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Democracy in America

A comprehensive video course for high school teachers on civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions based on an established civics framework.

A video course for high school, college and adult learners ; 15 half-hour video programs, print guide, and website.

Democracy in America, a video course in civics, covers topics of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions recommended by The Civics Framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress developed by the U.S. Department of Education. The 15 half-hour video programs, hosted by national television correspondent Renée Poussaint, and related print and Web site materials provide inservice and preservice teachers with both cognitive and experiential learning in civics education.

Course Overview

Democracy in America is a unique 15-part course for high school teachers that combines video, print, and web resources to provide a deeper understanding of the principles and workings of American democracy. By combining compelling video stories of individuals interacting with American government, theoretical discussions of the meaning of democracy, and problem-solving, hands-on exercises, the course gives life to the workings of American democracy.

This course is being offered at a time of great optimism. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the promising successes of new democracies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa all point to the triumph of liberal democracy. Still, in the aftermath of these great advances, there is reason for profound concern. Never has the democratic ideal been so ascendant and yet so precarious. Americans still believe that democracy is the worthiest form of government and they take great pride in the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, less than half the eligible citizens vote in even presidential elections, and a majority of Americans distrust their government. Disengagement from political and civic life seems to be increasing, particularly among the young. There is a growing consensus that American civic life is in need of serious repair.

At the root of this disinterest is a lack of basic knowledge concerning political affairs on the part of Americans, particularly among the young. This lack of basic knowledge has several consequences. Knowledge of government and civic life is certainly a precondition to participation. It is also clear that those who fail to understand basic democratic norms will not support them. Moreover, the more people know about their government, the more faith they express in the American system. In the final analysis then, the breadth and depth of political knowledge is vital for the survival of our constitutional democracy. What Alexis de Tocqueville called the “habits of the heart, the temperament that informs the democratic ethos” are not inherited. Each generation must pass to the next the knowledge and skills required to sustain a constitutional democracy.

Democracy in America is designed to aid in the repair of American civic life by providing teachers with greater knowledge and skills. The course provides thorough understanding of the theory and practice of American democracy and provides teachers with supplementary information to take back to the classroom. But Democracy in America is not simply an advanced description of American government, it is a creation intended to encourage civic engagement by providing teachers with ideas for turning students into active learners.

Throughout the course, the emphasis is placed on the role of individuals in American democracy. While stressing the basic elements of American government, the course works within the larger theme that, in a democracy, individuals matter. Recognizing that democracy is not inevitable, the materials are intended to demonstrate that the workings of a democratic government require an active and engaged citizenry. Moreover, the course demonstrates that citizens can and do make a difference. The videos, for instance, do more than discuss the need for an active citizenry, they feature citizens in action. This Web site and the course guide contain a variety of classroom activities designed to interest and engage students. Democracy in America, then, is intended to help teachers pass on Tocqueville’s “habits of the heart.”

Individual Unit Descriptions

1. Citizenship: Making Government Work
This program introduces basic concepts of government, politics, and citizenship. It explores the tension between maintaining order and preserving freedoms, the essential role of politics in addressing the will of the people, and the need for citizens to participate in order to make democracy work. Go to this unit.

2. The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?
This program examines the search for balance between the original Constitution and the need to interpret and adjust it to meet the needs of changing times. It explains the original Jeffersonian-Madisonian debate, the concept of checks and balances, and the stringent procedures for amending the Constitution. Go to this unit.

3. Federalism: U.S. v. the States
This program explores federalism as a Constitutional compromise, especially in terms of present-day conflicts between people who believe that power should reside primarily in the national government and those who want government authority retained within the states. Go to this unit.

4. Civil Liberties: Safeguarding the Individual
This program examines the First, Fourth, and Sixth Constitutional Amendments to show how the Bill of Rights protects individual citizens from excessive or arbitrary government interference, yet, contrary to the belief of many Americans, does not grant unlimited rights. Go to this unit.

5. Civil Rights: Demanding Equality
This program looks at the nature of the guarantees of political and social equality, and the roles that individuals and government have played in expanding these guarantees to less-protected segments of society, such as African Americans, women, and the disabled. Go to this unit.

6. Legislatures: Laying Down the Law
This program explores the idea that legislatures, although contentious bodies, are institutions composed of men and women who make representative democracy work by reflecting and reconciling the wide diversity of views held by Americans. Go to this unit.

7. The Modern Presidency: Tools of Power
This program shows that the American Presidency has been transformed since the 1930s. Today, presidents are overtly active in the legislative process: they use the media to appeal directly to the people and they exercise leadership over an “institutional presidency” with thousands of aides. Go to this unit.

8. Bureaucracy: A Controversial Necessity
This program reveals how the American bureaucracy delivers significant services directly to the people, how it has expanded in response to citizen demands for increased government services, and how bureaucrats sometimes face contradictory expectations that are difficult to satisfy. Go to this unit.

9. The Courts: Our Rule of Law
This program examines the role of courts as institutions dedicated to conflict resolution, with the power both to apply and to interpret the meaning of law in trial and appeal courts. It shows the increased power of the Supreme Court through its use of judicial review and the difficulty of creating a judiciary that is independent of politics. Go to this unit.

10. The Media: Inside Story
This program explores the media as an integral part of American democracy, highlighting the scrutiny they impose on the performance of public officials, the interdependence of politics and the media, and the power the media wields in selecting the news. Go to this unit.

11. Public Opinion: Voice of the People
This program examines the power of public opinion to influence government policy, the increasing tendency of public officials to rely on polls, and the need to use many forms of feedback to get an accurate measure of public opinion. Go to this unit.

12. Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents
This program shows how political parties perform important functions that link the public to the institutions of American government. Parties create coalitions of citizens who share political goals, elect candidates to public office to achieve those goals, and organize the legislative and executive branches of government. Go to this unit.

13. Elections: The Maintenance of Democracy
This program explores the crucial role of strategy in the two-stage electoral campaign system; the opportunities for citizens to choose, organize, and elect candidates who will pursue policies they favor; and the need for campaigns to increase voter turnout by educating citizens about the importance and influence of their vote. Go to this unit.

14. Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence
This program shows how America’s large number of corporate, citizen-action, and grass-roots interest groups enhance our representative process by giving citizens a role in shaping policy agendas. Go to this unit.

15. Global Politics: U.S.A. and the World
This program examines the need for the United States to use the tools of foreign policy in ways that recognize the growing interdependence of nations — implementing both traditional and new forms of military, trade, and diplomatic strategies to promote benefits for America and the world as a whole. Go to this unit.

Course Components

Democracy in America includes 15 half-hour videos (with three stories per video), the guide with readings included, and this Web site, which contains a downloadable PDF of the guide and reader plus a series of interactive exercises.

The Video Programs

Through 15 half-hour videos, Democracy in America takes the teacher through the essentials of American government — ranging from a discussion of the nature of a constitutional democracy to the role of America in the world. The videos feature individuals actively engaged in civic and political life. Viewing the videos gives course participants a direct experience with American government in action. You can watch the video programs online. 

The Guide and Reader

The guide (available in PDF) provides in-depth discussions and analysis of the issues raised by the videos. Integrated into the guide are classic readings that expand on the subject of each unit. The guide and reader includes:

  • A list of learning objectives for each unit
  • Previewing activities for each unit
  • Post-viewing activities for each unit
  • Activities that can be used in the classroom (student handouts for these activities are provided in the Appendix)
  • A list of Web-based resources for further exploration

You’ll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the PDF files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from

Preparation for First Session


Read the following Readings from Unit 1 to prepare for next week’s session.

  • Introduction to the Readings
  • Introduction – Citizenship: Making Government Work
  • Thucydides, “Pericles’s Funeral Oration” from Peloponnesian War
  • Plato, Apology
  • Aristotle, Politics
  • Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius

Read Unit 1’s Topic Overview.

Key Contributors and Credits


The Educational Film Center: The Educational Film Center (EFC) has for more than 30 years been responsible for the successful management of over 300 media projects, including over 600 television productions, interactive multimedia, and Web design. Key to the success of EFC’s projects has been the commitment to a collaboratively close working relationship between production and academic personnel.

George Mason University: The chair and faculty of the Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University and a number of outstanding scholars and educators with specific experience in civic education were brought together for Democracy in America.

Carney Interactive: Carney Interactive is EFC’s Web design collaborator, led by its creative director, John Low, who was trained at EFC. Since its inception in 1994, Carney has designed, built, and managed the development of over 150 custom eLearning products. These include innovative web-based and CD-ROM training applications, educational programs designed with multiple language capability, Web site design, and touch-screen kiosk systems.

Carney Interactive’s client list includes AOL/Time Warner, Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting), Arthur Andersen, Drexel University, FAA, FBI, GE, Goldman Sachs, Lucent, NASA, NATO, New York Institute of Finance, US Treasury Dept., U.S. Marine Corp,, WorldCom, and Xerox.


Funding for this program is provided by Annenberg Media to advance excellent teaching.


Advisory Board

Scott Keeter, Chair of Board, Dept. of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University and Associate Director, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

Marvin Awbrey, Former President, California Council for the Social Studies and Past Chair, NCSS Social Studies Administrators Committee

Denee J. Mattioli, President, NCSS Board and Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, East Tennessee State University

Gail Leftwich, President, Federation of State Humanities Councils, Virginia and Board of Trustees, National History Day

Alan Rosenthal, Professor of Government, Rutgers University

Diane Hart, Co-Chair, NCSS Task Force on Civic Education

Sheilah Mann, Director of Educational Affairs, American Political Science Association

Debra Henzey, Executive Director, Civic Education Consortium, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Tim Hudenburg, Teacher of Social Studies, Westfield High School, Fairfax County, Virginia

Production Team

Project Director: Stephen L. Rabin, President of the Educational Film Center since 1983, is responsible for management of production, development, and financing of its programs. Under his direction, EFC has created and produced a number of telecourses, teacher training, and workshop series and several hundred television specials, series, and videos. Stephen Rabin served as the overall project manager, a function he fulfills for all EFC Projects

Director of Content: Robert L. Dudley is Chair, Department of Public and
International Affairs and Associate Professor of Political Science for George Mason University.

Co-Executive Producers: Ira H. Klugerman and Ruth Pollak, EFC Vice Presidents for Production and for Projects, shared responsibility for supervision of all media production for Democracy in America. As members of the core project team, they served as the direct liaison with all content personnel and the members of the Board of Advisors, attended all staff meetings, hired and supervised the producers and other production personnel, managed schedules and budgets, and took responsibility for all production and post production. They were also responsible for the creative supervision of all production elements- the video programs, interactive Web site, and print materials.

Director of Evaluation: Barbara Flagg