Understanding the US Government

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Victor Makes Sense of the US Government! I thought I knew how things worked, but after taking this course, I now know there are many things about the workings of the US government that I did not know at all. Dr. Victor is not being political as some reviewers have claimed -- she goes to great pains to be very factual and to cover all the possibilities in as impartial a manner as she can. It only makes you realize that the operation of the government is NOT simple and cannot be reduced to buzzwords or catch-phrases. I went to school when they still taught civics in high school. This is a lot better than that ever was, and I have the experience of living enough now to understand so much more. If you're confused by our political and governmental systems (and they are different), take this course. You'll be better informed for it.
Date published: 2021-04-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Simplistic and Shallow As a Canadian, I expected to be a novice, but I routinely see more detailed and nuanced analysis, not just Electoral College and impeachment, but earmarks, Beltway Bandits, gerrymandering, military procurement, voter ID, filibusters and Byrd Baths. Lecture 20 (the Media) suggests healthy skepticism, which I apply to this course. The Great Course's 2080 White Collar Law and 10000, Psychological Studies, list aspects of government which this course ignores, neither refuting nor supporting. Lesson 1 states the fundamentals of government are restriction of violence and collection of taxes but does not discusses the checks and balances for these two fundamentals within the US system. The lecturer frequently mentions racism, but does not follow the money or name the exploiters; political correctness, not substantiation. The lecturer is poised and polished, reading the teleprompter with confidence. Visuals are not of much value. Some useful, albeit basic, information. Not recommended except as an add-on to course 2080, White Collar Law.
Date published: 2021-04-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Good basic info... with a liberal bias It's a shame! This course was disappointing. Just give me the info without the liberal PC correlation that leads the horse to drink. The Federalist Papers was a much better course.
Date published: 2021-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptionally Clear Very well explained and concise. I think the negative reviews are to do with the touchy subjects like racism more than anything else.
Date published: 2021-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Course I Have Been Waiting For I took Civics in high School but felt it was time to revisit and clearly understand the workings of our government. Professor Victor provided a detailed and clearly understandable overview of our government. After completing the course I had a clear understanding of the strengths as well as issues that affect the efficacy of our government today. Understanding our government and the politics behind it has become an increasingly important issue. It is important for all Americans to understand it. This is the one course that I highly endorse for everyone to take and understand.
Date published: 2021-03-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Patisan I was hoping this professor would be non-partisan, but she wastes little time saying absurd things. She says we should read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time Magazine for our news. She never mentions the liberal bias in the media. She even downplays the role that the rest of cable news has contributed to the polarization of the country, which is just odd. Anyone that was honest would acknowledge that we are all being lied to when we turn the television, surf the web, or read the newspaper. Even the New York Times knows it is not the same paper that it used to be and former editors have spoken out about it. She also says that Republicans have become more radical and are more likely to fall for conspiracy theories. Many Democratic leaders have talked about and are agreeable to getting rid of the Electoral College, the filibuster, security at the borders, the police, all attempts at a balanced budget, the number of judges in the Supreme Court, the separation of boys and girls in sports, our founding fathers, and any attempts to restrict abortion. These would be considered radical ideas to many Democrats even 15 years ago. I was looking for a fair and balanced lecture, but I'm seeing a pattern with the Great Courses over the last few courses now and it is very disheartening.
Date published: 2021-03-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointment Over the years, I have purchased over two hundred courses from The Teaching Company and The Great Courses. I have found the vast majority of them to be of excellent quality and substance and have recommended The Great Courses to numerous friends and acquaintances. I was immediately attracted to Understanding the US Government with the hope of reviewing and updating my knowledge of the subject. Sadly, my purchase resulted in great disappointment. The presentation and visuals were excellent. The problem was the insertion of subjectivity into the content. On the occasions when the lecturer wandered from the objective description of the structure and function of an area of the federal government into a subjective analysis of the topic at hand, a disturbing and nonintellectual bias often ensued. I will provide a few examples. The first appeared in Lecture 9 (How Presidential Elections Work) with a discussion of "Fake News." Whether or not one agrees with the analysis of Dr. Victor, the insertion of this sidebar into the presentation was at best an unnecessary distraction. It was my hope that this was to be an isolated instance, but it reappeared in Lecture 10 with a superficial commentary on the Progressive Movement in the early 20th century. In Lecture 12, while discussing political polarization, the professor made a statement that (anonymous) "political scholars" (a standard source cited throughout the lectures) have noted that one of the two primary political parties (which she identifies)had moved further from center than the other, the implication being that they were more responsible for the divergence. The "graph" presented to show this visually was an embarrassment. What was the factual basis for this assertion? Who are the political scholars and in what context were their opinions expressed? Who knows? Such undocumented opinions proffered in a course like this are both nonintellectual and distracting. At this point, I looked back to re-examine a comment made in Lecture 2. During a very appropriate discussion regarding consideration of potential conflicts between liability and security interests inherent in the analysis of some pieces of legislation being considered for law, a graph from a 2019 article in a medical journal was shown which demonstrated a 12% increase in "mass shootings" in states with less restrictive gun laws. Obviously, the size of the population used in the analysis (number of mass shootings) was small. Would a similar graph correlating "gun violence," i.e. shootings, robberies, etc. plotted against states with restrictive and less restrictive gun laws (a study more germane to the issue and with data certainly available) have shown similar findings? Likely not. It was at this point I lost confidence in the objectivity of the content being presented and discontinued the course. What is additionally disconcerting is my inability to ascertain whether or not the professor is aware of what appear to me to be her obvious biases. While an undergraduate population of students may not have the background to appropriately critique or objectively analyze the information presented in these lectures, I am quite certain that the audience of The Great Courses does. The inclusion of subjectivity/ideology into a course like this without any counterbalance is, in my opinion, neither scholarly or appropriate. I have not found this issue to be of any similar consequence in other courses containing similar content. The course by Peter Irons on The History of the Supreme Court and the course by John Finn on Civil Liberties are two examples. In each case, one viewing the course might detect some slight bias, but overall the issues were fairly and objectively presented. Both courses were excellent. My thought is that this might well be a very goo 12-lecture course focused on the objective principles and functions of the US government. I do feel the The Great Courses might have done a better job in this case of overseeing content and removing bias. In the meantime, I would suggest that one might be better off purchasing a basic high school or college text on the subject matter.
Date published: 2021-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent and Timely Course Professor Victor does an excellent job of explaining the nuts and bolts of the way our government functions. Delving into areas we hear about every day, she brings a clear and and accurate description of where we are and how we got there. If some people squirm hearing her explanations of the current state of our democracy, it may help wake up the "tolerance and forbearance" needed so much if we are ever to achieve the true promise of our "great experiment" in self governance. Professor Victor was a pleasure to listen to and her discussion never lost my interest. I learned something new with each presentation and that in itself is reason enough to recommend the course.
Date published: 2021-02-13
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Understanding the US Government
Course Trailer
Why Have Government?
1: Why Have Government?

As context, begin by looking into the nature of governments, and the major types of government. Consider why governments exist and how major political theorists have viewed the roles of government. Examine the founding of the United States and the creation of the Constitution through the lens of “collective action theory,” which helps explain why the US government is structured as it is.

31 min
The Framework of US Federalism
2: The Framework of US Federalism

Study the system of federalism, where sovereign power is divided between the national and state governments. Trace the history of federalism in the United States, as it protects individual liberties, checks government power, and allows for the resolution of political conflicts. Note how the balance shifted in the 20th century, from greater state authority to a much-expanded power of the federal government.

27 min
Civil Liberties: Freedoms from Government
3: Civil Liberties: Freedoms from Government

Probe the concept of civil liberties, as they delineate restrictions that government cannot impose. Learn about “selective incorporation,” the process through which civil liberty protections at the state level have been guaranteed through Supreme Court rulings. Then look at how the judicial system has interpreted and upheld freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.

33 min
Civil Rights: Fairness under Government
4: Civil Rights: Fairness under Government

Consider how America’s historic record on human rights continues to impact modern politics. Study the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment and how it has been applied. Examine the history and the current landscape of human rights with regard to African-American rights, affirmative action, and women’s rights, as well as Native American, Asian American, and LGBTQ+ rights.

33 min
How a Bill Becomes a Law
5: How a Bill Becomes a Law

Observe how a congressional bill originates, and how legislators formally submit a bill. Then follow the various stages through which a bill is acted upon by the House, the Senate, by presidential review, and the process of ultimate adoption into law. Finally, learn about the “cloture rule,” a mechanism that forces bills to a vote, and the strategic tactic of filibustering in the Senate.

29 min
Why Congress Is Such a Puzzle
6: Why Congress Is Such a Puzzle

Explore core issues in the functioning of Congress. First, take account of the inherent tension for legislators between serving their constituents and serving their party. Investigate procedural challenges within this unwieldy organ of government, tasked with solving massive social problems, whose institutional design is in some ways an impediment to progress.

27 min
How Congressional Elections Work
7: How Congressional Elections Work

Learn how congressional elections are structured, and differences between the House and Senate. Examine key factors in the politics of congressional campaigns, such as the high cost of campaigning, the role of incumbency, and how congressional campaigns have become increasingly nationalized. Then delve into the issue of gerrymandering, and the varied record in the United States of the practice of gerrymandering.

31 min
The Powers of the Presidency
8: The Powers of the Presidency

Identify the powers granted to the president by the Constitution, versus other powers that have been implied or have developed over time. Assess the roles of the president as both head of state and head of government, and delve into core topics that include the budget process, the exercise of executive privilege, impeachment, and the president’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

33 min
How Presidential Elections Work
9: How Presidential Elections Work

Grasp the ways in which presidential elections differ from congressional elections. Take an in-depth look at the Electoral College, and the sometimes odd consequences of the system. Observe how presidential nominations are made, and assess election forecasting and the indicators that are most predictive of election outcomes. Also, examine the phenomenon of “fake news” and misinformation.

36 min
A Road Map of the Federal Bureaucracy
10: A Road Map of the Federal Bureaucracy

Take an overview of how the vast systems of the federal government operate. First, trace how and why the United States developed such a massive bureaucracy. Study how the executive branch is structured, highlighting the cabinet departments, independent agencies, and government corporations. Finally, analyze the theory of the “principal-agent problem,” which gives insights into bureaucratic control.

32 min
How the Judicial Branch Works
11: How the Judicial Branch Works

Investigate the sources of judicial authority that underlie our legal system, and the judicial system’s organization according to three types of legal cases. Learn about the structure of the federal court system, comprising three types of federal courts. Conclude with a detailed look at the Supreme Court, how a case gets to the Supreme Court, and how cases are heard and adjudicated.

26 min
Where the Supreme Court Meets Politics
12: Where the Supreme Court Meets Politics

Follow the very politicized process that takes place when a president appoints a justice to the Supreme Court. Then look at four categories of influences that bear on the Court and its decisions. Examine how the Court plays a role in policymaking through its decisions and precedents. Finally, trace how the Court’s role in politics and government has changed over the course of US history.

30 min
The Challenges of Polling Public Opinion
13: The Challenges of Polling Public Opinion

Define “public opinion,” in its various forms, both individual and aggregate. For the measuring of public opinion, note the difference between the theory of the “wisdom of crowds,” and what’s called “groupthink.” Explore the sources of individual opinion and political identity. Then look at what polls are and what they do, highlighting the polling controversy of the 2016 presidential election.

33 min
How Political Parties Organize Democracy
14: How Political Parties Organize Democracy

Why do political parties exist? Dig into this question, and grasp how parties solve three categories of problems for three different groups of political “actors.” Investigate why it is that the United States has two, and only two, major political parties. And, to better understand how parties operate today, trace the history of political parties in the United States, and how they have changed and realigned over time.

32 min
How Americans Became So Polarized
15: How Americans Became So Polarized

Delve into the factors that underlie the extreme partisan polarization of current US politics. Define what polarization is, as distinct from partisanship. Focus on three main sources of polarization, and explore how and why polarization tends to self-perpetuate. Examine false assumptions about polarization, its dangers, and consider how possible reforms might break the cycle.

32 min
The Fundamentals of Elections and Voting
16: The Fundamentals of Elections and Voting

Look first at suffrage (the right to vote) in the United States, including the history of women’s suffrage, African-American suffrage, and suffrage for 18 year olds. Study voter turnout in elections, and how we can account for consistently low voter turnout. Consider what determines a person’s likelihood to vote, the gender gap in voting, and the need of candidates to be appealing to median voters.

28 min
How Does American Democracy Work?
17: How Does American Democracy Work?

In assessing the US democratic system, dispel the common myth of a single “will of the people.” Grasp how institutions such as Congress provide stability and an agreed-upon procedure for making major group decisions. Review several fully democratic ways of counting votes, which provide different outcomes, and look into the use and possible benefits of ranked-choice voting in the United States.

26 min
The Ins and Outs of Campaign Finance
18: The Ins and Outs of Campaign Finance

Witness how campaigns have been financed throughout US history. Trace the many campaign finance reforms enacted since the 1970s, which aim to curb corruption and unequal influence on elections. Take account of the problems that arise when sources of campaign funding do not represent the broader population, and the repeating cycle of reforms followed by attempts to work around campaign finance limits.

30 min
The Pros and Cons of Organized Interests
19: The Pros and Cons of Organized Interests

Revisit the theory of collective action as you chart the seven types of organized interest groups that figure in American politics, and the huge proliferation of interest groups since the 1960s. In grasping how interest groups form and operate, and the problems they address, weigh the valuable things these groups can do for society against the tendency for the power of organized interests to be skewed toward the wealthy and privileged.

31 min
Politics and the Media
20: Politics and the Media

To better understand the complex relationship between media, politics, and government, investigate public trust and distrust of journalism, and the ideological positions of news sources themselves. Note how social media can exacerbate political polarization. Finally, grasp the ways in which the political environment is ripe for conspiracy theories and misinformation, and how we can best respond.

29 min
How Government Affects the Economy
21: How Government Affects the Economy

Examine the US system of free market economics, and the fiscal and monetary policies our government employs to correct for market failures. Learn how Congress and the president address problems such as high unemployment and inflation through government spending and taxation, and how the Fed uses interest rates and the sale of treasury bonds to stimulate or de-stimulate the economy.

33 min
How the US Social Safety Net Works
22: How the US Social Safety Net Works

The federal social safety net is designed to alleviate poverty among the elderly, needy families, and the disabled. Learn about the TANF program, or “welfare,” and the institutions of Social Security, disability insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Take account of the financial strains on these programs, questions of their future solvency, and the political controversies that surround them.

33 min
The Major Shifts in American Foreign Policy
23: The Major Shifts in American Foreign Policy

Trace the history of the United States in international politics, from early isolationism through America’s global role in the 20th century, to today’s post-9/11 political climate. Observe US participation in international institutions aimed at peacekeeping, trade, and economic growth, and note current US policy trends regarding trade conditions and the negative effects of globalization.

35 min
The Changing State of American Democracy
24: The Changing State of American Democracy

Conclude with a look at the biggest challenges that American politics and government will face in the coming years, such as racial, environmental, and economic justice. Assess possible reforms for greater income and racial equality, and the benefits of a stronger role for political parties. Consider the dangers of the current degradation of democratic norms, and how they might be restored.

35 min
Jennifer Nicoll Victor

By learning about the US government, you’ll have a much richer appreciation for our government, the trials we’ve faced as a nation, and the challenges that are yet to come.


Washington University in St. Louis


George Mason University

About Jennifer Nicoll Victor

Jennifer Nicoll Victor is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks and coauthor (with Nils Ringe) of Bridging the Information Gap: Legislative Member Organizations as Social Networks in the United States and the European Union. She also serves on the board of directors of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

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