American Civics: Law, History and Political Science Combined

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty with Faith Lapidus. Our subject this week is American civics.


Civics is a subject that deals with the rights and duties of citizens. It brings together law, history and political science.

In the nineteen sixties, a nonprofit group called the Center for Civic Education got started. Its job is to help people in the United States and other countries learn about the ideas of democracy. Its work includes an international civic education exchange program, Civitas.

In nineteen ninety-four, the Center for Civic Education developed five questions for teaching about civics and government. We will use these questions to guide our program. The answers will combine our own reporting with information from the center.

Question one: "What are civic life, politics and government?"

The simple answer is that people have their personal life, but they also have a civic life. This involves issues that affect their community and their nation.

Politics is a process. It is a way for people with opposing interests and beliefs about issues to reach decisions.

Government is the organization in society with the power to put these decisions into effect. It also has the power to enforce them.

In the United States, the Constitution limits the power of government. The founders of the nation wanted to protect individual rights. At the same time, however, they also wanted to work for the common good.

Under the Constitution, government officials must follow the rule of law. This means they must follow the same rules as everyone else. The Constitution is the highest law in the land.

Constitutions are also vehicles for change. One example involves the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment took effect in eighteen sixty-eight, after the Civil War.

It guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law. It meant that former slaves had the same rights as other Americans. Black Americans used this amendment to seek better treatment during the civil rights movement of the nineteen fifties and sixties.


The second question presented by the Center for Civic Education asks: "What are the foundations of the American political system?"

The system is built on the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life, liberty and property. The Constitution also establishes a system of checks and balances on government power.

Congress passes bills for the president to sign into law. If the president refuses, Congress has the power to reject the veto. The Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws if it finds they violate the Constitution.

The Constitution also recognizes the powers of the states. In fact, the American political system is built on the idea that states have any powers not given to the federal government. The system was also built on the idea that the different groups in society would all share a common identity as Americans.

And several intellectual traditions have influenced the American political system. One is classic liberalism. Classic liberalism represents the idea that governments are created by the people, for the people.

This theory had its roots in Europe, through writers like John Locke. The American Declaration of Independence is an example of a document that supports the main ideas of classic liberalism. It guaranteed the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Another theory that influenced early America is classic republicanism. A republic is a state governed by elected representatives instead of directly by the people. The United States is known as a constitutional representative democracy.

Classic republicanism links the idea of civic virtue to the common good. Civic virtue means that people put the interests of society before their own.

But a belief in the public good may conflict with a desire for the protection of individual rights. So classic republicanism and classic liberalism can sometimes clash.


Here is question number three from the Center for Civic Education: "How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values and principles of American democracy?"

There are many ideas behind American democracy, but one of the most important is federalism.

Early leaders wanted to create a government system that would prevent the misuse of power. So they created several levels of government. Power and responsibilities are divided among the national, state and local governments.

The federal government is organized into the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The legislative branch is Congress, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The judicial branch is the Supreme Court and the federal court system.

The executive branch is the president and the fifteen cabinet-level agencies. The federal government also has about sixty independent agencies.

State governments are established by state constitutions. Each of the fifty states has its own legislative, executive and judicial branch. State and local governments provide police and fire protection, education, public works and other services. To pay for services, taxes are collected at all levels of government.

The American political system also provides citizens with the ability to influence how laws are made. Some people become involved in political or public interest groups. Others are civically active through groups such as unions or religious organizations.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. So the media also play a part in civic life and shaping public opinion.


"What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?" This is the fourth question asked by the Center for Civic Education.

At times, the United States has closed itself off from the world. At other times, it has been an active leader. National politics and the guiding ideas of the Constitution have shaped and reshaped relations. Disagreements over foreign policy have led to difficult periods in American history.

The United States declared its independence from Britain on July fourth, seventeen seventy-six. Today, it is often called the last remaining superpower, after the fall of the Soviet Union. But military strength is only one measure of power. Economic power also influences relations between countries. And the United States has the largest economy in the world.


The final question asks: "What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?"

In the words of the Center for Civic Education, "democratic citizens are active."  They must know what their personal, political and economic rights are. And they must know what responsibilities come with those rights.

The center says those responsibilities include voting in elections and giving time to community organizations. It says another responsibility is serving as a helpful critic of public organizations, officials and policies. But, above all, it says people must see how democracy depends on knowledgeable citizens who care about other citizens and their country.

This is what Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president, said in eighteen fifty-four: "If there is anything which it is the duty of the whole people to never entrust to any hands but their own, that thing is the preservation and perpetuity of their own liberties and institutions." In other words, to keep democracy alive, citizens must do it themselves.

The Center for Civic Education organized its teachings around questions because, in its words, "democracy is a discussion." Citizens exchange ideas. They search for new and better ways. The use of questions is meant to show that the process is never-ending.

The center provides materials to schools. It also trains teachers and organizes community programs. For more information, you can write to the Center for Civic Education at five-one-four-five Douglas Fir Road, Calabasas, California, nine-one-three-zero two, U-S-A.

Internet users can go to civiced dot o-r-g. Civiced is spelled c-i-v-i-c-e-d.  And the e-mail address is c-c-e at civiced dot o-r-g.


Our program was written by Jill Moss and can be found on the Web at I'm Bob Doughty with Faith Lapidus, inviting you back again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.