This page is meant to become the main place on this website to explore what is important for democracy and why.
At present, it contains a variety of topics with links to relevant portions of the US Constitution, Bill of Rights, short podcasts (P) and videos (V). The podcasts and videos were selected because they are meant to be politically neutral and because they cover a lot of important ground. The podcasts were produced by New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR). The videos were produced in association with PBS Digital Studios.
Scroll down to see the list of topics and links.
NHPR is New Hampshire’s only statewide radio news service. Its Civics 101 podcasts are updated frequently on the basis of listener requests. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is an independently operated non-profit organization that provides television programs to public television stations in the United States. PBS New Hour is rated by AllSides.com as located in the center of the left-right ideological scale.
You may also be interested in reading We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution (level 3). It is produced by the Center for Civic Education for high school students but is quite suitable for adults as well. The Center for Civic Education partners with a network of 50 state civics, government, and law programs sponsored by state bar associations and foundations, colleges and universities, and other civic and law non-profit organizations to promote teaching and learning about the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Your feed-back on the reading, podcasts, videos or new material to add is welcome.
FREE AND FAIR COMPETITION
|CONSTITUTION & LAW LINKS||
|Free speech and freedom of assembly are required for potential leaders to compete for our votes: what laws or actions do they propose? Free speech is also required if we are to hold past and current politicians accountable for their choices and actions.||1rst Amendment||(V) Freedom of Speech. Free speech is important because it allows us to critique the government. It also protects us from the government. Yet, not all speech is protected equally under the First Amendment.
(V) Public Opinion. Why policies are made.
(V) Shaping Public Opinion. Most people’s politics are grounded in their ideologies, but there are also other external influences such as the government itself, interest groups, and the media.
(V) Political Campaigns. American campaigns stand out globally for their length and expense. This prompts questions about money, political corruption, and the role of the media.
(P) The Art of Political Speech Writing. Citizens and legislators can be swayed by an especially good speech.
(V) Political Parties. The role of political parties is much simpler: to win control of the government. Conventions, caucuses, primaries (open and closed), and polarization. Voter mobilization.
(V) Party Systems Over Time. There have been five or six party systems since the election of John Adams in 1796.
(V) Interest Groups. The pro’s and con’s of interest groups role in our democracy.
|Elections and Voting play three fundamental roles. The first is an incentive for competing parties to stay inside the system: there will always be another chance to win in another election. The second is the competitive selection by citizens of representatives who will oversee the executive, legislative and (in some places) judicial functions of government. The third is related to accountability (see below).
|Article 1(2-4, 7)
Various court cases.
|(V) Election Basics. Introduction to representative government and the roles of the Constitution and the states.
(V) How Voters Decide. Voter decisions are influenced by a multitude of factors. These include party loyalty, the issues involved in an election, and candidate characteristics.
(V) Gerrymandering. When politicians attempt to choose their voters instead of the other way around.
(P) Gerrymandering. When did gerrymandering become the norm? Is it always used for political gain? And is there any way to stop it from happening?
(P) The Electoral College. The history behind this mysterious and confusing aspect of American democracy, and how it has evolved over time.
|Civil rights – There is a very high probability that at least some of your ancestors suffered from the tyranny of stronger groups or the government. Is progress since then sufficient?||Article 6
14th Amendment, section 1
Various court cases.
|(V) Civil Rights and Liberties. General introduction to protection from the federal government, the states, and each other.
(V) Freedom of Religion. Significant Supreme Court decisions and how they’ve affected our interpretations of the Constitution.
(V) Search and Seizure. The fourth amendment says that you have the right to be protected against “unreasonable searches and seizures” but what exactly does this mean?
(V) Due Process. The 5th and 6th amendments and how they ensure a fair trial.
(V) Equal Protection. Civil rights involve how some groups of citizens can treat other groups (usually minorities) under existing laws.
(V) Sex Discrimination. How the government treats employment discrimination against women.
(V) Other Kinds of Discrimination. A review of various discrimination related issues.
(V) Affirmative Action. What affirmative action is, who it is for, and why it still exists.
|Checks and Balances – dictators and oligarchies can arbitrarily decide (a) what the rules are, (b) how to implement them, and (c) who to punish for not following the rules. Checks and balances separate these three functions so that one body can check or balance the actions of another, thus eliminating dictatorial power.||The US Constitution, in full, and especially:
Article 1(1-3, 5-8)
|(P) Separation of Powers. How the separation of powers and the idea of checks and balances are related.
(V) Checks and Balances. The Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch are designed to keep each other in check, and to keep any branch from becoming too powerful.
(P) Presidential Veto. The presidential veto is part of our constitutional checks and balances. How has the veto been used historically and more recently?
(P) Congressional Investigations. When is it Congress’ job to investigate an issue and how do they do it?
(P) Impeachment. Why and how can a president or other official be impeached? Why is it that the presidents that have been impeached haven’t been removed from office?
(P) Overturning a Supreme Court Ruling. It’s difficult but not impossible. Several options are explored.
(P) How to Amend the Constitution. How hard is it to change our most sacred document? There are two ways, but one of them has never been used. The founders didn’t spell the process out clearly.
|Federalism can be thought of as another form of checks and balances. The federal government may only have those powers assigned to it in the Constitution, all other powers are reserved for the states.
These assignments are generally consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.
Note: The Founding Fathers did not anticipate the need to regulate “externalities” which, by their nature, should be handled at the federal level.
|Article 1(1-3, 8-10)
Article 4(1 & 3)
|(V) Constitutional Compromises. how delegates settled on a two-house system of representation and discuss the issues of slavery and population that have been imbedded into our constitution.
(V) Federalism. How federalism has evolved over time.
|CONSTITUTION & LAW LINKS||
|Voting and Elections – are one of the main ways that citizens can hold politicians accountable for their decisions and actions. Those who do not perform well, in the opinion of a majority of voters, can be voted out. (See section on voting above.)||See above||See above|
|Public Law – is the body of laws that govern the relationship between citizens and government, including protections against government tyranny.
See also The Judiciary below.
|(V) Legal System Basics. The courts, and the laws that come out of them, affect our lives daily. But where each law’s jurisdiction starts and ends can get complicated.
(V) Judicial Review. About the power to examine and invalidate actions of the legislative and executive branches.
(V) Judicial Decisions. A discussion of how the other branches of government, political affiliations, and past court decisions can influence judicial decisions.
(V) Supreme Court Procedures. How to petition to get your case heard, how written arguments are made, what happens on the courtroom floor, and the variety of ways the Supreme Court issues opinions on cases.
(P) More on Supreme Court Procedures. This podcast explains how lower court cases make their way to the highest court in the land, and how do the Supreme Court decides which ones to hear.
(P) The Federal Courts. How do the federal courts work? What can they do, how they do it, and why does it matter?
|Accountability requires information. The Founding Fathers understood the importance of a free press (media) but there is little in the Constitution requiring government transparency beyond the requirement that Congress shall keep and publish a journal of its proceedings and publish the budget. Laws help fill in the gap, are they sufficient?
Note: The Founding Fathers did not anticipate the need to regulate “monopolies and oligopolies.” This topic is important not only for consumers and employees but also for a free and competitive press (media).
|Article 1(5 and 9)||(V) Freedom of the Press. Like an individual’s right to free speech, the press has a right, and arguably responsibility, to tell the public what the government is doing.
(V) Media Institutions. Their important role in providing information to voters.
(P) The White House Press Corps. Pro’s and con’s of White House press briefings.
(V) Media Regulation. Access to information, licensing of radio frequencies, market concentration.
(V) Interest Group Formation. Five reasons why special interest groups exist.
|TOPICS||CONSTITUTION & LAW LINKS||
(Federal House and Senate, State House and Senate, City Council)
|Article 1||(V) Bicameral Congress. About the United States Congress, what the Senate and House of Representatives are for, and some of the history of the institutions. How you can become a representative.
(V) Congressional Elections. The frequency of elections in the Senate and House, typical characteristics of a candidate, and the motivating factors our congress people follow to get re-elected.
(P) Term-Limits. Why are there no limits for members of Congress?
(V) Congressional Committees. Standing committees, joint committees, conference committees, and caucuses (and not the candidate-choosing kinds) as well as the staff agencies that help advise these committees and congress people.
(P) A congressional caucus is a group of members of the Congress that meets to pursue common legislative objectives. Not the same as a committee.
(V) Congressional Leadership. The responsibilities of the speaker of the house, the majority and minority leaders as well as the majority and minority whips in both the Senate and the House.
(P) Party Whips. Everything you wanted to know about whipping is and why it is important.
(P) Senate Rules. There are 44 standing rules of the US Senate, but what are they? Where do they come from? And who can Presiding Officers turn to when they have a question?
(P) The Filibuster. The term gets thrown around a lot, but what is it? What are the rules governing this sanctioned form of unruliness? Is it effective?
(V) How a Bill Becomes a Law. Before they can become law, bills must navigate a series of amendments and votes in both houses, potentially more committees, further compromise bills, and even more floor votes. The final step is the Office of the President.
(V) What Influences Congressional Decisions? There are at least three motivating factors of congressional decisions – constituency, interest groups, and political parties. Each can motivate certain actions like casework, public opinion polls, and logrolling.
(P) Calling Your Congress Person. What happens after that call is made? Where does the message go? And do those calls ever sway decisions?
(Federal Presidency, State Governor, City Mayor)
|(V) Presidential Power Part 1. Power and limits to power. Appointing judges and granting pardons, vetoing laws and acting as the nation’s chief diplomat on foreign policy.
(V) Presidential Power Part 2. Implied or inherent powers NOT found in the Constitution. How the president uses his or her power to negotiate executive agreements, recommend legislative initiatives, instate executive orders, impound funds, and claim executive privilege to get things done.
(P) War Powers. Who has the power to declare war, and to deploy the military, the President or Congress?
(P) The Nuclear Codes. Is ordering a nuclear strike as simple as pressing a button? What happens after a president issues the order?
(P) Corruption in the Executive Office. The foreign and domestic emoluments clauses are among the few Constitutional protections against corruption arising from conflicts of interest.
(V) How Presidents Govern. A discussion of key players within the Executive Branch including the vice president, the Cabinet, and the Executive Office of the President.
(P) How the Cabinet works. How are cabinet secretaries appointed and how much power do they have? How much control can the President and his staff in Executive Office of the President exert?
(P) The National Security Council. What’s the purpose of the National Security Council? When was it created? Who serves on it?
(P) Executive Orders. What are the different tools the President uses to direct his administration? Are they laws? Can they be revoked by Congress? How are they vetted? (See also Congressional Delegation below.)
|Bureaucracies||The non-delegation doctrine comes from Article 1(1): “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States,” implying Congress cannot delegate its power to anyone else.
However, the Supreme Court ruled in J. W. Hampton, Jr. & Co. v. United States (1928) that congressional delegation of legislative authority is an implied power of Congress that is constitutional so long as Congress provides an “intelligible principle” to guide the executive branch.
|(V) Congressional Delegation to the Executive Branch bureaucracies. Delegation of responsibility and discretionary authority to government agencies.
Bureaucracy Basics. Bureaucracies tend to be associated with unintelligible rules and time-wasting procedures. Yet, someone must implement the laws that Congress writes and the President approves. Many provide important services such as weather forecasting or food safety.
Types of Bureaucracies. Some bureaucracies exist solely to independently regulate industry whereas others are expected to operate like corporations and make a profit. Some of these agencies have sub-agencies!
(P) The Departments of Defense and State. What do these two departments and their heads do? And are diplomatic efforts and military strategy natural opposites?
|Controlling Bureaucracies. Methods the other branches of government use to manage this power. From watch-dog organizations to reporting requirements, there has been quite a bit of legislation passed aimed at taming bureaucracies.
(P) Requests for Public Comments on Rules. When must a government agency open a proposed rule to public comment? What happens when they do? Do these comments ever sway decision making?
(V) Government Regulation. The government’s goals for the U.S. economy and the policies it employs to achieve those goals. Ever since the New Deal, we’ve seen an increased role of the government within the economy – even with the deregulation initiatives of President Carter and Reagan in the 80’s.
(P) The Budget Process. How does it work? It’s more complicated than you might expect.
(P) Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Who does it serve, what is its role and how does it work?
(P) The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) brings in a lot of the revenue that gets spent on our entitlements and public services. How does it work?
(V) Monetary and Fiscal Policy. An introduction to how the government tries to influence the economy through monetary and fiscal policies.
(P) National Debt and the Deficit. How politics and policies affect the annual budget deficit that increases our stock of debt.
Regulation of Monopolies. When a firm has no competition, it can charge as much as it likes while reducing quality as much as it likes. (Sound familiar?) On the other hand, sometimes a monopoly is the only way to provide an essential service (such as electricity in the 19th and 20th centuries.)
Regulation of Externalities. Without government action, positive externalities (like educated workers) will be under-produced while negative externalities (communicable diseases, pollution) will be over-produced.
See also Public Law above.
|Article 1(9)||Legal System Basics. The courts, and the laws that come out of them, affect our lives daily. But where each law’s jurisdiction starts and ends can get complicated.
Structure of Court System. All about the structure of the U.S. court system: trial courts, district courts, appeals courts, circuit courts, state supreme courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court.