POLSC221 Study Guide

Unit 4: Comparing Political Structures and Institutions

4a. Identify the role of constitutions in government systems

  • What is a constitution, and what is the rule of law?
  • What do political scientists mean when they describe a constitution as a social contract?
  • Which groups participate in the social contract, and why they are interested in participating?
  • What are some of the philosophical underpinnings of a constitution?

A constitution is a contract created to protect the lives and rights of the governed. This founding document typically outlines the key rights every individual of the community has, as a citizen of the state. The constitution also dictates the rule of law or provides a legal framework citizens can use to defend themselves against state-imposed tyranny or abuses of power.

A constitution is especially important to democratic society because its existence signals political leaders no longer have the right to do whatever they wish; they must follow the rules and guidelines expressed in the constitution just like every other citizen.

To review, see The Constitution and the Structure of Government Power and Constitution Building: A Global Review.


4b. Distinguish between presidential, semi-presidential, and parliamentary systems

  • What are presidential, semi-presidential, and parliamentary systems?
  • What are some key similarities and differences among these types of representative democracies?
  • What type of political system predominates in Europe?
  • What type of political system exists in the United States?
  • How do the executive and legislative components of government interact in each system?

Democratic governments can exhibit various types of structural and institutional political traditions. While democratic in nature, these different systems can cause subtle differences in internal political dynamics that can make direct comparisons more complicated.

For example, many democratic governments employ different electoral processes for their government officials, which can affect accountability and overall political stability. In the United States, citizens elect their congressional leaders and the president directly. In Germany and the United Kingdom, citizens also elect their legislators to the House of Commons and Bundestag directly, but their elected legislators choose the person who will lead the government (the prime minister in the United Kingdom and chancellor in Germany).

When the prime minister's or chancellor's political party does not have enough legislators to form a majority to support their candidacy, they are forced to form a coalition government, composed of two or more political parties, to get enough votes. This can give minor parties a lot of power to dictate what concessions they want to receive to cooperate as part of the coalition. Meanwhile, a majority of legislators can call for a "vote of no confidence" at any time, such as when they feel the prime minister or chancellor is not being an effective leader (or when the coalition with the minor party falls apart). Consequently, a prime minister and chancellor are more beholden to their legislators, whereas a U.S. president must only face their electorate every four years.

To review, see Types of Democracy.


4c. Distinguish between unitary, federal, and confederal government models

  • How do the unitary, federal, and confederate government models approach governance?
  • Which level of government is the most powerful for each system?
  • In what ways does a unitary system exhibit a top-down power structure?
  • What is the split level of power in a federal system?
  • In what ways does a confederate system exhibit a strong local level of power?
  • How is the balance of power structured in your country?
  • Are any countries considered a confederal system?

Countries create different levels of responsibility and authority, which we call a "balance of power", within their government. For example, in the United States state and local governments have a great deal of decision-making authority or power, compared to the federal level, depending on the issue. Different government systems have different devolutions of power from the federal level down to the local level.

To review, see Sources of Government Power.


4d. Compare and contrast the role of the executive in selected countries

  • What are checks and balances with regard to different branches of government?
  • What is the relationship between the executive, legislative and judicial branches in different types of democratic governments?
  • How does the power of the executive vary in different democratic systems of government?
  • Does the executive have more or less power in a parliamentary or presidential system?

The executive level of power in any governmental structure can vary widely but generally does not approach the levels seen in authoritarian or totalitarian governments. In the United States, the power of the executive is relatively weak, because other organs of power, such as the legislative (Congress) and judicial branches, have the ability to counter executive power with a system of checks and balances.

To review, see The Constitution and the Structure of Government Power.

Checks and Balances


4e. Compare and contrast the role of the judicial branch in selected countries

  • What is the role of the judicial branch in government?
  • What seven basic rights does the U.S. Constitution grant to U.S. citizens when they are accused of committing a crime?
  • What is the difference between a civil and criminal case?
  • Why have many judicial systems around the world adopted the system in the United States?
  • Why did common law, with its origins in Britain, proliferate globally?

During the colonial era, many colonial powers exported their legal traditions to the colonies they ruled, which has played a defining role in the types of systems in existence today. For example, Great Britain spread its judicial common law system to many territories it colonized around the world, including the United States. In this judicial system, which originated with the signing of the Magna Carta in England in 1215, laws are created, built, and enforced, based on past legal cases, legal precedent, and case law.

While the structure of the judicial branch varies widely based on the democratic society it represents, providing a set of codified laws and legal institutions is paramount to providing equality to constituents in the eyes of the law. Many consider that instilling this high level of trust among the populace to be necessary for societal and political participation.

To review, see The Judicial Branch and The Judiciary and Constitution Building.


4f. Compare and contrast the role of the bureaucracy and the policy process in selected countries

  • What is bureaucracy?
  • How does a rules-based bureaucracy function in governance?
  • How do these temporary and permanent aspects of government function and provide everyday services to their community? How do they interact?

In the United States, legislators, who are elected officials, make policy, while members of the state bureaucracy are responsible for executing the laws the legislators pass and the executive orders the president issues. The people who run these bureaucratic offices are hired civil servants, who perform these bureaucratic functions of government in accordance with their job responsibilities. On the other hand, elected officials take office and leave the government according to the election cycle.

In 1946, Max Weber wrote on page 202 of his Essays on Sociology, that German bureaucrats enjoyed tenure for life, which allow them to develop a professional proficiency, so they could perform their administrative tasks with precision and efficiency. Their lifetime appointment gave bureaucrats a sense of independence since they were not subject to the whims of temporary, elected government officials.

To review, see Bureaucracy and The Bureaucracy.


Unit 4 Vocabulary

  • Bicameral
  • Bureaucracy
  • Checks and balances
  • Civil law
  • Common law
  • Confederate system
  • Confederatism
  • Constitution
  • Criminal law
  • Executive
  • Federalism
  • Federal system
  • Judiciary
  • Legislature
  • Parliamentary system
  • Presidential system
  • Representative democracy
  • Rules-based bureaucracy
  • Semi-presidential system
  • Social contract
  • Unicameral
  • Unitarianism
  • Unitary system