Governments set the rules that allow a nation or community to function. They make laws and enforce those laws to ensure that people are treated fairly and everyone understands the consequences of breaking the law. Governments also provide services that improve citizens’ lives, such as education, health care and public transportation.
What a government does depends on the values of those in power. For example, if a government supports an ideal of egalitarianism, it may raise taxes so that everyone has access to public education and health care. The government may also enact laws that prohibit discrimination and protect the environment. Governments can also support national security, promote economic growth and defend citizens from foreign attack.
Most governments are based on some kind of democracy or republic, where citizens have the right to vote for their representatives. Those elected are usually part of a political party, which is made up of individuals who share similar ideas and philosophies about what role the government should play in society. The representatives that are elected form the legislative branch, which makes laws. The executive branch carries out those laws and the judicial branch interprets and enforces those laws.
While a majority of Americans believe that the United States should be a democratic republic, a substantial number are wary of government. A new study by the Pew Research Center reveals that more than six-in-ten white adults and blacks want smaller government providing fewer services. And while a majority of all adults say that the government should be involved in solving social problems, only two-in-ten believe that it is doing so now.
Across the globe, many different forms of government exist. The most common are democracies, authoritarian regimes and hybrid systems that combine elements of both democratic and totalitarian governance. Historically, government forms have included monarchy, aristocracy, timocracy and oligarchy along with democracy, dictatorship and theocracy.
Modern political science scholars attempt to create a classification system for the different types of government that exist. However, the lines between some of these categories are sometimes blurred or ill-defined. For instance, many early self-proclaimed democracies restricted voting to a small group of individuals with property, which would qualify them as oligarchies rather than democracy.
In the United States, our government has three tiers: federal, state and local. The federal level is framed by the Constitution and includes Congress and the President. The states are the second rung and include governors, legislatures and state courts. The local level is the third rung and includes cities, towns, counties and school districts. Each of these rungs has their own rules and laws, but they cannot pass laws that conflict with the decisions/laws passed by the levels above them. Download a Lesson Handout to learn more about the different branches of our federal government.