Ambassador - A citizen who has been asked to serve as an official representative of a country's government to another country. Ambassadors usually live in the country that they represent.
Amendment - Changes made to a document by adding, substituting, or omitting certain parts. We typically think of amendments as changes to the U.S. Constitution. There are currently 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Articles of Confederation - Established in 1781, before the existence of the United States, this document served as out country’s first constitution and called for unity among the 13 states, while allowing each state to remain independent. The articles failed, however, because the central government was too weak to remedy the country’s problems. The articles were replaced in 1789 by the Constitution of the United States.
Bill of Rights - The first ten amendments to the Constitution. Ratified in 1791, these amendments limit governmental power and protect basic rights and liberties of individuals. The ten amendments contained in the Bill of Rights are as follows:
1. Religion, Free Speech, Press, Assembly, Petition
2. Right to Bear Arms
3. No Forced Quartering of Troops During Peacetime
4. Search and Seizure
5. Grand Jury, Double Jeopardy, Self-Incrimination, Due Process
6. Criminal Prosecutions - Jury Trial, Right to Confront and to Counsel
7. Common Law Suits - Jury Trial
8. Excess Bail or Fines, Cruel and Unusual Punishment
9. Non-Enumerated Rights
10. Rights reserved to the States
Budget - A plan or statement of estimated income and spending costs, set up by an individual, government, or organization. State governments are required to have a balanced budget, yet the Federal government regularly runs a budget deficit.
Bureaucracy - Large hierarchical organizations that implement government policies. Bureaucracy is often used with a negative connotation, referring to large, inflexible organizations with excessive amounts of “red tape,” rendering them unable to efficiently respond to the needs of the American people.
Cabinet - A collection of the heads of the major departments within the federal government. For instance, it’s usually used in relation to the President’s cabinet, which refers to the Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Attorney General, among others.
Campaign - An organized effort, usually referring to political, business, or military activities, to gather support for a candidate or particular goal.
Census - A process for determining a country’s population by counting everyone who resides within that country’s borders. The United States census occurs every ten years, and consists of a survey which asks general questions about the people living in a household, such as age, race, and relationship status. Censuses are a critical factor in the determination of state funding.
Checks and Balances - The doctrine that political power should be dispersed among different branches of the government, and that these branches should be held accountable to each other. It requires that each branch of the government share in decision-making and have the power to check the other. For example, the Legislative branch, Congress, writes the laws. The Executive branch, the President, enacts the laws and is charged with enforcing them. The Judicial branch reviews the newly enacted laws and judges them on a constitutional basis.
Citizen - A person who is acknowledged as a legal member of a community (usually a nation). In the United States a person obtains this status through birth, the nationality of a parent or parents, or via “naturalization;” a process in which he/she is legally made a citizen.
Citizenship - The status of being a member of a state. Citizenship implies that people owe allegiance to the government and are entitled to its protection and political rights.
Civics - The study of citizenship and government, usually having to do with the rights and duties of citizens.
Civil Rights - Protections and privileges given to all U.S. citizens by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, especially the right to personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress.
Common or Public Good - This term is most widely used to refer to a specific action whose purpose is to positively benefit all (or nearly all) members of a community or group.
Community - A group of people who share the same interests and concerns, whether within a classroom, religion, organization, city, or country. The term is most widely used with a positive connotation in reference to a concept of "community" in which people feel bonded together by their shared values and beliefs.
Constituency - A group of people who vote in a particular election district and elect someone to represent that district or area.
Constitution - Formed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and ratified the following year, the Constitution of the United States formed the basis of the new national government. It established a republic balanced between the national government and the states. It began to function in 1787, replacing the Articles of Confederation (1781). It contains a preamble, 7 articles, and 27 amendments. The Bill of Rights, comprising the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, was added in 1791 to provide guarantees of individual liberties.
Delegate - As a verb: Trusting another person to accurately represent you and your beliefs
As a noun: The person you pick to represent you, usually a delegate attends a convention or meeting as your representative.
Democracy - A form of government where the power lies with the people. The people can use their power directly or in the case of representative democracies, they elect representatives to act in their best interests.
Discrimination - Unfair treatment of a person or group of people based on things like religion, race & gender.
Diversity - A term used to describe the differences between individuals in a community.
Double Jeopardy - Putting a person on trial for a crime of which he or she was previously acquitted. In other words, it is the act of prosecuting a person twice for the same offense. The Fifth Amendment protects citizens against the act of Double Jeopardy.
Electorate - The people within a district who are eligible to vote in an election.
Equality - The idea that all people should be given the same rights and respect regardless of things like race, age, gender or social status.
Establishment clause - The sentence in the first amendment that states that the US Government can not declare an official religion.
Ethnicity - A group of people that tend to be identified within a particular race, culture, global region or society.
Executive Order - A rule the President issues that has the force of law, and doesn’t require the consent of Congress
Executive Power - Power of the President enabling the implementation and enforcement of laws.
Exit Poll - A survey taken at election sites that estimates how people voted. Exit polls are usually used to predict probable winners.
Federalism - The system outlined in the Constitution that dictates that government power is shared between the national government, state governments & local governments.
Federalists - Advocates of a strong national government and the name for a group of the Founding Fathers that were strong supporters of the Constitution.
Filibuster - A tactic for defeating a bill in the Senate by talking with continuous speeches until the bill's sponsor withdraws it, or no vote can be taken.
Foreign Policy - Policies of the federal government directed to matters beyond U.S. borders, especially relations with other countries.
Freedom of Assembly - The unquestioned right for people to gather together peacefully in public, whether for political, religious, or personal reasons.
Freedom of Expression - Refers to the reasonable freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition that are protected by the First Amendment as long as one citizen’s actions do not impede on another citizen’s freedoms.
Freedom of Religion - The section of the First Amendment that states that citizens have the right to practice any religion they choose as long as one citizen’s actions do not impede on another citizen’s freedoms.
Freedom of Speech - The section of the First Amendment that allows citizens to speak their mind without the interference of the government as long as what is said does not infringe upon another citizen’s freedoms.
Freedom of the Press - A First Amendment right to print or publish information without government interference as long as the material that is published does not interfere with another citizen’s freedoms.
General Welfare Clause - Clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that gives Congress power to act based on the best interests of the citizens.
Government - The form or system of rule by which a state, community, or other division of people is governed or ruled. Government generally refers to a particular group in society that has the right to make and enforce laws.
Government by Consent - Agreement by the people to set up and live under a government. It is this concept that led to the idea of a “social contract.”
Grassroots - A political movement in which the common people campaign for a change in government policy.
Habeas Corpus - Court order demanding that a person held in custody be brought before a court so that the court may determine whether the detention is lawful. Habeas Corpus is meant to help ensure that all prisoners are given a fair trial under Due Process of Law.
Illegal Immigrant - A person who is not a legal citizen or national of the country in which he/she resides
Immigrant - A person who moves to a new country with the intention of living there permanently.
Immunity - Exemption from penalties, payments, or legal requirements from authorities or states. In other words, it is the legal protection against prosecution.
Impeachment - The power of Congress to put a public official on trial for illegal acts performed while in office. Impeachment is often incorrectly thought to be the act of removing a public official from office.
Individual Rights - The concept that each person is assumed to possess certain rights because of the fact that they are human. This concept stems from the inalienable rights outline in the Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights.
Initiative - As a verb: A movement or project designed to bring about change in public policy or public thinking. As a noun: The process by which voters propose a change in the law and then work to get the changed voted into law.
Institution - A public, educational, or charitable organization that promotes a particular cause or program, and plays a significant role in its enforcement and conflicts.
Interest Group - A group of people who come together in support of a common idea or goal, and try to influence public policy to meet those concerns.
Joint Committee - A committee that includes members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in order to reach a compromise on their differences concerning a particular issue.
Judicial Power - More commonly referred to as the Judiciary, the policies outlined in separation of powers state that the primary role of the Judiciary is to interpret the law.
Judicial Review - The power of the Judiciary to interpret the laws made by Congress on a Constitutional basis. If a law is found to be unconstitutional, then the Judiciary has the power to overturn the law itself and whatever procedures were implemented in the name of that law.
Justice - The idea that everyone in a society should receive equal distributions of benefits and burdens as well as fair correction of wrongs and injuries.
Laissez-Faire - Meaning in French "allow to do," it refers to the idea that an economy functions best when there is minimal interference from the government.
Legislative Power - Also known as the Legislature, it refers to the Constitutional authority outlined in separation of powers to make laws, and also to alter or repeal them.
Liberty - In its simplest form, the idea of liberty refers to the right of an individual to act and behave as he or she wishes, provided that behavior does not infringe upon another individual’s rights.
Life - The right of an individual to economic, social, and political freedom.
Literacy Test - An exam to determine that a voter can read, write and understand public issues. In 1965, President Johnson enacted the Voting Rights Act, which abolished literacy tests and other voter restrictions and authorized federal intervention against voter discrimination.
Lobby - The act of lobbying refers to the efforts of a group of people to achieve a desired result, usually stated in context with government lobbying, which refers to the attempts to gain the support of Senators and Representatives for a certain law or policy.
Majority Rule - Generally majority rule means that in cases of disagreement within a group the choice of the majority shall be decisive.
Minority Rights - The rights of any group less than a majority. The concept of minority rights is deemed significant because governmental and cultural power are largely determined by the majority group, or the group holding the most political power. An effect of this is often that minority groups do not share the same access to the privileges and systems of power.
National Debt - The total amount the government owes on money it has borrowed from both foreign and domestic sources.
National Security - A nation's level of defense and safety from threats, especially threats from external sources. Nations ensure their national security and survival through the use of economic, military, and political power, and the exercise of diplomacy.
Natural Rights - Belief that individuals are endowed with basic human rights so fundamental to human nature they cannot be taken away or given up. The Declaration of Independence states that these natural, “inalienable,” rights include those to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Naturalization - The process by which a person from another country becomes a citizen of the United States.
Ordinance - A law, usually created by a city or county, that governs matters not already covered by state or federal laws, such as zoning, safety and building regulations.
Override - When Congress defeats a veto on a bill. The president has the power to approve or reject (veto) the laws passed by Congress, and Congress can override the president's veto of a bill with a 2/3 majority vote.
Patriotism - The act of being loyal to or fostering positive and supportive attitudes towards one’s country, especially in periods of national turmoil, such as war.
Platform - A political party's statement of its goals and positions on public issues.
Political Action Committee (PAC) - A private organization established to raise money in support of an issue or candidate.
Polling Place - A building or area where votes are cast in an election.
Popular Sovereignty - The concept of popular sovereignty is closely linked with the idea of social contracts, the doctrine that the state is allowed to rule based only on the consent of the governed. Popular sovereignty is thus the idea that the state is created by and therefore subject to the will of its people, who are the source of all political power, the sovereigns.
Preamble - An introduction to a formal document that explains its purpose. In this country, we usually think specifically of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which states the following: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Precinct - A geographic area within a town, city, or country that contains a specific number of voters for election purposes.
Private (or personal) Domain - Areas of an individual's life that are not subject to governmental control.
Private Property - Property/land that is owned by a particular person or persons and not designated for public use.
Proposition - A measure or proposed legislation presented to the members of a legislature or to voters for their approval through a direct popular election. Propositions can take the form of initiatives or referendum.
Public Good - A concept referring to the general welfare or common well-being of a community. This concept is central to policy makers and government leaders, and should ultimately guide their decision making.
Public Opinion - A generally held attitude or opinion within a community or group toward a particular issue. In some instances public opinion, which can be evaluated through public opinion polls, acts as a check on governmental power.
Pursuit of Happiness - A famous component of the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is a concept that suggests that all Americans have the fundamental and “inalienable” right to pursue that which makes them happy, as long as that pursuit does not interfere with the fundamental rights of others.
Ratify - To give official acceptance to a formal document such as a treaty or constitution. The ratification process for the US Constitution and its amendment is detailed in Article XII.
Referendum - An election in which proposed laws are submitted to the public and adopted or rejected based on the popular vote.
Repeal - The act of canceling or invalidating a law, either through a repealing statute or public vote. Repealing a provision of the U.S. Constitution, however, requires an amendment, such as the 21st amendment, which repeals the prohibition act created in the 18th amendment.
Representative Government - A form of government in which power is held by the voters, who in turn elect individuals to represent their interests at the state and Federal levels. Ultimately, the hope is to create a government that safeguards the common interest of the entire country. The United States is the most prominent example of a representative government.
Revenue - On a civic level this refers to the money governments receive from taxes and other sources. This money is then used to fund government projects and programs.
Revolution - A complete, usually sudden, and often drastic and violent change of government and the rules by which government is conducted. The term is used, for instance, in reference to the American Revolution as a radical and profound change in our relationship with the “ruling” British empire.
Roll-Call - A procedure in which each Representative or Senator is called upon to announce his or her vote. More specifically, it can also refer to a recorded vote taken on the final passage of a bill that has been requested by a member of Congress.
Rule of Law - The rule of law is the principle that governmental authority is legitimately exercised only in accordance with written, publicly disclosed laws that are adopted and enforced in accordance with established procedure. The principle is intended to be a safeguard against arbitrary governance.
Rule of Man - Ability of government officials and others to govern by their personal whim or desire. This concept is the antithesis to the idea of a “rule of law.”
Segregation - The act of separating or dividing people, usually by racial or ethnic identity. The term usually refers to the detrimental, forced separation of minority groups by a dominant group. For instance, the South during Reconstruction established political, forced segregation of African Americans that was not remedied until the 1950’s.
Separation of Church and State - Derived from the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses, separation of church and state is the concept that religion and government should be held separate. The concept was designed to prevent the state from funding or creating an official religion.
Separation of Powers - A concept created by the Constitution and directly related to our system of Checks and Balances. Separation of powers requires that the government be separated into three branches and that those branches cooperate in decision making and have the power to hold the others accountable. It is believed that this form of government promotes democracy and hinders tyranny.
Social Security - The comprehensive federal social welfare program financed by a special tax, which provides benefits for the unemployed, disabled, and retired.
Sovereignty - Sovereignty refers to the exclusive right of a government or ruler to exercise political (e.g. legislative, judicial, and/or executive) authority over a geographic region, group of people, or oneself. A sovereign is thus the supreme lawmaking authority of the land. The concept of domestic sovereignty is one that has governed international relations for over a century.
Spoils System - The term refers to an informal practice, prevalent in the American political system, by which a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its voters as a reward for working toward victory, and as an incentive to keep working for the party.
Suffrage - The right to vote. The term is used more specifically when referencing the struggles of women and African Americans to attain voting privileges, i.e. “women’s suffrage.”
Supremacy Clause - The Supremacy Clause, contained in Article VI of the Constitution, establishes the Constitution, Federal Statutes, and U.S. treaties as "the supreme law of the land." This means that the Constitution is the highest form of law in our system, and that state judges are required to uphold it, even if state laws or constitutions come into conflict.
Town Meeting - A gathering of local citizens to discuss and vote on important issues. These meetings are also used so that citizens may question or provide suggestion to their elected officials.
Treason - A violation of allegiance toward one's country—especially when this violation endangers the country or assists its enemies.
Treaty - A formal agreement to create or restrict rights and responsibilities between two or more states. In the U.S. all treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate.
Unenumerated Rights - Rights which are not specifically listed in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, but which have been recognized and protected by the courts. A great example is the “right to privacy” established in Roe v. Wade.
Veto - Constitutional power of the President to refuse to sign a bill passed by Congress, thereby preventing it from becoming a law. The President's veto may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Witness - a person who is called to testify before a court.