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1.1 What is Government?

Government provides stability to society, as well as many crucial services such as free public education, police and fire services, and mail delivery. It also regulates access to common goods, such as public land, for the benefit of all. Government creates a structure whereby people can make their needs and opinions known to public officials. This is one of the key factors that makes the United States a representative democracy. A country where people elect representatives to make political decisions for them depends on the ability and willingness of ordinary people to make their voices known, unlike an oligarchy dominated by only a small group of people.

1.2 Who Governs? Elitism, Pluralism, and Tradeoffs

Many question whether politicians are actually interested in the needs of average citizens and debate how much influence ordinary people have over what government does. Those who support the elite theory of government argue that a small, wealthy, powerful elite controls government and makes policy to benefit its members and perpetuate their power. Others favor the pluralist theory, which maintains that groups representing the people’s interests do attract the attention of politicians and can influence government policy. In reality, government policy usually is the result of a series of tradeoffs as groups and elites fight with one another for influence and politicians attempt to balance the demands of competing interests, including the interests of the constituents who elected them to office.

1.3 Engagement in a Democracy

Civic and political engagement allows politicians to know how the people feel. It also improves people’s lives and helps them to build connections with others. Individuals can educate themselves on important issues and events, write to their senator or representative, file a complaint at city hall, attend a political rally, or vote. People can also work in groups to campaign or raise funds for a candidate, volunteer in the community, or protest a social injustice or an unpopular government policy. Although wealthier, older, more highly educated citizens are the most likely to be engaged with their government, especially if they have intense preferences about an issue, younger, less wealthy people can do much to change their communities and their country.

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