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Read the Preface By the People by Jim Morone and Rogan KershPreface

By The People
Preface By Jim Morone and Rogan Kersh

The film crew set up in the middle of a bustling city park. As soon as they saw the camera, people crowded around. “What are you doing?” they asked. Rogan—one of the authors of this book—explained that we were filming some publicity for our new textbook. We had taken the title from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he said, and we wanted people to recite bits of the speech, revolving around the most famous line: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people…”

Help or Clash?

Everyone offered to help out. OK, part of it was getting on camera. But it was more. People—strangers—were ready to pitch in and lend a hand. Rogan gave them their lines and they cheerfully repeated them for the camera. Repeated them again if they didn’t come out quite right. They mostly turned down the little Starbucks gift cards we offered them. They were happy to help. They milled around and talked about the book, about politics, about their own stories.

That’s America in a nutshell. People pitch in. This is a nation of joiners and helpers and activists. It always has been. Visitors in the nineteenth century were astonished by the nation’s civic spirit. To this day Americans form book groups, organize car washes to raise money for good causes, stack sandbags during floods, send checks to the Red Cross,  wave flags at Olympic games, support the military, and sometimes insist that the government help those who need help.

But that’s only one side of the story. Flip on your television and what do you see? Fights! A few years ago, one of us (Jim) was about to go on a news show to discuss the fallout after singer Janet Jackson inadvertently (and very briefly) went X-rated during the Super Bowl halftime show. Jim was scheduled alongside another commentator who was very agitated about Jackson’s behavior and believed that it signaled the decline of America.  Jim told the producer that, after exploring our different views, it would be great if we could find some common ground. No way, retorted the producer, who explained her ideal closing shot: You’ll be shouting over each other on a split screen while the host coolly ends the segment by saying, “We’ll have to leave it there for now, but feelings run high and we’ll be hearing a lot more on this topic.” Unfortunately, searching for common ground does not draw an audience like people screaming on a split screen.

The producer was demonstrating another side of America: rugged individualists push their own views and self-interests. Individualism is also an all-American story. Its origins lie in a frontier culture that expected everyone to watch out for themselves. This is the America that resents anyone—especially the government—telling people what to do.

Which is the real America? They both are. Sometimes it’s a land of cooperation, sometimes a nation of competition. American politics, as you’ll see, reflects both.

By the People?

We picked the book’s title—By the People—because we think Lincoln’s phrase raises the deepest question in American politics: Who has the power? Or to put it more pointedly, do the people rule in this day and age? Democracy is a constant struggle; it is an aspiration, a wish, a quest. In every chapter we’ll ask how well Americans are living up to Lincoln’s ideal. Does the new media (Chapter 9) or the contemporary Congress (Chapter 13) or the bureaucracy (Chapter 15) or state government (Chapter 4) support or subvert government by the people? We’ll present the details—and let you decide where we stand and whether we should press for reform or leave things alone.

We’ll be straight with you: we won’t pretend there was a golden age in some imaginary past. After all, the United States has been home to political machines that enthusiastically stole votes, maintains an  Electoral College designed to distort the people’s vote for president and governs through an elaborate system of checks and balances that blunts the popular will. (Again, you’ll soon see two sides to each of these features of American government.) At the same time, you’ll read about bold popular movements and unexpected electoral surges that changed the face of the nation. In many ways, these are the most exciting moments in American history. They spring up at unexpected times, inspiring ordinary Americans to achieve great things.

Who Are We?

Here’s Jim’s very first political memory: My parents were watching TV, and as soon as I walked into the room I could see that my mother was trying hard not to cry. “What’s going on?” I asked my parents nervously. My dad—a proud Republican who had fought in World War II—said, “Well, the US had a racial problem, but that man there, he’s going to get us past it.” “That man there” was Martin Luther King Jr., giving one of the most famous speeches in American history: “I have a dream,” said King, that “my four little children will one day live in a country where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” My mother had been born in Poland and her near tears were tears of pride in her new nation—and the beautiful aspirations of that August day.

Both of us authors grew up thinking about the dream—and about the nation that dreams it. America is constantly changing, constantly new. In every chapter we’ll ask the same question: Who are we? We’ll explore a lot of different answers.

Four themes are going to be especially important in this book. Race touches everything in the United States, from the Constitution (Chapter 3) to the political parties (Chapter 11). The nation rose up out of both freedom and slavery; race quickly became one of the great crucibles of American liberty. Similarly, immigration includes some of history’s saddest passages involving the mistreatment of recent arrivals. And yet we are a nation of immigrants that continues to welcome the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—the famous words carved into the Statue of Liberty. More than a third of the emigrants around the globe are coming to the United States every year. Race and immigration are tied up in another powerful topic: gender and sexuality. From women in Congress to same-sex marriage, from teen pregnancy to abortion, we’ll show how negotiating an answer to “who are we?” always puts an emphasis on questions of gender and sexuality. Finally, we’re especially interested in American generations, and more specifically the attitudes and contributions of today’s young people, the millennial generation. If you’re one of them, the future belongs to you. This book is an owner’s manual for the government that you’re going to inherit. We’ll have much to say about you as we go along.

The most important thing about all these categories is not their history, or the ways they’ve influenced voting behavior, or the way the courts treat them—although we’ll cover all those topics. Rather, what matters most about American politics are the opportunities for getting involved. As you’ll see, groups and individuals can and do make a difference in a nation that is always evolving. We hope our book inspires you to actively participate in making the American future.

How Government Works

We won’t oversell the role of individuals. That role is always framed by the way the government is organized and operates. From the very start, this book emphasizes the unusual structure of American government.

Begin with a Constitution full of checks and balances, add a multi-layered federalism, develop a chaotic public administration (President Franklin Roosevelt cheerfully called the uproar a three-ring circus), spin off functions to the private sector (especially during wars), complexify Congress (thirty-one different committees and subcommittees tried to claim jurisdiction over just one national health insurance proposal), and inject state and federal courts into every cranny of the system. Then throw the entire apparatus open to any interest group that shows up. The twenty-first century adds a twenty-four/seven news cycle with commentary all the time and from every angle.

Turn to foreign policy, where high principles contend with tough-minded realism in a fractious world.  When the most formidable military in human history is mustered into action, watch presidential power expand so rapidly that it sets off international debates about whether the great republic is morphing into an empire.

In short

As you read this book, you’ll be engaging four questions:

  • Who governs? This is the question of democracy and power—or, as we put it above: Is this government by the people? And if and where it falls short, how might we refresh our democracy?
  • How does American politics work? Our job is to make you think like a political scientist. What does that involve? You’ll learn in the next chapter—and throughout the book.
  • What does government do? You can’t answer the first two questions if you don’t know what the courts or the White House or Congress or interest groups actually do—and how they do it.
  • Who are we? Americans endlessly debate America’s identity. We are students, businesspeople, Hispanics, seniors, Texans, environmentalists, gays, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, military families—and the list goes on. Sometimes it adds up to one united people; at other times we’re left to wonder how to get along. Either way, American politics rises up from—and shapes—a cacophony of identities and interests.

Getting Involved

By the People is a new text for the course in American government. It takes on US government in all its glory, messiness, and power. Like every textbook, this one informs our readers. But, as we hope you can already see, we don’t describe government—or ideas about government—as inert and fixed. What’s exciting about American politics—and America itself—is how fast it changes. And the arguments—the constant, endless arguments—about what it is and what it should be next. Our aim is to get you engaged—whether you already love politics or are a complete newcomer to politics or, indeed, whether you are a newcomer to the United States itself. In the pages that follow, we’ll bring American government to life. Get ready to start a great debate—about your future.

One final word: We’ve been working out the story line for this book throughout our teaching careers. We’ve taught everything from very large lectures to small seminars. Like all teachers we’ve learned through trial and error. We’ve worked hard to pack this book with the stories, questions, and features that our own students have found effective. That spirit—the lessons we’ve learned in the classroom—animates everything that follows.