Civics and Government: GED Test Prep (page 6)
The civics and government questions on the GED Social Studies Exam will come from both national (American) and global contexts, so you should be prepared to answer a wide variety of questions.
In this article, you will learn about the basic ideas of civics (the rights and responsibilities of citizens) and government (the way that political power is organized and distributed). After an overview of the different types of political systems that exist in other countries, you will review the American system of government: its structure at the federal, state, and local levels; political parties; voting and election procedures; the ways individuals and groups influence the government apart from voting; and the process of becoming an American citizen.
Varying types of political systems can be found around the world. These types differ in how power is attained and how it is used. See chart.
Exercise 1 (See answers below)
Use the information from the chart to answer the following questions.
- A military leader uses his power to overthrow a country's government and seizes absolute control. He takes over all of the nation's television stations and newspapers. What kind of government has he set up?
- absolute monarchy
- direct democracy
- representative democracy
- In which of the following political systems would citizens have the most influence over lawmaking?
- absolute monarchy
- direct democracy
- representative democracy
The American System of Government
The United States is a federal republic—a representative democracy in which power is split between a central government and the states. Under the federal system, certain powers are the exclusive domain of the federal government, including declaring war, conducting foreign policy, printing money, and regulating interstate and international trade. Other powers belong exclusively to the states, including regulating intrastate business and issuing licenses. Certain powers are shared. For example, both the federal government and state governments may collect taxes, build roads, and conduct trials. Occasionally, this results in conflicts between the national government and state governments.
The rules explaining powers and the limits on power of the U.S. government are explained in the United States Constitution, which is the highest law of the land. So that power is not concentrated in one authority, the central, or federal, government is divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch has an important function:
- The legislative branch makes laws.
- The executive branch carries out laws.
- The judicial branch interprets laws.
The powers of each branch are protected by the principle of separation of powers, which is laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution also allows each branch to place controls or limits on the power of the other two branches, so that no one branch dominates. This framework is called the system of checks and balances. For example, the legislature (U.S. Congress) may pass a bill, but before it can become law, the executive (the president) must sign it. The president can refuse it by vetoing it. However, Congress can still pass the bill into law—in an action called overriding the veto—if two-thirds of its members vote for it. Likewise, the judicial branch has the power to overturn a law by declaring it unconstitutional; the legislature may respond by passing a new law that adheres to the court's judgment, or it may seek to initiate an amendment, or change, to the Constitution. (See the following table.)
The Constitution is often described as a "living document," meaning that it is open to interpretation. The Constitution lays out broad principles but does not contain much in the way of specifics; thus, the exact powers reserved to each branch of government and the rights of the people and states as described in the Constitution are often open to debate. Throughout American history, the power of each branch of government relative to the others has ebbed and flowed, depending on historical circumstances and the individuals leading each branch. During times of war and other national crises, executive power has tended to expand. Following periods in which the executive overreaches—for example, as Richard Nixon did—the executive branch is subsequently weakened, and the legislative branch gains power. The power of the judiciary depends largely on how judges themselves interpret their powers.
The fact that the Constitution can be changed by amendment is another reason that it is described as a living document. The Constitution has been amended 27 times over the course of American history. The first ten amendments were added soon after the Constitution was ratified; together, they are known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments protect the rights of individuals against the federal government. Those protections include the following:
- the right to practice one's religion freely
- the right to free speech
- the right to a free press
- the right to bear firearms
- the right to meet and to petition the government
- the right to a fair and speedy trial
- the right to representation by a lawyer
- the right to know the crime with which one is being charged
- protection from being tried twice for the same crime
- protection from excessive bail and/or cruel and unusual punishment
The final two amendments to the Bill of Rights reinforce the notion that the U.S. national government is a limited government. The Ninth Amendment states that U.S. citizens have rights above and beyond those described in the first eight amendments; in other words, the government may not deny an individual right simply because it is not mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment states that any power not specifically granted the federal government by the Constitution belongs to the states or to the people, rather than to the federal government.
It's a good thing the Constitution can be changed, because the original document included some serious flaws. It allowed for slavery, for one thing. It also allowed states to deny the right to vote on the basis of race and gender. Amendments to the Constitution corrected these imperfections and others, abolishing slavery (1865), prohibiting racial discrimination in voting rights (1870), granting women the right to vote (1920), limiting the number of terms a president may serve (1951), banning poll taxes as a means of preventing citizens from voting (1964), and lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 (1971).Amendments to the Constitution generally have limited federal power and/or expanded the rights of individual citizens.
State and Local Governments
State governments resemble the federal government in the way that they are structured. The governor acts as the chief executive and can veto legislation. Most states have legislatures made of two houses, and each state has its own court system, constitution, and a system of checks and balances.
Local governments vary from the state and federal model. There are three basic forms of local government:
- Mayor-council—in this form, voters elect a mayor as city or town executive and they elect a council member from each specific ward.
- Council-manager—in this form, voters elect council members, who, in turn, hire a manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city or town.
- Commission—in this form, voters elect commissioners to head a city or county department, such as the fire, police, or public works department.
State governments must approve and grant power to, or charter, all town and city governments.
Although the U.S. Constitution does not mention the existence of political parties, they have played an influential role throughout most of the country's history. A political party is an organization that presents its positions on public issues and promotes candidates that support its point of view. Political parties serve several functions:
- recruit candidates and run election campaigns
- formulate positions on issues that affect the public and propose solutions
- educate the public on issues
- mobilize their members to vote
- create voting blocs in Congress
Since the mid-nineteenth century, two political parties have dominated in American politics: the Republican and Democratic parties. The two parties differ on social, economic, and domestic policies. They also hold different beliefs as to the role of government. The Republican Party supports relatively powerful state governments with less involvement on the federal level, while the Democratic Party supports a strong centralized government with less power on the state level. Other current political organizations include the Green, Libertarian, Reform, and Socialist parties.
Choose the best answer based on the information provided about political parties.
- Which of the following conclusions about political parties is best supported by the passage?
- They should be outlawed because they are not mentioned in the Constitution.
- The Know-Nothings and the Whigs are still influential political parties today.
- Political parties have an influential role in the political process today.
- It's hard to tell the Democratic and Republican Parties apart these days.
- Third-party candidates can alter the outcome of an election.
Voting and Elections
To vote in the United States, a person must be 18 years old and a U.S. citizen. Presidential elections occur every four years, and Congressional elections are held every two years. Most national elections in the United States use a plurality system, which means that a candidate need only receive more votes than his or her opponent to win. In contrast, some European nations have proportional representation. In this system, if a political party earns 15% of the vote, it would be awarded 15% of the parliamentary seats.
In the United States, primary elections are held before general elections. In primaries, voters give their preference for a political party's candidate. General elections then decide the ultimate winner. In the United States, the presidential election is unique in that the popular vote does not necessarily determine the outcome of the general election. That is because the president is actually elected by the Electoral College, a constitutionally mandated representative body to which the states send delegates. States are free to allocate their electoral votes in any way they see fit; currently, all but two states use a "winner take all" system, meaning that a presidential candidate who wins the statewide election for president receives all of the state's electoral votes. Under this system, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency even if he or she loses the nationwide popular vote. In fact, this has happened three times in U.S. history—in 1876, 1888, and 2000.
Questions 1 and 2 are based on the following map.
- This map shows the results of the popular and electoral vote in the presidential election of 1960. Which of the following conclusions does the map support?
- The winner of the popular vote always wins the electoral vote.
- The electoral vote is a more accurate reflection of the people's will than is the popular vote.
- If Richard Nixon had won Louisiana's ten electoral votes instead of Kennedy, Nixon would have won the election.
- All Southern states supported Kennedy in the 1960 election.
- The electoral vote results can distort the results of the popular vote.
- According to the map, which state did NOT use a "winner take all" system to allocate its electoral votes in 1960?
- New York
Interest Groups, Lobbyists, and PACs
Voting and elections are not the only way to influence the American political system. Citizens often band together around common causes and goals to form interest groups. These groups work to influence the government on a particular issue or set of related issues. Interest groups include the National Rifle Association, which promotes firearms rights; the National Association of Advancement for Colored People (NAACP), which promotes a slate of issues that affect the African-American community; the United Auto Workers (UAW), a union championing the interests of employees of automobile manufacturing plants; the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), which opposes abortion rights; and many, many others. Groups representing businesses, workers, religious groups, racial and ethnic groups, and even the interests of foreign governments all attempt to influence how American government operates.
One of the main ways in which interest groups influence the government is through lobbyists. Lobbyists are professional representatives of interest groups. Their job is to convince legislators to write, endorse, and pass bills; to channel political donations to candidates who support their causes; to file court actions that protect and represent their group's goals; and to operate public relations campaigns to sway the American public to their side of an issue.
Because political campaigns are extremely expensive, candidates for office must spend a lot of time fund-raising. Political action committees (PACs) are groups of people united around a special interest or a set of issues. They raise money and donate to the campaigns of those candidates who champion their goals. PACs operate under certain restrictions designed to keep them from exerting too much influence over elections, but they are quite powerful all the same. So too are 527 groups, named after the clause in the federal tax code that allows them to operate under tax-free status. These groups have fewer spending restrictions but may spend only on campaigns to promote specific issues; they may not run advertisements for or against a particular candidate. Some 527 groups have found loopholes in these regulations that allow them to play a significant role in election campaigns.
Becoming an American Citizen
Immigrants come the United States for many reasons: Some seek economic opportunity, while others wish to escape political persecution in their native countries. Benefits of U.S. citizenship include enjoying the freedoms and rights guaranteed by the Constitution. To become a citizen, a person must apply, pass an exam, and appear for a court hearing. The process of becoming a citizen, also called naturalization, is conducted by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS for short). The following are some of the requirements for citizenship. Candidates must:
- be at least 18 years old
- reside legally in the United States for five years
- be a person of good moral character
- understand and be able to communicate in basic English
- demonstrate a basic knowledge of U.S. history, government, and the Constitution
- be willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States
- b. Complete government control of the media and rule by one individual are characteristics of a dictatorship.
- d. Citizens in a direct democracy vote on every law. They would have the most influence over lawmaking decisions.
- c. Choices a and d are statements of opinion. Choice b is incorrect and choice e is not discussed in the passage. Only choice c is supported by the information in the passage.
- e. The popular vote in 1960 was extremely close; fewer than 200,000 votes out of nearly 69 million separated Kennedy and Nixon. The electoral vote was not as close, due to the "winner take all" rule that gave each candidate all the electoral votes in states where the popular vote was extremely close. Thus, it is accurate to conclude that the map shows how the electoral vote results can distort the results of the popular vote
- b. The map shows that both Alabama and Oklahoma split their electoral votes in the 1960 election.
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