely traded without control by governments.

    (Video) Chapter 1 American Government and Civic Engagement

  • Both reflect spirit of individualism from the Enlightenment era: Locke, Adam Smith.

In the 19th century, the competing idea of socialism was developed by Karl Marx, Eduard Bernstein, and others. Socialists believe the government, not private individuals, should control the economy.

Political and Economic Systems

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Capitalism and democracy still tend to go together, but:

  • Some non-democracies such as modern China, Nazi Germany (1933–45) have or had large private sectors (state capitalism).

  • Most modern democracies have mixed economies that incorporate some aspects of socialism—including the United States. Some are social democracies like Sweden.

Market Failure

In capitalist societies, government attempts to solve four major forms of market failure:

  • Failure to provide public goods.
  • Failure to account for externalities.
  • Market power of monopolies.
  • Lack of equity in outcomes.

Failure to Provide Public Goods

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Public goods are essential things needed by a society that would not be provided (or would not be provided enough) by a free market.

Not everything that the government does is a public good! Examples include:

  • National defense.
  • A legal system (courts, prisons, etc.).
  • Clean air and water.

Although these things are important, without government taxes and regulations, it would be easy for people to be free riders: to avoid doing their part to ensure these public goods were available.

The Problem of Externalities

The actions of individuals (or groups, like businesses) may have consequences that affect others.

(Video) Political Science 101, Chapter 1- American Government and Civic Engagement

If individuals or groups don't pay the costs of these consequences for others (or get extra compensation for the benefits from them), they are called externalities.

  • Example of negative externality: pollution.
  • Example of positive externality: vaccination.

Market Power and Monopolies

Under free market competition, consumers normally benefit from competition between producers and businesses to lower prices.

However, if one company controls all or most of a market, they can force consumers to pay higher prices or provide lesser quality of service.

For example, compare cell phones (where competition between several major companies leads to lower prices) to home Internet service (where only 1 or 2 companies offer service to most people).

The Problem of Equity

A capitalist economic system may not lead to outcomes that are seen as “fair,” particularly for people who cannot afford things that are seen as basic necessities.

In these cases, government steps in to ensure access to these things to everyone. Examples include:

  • Food and shelter.
  • Elementary and secondary education.
  • Basic health care.

Prices of other goods, like water and electricity, may be also be regulated to ensure everyone can afford them.

Forms of Government

Many governments today, and most throughout history, are based on an authoritarian system, where the ruler or ruling class has few constraints on their power but allow ordinary individuals some degree of personal freedom. Some monarchies today are examples of authoritarian states.

In the 20th century, technology made totalitarian rule possible; Nazi Germany and North Korea are good examples, where government seeks to control all aspects of citizens' lives.

On the other hand, in democracies, the people have a significant role in politics and government.

(Video) American Government and Civic Engagement

This role is often guaranteed through constitutional government, a system that places limitations on the powers of government and politicians.

Direct vs. Representative Democracy

  • At the time of the American revolution, many leaders were deeply skeptical of unchecked democracy, which they believed would lead to “King Numbers” and tyranny of the majority.

  • Even today, America relies mostly on representative democracy: citizens choose leaders to govern on their behalf between elections.

  • Direct democracy, including the referendum and initiative, tends to be used more frequently at the state and local level, but not at the national level.

Elitism vs. Pluralism

Even though the United States is a representative democracy, some people have more influence than others.

Elitist theory argues that a relatively small share of the population not only controls the bulk of America's wealth, but also holds virtually all of the political power as well.

On the other hand, pluralists believe that while America does have elites, they do not control the government. Instead, power is distributed among thousands of organized interest groups of citizens which compete with each other for influence.

Declining Civic Engagement

Some political scientists believe Americans have become less engaged in society than in the past.

This may lead to a loss of social capital which may discourage people from being involved in government and politics, leading to lower political efficacy.

Our system relies on people who are willing and able to participate to solve problems in our society.

(Video) Ch. 1 American Government and Civic Engagement; Ch. 2 The Constitution and Its Origins

Pathways to Engagement

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There are numerous ways for people to involve themselves in politics:

  • Voting, particularly in state and local elections with lower turnout.
  • Attending political rallies.
  • Donating money to, volunteering for political campaigns.
  • Signing petitions.

More radical forms of participation include direct action such as protests, boycotts, and civil disobedience.

Youth Engagement

Young people are less likely than older Americans to engage in various forms of political activity, particularly traditional political organizations.

Many younger people may not feel connected to either of the major political parties and think supporting minor parties is pointless.

Others may think parties don't care about issues important to them, or may think parties are out of step with their views on the issues.

College students may also face greater challenges registering to vote and casting a ballot.

Copyright and License

Works Consulted

The following sources were consulted or used in the production of one or more of these slideshows, in addition to various primary source materials generally cited in-place or otherwise obvious from context throughout; previous editions of these works may have also been used. Any errors or omissions remain the sole responsibility of the author.

  • Barbour, Christine and Gerald C. Wright. 2012. Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics, Brief 4th Edition. Washington: CQ Press.
  • Coleman, John J., Kenneth M. Goldstein, and William G. Howell. 2012. Cause and Consequence in American Politics. New York: Longman Pearson.
  • Fiorina, Morris P., Paul E. Peterson, Bertram D. Johnson, and William G. Mayer. 2011. America's New Democracy, 6th Edition. New York: Longman Pearson.
  • Ginsberg, Benjamin, et al. 2015. We The People, 10th Essentials Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Krutz, Glen, et al. 2016. American Government. Houston: OpenStax College.
  • Lenz, Timothy O. and Mirya Holman. 2013. American Government. Gainesville,Fla.: University Press of Florida.
  • O'Connor, Karen, Larry J. Sabato, and Alixandra B. Yanus. 2013. American Government: Roots and Reform, 12th Edition. New York: Pearson.
  • Sidlow, Edward I. and Beth Henschen. 2013. GOVT, 4th Edition. New York: Cengage Learning.
  • The American National Election Studies.
  • Various Wikimedia projects, including the Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, and Wikisource.


What is civic engagement in government? ›

It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”1 Civic engagement includes both paid and unpaid forms of political activism, environmentalism, and community and national service.

What are examples of civic participation in the United States? ›

Civic participation encompasses a wide range of formal and informal activities, such as voting, volunteering, participating in group activities, and community gardening.

Are Americans civically engaged? ›

Americans remain civically engaged long into their lives in a pivotal number of ways between 2008 and 2010. Older Adults (age 65 and older) ranked #1 in voting (58.9%), church or religious involvement (22.7%), service or civic group participation (10.4%), and doing favors for neighbors frequently (20.1%).

What is civic engagement and why is it important for American society? ›

In a thriving community, residents take an active role. Through civic engagement, such as voting and volunteering, people develop and use knowledge, skills, and voice to cultivate positive change. Such actions can help improve the conditions that influence health and well-being for all.

What are the 4 types of civic engagement? ›

Forms. Civic engagement can take many forms—from individual volunteerism, community engagement efforts, organizational involvement and government work such as electoral participation.

What are the 3 types of civic engagement? ›

This chart divides civic engagement into three categories: civic, electoral, and political voice. It was developed by the Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning & Engagement at Tufts University.

What are the 8 types of civic engagement? ›

Terms in this set (8)
  • Direct Service. Giving personal time and energy to address immediate community needs.
  • Community Research. ...
  • Advocacy and Education. ...
  • Capacity building. ...
  • Political involvement. ...
  • Socially responsible, personal and professional behavior. ...
  • Philanthropic giving. ...
  • Participation in association.

What is the impact of civic engagement on society? ›

Neighborhoods with higher levels of civic participation have a greater sense of community, lower levels of crime, and citizens who are healthier and happier. States and countries with greater proportions of civically engaged citizens have lower rates of disease, mental illness, and suicide.

How important is civic engagement to the progress of the country? ›

Communities are stronger and more resilient when youth participate; our research previously found that higher levels of civic engagement can help communities weather economic downturns and lead to lower unemployment rates.

Is the US government a civic? ›

In American Government/Civics, students examine the history, principles, and function of the political system established by the U.S. Constitution.

What is American civic culture? ›

A civic culture or civic political culture is a political culture characterized by "acceptance of the authority of the state" and "a belief in participation in civic duties". The term was first used in Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba's book, The Civic Culture.

How civil society engage the government? ›

Civil society organizations play multiple roles. They are an important source of information for both citizens and government. They monitor government policies and actions and hold government accountable. They engage in advocacy and offer alternative policies for government, the private sector, and other institutions.

Why is civic responsibility important to American democracy? ›

Civic duties ensure that democratic values written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are upheld. Responsibilities include both those that are voluntary as well as those required by law.

What are the three main purposes that citizen engagement serves? ›

Engaging citizens and mobilizing communities in the process can help bring greater transparency, accountability, and social inclusion, thus improving development results.

What are American civic values? ›

Equality, Rule of Law, Limited Government, and Representative Government are examples of fundamental principles and values in American political and civic life.

How can local governments encourage civic engagement? ›

With voting being such an important aspect of local government, local officials need to provide digital communication platforms, analyze data, and work to bring the community together in order to keep the community members happy and motivated.

What are the eight 8 examples of community engagement? ›

Types of Community Engagement
  • Community Building. Projects that intentionally bring people together to simply get to know one another. ...
  • Community Education. ...
  • Community Organizing. ...
  • Deliberative Dialogue. ...
  • Direct Service. ...
  • Economic Development. ...
  • Engaged Research. ...
  • Institutional Engagement.

What is civic engagement and how is it developed? ›

Civic engagement can take many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.

What is another word for civic engagement? ›

Depending on where your organisation is based, you might interchange “civic engagement” for terms such as community engagement, public participation or community consultation.

What are examples of public engagement? ›

Examples could include: an article on a city or county website describing the agency's current budget situation; a city mailing to neighborhood residents about a planned housing complex; or a presentation by a county health department to a community group about substandard housing or “bird” flu policies.

What is the difference between civic and community engagement? ›

At its best, civic engagement provides personal fulfillment and builds trust throughout communities you want to be involved in, and the growth becomes personal. However, community engagement can take us much further because the transition isn't about you and instead grows through you and flourishes into the community.

What are the four pillars of community engagement? ›

The Community Engagement Framework is grounded in four pillars: People, Practice, Policy and Performance.

Is civic engagement social justice? ›

Defining Social Justice & Civic Engagement:

Social Justice is justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Civic Engagement or civic participation is any individual or group activity addressing issues of public concern.

How can civic engagement be improved? ›

Clearly, using technology to improve both service and speed in citizens' interactions with their city organizations is a solid way to boost their overall trust and engagement. Maintaining that positive digital experience will be key to moving forward as we emerge from the pandemic.

What is the impact of civic participation in government? ›

Civic participation is essential because it allows citizens to influence policy, local values, and local government priorities. This, in turn, leads to a higher level of trust, stronger, happier communities, and creates agency among residents who are often overlooked and underheard.

What factors influence civic participation? ›

With diverse attitudinal factors, for the purpose of this study we decided to focus on the three factors that may affect students' inclination for civic engage- ment: sense of citizen political control, sense of com- munity efficacy, and awareness of diversity and social justice issues.

Why is the concept of civics still important today? ›

It is the duty of citizens to the common welfare of their community, even at the cost of their own interests. Civics education teaches us that we can have different opinions on issues but still maintain respect for each other. Civics teaches what it means to be civically engaged, and also engage civilly.

How can citizen engagement be improved? ›

What Is Citizen Engagement and Participation?
  1. Participating in neighborhood cleanups or planting public gardens.
  2. Helping out with a local charity.
  3. Starting or assisting with new city-level initiatives.
  4. Attending school board or city government meetings, sometimes with unpredictable results.
12 Sept 2022

How does civics relate to government? ›

It includes the study of civil law and civil code, and the study of government with attention to the role of citizens―as opposed to external factors―in the operation and oversight of government.

What is America's government type called? ›

While often categorized as a democracy, the United States is more accurately defined as a constitutional federal republic.

What is America's government based on? ›

The foundation of our American Government, its purpose, form and structure are found in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution, written in 1787, is the "supreme law of the land" because no law may be passed that contradicts its principles.

What is American civic identity? ›

From informal community activities to formalized political processes and affairs of state, civic identity involves formation and negotiation of personal and group identities as they relate to presence, role, and participation in public life.

What are the 5 civic duties for US citizens? ›

  • Support and defend the Constitution.
  • Stay informed of the issues affecting your community.
  • Participate in the democratic process.
  • Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws.
  • Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.
  • Participate in your local community.
5 Jul 2020

What is American civic nationalism? ›

American nationalism sometimes takes the form of Civic nationalism, a liberal form of nationalism based on values such as freedom, equality, and individual rights. Civic nationalists view nationhood as a political identity. They argue that a civic nation is defined by liberal democratic principles and loyalty.

How do citizens interact with the government? ›

Voting is one way to participate in our democracy. Citizens can also contact their officials when they want to support or change a law. Voting in an election and contacting our elected officials are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy.

What are the impacts importance of civil society and social movements in our government? ›

Civil society organisations (CSOs) can provide both immediate relief and longer-term transformative change – by defending collective interests and increasing accountability; providing solidarity mechanisms and promoting participation; influencing decision making; directly engaging in service delivery; and challenging ...

How does the government address the interests of civil society? ›

In order to address the interests of civil societies, the national government implement laws and policies in respect to the demands of the public. Through legislative process, the national government pass laws that secures the demands of the civil societies.

What is the role of the US government what is its purpose? ›

The purpose is expressed in the preamble to the Constitution: ''We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more per- fect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ...

What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens? ›

Citizens have a responsibility to participate in the political process by registering and voting in elections. Serving on a jury is another responsibility of citizenship.

What are two rights only for U.S. citizens? ›

Rights for United States Citizens Only

Rights for a United States citizen include the following: The right to vote. The right to run for elected office. The right to apply for federal employment.

What is the best example of citizen engagement? ›

Examples can range from creating a home assessment offer to keep citizens safe, using a website as an emergency platform for community disasters, or creating an emergency response team for a disaster.

What is civic engagement and public policy? ›

Influencing public decision-making is a critical and legal means for nonprofit organizations to accomplish their missions. Open communication between policymakers and constituents contributes to well-informed policies and their effective implementation.

Why are civic values important in a society with self government? ›

These values help keep society running, help keep people happy, and ensure security for future generations.

Why is civic so important? ›

Civic education empowers us to be well-informed, active citizens and gives us the opportunity to change the world around us. It is a vital part of any democracy, and equips ordinary people with knowledge about our democracy and our Constitution.

What do civic issues cause us? ›

Political, economic, civil, environmental or quality of life issues.

What are the two types of civic engagement? ›

Types of Civic Engagement. The act of civic engagement can be conducted in three main ways including electoral participation, individual volunteerism, and advocacy, or activism.

How important is citizens engagement to the government? ›

Growing evidence confirms that citizen engagement can help governments achieve improved development results in creating links between citizen engagement and improved public service delivery, public financial management, governance, social inclusion, and empowerment.

Why is civic participation important in a democracy? ›

By voting, citizens are participating in the democratic process. Citizens vote for leaders to represent them and their ideas, and the leaders support the citizens' interests. There are two special rights only for U.S. citizens: voting in federal elections and running for federal office.

What is the role and responsibility of citizens in a government? ›

U.S. citizens have a responsibility to participate in their government by registering to vote and voting in elections. By voting, citizens have a voice in their government and help ensure that the democratic representative system of government is maintained.

What are the benefits of civic engagement? ›

Civic participation affects not just individuals, but entire societies. Neighborhoods with higher levels of civic participation have a greater sense of community, lower levels of crime, and citizens who are healthier and happier.

What are the skills needed for civic engagement? ›

Specifically these authors define civic skills to include competency in English, vocabulary, writing letters, going to meetings, taking part in decision making, planning or chairing a meeting, and giving a presentation or speech.

What is the purpose of community engagement? ›

Through feedback, community engagement enables government and public decision-making organizations to listen and, in turn, demonstrate the impact of community contribution. Community engagement, then, builds deeper, stronger and more trusting relationships between public organizations and communities.


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