Understanding the US Government

Course No. 50030
Professor Jennifer Nicoll Victor, PhD
George Mason University
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Course No. 50030
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Uncover the inner operations of our political institutions, and grasp their strengths, challenges, and limits
  • numbers Delve into the intricacies of Congress and the legislature
  • numbers Take a rigorous look at how the United States has become more politically polarized than at any time in the past 140 years
  • numbers Study how the House and Senate function and interact, how congressional bills are passed, and how congressional elections operate

Course Overview

Whether we participate in it or not, government plays a deeply integral role in how we live. From the taxes we pay and the laws that constrain our behavior, to the federal and state institutions that oversee our communities, to the civil rights and liberties we benefit from, our day-to-day existence is shaped in fundamental ways by the nature, policies, and actions of our government.

If you are like most people, however, you have wondered why the US government works like it does. Regardless of your political leanings, we all have a role to play in protecting our democracy, and by gaining a real grasp of the US governmental system, we’re better equipped to engage with society on a variety of levels. For being a member of society requires more than just a cursory knowledge of government and politics; it requires us to be savvy consumers of news, media, and public opinion, and the ability to discern the deeper content and meaning of the legislation and policies we live with. For those outside of the United States, understanding the internal workings of the US government can give crucial insight into America’s behavior and decisions on the world stage.

But there’s an additional, compelling reason for learning about the structure and processes of the US government: It’s fascinating! The experiment of American democracy has been both historically unprecedented and world-changing, and our political institutions and their development tell one of the most remarkable, intriguing, and complex stories of the modern world.

In Understanding the US Government, prominent political scientist Professor Jennifer Nicoll Victor of George Mason University presents a spirited and comprehensive examination of the ins and outs of the American system of democracy, across 24 revealing lectures, covering both its many institutions and the intertwined political features that have developed as the theory of government designed in 1789 was put into practice.

The Workings of US Democracy

As you take a thorough look at the structure and functions of our government, you will begin with the framing of the Constitution, noting how the document was pieced together as a series of compromises between opposing factions.

From there, you’ll delve into essential topics such as federalism; the nature of our civil liberties and civil rights; the individual functions of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; how government interfaces with the economy; how the federal bureaucracy operates; and how elections and voting work—including a hard look at the enigmatic electoral college. You’ll also examine vital political aspects of our system, including the roles of political parties, campaigning, and money, as well as the landscape of organized interests and the media, foreign policy, and what accounts for the extreme partisan polarization that currently grips US politics.

As an illuminating feature of this course, Professor Victor brings focus to many of the underlying complexities, incongruities, and challenges within our system that offer insights into its workings, such as:

  • By modern definitions, for decades after its founding, the United States was neither a true democracy nor a democratic republic, due to restrictions on voting rights;
  • The powers that are formally accorded to the president are surprisingly few, and many of the powers that presidents exercise are simply implied, or have developed over time;
  • The Constitution’s framers did not intend for political parties to form, and our political institutions were created as if parties don’t exist, causing basic conflicts between our politicians and the institutions in which they operate;
  • Specific features of our electoral laws that make it inevitable that we will have two, and only two, major political parties; and
  • The design of the federal system that exists today is deeply tied to the failure of the Constitution’s framers to adequately resolve conflicts over slavery.

Explore the Core Features of American Government

Early in the course, you’ll examine the system known as federalism, which divides sovereign power between the national and state governments, shedding light on its benefits, protections, and structural features. With this as context, you’ll explore a wide range of subject matter, including:

  • The Difference between Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. Although civil liberties and civil rights are core features of American political institutions, they are not well understood. While civil liberties are freedoms protected from government infringement, civil rights are protections guaranteed by government. Instances when liberty and equality have been in conflict are central to understanding the trials we’ve faced as a nation, and the challenges that are yet to come.
  • Intricacies of Congress and the legislature. Across three lectures, study how the House and Senate function and interact, how congressional bills are passed and congressional elections operate, and grasp how the institutional design of Congress makes passing legislation difficult, strains its capacity to handle complex policy issues, and can allow for the passing of legislation the majority opposes.
  • The Politics of the Supreme Court. Trace the highly charged procedure by which justices are appointed; investigate how political parties, organized interests, and the public try to affect the Court’s rulings; note the parameters of judicial ideology within the Court; and witness the political, social, and policy effects of the Court’s actions.
  • How the Federal Bureaucracy Is Organized. Learn how governmental bureaucracy is encompassed within the executive branch, and how it evolved to its current vast complexity; chart its breakdown into the 15 cabinet-level departments and their sub-agencies, the many independent governmental agencies, and the hybrid government corporations.
  • The Challenge of Campaign Finance. Contemplate the recent history of campaign finance reform, as it reveals a system with a strong imbalance of power; observe how “soft money,” “527 groups,” “super PACs,” and nonprofit organizations maneuver around campaign finance laws, ensuring that a small and resourceful group of people finance most of what happens during US elections.
  • Politics and the Media. Within today’s heated media environment, track the huge gap between liberal and conservative trust of journalism, the phenomenon of political media as both information and entertainment, how the media environment is ripe for misinformation and conspiracy theories, and consider best practices for consuming news.
  • America’s Deep Political Polarization. Take a rigorous look at how the US has become more politically polarized than at any time in the past 140 years; uncover three core issues that underlie polarization, and see how our current divisiveness, which may seem like a phenomenon of the present era, is directly traceable to events that took place in the 1970s.

A Complex, Multilayered System

Throughout the lectures, Professor Victor’s extraordinary depth of knowledge, her refreshing clarity in breaking down complexities of our political life, and her gripping and thought-provoking commentary make this a vividly engaging and richly informative experience.

In presenting the subject matter, she offers critical insights into both the strengths and the limits of the US political system. As cases in point, in her reflections on Congress and campaign finance, she addresses the question of whether the current procedures and institutions are adequate to solve the problems American society faces, and how, within the tension between liberty and equality that characterizes this democracy, US policy has historically favored liberty over equality.

In Understanding the US Government, you’ll gain a deepened knowledge and comprehension of the governmental system that we live with on a daily basis, and valuable insights for assessing the policies coming out of Washington, the news, the media, and the ongoing political dialogue that moves this democracy. Join a brilliant political scientist in this incisive look at the underpinnings of the American way of life.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Have Government?
    As context, begin by looking into the nature of governments, and the major types of government. Consider why governments exist and how major political theorists have viewed the roles of government. Examine the founding of the United States and the creation of the Constitution through the lens of “collective action theory,” which helps explain why the US government is structured as it is. x
  • 2
    The Framework of US Federalism
    Study the system of federalism, where sovereign power is divided between the national and state governments. Trace the history of federalism in the United States, as it protects individual liberties, checks government power, and allows for the resolution of political conflicts. Note how the balance shifted in the 20th century, from greater state authority to a much-expanded power of the federal government. x
  • 3
    Civil Liberties: Freedoms from Government
    Probe the concept of civil liberties, as they delineate restrictions that government cannot impose. Learn about “selective incorporation,” the process through which civil liberty protections at the state level have been guaranteed through Supreme Court rulings. Then look at how the judicial system has interpreted and upheld freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. x
  • 4
    Civil Rights: Fairness under Government
    Consider how America's historic record on human rights continues to impact modern politics. Study the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment and how it has been applied. Examine the history and the current landscape of human rights with regard to African-American rights, affirmative action, and women's rights, as well as Native American, Asian American, and LGBTQ+ rights. x
  • 5
    How a Bill Becomes a Law
    Observe how a congressional bill originates, and how legislators formally submit a bill. Then follow the various stages through which a bill is acted upon by the House, the Senate, by presidential review, and the process of ultimate adoption into law. Finally, learn about the “cloture rule,” a mechanism that forces bills to a vote, and the strategic tactic of filibustering in the Senate. x
  • 6
    Why Congress Is Such a Puzzle
    Explore core issues in the functioning of Congress. First, take account of the inherent tension for legislators between serving their constituents and serving their party. Investigate procedural challenges within this unwieldy organ of government, tasked with solving massive social problems, whose institutional design is in some ways an impediment to progress. x
  • 7
    How Congressional Elections Work
    Learn how congressional elections are structured, and differences between the House and Senate. Examine key factors in the politics of congressional campaigns, such as the high cost of campaigning, the role of incumbency, and how congressional campaigns have become increasingly nationalized. Then delve into the issue of gerrymandering, and the varied record in the United States of the practice of gerrymandering. x
  • 8
    The Powers of the Presidency
    Identify the powers granted to the president by the Constitution, versus other powers that have been implied or have developed over time. Assess the roles of the president as both head of state and head of government, and delve into core topics that include the budget process, the exercise of executive privilege, impeachment, and the president's role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. x
  • 9
    How Presidential Elections Work
    Grasp the ways in which presidential elections differ from congressional elections. Take an in-depth look at the Electoral College, and the sometimes odd consequences of the system. Observe how presidential nominations are made, and assess election forecasting and the indicators that are most predictive of election outcomes. Also, examine the phenomenon of “fake news” and misinformation. x
  • 10
    A Road Map of the Federal Bureaucracy
    Take an overview of how the vast systems of the federal government operate. First, trace how and why the United States developed such a massive bureaucracy. Study how the executive branch is structured, highlighting the cabinet departments, independent agencies, and government corporations. Finally, analyze the theory of the “principal-agent problem,” which gives insights into bureaucratic control. x
  • 11
    How the Judicial Branch Works
    Investigate the sources of judicial authority that underlie our legal system, and the judicial system's organization according to three types of legal cases. Learn about the structure of the federal court system, comprising three types of federal courts. Conclude with a detailed look at the Supreme Court, how a case gets to the Supreme Court, and how cases are heard and adjudicated. x
  • 12
    Where the Supreme Court Meets Politics
    Follow the very politicized process that takes place when a president appoints a justice to the Supreme Court. Then look at four categories of influences that bear on the Court and its decisions. Examine how the Court plays a role in policymaking through its decisions and precedents. Finally, trace how the Court's role in politics and government has changed over the course of US history. x
  • 13
    The Challenges of Polling Public Opinion
    Define “public opinion,” in its various forms, both individual and aggregate. For the measuring of public opinion, note the difference between the theory of the “wisdom of crowds,” and what’s called “groupthink.” Explore the sources of individual opinion and political identity. Then look at what polls are and what they do, highlighting the polling controversy of the 2016 presidential election. x
  • 14
    How Political Parties Organize Democracy
    Why do political parties exist? Dig into this question, and grasp how parties solve three categories of problems for three different groups of political “actors.” Investigate why it is that the United States has two, and only two, major political parties. And, to better understand how parties operate today, trace the history of political parties in the United States, and how they have changed and realigned over time. x
  • 15
    How Americans Became So Polarized
    Delve into the factors that underlie the extreme partisan polarization of current US politics. Define what polarization is, as distinct from partisanship. Focus on three main sources of polarization, and explore how and why polarization tends to self-perpetuate. Examine false assumptions about polarization, its dangers, and consider how possible reforms might break the cycle. x
  • 16
    The Fundamentals of Elections and Voting
    Look first at suffrage (the right to vote) in the United States, including the history of women's suffrage, African-American suffrage, and suffrage for 18 year olds. Study voter turnout in elections, and how we can account for consistently low voter turnout. Consider what determines a person's likelihood to vote, the gender gap in voting, and the need of candidates to be appealing to median voters. x
  • 17
    How Does American Democracy Work?
    In assessing the US democratic system, dispel the common myth of a single “will of the people.” Grasp how institutions such as Congress provide stability and an agreed-upon procedure for making major group decisions. Review several fully democratic ways of counting votes, which provide different outcomes, and look into the use and possible benefits of ranked-choice voting in the United States. x
  • 18
    The Ins and Outs of Campaign Finance
    Witness how campaigns have been financed throughout US history. Trace the many campaign finance reforms enacted since the 1970s, which aim to curb corruption and unequal influence on elections. Take account of the problems that arise when sources of campaign funding do not represent the broader population, and the repeating cycle of reforms followed by attempts to work around campaign finance limits. x
  • 19
    The Pros and Cons of Organized Interests
    Revisit the theory of collective action as you chart the seven types of organized interest groups that figure in American politics, and the huge proliferation of interest groups since the 1960s. In grasping how interest groups form and operate, and the problems they address, weigh the valuable things these groups can do for society against the tendency for the power of organized interests to be skewed toward the wealthy and privileged. x
  • 20
    Politics and the Media
    To better understand the complex relationship between media, politics, and government, investigate public trust and distrust of journalism, and the ideological positions of news sources themselves. Note how social media can exacerbate political polarization. Finally, grasp the ways in which the political environment is ripe for conspiracy theories and misinformation, and how we can best respond. x
  • 21
    How Government Affects the Economy
    Examine the US system of free market economics, and the fiscal and monetary policies our government employs to correct for market failures. Learn how Congress and the president address problems such as high unemployment and inflation through government spending and taxation, and how the Fed uses interest rates and the sale of treasury bonds to stimulate or de-stimulate the economy. x
  • 22
    How the US Social Safety Net Works
    The federal social safety net is designed to alleviate poverty among the elderly, needy families, and the disabled. Learn about the TANF program, or “welfare,” and the institutions of Social Security, disability insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Take account of the financial strains on these programs, questions of their future solvency, and the political controversies that surround them. x
  • 23
    The Major Shifts in American Foreign Policy
    Trace the history of the United States in international politics, from early isolationism through America's global role in the 20th century, to today's post-9/11 political climate. Observe US participation in international institutions aimed at peacekeeping, trade, and economic growth, and note current US policy trends regarding trade conditions and the negative effects of globalization. x
  • 24
    The Changing State of American Democracy
    Conclude with a look at the biggest challenges that American politics and government will face in the coming years, such as racial, environmental, and economic justice. Assess possible reforms for greater income and racial equality, and the benefits of a stronger role for political parties. Consider the dangers of the current degradation of democratic norms, and how they might be restored. x

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Your professor

Jennifer Nicoll Victor

About Your Professor

Jennifer Nicoll Victor, PhD
George Mason University
Jennifer Nicoll Victor is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She holds a PhD and an MA in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis. She also received a BA magna cum laude in Political Science from the University of California San Diego. For almost a decade, she taught at the University of Pittsburgh as an Assistant Professor of...
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Understanding the US Government is rated 2.7 out of 5 by 13.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course to Take Very informative and up to date. Great course to take, especially these days, to better understand how we got to today and why there is such a divide...
Date published: 2020-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best course I purchased this course about 2 months ago, and am maybe 1/3 done. In the past I have purchases around 40 courses. This course, Understanding the US Government, is maybe the best course of all of them. The presenter is very easy to understand and knowledgeable. The presentations are very clear. The course was done in the last year (2020) and is up-to-date, given all the crazy stuff going on in this country. The material is presented fairly and does not favour one point of view over another.
Date published: 2020-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great for non-Americans!! As a Canadian, I have long struggled to understand US politics, even though we lived in California for 2 years. I have been very active in Canadian politics and have taken a few political science sources, but I still struggled to understand US politics. Since 2016, I have been searching for an on-line course that would help me to understand the dynamics (from both sides - liberalism and conservatism) . I highly recommend this course! BRAVO, EXCEPTION VALUE
Date published: 2020-10-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from It only took 30 years I'm reviewing from the audio version of the course. There are a few places where "as we can see from this chart" makes audio a bit problematic, which is mostly why it's four stars rather than five, but the course works well in either format. This is a basic introduction to US Government. It is well done, well organized, well presented, and it only took 30 years to get here. Some of the 1- and 2-star reviews probably explain why The Great Courses hasn't done a basic Government course earlier, which makes Lectures 14 and 15 on parties and polarization particularly interesting. Prof. Victor is presenting from an institutionalist perspective and says so at the outset, so she is very transparent as to where she is coming from. There are other approaches out there, but institutionalism works well for a survey course like this. Despite it being categorized as History, it's politics and some of the content may be somewhat controversial, but she takes an even-handed approach. I did not come across anything in the 24 lectures that was not well-supported in the literature. I do have minor quibbles about some bits, but they are things where she would have needed to take a much deeper dive into the data and methodology, which is beyond the scope of the course. For a basic Government 101 course, it's very good. I highly recommend it and even those with a deeper knowledge of Political Science will come across more than a few interesting bits.
Date published: 2020-10-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from This course has a misleading title! I just finished this course and I must say that I am disappointed in The Great Courses for choosing this one. The title should be “Understanding the US Government from a Progressive Marxist Point of View”. I was unaware that income redistribution and equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity were part of mainstream political thought in this country. Perhaps I am wrong.
Date published: 2020-10-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Political bias bordering on hate speech If you like to be talked down to and want a course to listen to between your MSNBC binge sessions, this is it!! It has everything you like -Fake appeal to expert consensus -Skewing of all data to fit your preexisting conclusions -Presenting tired saws and long-discredited talking points as new insights This is not a course so much as one overly long diatribe. I am sure it will be perfect for you!
Date published: 2020-10-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Unknown Technical Glitch I have only viewed the first .mp4 downloaded lecture of this course. I view these courses on an Apple TV (streamed over my network from my computer) while riding an exercise bike. For some reason when played in this manner, the audio and video are significantly out of sync, whereas when I stream from the Great Courses site (There isn't an Apple TV app for doing so), or playing the download directly on my computer, the video and audio are in sync. I have never experienced this issue with one of the Great Courses before. In this instance, I solved the problem by ripping the audio track from the .mp4 video and placing it on an iPod for play in my car while driving. If I experience this problem with a subsequent Great Course, I'll seek a refund or an exchange to an alternative format.
Date published: 2020-10-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The Dogma is Strong with this One... Funny how arrogant folks (so-called "academics") on the Left can be. I couldn't get past the halfway point of the first lesson. What really capped my XXX? (and I paraphrase: "Both the Left and the Right contribute to increasing polarization. But the Right started it.) Don't waste your money unless you're already a member of the Left.
Date published: 2020-09-28
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