Introduction for EducatorsTable of ContentsUpdates & Latest AdditionsLearning Pathway: Black Lives MatterLearning Pathway: Influential WomenLearning Pathway: Student RightsLearning Pathway: Election 2020Learning Pathway: Current Events Learning Pathway: Media Literacy Teacher-Designed Learning PlansTopic 1. The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System1.1. The Government of Ancient Athens1.2. The Government of the Roman Republic1.3. Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government1.4. British Influences on American Government1.5. Native American Influences on U.S. GovernmentTopic 2. The Development of the United States Government2.1. The Revolutionary Era and the Declaration of Independence2.2. The Articles of Confederation2.3. The Constitutional Convention2.4. Debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists2.5. Articles of the Constitution and the Bill of RightsTopic 3. Institutions of United States Government3.1. Branches of the Government and the Separation of Powers3.2. Examine the Relationship of the Three Branches3.3. The Roles of the Congress, the President, and the Courts3.4. Elections and Nominations3.5. The Role of Political PartiesTopic 4. The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens4.1. Becoming a Citizen4.2. Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens and Non-Citizens4.3. Civic, Political, and Private Life4.4. Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life4.5. Voting and Citizen Participation in the Political Process4.6. Election Information4.7. Leadership and the Qualities of Political Leaders4.8. Cooperation Between Individuals and Elected Leaders4.9. Public Service as a Career4.10. Liberty in Conflict with Equality or Authority4.11. Political Courage and Those Who Affirmed or Denied Democratic Ideals4.12. The Role of Political Protest4.13. Public and Private Interest Groups, PACs, and Labor UnionsTopic 5. The Constitution, Amendments, and Supreme Court Decisions5.1. The Necessary and Proper Clause5.2. Amendments to the Constitution5.3. Constitutional Issues Related to the Civil War, Federal Power, and Individual Civil Rights5.4. Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Race, Gender, and Disability5.5. Marbury v. Madison and the Principle of Judicial Review5.6. Significant Supreme Court DecisionsTopic 6. The Structure of Massachusetts State and Local Government6.1. Functions of State and National Government6.2. United States and Massachusetts Constitutions6.3. Enumerated and Implied Powers6.4. Core Documents: The Protection of Individual Rights6.5. 10th Amendment to the Constitution6.6. Additional Provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution6.7. Responsibilities of Federal, State and Local Government6.8. Leadership Structure of the Massachusetts Government6.9. Tax-Supported Facilities and Services6.10. Components of Local GovernmentTopic 7. Freedom of the Press and News/Media Literacy7.1. Freedom of the Press7.2. Competing Information in a Free Press7.3. Writing the News: Different Formats and Their Functions7.4. Digital News and Social Media7.5. Evaluating Print and Online Media7.6. Analyzing Editorials, Editorial Cartoons, or Op-Ed Commentaries
Topic 1

The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System

Goddess of Democracy
The Goddess of Democracy Statue, Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, Public Domain

Snapshot of Topic 1

Explore the topic's sub-chapters to learn more about the philosophical foundations of the United States political system.

Supporting Question

Massachusetts Standards [8.T1.1-5]

  1. The Government of Ancient Athens
  2. The Government of the Roman Republic
  3. Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government
  4. British Influences on American Government
  5. Native American Influences on American Government

Advanced Placement Standards for U.S. Government

Topic 1: The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System

Democracy comes from the Greek words “demos” and “kratos,” meaning "rule by the people" (Defining Democracy, Museum of Australian Democracy). Although the term does not appear in either the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution, democracy is the foundation for government in this country. Americans believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people.  

Democracy, as a framework of government, has evolved over the centuries and now includes concepts that are the foundations of civic and political life in our country: freedom, justice, liberty, individual rights and responsibilities, shared power, and a system of checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government.

But, as researchers with the Varities of Democracy project have noted, there is "no single agreed-upon list of what are (or aren't) issues of democracy" (FiveThirtyEight, September 1, 2021). Some think about issues of electoral democracy such as the importance of free elections and a free press while others focus on social and economic democracy and issues around women's rights, civil liberties, economic justice, voting access, and overcoming the historical legacies of slavery and discrimination against people of color. Here you can find five types of democracy (electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian) and issues associated with them.

Democracy Around the World

More than half the countries in the world consider themselves democracies, although not all are fully democratic (Desilver, 2019). In the modern world, contends one researcher, an "authentic democracy" includes the following structures, without which a democratic system cannot exist:

Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan (2020) has noted that democracy is not a binary concept; countries are not exclusively democratic or not democratic. Instead, democratic nomrs are always advancing in some places and eroding in others in response to current events. The organization Freedom House reported that even before the events of the 2020 presidential election and 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol, the United States was experiencing a decline in the index of democracy in the world, occuping a position between Italy and Argentina, well below the most democratic countries: Austria, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay.

In the second decade of the 21st century, democracy and democratic institutions continue to be under assault around the world. The Autocratization Turns Viral: Democracy Report 2021 from the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gottenberg, Sweden notes that although the world is more democratic than it was in the 1970s or 1980s, democracy is on the decline worldwide and the level of democracy experienced by common citizens is at its lowest level since 1990. In many countries (Hungry, India, Cambodia, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey and more), liberal democracy is being replaced by electoral autocracy where political systems have an illusion of multi-party democracy, but free and fair elections do not happen. Instead, strongmen who do not value democratic norms have risen to power.

The Nations in Transistion 2020 report from Freedom House reviewed what it calls a "decade of democratic deficits" in which countries experiencing declines in democracy have exceeded countries with gains every year since 2010. In Central Europe, the report notes, there is a growth of "hybrid regimes" in Poland and Hungry where authoritarian leaders have created quasi-autocracies by undermining the independent judiciary, attacking the free press, curtailing civil liberties, and spreading disinformation and propaganda to inflame people's attitudes toward outsiders such as immigrants and asylum-seekers. Despite these developments, the Freedom House report notes, citizen protests against corruption and for environmental protections, particularly in Ukraine and Armenia, represent a significant counterweight to anti-democracy in the region. Democracy - Our World in Data and Democracy 2019,The Economist magazine’s annual index offer additional perspectives on the place of democracy in the world today.

Topic 1 of the eBook

Topic 1 explores the philosophical and historical origins of the United States system of democratic government, beginning with Ancient Athens and the Roman Republic and including how Enlightenment thinkers, North American colonial governments, and First People tribes influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the structure of U.S. government.  

The governments and politics of Greece and Rome profoundly influenced America's founding generation. Comparing the educational backgrounds of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, historian Thomas E. Ricks (2020) found Greco-Roman learning was "part of the culture; a way of looking at the world and set of values."

Ricks notes further influences from Greece and Rome. The United States "Senate" meets at the "Capitol." Our political parties are "Republicans" or "Democrats." The Supreme Court's architexture recalls a Roman temple. Latin phrases are familiar parts of the legal and political vocabularies. The Roman word "virtue" (which in the 18th century meant putting the common good above self interest) appears some 6000 times in the writing of members of the Revolutionary generation. At the same time, the Founders, as with their ancient world predecessors, accepted human slavery and built that acceptance into the structures of American government as well as the fabric of American life.

Foundations of the U.S. Political System: Media Literacy Activities Choice Board

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Topic 1 Chapters