The Political Landscape


The formal vehicle through which policies are made and affairs of state are conducted.


Member of the political community to whom certain rights and obligations are attached.


The study of who gets what, when, and how--or how policy decisions are made.


A form of government in which power is vested in hereditary kings and queens who govern in the interests of all.


A form of government in which power resides in a leader who rules according to self-interest and without regard for individual rights and liberties.


A form of government in which the right to participate is conditioned on the possession of wealth, social status, military position, or achievement.


A system of government that gives power to the people, whether directly or through elected representatives.

Mayflower Compact

Document written by the Pilgrims while at sea enumerating the scope of their government and its expectations of citizens.

social contract

An agreement between the people and their government signifying their consent to be governed.

social contract theory

The belief that people are free and equal by natural right, and that this in turn requires that all people give their consent to be governed; espoused by John Locke and influential in the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

direct democracy

A system of government in which members of the polity meet to discuss all policy decisions and then agree to abide by majority rule.

indirect (representative) democracy

A system of government that gives citizens the opportunity to vote for representatives who will work on their behalf.


A government rooted in the consent of the governed; a representative or indirect democracy.

political culture

Commonly shared attitudes, beliefs, and core values about how government should operate.

personal liberty

A key characteristic of U.S. democracy. Initially meaning freedom from governmental interference, today it includes demands for freedom to engage in a variety of practices without governmental interference or discrimination.

political equality

The principle that all citizens are equal in the political process, as implied by the phrase "one person, one vote.

popular consent

The principle that governments must draw their powers from the consent of the governed.

majority rule

The central premise of direct democracy in which only policies that collectively garner the support of a majority of voters will be made into law.

popular sovereignty

The notion that the ultimate authority in society rests with the people.

natural law

A doctrine that society should be governed by certain ethical principles that are part of nature and, as such, can be understood by reason.

civil society

Society created when citizens are allowed to organize and express their views publicly as they engage in an open debate about public policy.

political ideology

The coherent set of values and beliefs about the purpose and scope of government held by groups and individuals.


One who favors a free market economy and no governmental interference in personal liberties.


One who believes that a government is best that governs least and that big government can only infringe on individual, personal, and economic rights.

social conservative

One who believes that traditional moral teachings should be supported and furthered by the government.


One who favors governmental involvement in the economy and in the provision of social services and who takes an activist role in protecting the rights of women, the elderly, minorities, and the environment.

American dream

An American ideal of a happy, successful life, which often includes wealth, a house, a better life for one's children, and for some, the ability to grow up to be president.