The right to vote is an important feature of the nation’s system of government; and, over the years, many people have fought and sacrificed to obtain or maintain this right. Why do people often ignore this means of civic engagement? (Credit: modification of work–National Archives and Records Administration)

Learning Objectives

Define and examine various forms of government.Consider the level of order/control exerted over citizens by various forms of government.Comprehend basic functions of government.

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The United States of America have relied on citizen participation to govern at the local, state, and national level as a representative republic. The right to participate in government is an important pillar of this republic. The people have known and valued that right enough to fight for and then defend it over nearly two and a half centuries. Active civic participation is at once foundational to a free society, yet taken for granted by too many.

The founders of the United States were originally focused on freedom from the tyranny of a remote and imperious monarchy. While forming a new independent government, they realized an opportunity to draw on the wisdom of revered political philosophers and centuries of experience with European states and governance. Government form, structure and process to serve the current and future interests of the people resulted. Perhaps most importantly, the resulting representative republic–centered on civic participation and control of government through the consent of the governed–is able to meet the people’s changing needs and interests over time.

Consider the issue of participation. At the founding, only free white males participated. In fact, some states further restricted participation by requiring ownership of property. Over time, these voting restrictions gradually gave way to full political equality of participation for all citizens. Only a government structured for ultimate control by the people, would be able to evolve the very definition of the people governing themselves. The definition of the people has changed over time. The struggle, to include more groups of people able to participate on equal footing, has been long and difficult. The fact that each disenfranchised group continued the struggle is evidence of the value placed on our representative republic and the opportunities equal participation affords.

The World War II era poster shown above depicts voting as an important part of the fight to keep the United States free. Voting is both a right worth protecting and a tool for engagement, which ensures the government serves the people rather than the reverse.

Thomas Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence that “political bands” of government connect citizens of a nation and that governments are formed for the purpose of securing citizens’ rights of “<…> Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”<1>He states that people agree to give power and authority to a government and to abide by agreed upon rules in order to achieve these objectives of protecting rights. While people hope the government will provide the proper balance between protecting their liberties, providing for their personal security and safety, and promoting opportunities to achieve personal happiness, no government is perfect. The balance between governmental purposes are constantly debated and discussed. Debate is ongoing over what government should do to assist citizens in pursuing “happiness” while at the same time treating citizens equally in such pursuits.<2> Government sometimes regulates what we eat, where we go to school, what kind of education we receive, how our tax money is spent, and what we do in our free time. Americans are often unaware of the extent of government intervention in their lives.

What is government and why would we even want one?

Government is how a society organizes itself to allocate and exercise authority in order to accomplish purposes, goals and functions. These government functions typically include defense, education, health care, and an infrastructure for transportation and trade for their citizens. Countries provide such benefits via different governmental forms and structures. The form and structure of governmental organization a country chooses should not be confused with politics. Politics is a competitive struggle for gaining and exercising control over the governmental processes or organizational structures that set or carry out the goals, purposes, or functions of the country.

John Locke, a 17th century political philosopher, posited (put forward as an argument) that all people have natural and unalienable (inseparable) rights to life, liberty, and property–people have natural rights of self-determination (control of their own life and property). Does it then follow that all social contracts or governments should involve individual consent from the people? In the eighteenth century this political thought developed into the idea that people should govern themselves through elected representatives; and, only representatives chosen by the people should make laws and institute control over citizens’ lives.

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Why would we want any other individual or group to have any type of control over our lives or property? Individuals would not need to band together for order or control if everyone respected each other’s lives, liberty and property 100% of the time. Unfortunately, this is not the case with some individuals who seek to take away others’ lives, curtail others’ liberty, or deprive others of property; therefore, governments are established to protect against such usurpations (taking something by force). The individuals organizing governmental control and imposing order for the new United States of America clearly stated the goals of good government in the Preamble to the contract for this new constitutional republic (their choice of governmental form). They sought balance in government between liberty and order.