CIVICS 1 B – Let’s Go!
In the United States, we have an economic system and a political system. Most people tend not to distinguish between the two. But it is very important to do so. Let’s look a little closer at the political system.
The Foundations of the American Political System
You’re probably learned, or knew at some time or another, what the basic values and principles are that form the foundation for the American political system. In a democracy, this knowledge and understanding among the citizens is expected to increase with each year of our lives. With age comes wisdom.
The fundamental expressions for American principles and values are important to understand for many reasons. Americans are people bound together by the ideals, values, and principles they share rather than by kinship, ethnicity, or religion, which are ties that bind some other nations of the world.
Americas’ ideals, values, and principles have shaped their political instructions and affected their political processes. The ideals, values, and principals set forth in the nation’s core documents are criteria that Americans use to judge the means and the ends of government, as well as those of the myriad groups and organizations that are part of civil society. So, understanding of fundamental principles provides the basis for a reasoned commitment to the ideals, values, and principles of American constitutional democracy.
Theses values and principles of constitutional democracy that the American political system is based upon can be found expressed in such fundamental American documents as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution including the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Federalist Papers, and Antifederalist writings. Other documents which express and elaborate upon the values and principles of the founding documents include the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, and landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Such fundamental expressions of American principles and values are important for us to understand. It is from these ideals and thoughts that American democracy is shaped
Americans realize that the United States and its constitutional democracy are not utopian. It has its shortcomings and there is room for improvement. However, a constitutional democracy is a way of allowing the competing ideas, values, goals, and interests of the people, individually or in groups, to compete with one another in a peaceful manner. A constitutional democracy affords its citizens means of reconciling their differences and their competing visions of truth without resorting to violence or oppressions. Constitutional democracy is a limited government, where powers governing the people are shared at the national, state, and local levels. The founding documents saw this complex system as a means of limiting the power of government and placing in the hands of the people numerous opportunities to participate in their own governance. This system helps us hold our governments accountable, and helps to ensure the protection of the rights of individuals.
America’s Presence on the World StageThe United States exists in a global community. We are part of an interconnected world in whose development we play an important role. America’s political democracy has a profound influence abroad. Our democratic ideals and the benefits of its open society have drawn the attention and inspired the hopes of people worldwide. And just as the ideas expressed in the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the U.S. Constitution, and other fundamental expressions of American principles and values has a profound influence abroad, we must also remember that America and its citizens have been deeply influenced by the institutions and practices of other countries and the cultures of other peoples as well.
We need, as a minimum, to acquire basic knowledge of the relationship of the Unites States to other nations and to world affairs. Citizens need to make judgments about the role of the United States in the world today and what course American foreign policy should take. This means we need to understand the major elements of inter-national relations and how world affairs affect our own lives, and the security and well being of our communities, states, and nation.
OWN IT, FEEL IT, LIVE IT, LOVE IT
Sounds daunting, but it’s not. We’ve been acquiring an understanding of American democracy while in grade school through high school. The seeds of successful citizenship have been planted in us all our lives.
- We understand that citizenship in this American constitutional democracy differs from membership in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.
- We understand that each citizen is a full and equal member of a self-governing community.
- We understand that each citizen has fundamental rights.
- We understand that each citizen is entrusted with responsibilities and must carry out those responsibilities.
Just as we are responsible in our civil society to cleanup after ourselves, drive safely and be courteous, we also know that we are responsible to make certain that the rights of other individuals are respected. It’s also a fundamental responsibility of citizens to make certain that government serves the purposes for which it was created and does not abuse the power that the people have delegated to it. The Declaration of Independence, for example, proclaims the primary purpose of government: “That to secure these Rights (Life, Liberty, ad the Pursuit of Happiness) governments are instituted among Men.” And, the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution says that the purposes of government are to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” We as citizens strive to hold our government accountable to these purposes it was created to serve.
We need to be unafraid and rather fearless and fierce to
- continually expand our intellectual and participatory skills, and
- work tirelessly to improve our public and private character traits.
Our private character traits include becoming an independent member of society; assuming the personal, political, and economic responsibilities of a citizen; and respecting individual worth and human dignity.
Our public character traits include participating in civic affairs in an informed, thoughtful and effective manner; and promoting the healthy functioning of American constitutional democracy.
Sometimes these traits of public and private character are referred to as civic dispositions. We must all understand the role and importance of these civic dispositions in our system. We have to be considerate of the rights and interests of others, and of participating in civic affairs in an informed, thoughtful and civil manner.
Our learning and applying civic knowledge and skills is influenced all the time: at home, social interaction among friends, relatives, members of the community, co-workers, neighbors, television, online media, radio, and even the entertainment programs we choose to watch. All of these life contexts provide arenas in which our civic knowledge is acquired, civic skills are used, and civic traits of public and private character are applied. It’s where we learn about rules, accepted behaviors, and basic democratic and constitutional principles and values. And, we also recognize how deeply influenced we are by the institutions and practices of other countries and the cultures of other peoples.
Although some would argue that in general, civil society is on the decline in America, I see it more as something each one of us can work on improving. As individuals, as we each enjoy participating as citizens in this constitutional democracy, our lives will be richer. It provides new meaning in our lives: to grow our understanding of American constitutional democracy and renewed purpose in our lives: to live responsibly, increasing our knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills.
We’ll own it – the role of governments and the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs; understanding fundamental principles that provides the basis for a reasoned commitment to the ideals, values, and principles of American constitutional democracy.
We’ll feel it – the impact of the various levels of government on our daily lives, the lives of our communities, the welfare of the nation as a whole, and world affairs.
We’ll live it – read, develop our intellectual skills, make informed judgments about the role of governments, seek diverse information sources, engage in many participatory opportunities to be involved in government in addition to elections, campaigns, and voting. We’ll exhibit civic dispositions by thoughtfully participating in public affairs, and civic life—traits such as public spiritedness, civility, and respect for law, critical mindedness, and a willingness to listen negotiate, and compromise are indispensable for the nation’s well-being
We’ll love it – be filled with joy and happiness as we attain individual and public goals, hand-in-hand with participation in political life. We’ll unabashedly declare that as participating citizens, we are maintaining and improving our American constitutional democracy that is dependent on us to be informed, effective, and responsible.