skip to main content

Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action (Chapter 15--Final Principles)

12 minutes

Welcome back to Bowdoin College in beautiful Brunswick, Maine. I'm Andy Rudalevige, professor of government at Bowdoin. I'm sorry to say we've reached the last episode of Founding Principles, our series introducing you to American government and how it works. Last is not least. We're gonna go out with fun and games, rock and roll, and better yet, some Federalist Papers.

Welcome to our countdown show, American Top Six. It's the show that concludes our series by summing up the top six things to remember about American government. Ready? Let's get started. Coming in at number 6, going out to loyal viewer Publius in New York, an entry that has been on our chart. You can't imagine American government without it. Yes, it's the separation of powers. This is at the heart of checks and balances at the national level and across levels of government. More accurately, though not quite as catchy, we might call it separate institutions sharing powers. It's the fact that different institutions share powers that enables them to check and balance each other. Veto power makes the president part of the legislative process. Power of the purse gives Congress a lot to say about presidential behavior. The states carry out federal policies, but they can also resist national initiatives. Remember Federalist 51... Let's link that to number 5 in our countdown... There are opportunities to participate in every level of government-- town hall to the White House. Elections are only the start, and legal and institutional barriers to getting involved have been dramatically lowered across American history. That participation is more important than ever before. Think about the rise of primary elections and the permanent campaign. Think about the pervasiveness of technology and new media. All those intersect with new and newly empowered groups, all eager to mobilize on behalf of their interests. For that to work in the public interest instead requires that everyone get involved. Otherwise the mischiefs of faction James Madison warned about in Federalist 10, well they become very mischievous indeed. Alright, welcome back to our countdown, where our next entry builds on our first two. Take lots of institutions, lots of interests, lots of ways to be involved, what do you get? Well probably a fight. Indeed, American politics are often described as conflictual. This is true, but the conflict is of a certain kind. That brings us to number 4. To borrow a metaphor from political scientist James Q. Wilson... A prize fight has clear rules-- only two people in the ring, don't punch below the belt, each round only lasts so long, an outside panel of judges determines who won, and that person is the champion until the next scheduled fight. But--not that I know firsthand-- a bar brawl is pretty different. It doesn't start at any set time, no real rules about who can participate, where the fighting takes place, no limits on tactics or weaponry. Though the fight's winners declare victory and seek to move on to other items on their agenda, there's no settled end point. When everything seems quiet, it starts up in the alleyways, pulling in combatants with new energies. The fight could be in Congress and move to the courts, or regulatory arena and move to state capitals. As soon as a policy is proposed, a bill becomes a law, it also becomes a target. Pool together those first three entries, and we get number 3 on our chart. That great song of policy activist heartbreak-- the status quo usually wins. If you have a chance to put money on an American policy outcome, the odds are in your favor if you put it on "nothing will happen." That's because to pass major policy, you need to muster concurring majorities across very different institutions. House, Senate, White House, courts, bureaucracies-- they all draw their power from different constituencies. Is this always bad? Well, a nicer synonym for gridlock is stability. Stability was a major aim of the framers. Alexander Hamilton defended the presidential veto power in The Federalist, of course, by arguing that we should... Thomas Jefferson likewise observed that... If you don't like changes that are being proposed, the fact those proposals can be stopped might strike you, well, as a very happy fact. And yet our next entry, a long-distance dedication going out from Teddy to Frank and Ronnie, is... This series has traced huge shifts-- not just in the size, scope, and expectations of American government, but the hard-won expansion of rights and liberties to more of our fellow Americans. A sea change in who is part of "we the people." As then-senator Barack Obama put it in 2008... The system doesn't just have stability, it has energy too. And as James Madison wrote in Federalist 37... Part of that energy comes from the very openness of the process. A permeable system means fights can go on, but also change can happen in all sorts of different places from all sorts of different directions. Rights movements are often both top-down and bottom-up-- social movements, and courtroom strategies, legislative lobbying, and presidential leadership, all at the same time. If one avenue is gridlocked, try another. Charles Beard's summary of the early New Deal helped sum up the American history of crisis and consensus... It's easy to complain about American government, and people certainly do. In a September 2015 poll, 72% of Americans said that most people in politics cannot be trusted. Nearly 2/3 said the political system overall is dysfunctional. Half, in fact, said strongly dysfunctional. Now the framers would be the first to admit that the government they framed has faults. Jefferson warned about looking... About ascribing to the preceding age a wisdom more than human. Alexander Hamilton in the very last Federalist Paper said... The Constitution was no exception. But Hamilton added that... In thinking about dysfunction, let's keep in mind various functions we're dissing. There are lots of dimensions we judge government on. Some are mutually exclusive. Great things that don't go so great together. We want liberty and equality, a small government that leaves us alone, but also big government that fixes things. We want lots of accountability, participation, and responsiveness, but we also want a government that gets things done fast, effectively, efficiently. We want long-term benefits but aren't too fond of short-term costs. In finding a balance across all of these dimensions, American government is not perfect, but it is, upon the whole, a good one. Put it another way, you don't always get what you want, but as a certain elderly rock band once said, "Sometimes you get what you need."

Back in 1790, the Gazette of the United States proclaimed the great machine of government has been set in motion. Now the job was to adjust its various movements to produce the best good of the whole. So it remains. As the authors of the Constitution filed out of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, someone in the crowd spotted the elderly Ben Franklin. "Dr. Franklin," he called, "One question." That question still speaks to us. "What did you do in there?" What did you actually create? The answer still speaks to us too. In fact, it tops our charts. A republic, if you can keep it. If we can keep it. "The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty," says the first Federalist Paper. That's a challenge. To get informed, to get involved, to start a civil conversation about what's happening and what you want to see happen in your neighborhood, state, in Washington, around the world, and listen to others when they take part. Because the American system requires compromise. It requires moderation. It requires we work together if it is to work at all. It requires citizens to do more than shout about rights. It requires them to act on their responsibilities. We may be at the end of our series, but with our ambitions working in concert, our founding principles will long endure. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Transcript Options


Now Playing As: Captioned (English) (change)

Report a Problem

In this episode, Dr. Andrew Rudalevige reviews the remaining key founding principles of American government. Through a study of foundational documents like the Federalist papers, students learn about the most important principles at the core of American democracy. This episode covers the separation of powers, checks and balances, public participation, public policy, public opinion, political gridlock, the role of status quo, and the difference between a republic and a pure democracy. Part of the "Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 12 minutes

Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 1
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 2
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 3
12 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 4
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 5
12 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 6
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 7
12 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 8
16 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 9
14 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 10
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12