Why American Citizens Should Study Their Nation’s Politics and Government

U.S. Capitol building, south side. (House of Representatives)
U.S. Capitol building, south side. (House of Representatives) | Source

America is a relatively young country when compared to other nations. It does, however, have a long enough time period on which to study and judge its politics and government. More importantly, it is time to evaluate why an American citizen should study his nation’s politics and government. That is not to say he is ignorant of these important issues. It is more a matter of the lack of study and understanding of it that gets him in trouble.

As recently as 2012, only 65 percent of Americans could pass the country’s naturalization test. The 10-question basic civics test requires six correct answers in order to pass. According to records from 2012, about 93 percent of immigrants successfully pass the test. Sure, immigrants have time to study. But is it acceptable that Americans be so poor in basic civics? Besides, we’ve all seen Jay Leno’s Jaywalking segments, right? Who wants to look that stupid on national TV?

JayWalking Allstars - U.S. Government, History, and Geography

Important Terms:

Politics - "affairs of the state"

Politokos - "of, or pertaining to, the polis (city)"

Government - "to direct, rule, guide, govern" (Latin); "to steer or pilot a ship" (Greek)

Okay, okay, so maybe the segment is staged for television purposes. But let’s dig deeper. Should Americans be more knowledgeable about politics and government? What is there to gain from it? Even academic studies show that uninformed American voters know enough to find information shortcuts (televised debates, mail advertisements, etc.) prior to visiting the ballot box. But the question still remains: why should Americans study their nation’s politics and government? Well, a myriad of reasons certainly exist, no doubt. What follows here are a few of the most compelling, in my opinion.

A little housekeeping is in order first, however. By politics, I mean what Aristotle called the “affairs of a state.” In the larger Greek context, I would also use politikos, which means “of, or pertaining to, the polis (city).” Thus, we have a broad idea that defines those issues best left to the public sector, in modern terms.

Government represents the method by which the city accomplishes issues left to it. Its Latin roots mean, “to direct, rule, guide, govern;” In Greek, government takes on the form of a nautical term, meaning, “to steer or pilot a ship.” So politics encompasses the issues best left to the state. Government is a structure citizens choose on how to meet the needs of the common good. Now, why should citizens study American politics and government?

1) America is an Extension of Western Civilization

America’s history is steeped in Western Civilization. It basically sprouts from the Athens-Rome-Jerusalem connection. Of particular import here is America’s connection to Greece and Rome. Both ancient civilizations required citizenship in order to participate in their respective governments.

For example, Athens, the most successful Greek city based on democratic principles, had a large, two-part legislature where several hundred citizens made decisions. Greek citizens were also able to vote at the Assembly, held near the Acropolis. This civic duty required citizens to have some knowledge of the city’s politics and government.

Rome’s republic-style government had a very similar, though distinct, political process. Roman citizens fell into a strict organizational structure with each having some power to vote. Two large groups were the patricians and plebeians. The former were wealthy individuals with higher social standing; the latter were men of lower rank who eventually won their right to vote in the republic.

This extremely simplistic overview does not mean to whitewash over the problems of ancient Greece or Rome. What it shows, however, is that few professional politicians existed during the glory days of each civilization. Some citizens did indeed take on larger civic roles. By and large, however, involved citizens drove the city-states’ politics and government.

Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville | Source

American citizens have much in common with these ancient peoples. In its infancy, Americans were often heavily involved in local, state, and national politics. This involvement often came about due to individual prosperity. As citizens were able to govern their lives in self-interest, a mutual desire was present for favorable government. As Alexis de Tocqueville, famed author of Democracy in America, would write:

“[Americans] love order, without which affairs do not prosper; and they set an especial value upon a regular conduct, which is the foundation of a solid business; they prefer the good sense which amasses large fortunes to that enterprising spirit which frequently dissipates them; general ideas alarm their minds, which are accustomed to positive calculations, and they hold practice in more honor than theory.”

Success in young America came from citizens taking an active part in politics and government. And, quite naturally, all politics were indeed local during these early days. Americans must resist the idea of national solutions for state or local problems. The idea of federalism – basically several different levels of the city-state government – is not a new idea. But it can only remain an effective piece of American politics and government if her citizens keep the idea alive.

The Paper Chase (1973); Socratic Questioning Gone Awry

2) The Study of Politics and Government is an Exercise in Socratic Thought

No one individual or nation has a monopoly on politics and government. Not Athens, not Rome, not Jerusalem, not America. That is not to say these city-states or nations do not have valid ideas on politics and government. It is quite the contrary, in fact. What we discover is a coming together in each polis that allows the best ideas to surface.

This is where the Socratic method comes in. Socrates, the preeminent Greek philosopher, would often answer his students with questions. Such a practice forced young thinkers to continue their search for an answer. The method is not rhetorical or meant to discourage individuals. Its purpose is to refine one’s thoughts and create the best answer – or solution – to the question at hand.

America's political tradition is to have a strong, deliberative legislature. Early American colonies had local citizens populate these institutions. The legislatures were meant to decide on issues that would further the common good. The U.S. Constitution took on this idea as the first branch of its national government. The key was a democratically elected body that sought out – through deliberation and Socratic thought – how to best engage in public policy.

There is another reason, of course, to make extensive use of the Socratic method. It forces people to become knowledgeable in what issue is at hand. How can we expect American citizens to have the right “answers” when they do not study politics and government? The short answer is that we cannot have such expectations. Without study, without thinking, without knowledge, there can be no good government.

The Socratic Method:

Thinking driven by questions, not answers.

The Constitutional Convention may be a good example here. Over 50 delegates came together and wrote an immensely powerful document that would govern a fledgling nation and turn it into one of the greatest nations ever established. The delegates often engaged in short and long discussions, answering questions, proposing deeper questions, and attacking ideas through the Socratic method. I do not believe the federal convention is the best or only example here. It is simply one of many from American history useful to this point.

In short, one cannot engage in politics and government without some sort of applied studying. This does not mean one must spend countless hours on the topic, however. One must simply decide where he stands politically and why he thinks his position is defensible. I would not be surprised, however, to find someone becoming more and more involved as he studies American politics and government.

3) Americans Cannot Escape the Reach of Their Government

In all societies – whether ancient or modern – few individuals could escape the reach of their government. Historically, ancient civilizations often banned unruly citizens or politicians, thus separating them from the city-state. This was often the only option for not being under the government’s rule. The downside, quite unfortunately, was being left to the barbarians or foreigners unprotected. And, banned citizens would lose whatever material things they had, leaving them truly destitute.

Americans need not fear this practice. Few, if any, Americans are expelled from society and left to the whims of nature. But, too much government can indeed become cumbersome and leave its citizens destitute. Several layers of government oversee and interact with American citizens. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can, however, reach a breaking point.

That is why citizens need to study American politics and government. What was the intent of the founding documents? Have we been faithful to these initial ideals? Have we gone too far? Is America as good today as it was yesterday? With so much government – particularly state and national – how can citizens best achieve their dreams?

Benjamin Franklin's Join or Die Political Cartoon
Benjamin Franklin's Join or Die Political Cartoon | Source

It is right to fear one’s government. It is a force, and not always a good one. As Paul Johnson, the English writer and historian, once wrote, “The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless.” Ancient civilizations understood this well. They often went through civil wars and destructive phases where one style of government took the place of another.

Early colonials would perhaps concur with Johnson’s point, and the much broader idea regarding large, overreaching government. Thomas Jefferson would write in the Declaration of Independence:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Americans need to study their politics and government to find the purpose behind the nation’s founding documents. This political tradition was meant to extend throughout time, regardless of societal changes. Yes, there was an amendment process. But it was meant to be difficult and slow, to prevent change due to “light and transient causes.” One final thought comes to mind here.

If the early colonials were unable to escape the faults of the British government in the mid to late-18th century, why do we think we can escape those faults in our current government, which resides here among us? We must study our political system and government in order to create and maintain the least intrusive government as possible.

Concluding Thoughts

These ideas may seem obscure reasons as to why citizens should study American politics and government. But, politics and government is as nearly as old as man himself. Once man exited the state of nature, there was a need for government. The problem was finding the one that best suited himself and those around him. While the argument is far from settled, there are some excellent examples in history. American politics and government is one from Western Civilization we should study.

Resources:

Americans Put to Shame by Immigrants on Sample Civics Test. Gregory Korte, USA Today.

Aristotle’s Political Theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Democracy in America. Alexis de Tocqueville, trans. by Henry Reeve.

Life in Ancient Greece. Don Nardo, 1996.

Rome: The Greatest Empire of the Ancient World. Nick McCarty, 2008.

Comments Disclaimer

These are my thoughts on politics and government. Obviously, my ideas are built upon many millennia of political thought and tradition, including that found in early America. It is natural however, for others to have opposing views or different interpretations.

I will moderate comments before allowing them to appear. If you wish to dispute my points, write your own hub. The comment section is not for your use. Other comments may be allowed, so long as they further the hub’s original intent. Happy posting.

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littlething 2 years ago

I agree completely. People need to have a better understanding of their own countries government.

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