Understanding the US Government

Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mixed bag The Professor is very articulate and much of the series is informative. Unfortunately her political bias shows through in a way that is completely unnecessary. I'm independent with my thinking and I search for empirical evidence and facts. I cannot recommend this series due to the bias, and would advise others to take a course that is fact based without political leaning.
Date published: 2020-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative - Worth the Time In a time when partisan for-profit media can create arrogant dogmatic behavior that looks more like fans watching team sport than informed participants, this was informative. The mere attempt describe our government, how we got here, the changing threats and challenges and the future will invite the wrath of such fans. Knowledge is power and Professor Victor did a good job of breaking the topic down into bite sized pieces. We need a million examples like this to get to a point where critical thinking skills are more the norm and employees within such media companies can once again self identify as to informing their audience using professional journalistic standards rather than appeasing their audience with narratives these employees admit are fal$e, divi$ive and gaming. Thanks for sharing.
Date published: 2020-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lectures in clear language Great lectures in clear language and easily accessible terms. It certainly furthered my understanding of the workings of the US Government. Some viewers criticized that the professor showed some of her "political views." Any discussions on law, government, economics, political process, history, and society have to reflect certain "political philosophy." I find her lectures very well balanced in general. In fact, I could see that she worked hard to keep the lectures "balanced." I would even say that she is too lenient on the "right" sometimes and too lenient on the "left" sometimes. I would welcome a professor who would express her views forcefully, even and especially if the views are different from mine, as long as she presents strong arguments to support her views. Of course, this brief overview course would not be an adequate platform for in depth discourse.
Date published: 2020-10-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Political bias bordering on hate speech If you like to be talked down to and want a course to listen to between your MSNBC binge sessions, this is it!! It has everything you like -Fake appeal to expert consensus -Skewing of all data to fit your preexisting conclusions -Presenting tired saws and long-discredited talking points as new insights This is not a course so much as one overly long diatribe. I am sure it will be perfect for you!
Date published: 2020-10-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Unknown Technical Glitch I have only viewed the first .mp4 downloaded lecture of this course. I view these courses on an Apple TV (streamed over my network from my computer) while riding an exercise bike. For some reason when played in this manner, the audio and video are significantly out of sync, whereas when I stream from the Great Courses site (There isn't an Apple TV app for doing so), or playing the download directly on my computer, the video and audio are in sync. I have never experienced this issue with one of the Great Courses before. In this instance, I solved the problem by ripping the audio track from the .mp4 video and placing it on an iPod for play in my car while driving. If I experience this problem with a subsequent Great Course, I'll seek a refund or an exchange to an alternative format.
Date published: 2020-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thank you for this course First, I commend the Teaching Company for offering this timely course. Second, I commend the professor for not shying away from describing our current situation. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. The government employs highly skilled specialists in many areas and, as our professor reminds us, they are employed by us to provide a public good. We are lucky to have them and the institutions in which they serve.
Date published: 2020-10-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The Dogma is Strong with this One... Funny how arrogant folks (so-called "academics") on the Left can be. I couldn't get past the halfway point of the first lesson. What really capped my XXX? (and I paraphrase: "Both the Left and the Right contribute to increasing polarization. But the Right started it.) Don't waste your money unless you're already a member of the Left.
Date published: 2020-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very interesting and useful course I thoroughly enjoyed this course. As a retired university professor, I admire the teacher's impecable orgazization of the material and presentation. The content is delivered objectively without undue bias, as should be in a class directed to an educated, objective public with diverse political interests.
Date published: 2020-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Review of the Basics of US Government For me this course was a review of the political science course I took in college decades ago. It brought back a few important points I have forgotten and up dated what I had learned back then. Dr Victor has a great presentation style. Being a science fan myself, I liked she backed her statements with the latest studies, as when she listed the factors that determine if a presidential candidate will win and they are not about the candidate or the issues. That is surprising and not intuitive. This course mentions various court cases that were important in politics. Because of that, this course nicely pairs with The Great Courses Constitutional Law course. There is some overlap in material, but there are enough differences to make both courses worth watching. I highly recommend both courses together.
Date published: 2020-09-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Blatantly Bias There were good parts of the lectures where I learned new information; however, the bias is just too obvious. I would've expected this from some other lower tier companies but not from the Great Courses. I've enjoyed many lecture series in the past; this is not one of them. It's nowhere near the quality of most other lecture series. To anyone planning to take this, I would recommend getting the following lecture series instead: The Federalist Papers Investigating American Presidents America's Founding Fathers Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights
Date published: 2020-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great for Any American Wanting to Learn More Anything involving the subject of government and politics has a high likelihood of someone accusing it of being politically biased; however, if someone can only provide 3 potentially biased quotes from over 10 hours of content, then it becomes a very weak argument. I think it would also be very naïve to think this series would not frequently address the current divisiveness in the political theater considering it was released around September 1, 2020, with an extremely polarizing election approaching. I learned a great deal from this course and would absolutely recommend it.
Date published: 2020-09-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A Tale of Two Courses (Feel a Bit Hoodwinked) Listening to these 24 lectures was a bizarre journey to day the least. Thirteen of the lectures were excellent and had me wanting more and more (I listened for hours on end unable to stop that Great Courses Plus app). But the other eleven were so intolerable to get through I was wondering if I was listening to the same course. In fact I wasn't. There are two distinct courses here. After reading the description of this course I was left with the conclusion that this is a civics course on how the various branches of the US government are organized, operate, and cooperate together to facilitate our representative democracy. I was impressed by how deep Professor Nicoll Victor covered the following: 1- The branches and institutions of the US government 2- Civil Liberties 3- Civil Rights 4- Political parties 5- Election processes 6- Campaign finance 7- The economy 8- Foreign policy For the record those lectures are 2-5, 7-11, 14, 18, 21, and 23. I expected an overview of each topic but instead the processor provided a deep understanding of not only how and why certain entities were setup but also how they have evolved over the years. This is not just a basic Civics 101 course/overview. The history of these topics (including how the professor sprinkles in brief summaries of the various critical Supreme Court decisions through the years) was fascinating and entertaining to listen to. However, it didn't take long to see that the real intent/purpose of this course was to center on the current polarization and partisanship that characterizes the US government and public in an effort to try to explain why the political climate of today exists. This means the Presidential election of 2016 was a focal point numerous times. While I can appreciate people wishing to understand how we got where we are, I was disappointed this was where the course kept turning towards and ultimately it hit me this WAS the course. I was hoping more for a neutral assessment of US government organization and inner workings of the day to day both through the years and today and would have appreciated if the "politics" were left out in an effort to treat this as a traditional civics course. If I had a strong interest in performing a root cause analysis of how the country has become so divided I'd have looked for a course that presented itself as such. This course should have been named something to the effect of "Understanding how the US government and public have become politically polarized and partisan". And I wouldn't have bothered with it. Deal with this enough day after day. I don't need it invading my learning and entertainment time. While the professor provides good history on the institutions she is covering, there is still a good amount of the context and content of the lectures that are based on current times (2016-2020) as a way for people to make sense of the non-partisanship environment we live in/current times. I would’ve preferred that she stay away from material that can be controversy or will be irrelevant in a few years’ time. As if that wasn't off putting enough there was this: though the professor didn’t deliver the lectures in a blatant partisan manner, she does lean Democratic and it comes out at times as almost side-swipes at Republicans. Too many veiled comments that President Trump and the Republicans are out of touch. For the record I'm an independent. So you can see how I am torn. Its not so much that half the course is excellent and the other half poor but that I was hoodwinked into investing in one course and getting something else. Leaves a bad taste. For this very reason I wouldn't recommend this course to friends. But I would highly recommend select lectures to any and everyone because of how surprisingly useful and in-depth they were.
Date published: 2020-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant unbiased explanations We have become so polarized that an outstanding unbiased analysis of our Government can be labeled "leftist" as I just read in the first comments available here. I suggest the rightist reviewer to take this class again. I appreciate professor Nichol Victor clear explanations of often subtle points, referring to supreme court ruling and offering practical examples to make her points. The "Puppy day law" example made me understand the complex mechanisms at work in pushing a new law in Congress and shed a brilliant light on the kind of political difficulties we are now facing as a nation. This class timing is perfect its subject and the way it is presented are a great public service that will be appreciated by those of us who value our democratic republic and prefer a reflective debate to knee jerk emotional labeling.
Date published: 2020-09-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Bias Professor Victor has noticeable left bias in her lectures. This is not the quality I expect from Great Courses.
Date published: 2020-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great refresher I enjoyed this lecture and feel very informed with the current state of our government. I took Pol Sci in college and I wish I had this lecture to refer to. I will definitely recommend this course to my friends who is also looking for educational material to better understand our government. Thank you!
Date published: 2020-09-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Professor Victor's Leftist political biases show! Though it would be neat to watch this series to brush up on political science. Sadly, it is obvious that Jennifer Victor is very biased in her approach in her lectures and repeatedly attacks the history of America any chance she gets. We get it! America's history has some issues but may want to put it in context with the rest of the world during the same time period! America has always led the world with human rights issues as well as reform when needed. Looks like we may cancel or subscription with courses like this!
Date published: 2020-09-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from agenda in the guise of political "science"? In the first lecture, Professor Victor cites political "scientist" nolan mccarty from Princeton University on polarization. To highlight a couple of quotes from her summary of his work: "the political right has moved further right than the political left has moved left" and "Moreover, there is more ideological 'extremism' in the republican party than in the democratic party." and "To some extent the extremism in the democratic party is a reaction to the great number of 'extremists' in the Republican Party."
Date published: 2020-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Required Viewing! As a Canadian, I found this course to be extremely interesting, comprehensive and timely. I feel I have a much better understanding of the reasons for current events and past outcomes (thanks for discussing the electoral college - that was a bit of a black hole for me). I thought the professor did a brilliant job of presenting the information and provided useful examples and research.
Date published: 2020-09-16
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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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