United States Government: Where do we start?

An image of a poster that reads "This is America, where you vote as you please. Where the privileges of democracy belong to all people equally...where your government is your servant, not your master. This is your America. Keep it free!"

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 or maintain this right. Why do people often ignore this means of civic engagement? (credit: modification of work–National Archives and Records Administration)

The United States has relied on citizen participation to govern at the local, state, and national level as a representative republic. The right to participate in government is an important pillar of this republic. The people have known that and valued that right enough to fight for and then defend it over nearly two and a half centuries. Active civic participation is at once foundational to a free society, under assault from political agendas, and taken for granted by too many.

The founders of the United States were originally focused on freedom from the tyranny of a remote and arrogant monarchy. While forming a new independent government, they realized an opportunity to draw on the wisdom of revered political philosophers and centuries of experience with European states and governance. A government structure and process to serve the current and future interests of the people resulted. Perhaps most importantly, the resulting representative republic–centered on civic participation and control–is able to meet the people’s changing interests over time.

Consider the very issue of participation. At the founding, only free white land-owning males participated. Over time, their privileged control gradually gave way to codified equal participation for all citizens. Only a government structured for ultimate control by the people, would be able to evolve the very definition of the governing people themselves. The definition of the people has changed over time. The struggle to include more groups of people to participate on equal footing has been long and difficult.  The fact that each group continued the struggle is evidence of the value they place on our representative republic and the opportunities equal participation affords them.

The World War II era poster shown above depicts voting as an important part of the fight to keep the United States free. Voting is both a right worth protecting and a tool for engagement, which ensures the government serves the people rather than the reverse.

United States Government: Questions to Consider

  1. Why are governments necessary to society?
  2. What does government do to serve the people?
  3. What functions should governments perform?
  4. What forms of government exist?
  5. How do these forms differ?
  6. How can citizens engage with government and participate in the crucial process of governing?