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We the People Book Cover
We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics, 4/e
Thomas E. Patterson, Harvard University

The American Heritage

Chapter 1 Summary

The United States is a nation that was formed on a set of ideals that include liberty, equality, self-government, individualism, diversity and unity. These ideals became Americans' common bond and today are the basis of their political culture. Although they are mythic, inexact and conflicting, these ideals have had a powerful effect on what generation after generation of Americans have tried to achieve politically for themselves and others.

Politics is the process by which it is determined whose values will prevail in society. The basis of politics is conflict over scarce resources and competing values. Those who have power win out in this conflict and are able to control governing authority and policy choices. In the case of the United States, no one faction controls all power and policy. Majorities govern on some issues, while groups and elites each govern on other issues.

The play of politics in the United States takes place through rules of the game, which include democracy, constitutionalism and capitalism. Democracy is rule by the people, which, in practice, refers to a representative system of government in which the people rule through their elected officials. Constitutionalism refers to rules that limit the rightful power of government over citizens. Capitalism is an economic system based on a free market principle that allows the government only a limited role in determining how economic costs and benefits will be allocated.

The political system model is a useful tool for instructional purposes that emphasizes the interrelated aspects of the actual workings of government. The model is based on demand and support inputs, the institutions of government, and outputs which are the public policy decisions that are binding on society.