Frames of Reference: How America Views the Political System

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  • 0:01 Frames of Reference
  • 1:06 Liberty
  • 2:19 Equality
  • 3:36 Democracy
  • 4:55 Civic Duty
  • 6:25 Individual Responsibility
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Americans use a unique frame of reference to perceive and evaluate our political system. This lesson explores five common beliefs Americans hold about the American political system.

Frames of Reference

What does the American political system mean to you? If you're a descendant of immigrants, perhaps it means 'liberty.' If you're a descendant of slaves, perhaps it means 'equality.' If you've been the victim of a crime, perhaps it means 'individual responsibility.'

These are just a few of the common beliefs Americans hold about our political system. The beliefs are based on our frame of reference, which is a structure of concepts and views through which we perceive and evaluate information. You can think of it as the lens through which we view our political system. It's why we believe what we believe.

So what do we believe? Let's take a look at the most common beliefs Americans hold about our political system. These beliefs represent what we most expect from our political system, including our rights and responsibilities.


The American political system is largely based on liberty. Generally speaking, this is the right to be free, as long as another's rights aren't harmed.

Liberty is an important concept when considering Americans' frame of reference. Remember that the original colonists felt oppressed by British rule and longed for greater freedom. The American political system was purposely designed to prevent the harsh government control the people previously experienced.

Keep in mind, though, that liberty isn't the same thing as complete freedom. Our liberty is somewhat restrained through laws and rules in order to protect other people's rights and safety. In the U.S., we have what is known as a limited government. This means that the power of our government is restricted by the Constitution. Our Bill of Rights guarantees that the government can't infringe on certain civil liberties in order to protect the rights of the people.


Along with liberty, we believe our political system offers equality. This generally means people have the same or similar opportunities to compete and achieve in this country. Note that equality doesn't necessarily guarantee equal results.

Instead, we mean that the government can and should do what it can to 'equal the playing field.' The government does this by providing small business loans, welfare assistance, disability pay, Title IX programs, Section 8 housing programs and many other programs designed to boost equality.

Notice that equality is especially important in our laws. All people, regardless of race, gender or religion, are expected to obey the laws of this country. Throughout history, constitutional amendments and new laws have been added in hopes of bringing better equality to the citizens of the U.S. For example, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.


These amendments are just one example of our political system at work. The American political system is designed to reflect the views of the people. So as our views evolve, our laws should too. That's because the American political system is a democracy. A democracy is a government run by the people, through elected representatives.

Note that it's not exactly a 'majority rules' or 'winner takes all' system. The citizens of the U.S. elect the government officials, and the officials then exercise the governmental power. If the officials don't exercise the power the way the people want, then the people can impeach the officials or choose not to re-elect the officials.

Again, it's helpful to consider the early Americans' frame of reference. The colonists came from Great Britain, where the government was a monarchy. This is a government run by a member or members of a royal family. The colonists felt the king's rules and laws were too harsh, especially those regarding religion and taxes. They wanted to have a say in their government.

Civic Duty

Of course, our democracy can't work unless the citizens participate in the process. We have to have people willing to run for office, people willing to vote, people willing to stay informed on the issues and a host of other tasks.

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