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Government by the people, both directly or indirectly, with free and frequent elections.

direct democracy

Government in which citizens vote on laws and select officials directly.

representative democracy

Government in which the people elect those who govern and pass laws; also called a republic.

consitutional democracy

Government that enforces recognized limits on those who govern and allows the voice of the people to be heard through free, fair, and relatively frequent elections.


The set of arrangements, including checks and balances, federalism, seperation of powers, rule of law, due process, and a bill of rights, that requires our leaders to listen, think, bargain, and explain before they act or make laws.


The idea that the rights of the nation are supreme over the rights of the individuals who make up the nation.

popular consent

The idea that a just government must derive its powers from the consent of the people it governs.

majority rule

Governance according to the expressed preferences of the majority.


The candidate or party that wins more than half the votes cast in an election.


The candidate or party with the most votes cast in an election, not necessarily more than half.


Government by religious leaders, who claim divine guidance.

Articles of Confederation

The first governing document of the confederated states, drafted in 1977, ratified in 1781, and replaced by the present Constitution in 1789.

Annapolis Convention

A convention held in September 1786 to consider problems of trade and navigation, attended by five states and important because it issued the call to Congress and the states for what became the Constitutional Convention.

Constitutional Convention

The convention in Philadelphia, from May 25 to September 17, 1787, that debated and agreed on the Constitution of the United States.

Shay's Rebellion

A rebellion led by Daniel Shays of farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786-1787 protesting mortgage foreclosures. It highlighted the need for a strong national government just as the call for the Constitutional Convention went out.


The principal of a two-house legislature.

Virginia Plan

The initial proposal at the Constitutional Convention made by the Virginia delegation for a strong central government with a bicameral legislature dominated by the big states.

New Jersey Plan

The proposal at the Constitutional Convention made by William Paterson of New Jersey for a central government with a signle-house legislature in which each state would be represented equally.

Connecticut Compromise

The compromise agreement by states at the Constitutional Convention for a bicameral legislature with a lower house in which representation would be based on population and an upper house in which each state would have two senators.

three-fifths compromise

The compromise between northern and southern states at the Constitutional Convention that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining direct taxation and representation in the House of Representatives.


Supporters of ratification of the Constitution and of a strong central government.


Opponents of ratification of the Constitution and of a strong central government generally.

The Federalist

Essays promoting ratification of the Constitution, published anonymously by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in 1787 and 1788.

natural law

God's or nature's law that defines right from wrong and is higher than human law.

seperation of powers

Constitutional division of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, with the legislative branch making law, the executive applying and enforcing the law, and the judiciary interpreting the law.

checks and balances

A constitutional grant of powers that enables each of the three branches of government to check some acts of the others and therefore ensure that no branch can dominate.

divided government

Governance divided between the parties, especially when one holds the presidency and the other controls one or both houses of Congress.


Strong allegiance to one's own political party, often leading to unwillingness to compromise with members of the opposing party.

direct primary

An election in which voters choose party nominees.


A procedure whereby a certain number of voters may, by petition, propose a law or constitutional amendment and have it submitted to the voters.


A procedure for submitting to popular vote measures passed by the legislature or proposed amendments to a state constitution.


A procedure for submitting to popular vote the removal of officials from office before the end of their term.

writ of mandamus

A court order directing an official to perform an official duty.

congressional elaboration

Congressional legislation that gives further meaning to the Constitution based on sometimes vague constitutional authority, such as the necessary and proper clause.


A formal accusation by the lower house of a legislature against a public official, the first step in removal from office.

executive order

A directive issued by a president or governor that has the force of law.

executive privilege

The power to keep executive communications confidential, especially if they relate to national security.


Presidential refusal to allow an agency to spend funds that Congress authorized and appropriated.


A constitutional arrangement in which power is distributed between a central government and subdivisional governments, called states in the United States. The national and the subdivisional governments both exercise direct authority over individuals.

unitary system

A constitutional arrangement that concentrates power in a central government.


A constitutional arrangement in which sovereign nations or states, by compact, create a central government but carefully limit its power and do not give it direct authority over individuals.

delegated powers

Powers given explicitly to the national government and listed in the Constitution.

implied powers

Powers inferred from the express powers that allow Congress to carry out its functions.

necessary and proper clause

The clause in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) setting forth the implied powers of Congress. It states that Congress, in addition to its express powers, has the right to make all laws necessary and proper to carry out all powers the Constitution vests in the national government.

express powers

Powers that the Constitution specifically grants to one of the branches of the national government.

inherent powers

The powers of the national government in foreign affairs that the Supreme Court has declared do not depend on constitutional grants but rather grow out of the very existence of the national government.

commerce clause

The clause in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1) that gives Congress the power to regulate all business activities that cross state lines or affect more than one state or other nations.

federal mandate

A requirement the federal government imposes as a condition for receiving federal funds.

reserve powers

All powers not specifically delegated to the national government by the Constitution.

concurrent powers

Powers that the Constitution gives to both the national and state governments, such as the power to levy taxes.

full faith and credit clause

The clause in the Constitution (Article IV, Section 1) requiring each state to recognize the civil judgements rendered by the courts of the other states and to accept their public records and acts as valid.


The legal processes whereby an alleged criminal offender is surrendered by the officials of one state to officials of the state in which the crime is alleged to have been committed.

interstate compact

An agreement among two or more states. Congress much approve most such agreements.

national supremacy

A constitutional doctrine that whenever conflict occurs between the constitutionally authorized actions of the national government and those of a state or local government, the actions of the federal government prevail.


The right of a federal law or regulation to preclude enforcement of a state or local law or regulation.


People who favor national action over action at the state and local levels.


People who favor state or local action rather than national action.

states' rights

Powers expressly or implicitly reserved to the states.

devolution revolution

The effort to slow the growth of the federal government by returning many functions to the states.

writ of habeas corpus

A court order requiring explanation to a judge why a prisoner is being held in custody.

ex post facto law

A retroactive criminal law that works to the disadvantage of a person

due process clause

A clause in the Fifth Amendment limiting the power of national government; a similar law in the Fourteenth Amendment prohibiting state governments from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

selective incorporation

The process by which provisions of the Bill of Rights are brough within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment and so applied to state and local governments.

establishment clause

A clause in the First Amendment that states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. The Supreme Court has interpreted this to forbid governmental support to any or all religions.


Money that the government provides to parents to pay their children's tuition in a public or private school of their choice.

free exercise clause

A clause in the First Amendment that states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

bad tendency test

An interpretation of the First Amendment that would permit legislatures to forbid speech encouraging people to engage in illegal action.

clear and present danger test

An interpretation of the First Amendment that holds that the government cannot interfere with speech unless the speech presents a clear and present danger that it will lead to evil or illegal acts.

preferred position doctrine

An interpretation of the First Amendment that holds that freedom of expression is so essential to democracy that governments should not punish persons for what they say, only for what they do.

nonprotected speech

Libel, obscenity, fighting words, and commercial speech, which are not entitled to constitutional protection in all circumstances.

prior restraint

Censorship imposed before a speech is made of a newspaper is published; usually presumed to be unconstitutional.

content- or viewpoint-neutrality

Laws that apply to all kinds of speech and to all views, not just that which is unpopular or divisive.


Written defamation of another person.


The quality or state of a work that taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex by depicting sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and that lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

fighting words

Words that by their very nature inflict injury on those to whom they are addressed or incite them to acts of violence.

commercial speech

Advertisements and commercials for products and services; they receive less First Amendment protection, primarily to discourage false and misleading ads.

civil disobedience

Deliberate refusal to obey a law or comply with the orders of public officials as a means of expressing opposition.

property rights

The rights of an individual to own, use, rent, invest in, buy, and sell property.

eminent domain

The power of a government to take private property for public use; the U.S. Constitution gives national and state governments this power and requires them to provide just compensation for property so taken.

regulatory taking

A government regulation that effectively takes land by restricting its use, even if it remains in the owner's name.

due process

Established rules and regulations that restrain government officials.

procedural due process

A constitutional requirement that governments proceed by proper methods; limits how government may exercise power.

substantive due process

A constitutional requirement that governments act reasonably and that the substance of the laws themselves be fair and reasonable; limits what a government may do.

search warrant

A writ issued by a magistrate that authorizes the police to search a particular place or person, specifying the place to be searched and the objects to be seized.

exclusionary rule

A requirement that evidence unconstitutionally or illegally obtained be excluded from a criminal trial.

grand jury

A jury of 12 to 23 persons who, in private, hear evidence presented by the government to determine whether persons shall be required to stand trial. If the jury believes there is sufficient evidence that a crime was committed, it issues an indictment.


A formal written statement from a grand jury charging an individual with an offense; also called a "true bill."

plea bargain

An agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant that the defendant will plead guilty to a lesser offense to avoid having to stand trial for a more serious offense.

petit jury

A jury of 6 to 12 persons that determines guilt or innocence in a civil or criminal action.

double jeopardy

Trial or punishment for the same crime by the same government; forbidden by the Constitution.

civil rights

The rights of all people to be free from irrational discrimination such as that based on race, religion, gender, or ethnic origin.

natural rights

The rights of all people to dignity and worth; also called human rights

affirmative action

Remedial action designed to overcome the effects of discrimination against minorities and women.


A legal action conferring citizenship on an alien.

dual citizenship

Citizenship in more than one nation.

right of expatriation

The right to renounce one's citizenship.

women's suffrage

The right of women to vote.

equal protection clause

A clause in the Fourteenth Amendment that forbids any state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

due process clause

A clause in the Fifth Amendment limiting the power of the national government.

rational basis test

A standard developed by the courts to test the constitutionality of a law; when applied, a law is constitutional as long as it meets a reasonable government interest.

strict scrutiny test

A test applied by the court when a classification is based on race; the government must show that there is a compelling reason for the law and no other less restrictive way to meet the interest.

heightened scrutiny test

This test has been applied when a law classifies based on sex; to be upheld, the law must meet an important government interest.

literacy test

A literacy requirement some states imposed as a condition of voting, generally used to disqualify black voters in the South; now illegal.

white primary

A Democratic party primary in the old "one-party South" that was limited to white people and essentially constituted an election; ruled unconstitutional in Smith v. Allwright.

racial gerrymandering

The drawing of election districts so as to ensure that members of a certain race are a minority in the district; ruled unconstitutional in Gomillion v. Lightfoot.

poll tax

Tax required to vote; prohibited for national elections by the 24th amendment and ruled unconstitutional for all elections in Harper v. Board of Elections.

majority-minority district

A congressional district created to include a majority of minority voters; ruled constitutional so long as race is not the main factor in redistricting.

Jim Crow Laws

State laws formerly pervasive throughout the South requiring public facilities and accomodations to be segregated by race; ruled unconstitutional.

commerce clause

The clause of the Constitution (Articlce 1, Section 8, Clause 3) that gives Congress the power to regulate all business activities that cross state lines or affect more than one state or other nations.

class action suit

A lawsuit brough by an individual or a group of people on behalf of all those similarly situated.

restrictive covenant

A provision in a deed to real property prohibiting its sale to a person of a particular race or religion. Judicial enforcement of such deeds is unconstitutional.

de jure segregation

Segregation imposed by law.

de facto segregation

Segregation resulting from economic or social conditions or personal choice.

public policy

A specific course of action that government takes to address a problem.


The interaction of the people and their government, including citizens, interest groups, political parties, and the institutions of government at all levels.

distributive policy

A public policy such as Social Security that provides benefits to all groups in society.

redistributive policy

A policy that provides to one group of society while taking away benefits for another through policy tools such as tax increases to pay for job training.

zero-sum games

policy that takes away exactly as much in benefits as another group gains.

counterdistributive policy

A policy that reduces benefits for all groups such as a tax increase in society, often by imposing rules that govern everyone.


A decision not to move ahead with the policy process. In short, it is a decision not to decide.

policy agenda

The list of issues that the federal government pays attention to.

think tank

A nongovernmental organization that seeks to influence public policy through research and education.

issue-attention cycle

The movement of public opinion toward public policy from initial enthusiasm for action to realization of costs and a decline in interest.

incremental policy

Small adjustments to existing public policies.

punctuating policy

Radical changes to public policy that occur only after the mobilization of large segments of society to demand action.

iron triangle

A policy making instrument composed of a tightly related alliance of a congressional committee, interest groups, and federal department of agency.

issue network

A policy making instrument composed of loosely related interest groups, congressional committee, presidential allies, and other parties.


A policy that encourages or discourages certain behavior by imposing legally-binding rule. Rules are made through a long process that begins with an act of Congress and ends with issuance of a final rule.


A precise statement of how a law is implemented.

fiscal policy

Government policy that attempts to manage the economy by controlling taxing and spending.

monetary policy

Government policy that attempts to manage the economy by controlling the money supply and thus interest rates.


A rise in the general price level owing to an increase in the volume of money and credit in relation to available goods.


The number of Americans who are out of work but actively looking for a job. The number does not usually include those who are not looking.


A combination of an economic slowdown (stagnation) and a rise in prices (inflation).

gross domestic product

The value of all goods and services produced by an economy during a specific period of time such as a year.

excise tax

A consumer tax on a specific kind of merchandise, such as tobacco.

budget deficit

The condition that exists when the federal government raises less revenue than it spends.


A tax levied on imports to help protect a nation's industries, labor, or farmers from foreign competition. It can also be used to raise additonal revenue.

progressive tax

A tax graduated so that people with higher incomes pay a larger fraction of their income than people with lower incomes.

regressive tax

A tax whereby people with lower incomes pay a higher fraction of their income than people with higher incomes.

national debt

The total amount of money the federal government has borrowed to finance deficit spending over the years.

Office of Management and Budget

The presidential staff agency that serves as a clearinghouse for budgetary requests and management improvements for government agencies.

Congressional Budget Office

An agency of Congress that analyzes presidential budget recommendations and estimates the cost of proposed legislation.

tax expenditure

A loss of tax revenue due to federal laws that provide special tax incentives or benefits to individuals or businesses.

sales tax

A general tax on sales transactions, sometimes exempting such items as food and drugs.

value-added tax

A tax on increased value of a product at each state of production and distribution rather than just at the point of sale.

Federal Reserve System

The system created by Congress in 1913 to establish banking practices and regulate currency in circulation and the amount of credit available.

federal funds rate

The amount of interest banks charge for loans to each other.

laissez-faire economics

A theory that opposes governmental interference in economic affairs beyond what is necessary to protect life and property.

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