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1.1: Introduction

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    On January 6, 2021, two weeks before Joe Biden was scheduled to become the 46th President of the United States, thousands of supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump amassed at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., overwhelmed the Capitol Police officers attempting to secure the building, and forced their way into the congressional chambers and offices. Egged on by the president himself at a rally earlier that day, the protesters were trying to prevent Congress from certifying Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Biden’s victory, they claimed, was illegitimate: the election had been “stolen” from Trump through massive voter fraud. Ultimately, the protesters succeeded only in postponing the certification, which was completed shortly after midnight the following morning.

    Photograph of supporters of President Donald Trump storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021
    Supporters of President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election.

    No angry mob breached the Capitol in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election four years prior when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, but dozens of U.S. cities did experience mass protests. Some of these events escalated into violent riots, in which Clinton supporters vandalized businesses, set fire to cars and garbage cans, and attacked police officers. The protesters’ arguments in 2016 were different — Clinton had won more votes than Trump, Russians had “hacked” the election, Trump was morally unfit for the office — but their underlying message was the same: “This man has no right to be president, and the fact that he has been elected proves something is seriously wrong with the American political system.”

    Anyone who regularly reads, watches, or listens to the news in the United States has encountered sentiments like this. As Figure 1.1 below shows, at least a quarter (and usually more than half ) of Americans have been dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country since pollsters began asking the question — and they blame government for their dissatisfaction. Skim the headlines and you’ll find countless claims that something about American government — Congress, the Electoral College, the two-party system, the Constitution — is “broken,” desperately in need of repair or replacement. Not everyone agrees on which parts are broken or how they should be fixed, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who firmly believed everything about government and politics in the United States was working perfectly.

    Line chart showing the percentage of Americans who are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States from 1979 to 2023, according to Gallup
    Figure 1.1: Percentage of Americans dissatisfied with "the way things are going in the United States," 1979-2023 (Source: Gallup)

    And yet, paradoxically, America trundles along in spite of this “brokenness.” For almost a quarter of a millennium, the United States has operated under the same basic political system, even as many other countries have repeatedly overhauled their own governments. Overall, Americans enjoy a degree of prosperity and security of which most of the rest of the world can only dream. In virtually any other country, an event like what occurred on January 6, 2021, would be taken as a sign of an imminent coup, yet most Americans who saw the siege on the news went about their daily lives as usual, confident that their country’s democratic institutions would still be intact when the dust settled.

    Why is it so easy for people to agree that America’s government is broken and yet so hard for them to agree on exactly how it is broken? And, if it is in fact broken, how has it managed to overcome so many obstacles for hundreds of years?

    What Is a User's Manual?

    Nowadays, cars, cell phones, and pretty much every other sufficiently advanced machine comes packaged with a user’s manual. User’s manuals vary in size and detail, but they all tend to cover the same basics of operation and maintenance: how to turn the machine on and off, what its buttons do, how to interpret the lights and sounds it makes, what to do if it breaks.

    You’ve likely held at least a dozen user’s manuals in your lifetime, but how many have you actually read or even opened? Think about the last time you drove a car you hadn’t driven before or upgraded to a new cell phone. If you’re like most people, you didn’t take time to read the instructions before getting started. You didn’t need to: you simply put the key in the ignition or pressed what you assumed to be the on/off button and began using the machine.

    Our tendency to operate complex machinery without reading the user’s manuals isn’t so much a failure of judgment as it is a triumph of engineering. Cars, cell phones, and many other consumer products are meticulously designed to be as intuitive and “user-friendly” as possible. These machines are built specifically for use by people who do not understand how they work. In fact, one measure of a machine’s quality is how little a person needs to know about how it works to be able to use it effectively. If a well-designed machine is functioning properly, we only need to think about how it works when performing basic maintenance, like filling the gas tank or charging the battery. If we’re lucky, we may never need to know what’s really going on under the hood or inside the case, so long as we keep the fuel indicator above E or the battery icon above 0%.

    Like a car or a cell phone, America was designed so that people could use it without reading the instructions first. Indeed, surveys of political knowledge (such as the one represented in Figure 1.2 below) regularly confirm that many Americans are unfamiliar with some of the most basic aspects of how America works. Beyond the basics, few Americans ever acquire deep knowledge of their government. Those who do usually specialize in a small area of expertise — accountants must become intimately acquainted with the U.S. tax code, trial lawyers must know the ins and outs of the legal system, journalists must be familiar with the political actors and institutions they cover, and so on. The rest of us mostly allow America the machine to keep on working in the background, only stopping to think about it when something unusual happens and gets our attention.

    Bar chart showing levels of knowledge of selected civics facts among Americans, 2022, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center
    Figure 1.2: Knowledge of selected civics facts among Americans, 2022 (Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center)

    Americans’ lack of familiarity with their government is often a target of criticism. Some shake their heads or wag their fingers whenever the latest disappointing results from a political knowledge survey are reported, wondering what the Founders who labored over the U.S. Constitution would think of us. But the Founders knew they were crafting a political system that most Americans would never understand well. The fact that we can use the machine they built so effectively in spite of our general ignorance of how it works is a testament to the quality of their craftsmanship.

    Who Is the User?

    If you are reading this, chances are you are a student in a course on American government at an American college or university. You may be a political science major just beginning your study of politics, or a major in some other subject for whom this is the last political science course you will ever take. Perhaps you love politics, can’t get enough of the news, and enjoy debating and discussing political issues with friends (or even enemies). Or perhaps you hate politics, wish you never had to think about it, and can’t understand why other people (especially people like those in the photograph above) get so worked up about it.

    No matter who you are, if you are reading this in the United States, you are a user of America. This is true even if you are not a U.S. citizen, for both citizens and non-citizens can and do benefit, in different ways, from the American political system. When President Abraham Lincoln, in his famous 1863 Gettysburg Address, described American government as “of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was referring to you. Whether you call this country your home temporarily or permanently, you are one of the people for whom America itself was designed, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. This user’s manual is therefore written for you.

    Knowing that you are a user of America raises another question: for what purpose are you using it? This question is a hard one for a user’s manual to answer, especially for such a versatile product. The user’s manual for your car will tell you how to drive but not where; the one for your cell phone will tell you how to contact someone but not whom. Likewise, America can be (and has been) used for many purposes. The first sentence of the U.S. Constitution (known as the Preamble) lists six: union, justice, tranquility, defense, welfare, and liberty. Ultimately, what you will use America for is your decision; this user’s manual is designed to help you make that decision by showing you what’s possible.

    Why a User's Manual?

    Even if you are a user of America, the fact that it was designed to be intuitive and user-friendly raises the question of whether it needs a user’s manual at all, and why, assuming one exists (which it does — you’re looking at it right now), anyone should bother reading it.

    The most obvious reason to read this book is probably “to pass this class.” After all, if this is part of the assigned reading for a course, odds are the instructor expects you to know the material in it, and will quiz or test you to make sure you do. That might be enough motivation to keep you turning pages (and it’s certainly the case that too many instructors assume it will be). But it’s a rather unsatisfying answer, sort of like when frustrated parents tell their children “Because I said so.” It leaves open the more important question of why the instructor assigned the book in the first place.

    A better reason to read this book is that its contents will be useful to you if you intend to major or minor in political science, and particularly if you intend to pursue a career that is somehow related to politics. But that answer too leaves something to be desired. For one thing, it only applies to people whose educational or professional aspirations are political in nature. Furthermore, even if you count yourself among those people, you might not be all that keen on reading a textbook, especially when there’s so much political news and commentary to read and watch that is far more exciting and interesting than even the best textbooks.

    Photograph of the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., with the text of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
    The south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., bears Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, including the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

    An even better reason to read this book is that it will enable you to use America more effectively. Although it’s true that America is designed for users who don’t know much about it, knowing even just a little bit more can make you a much more proficient user. You might think you know all that’s worth knowing about your car or cell phone, but reading the user’s manual can alert you to buttons or levers you never noticed before (or that you noticed but never understood what they were for) that can make your “user experience” more comfortable, efficient, or fulfilling. Reading this user’s manual won’t make you a full-blown political expert, any more than reading your car’s user’s manual will make you a mechanic or a stunt driver. Still, knowing the basics covered in this book will enable you to vote better, speak more intelligently about politics, and understand more deeply what’s going on in the news and why.

    Perhaps the best reason to read this book, though, is that sometimes America doesn’t work. Like any machine, it occasionally fails, breaks down, malfunctions, leaks, or makes a funny noise. Some of these problems are minor; others are major. Some are caused when working parts are replaced with cheap substitutes; others are caused when old parts are not properly maintained or replaced. Sometimes what seems like a problem at first is actually evidence that America is working exactly as designed; sometimes the problem is a flaw in the design itself. A good user’s manual tells you what warning signs to watch out for, which problems are serious and which are not, and whether a problem is preventable or inevitable. Similarly, this book will help you identify problems in American government and politics, understand what causes them, and decide what — if anything — to do about them.

    User’s manuals don’t usually include a lot of information about the history of a product — how it was made, how its design has changed over time, and so on. This user’s manual does contain quite a bit of that history, because to properly understand how America works today one must also understand how it got that way.

    Warranty Information

    Many user’s manuals contain a warranty — a promise that the product will function properly for some period of time, combined with an offer to refund the purchase price or to repair or replace the product if it breaks down or malfunctions within that period. Lifetime warranties are the best, both because they never run out and because they indicate that the manufacturer is very confident in the quality of the product. Other warranties are limited, covering only certain issues and only for a certain number of days, months, or years.

    Unfortunately, America does not come with a warranty, not even a limited one. There are no refunds, no replacements, no money-back guarantees. You can’t pack America up and send it back to the manufacturers if it doesn’t meet your expectations: the manufacturers (whose names you can find in the appendices of this book) are all long dead.

    America, as a product, is sold as is. As you’ll soon discover (if you haven’t already), it is a brilliantly designed product in many ways, but it still has flaws and limitations. Some of those can be fixed with the right modifications; others are essentially unavoidable, because “fixing” them would only cause even bigger problems. This user’s manual will help you recognize which is which, but it can only do so much. People disagree about which of America’s problems we should be trying to fix, or even whether they should be considered problems at all. One thing’s for certain, though: if anything about America needs to be fixed, it’s up to the users to do the fixing.

    An unconfirmed story goes that in 1787, near the end of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, a Philadelphia woman asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government had been created. He replied, “A republic...if you can keep it.” Franklin understood that the government outlined in the Constitution would not last long if it were simply left to rust. Lincoln understood it too, remarking 76 years later in his Gettysburg Address that “whether that nation...can long endure” depends on how dedicated its people are to ensuring that it “shall not perish from the earth.”

    If America is to last, we the people — we the users — must use it properly, maintain it carefully, and try to find ways to improve it where we can, without forgetting why it was designed this way in the first place. In order to do that, it helps to understand what America is for and how it works. In other words, it helps to read the user’s manual.

    This page titled 1.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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