The purpose of Lesson 1 is to introduce students to the general concept of representative democracy. The lesson distinguishes the American representative democracy both from the monarchical system found in England and from more direct forms of democracy. It also teaches students about the role of legislative bodies in serving the representative function of government, particularly in Nebraska. The representative/constituent relationship is also introduced, although it will be discussed in more detail in a later lesson.
Before the American Revolution, the United States was not an independent country. Rather, the U.S. was a small group of individual colonies that were governed from across the Atlantic Ocean by England. At the time, England was a monarchy - a country governed by a hereditary King or Queen. In a monarchy, individuals usually become leaders only if the title of king or queen is passed down through their family.
Since the kings and queens of England were not elected, the country's citizens had very little control over the actions of these leaders. Because of this, the Founders of the United States decided that a monarchy system of government did not allow citizens enough input into national decisions. Consequently, they decided that the government of the United States would be a democracy - a political system in which ultimate authority rests with the citizens.
What is a citizen? A citizen is a person who lives in a particular state or country and is guaranteed certain rights and freedoms by the government of that state or country. In the United States, residents are citizens if they were born to American parents, were born on American soil, or become citizens through a process called naturalization. United States citizens - as are citizens of some other democracies across the world - are seen as equal under the law and, except in a few circumstances, are allowed to participate in government by voting in elections and contributing to the national discourse about politics.
"The American Democracy" discusses the differences between direct democracy and representative democracy, which is the basis for the American political system.
Interviewee: Patrick J. O'Donnell, Clerk of the Legislature
Critical Thinking Exercise
- What are the differences between a direct democracy and a representative democracy?
- Is it better to have a direct democracy or a representative democracy?
- Today, there are more than 300 million people living in the United States. Do you think it would be possible to have a direct democracy in a nation this large?
In the United States, governments have entire branches that exist to serve this representative function. The bodies of individuals who are elected to serve as representatives of the their fellow citizens are often organized into legislatures, which are responsible for making the laws that other branches, such as the Presidency or the Supreme Court, administer and interpret. The membership of these bodies is usually decided through elections. Representatives are chosen by citizens to serve in legislative bodies and to voice their concerns to the government.
The legislature of the United States government is referred to as Congress. The job of Congress is to make the laws and policies of the United States. Each state in the country also has its own legislature and its own set of representatives. State legislatures make laws that are particular to their own state. The representatives of the Nebraska Legislature work to make laws that are good for all the people of the state.
As we will discuss later in Lesson 4, representatives often have a difficult time sorting out whether bills are "good," because while they may be good for one portion of the state, they may be harmful to another portion. For example, a bill to limit the use of pesticides in farming to keep neighboring creeks and rivers clean may be helpful to individuals who enjoy camping and fishing. However, a bill of this type may be harmful to farmers who need the pesticides to keep their crops healthy.
In the United States, a principle called majoritarianism often determines the outcome of bills such as the aforementioned example. In majoritarian systems, decisions are made based on the practice of majority rule. A piece of legislation may be deemed to be successful if it helps a majority of citizens. Additionally, a bill before the legislature requires the support of a majority of senators in order to pass. One problem with this system is that while a majority of citizens can be helped by a piece of legislation, a minority of citizens may be hurt by it. The term minority indicates a number that is less than half; however, even 49 percent of citizens may be a substantial number. Thus, senators are often reminded that a concern for minority rights must go hand-in-hand with the concept of majority rule.
Critical Thinking Exercise
You are the constituent of a member of the Nebraska Unicameral.
- What does being a constituent mean to you?
- What kind of expectations do you have of your Nebraska state senator?