The Advanced Placement Program (AP) offers two courses and exams in government and politics. Each is intended for qualified students who wish to complete studies in secondary school equivalent to a one-semester college introductory course in United States government and politics or in comparative government and politics. Each exam presumes at least one semester of college-level preparation. This book describes the areas covered by similar college courses; the two exams cover these areas as well.

The material included in this Course Description and the two exams is not intended as an endorsement by the College Board or ETS of the content, ideas, or values expressed therein. The material has been selected by political scientists who serve as members of the AP Government and Politics Development Committees. In their judgment, the content reflects important aspects of college courses of study. The exams are representative of these courses and are therefore appropriate tools to measure skills and knowledge in the fields of government and politics.

I. Introduction to Comparative Politics

The beginning of a college comparative politics course and the beginning of most textbooks in comparative politics introduce students to the study of politics by explaining how political scientists study politics and why it is important for students to be informed about politics abroad. It is useful to distinguish between normative, or value-related, questions and empirical or factual questions at this early stage, and to emphasize that political scientists are interested in both sorts of questions. In explaining how political scientists divide up their field of study, it is important to make clear what comparative inquiry has to offer.

We live in an interdependent world: what happens in Mexico, for example, impacts the United States. This point provides a good opportunity to introduce the theme of globalization and the general political and economic permeability of national borders. It is here that teachers will want to contrast the concepts of state, nation, regime, and government—a lesson inevitably leading to discussions about legitimacy, authority, and bases of political power, as well as the differences between these concepts. Thus, students might learn that the “state” is generally used to refer to the political power exercised over a defined geographic territory through a set of public institutions, in contrast to the “nation,” which is often understood as a human community with a shared culture and history. This course treats governments as collections of individuals who occupy political office or exercise state power, whereas regimes are treated as the sets of rules and institutions that control access to, and exercise of, political power and that typically endure from government to government. Regime change occurs when these rules and institutions are replaced.

Students will need to grasp the conceptual differences between and similarities among types of political systems. Despite vast differences between economies and regime types, most countries face similar challenges, including those presented by the natural environment, social and ethnic diversity, economic performance, and the delivery of health care to citizens.

II. Sovereignty, Authority, and Power

The study of politics requires an understanding of power. Comparative politics recognizes that power is territorially organized into states, or countries, that more or less control what happens within their borders, which is to say that they exercise sovereignty. At the same time, it is important that students recognize that there has not always been a system of states. The modern nation-state first emerged in Europe in the seventeenth century. Today there are some challenges to the sovereignty of the nation-state in the form of supranational systems of governance, such as the emerging European Union (EU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It is also important to emphasize that sovereignty can be affected by internal divisions over power and its distribution.

Across national borders, the sources of power that are the foundation for politics vary in importance, and these different sources have an effect on the construction of the rules of politics. These rules—which generally take the form of constitutions— need to be understood in this context. Constitutions define both the role and constituent parts of a government and the limits and obligations of government with respect to the rights of citizens. Studying different types of political regimes, from forms of democracy to the various nondemocratic forms, enables students to gain a clearer picture of how states strike a balance between citizen rights and government power. The exercise of power requires justification, and political scientists use the concept of legitimacy to refer to the popularly accepted use of power by a government. Students must conceptualize the different ways in which political legitimacy is expressed in states, as well as recognize when legitimacy has been lost.

State power is exercised within the context of specific economic systems. The course should introduce students to the scope and role of government in the economy. Students also should be familiar with belief systems that might form the foundation for claims to legitimacy. Ultimately both the belief systems that strengthen the legitimacy of the political system and the structures of the economy will have an impact on governmental effectiveness, capacity, and control over state resources. Students should seek to understand the basics of the relationship between sources of authority, political power, and governance.

Political scientists are interested in political culture, core values, and beliefs, and how these values are fostered and disseminated through the process of political socialization. Such values are often organized in specific ideologies that influence the direction of the exercise of power. Students should be encouraged to explore the differences in political values and beliefs. For instance, in some countries religious belief systems play this important political role. In other countries more overt political agendas and ideologies perform this role.

III. Political Institutions

The study of political institutions should include the formal structure and workings of states and governments. In this introductory course, this means that students should master knowledge about different authority systems and government structures. A deep level of detail is not expected; rather, students should become familiar with the more general descriptions of major political institutions. Determining what levels to focus on should be driven by the contextual environment in each of the six countries. Thus, for example, every state has multiple levels of authority, though the powers that correspond to each vary widely. Some countries keep most policymaking at the national level, while others distribute powers more widely to regions and localities. Depending on the country, some authority is now passing to supranational organizations such as the European Union (EU) as well.

It is important that students are familiar with the branches of government in the countries they study and understand how these branches relate to one another. Students should understand different arrangements of executive power, different legislative structures, and the different models of executive–legislative relations. Beyond basic concepts such as parliamentary and presidential systems, or separation and fusion of power, students should be able to characterize the advantages and drawbacks of different institutional arrangements and understand how executive and legislative policymakers interact with other branches of the state apparatus. Some countries, such as Great Britain, have independent court systems, while China and others do not. Often, these judicial features depend on the roots of the legal system— whether the system uses code or common law, ideology, custom and traditional authority, or religious codes. Students should understand the implications of whether a country has judicial review and whether it operates through an independent national court system, theocratic oversight, or supranational courts.

Note, however, that the course curriculum must take students beyond constitutional arrangements. Since politics has both formal and informal components, students need to understand formal constitutional patterns as well as procedures that are more informal. In this context, comparing institutions in different political and country settings will be very helpful. For instance, students should understand how political elites are recruited and how political preferences are aggregated. The countries studied offer examples of the major electoral systems, as well as cases of one-party systems (China); dominant-party systems (Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI]); two-party systems (Great Britain); and multiparty systems (Russia, contemporary Mexico, Nigeria, and Iran since the late 1990s). The number of parties in a particular country is usually connected to the country’s social cleavages as well as the electoral system. Students should also explore how interest groups exercise political influence and be able to apply the concepts of corporatism and pluralism.

The six countries covered in the AP course provide good examples of how the exercise of real political power often does not correspond to the model implied by formal political structures. For China, Nigeria, and Mexico before the PRI’s decline, revealing contrasts can be drawn between written constitutions and informal political realities. The composition and recruitment of political elites and how they are linked to other elites in society reveal much about informal political power.

The bureaucracy is a crucial part of the political system. Technical experts advise and administer policy that, in principle, is fashioned by political leaders. The ideological sympathies and traditions (e.g., professionalism) of the bureaucracy and its channels of recruitment influence its political role. The military also affects politics in many countries through informal pressure, as in China and Russia, or through periodic seizures of power, as in Nigeria. The professional or political role of the armed forces and the nature of civilian control over them varies across countries and time. The intelligence community or secret police can be an additional locus of coercion. Similarly, the judiciary plays a variety of roles in the six countries; in some places it exhibits important levels of autonomy, and in other countries it is used to establish religious or ideological domination. Students should become familiar with the ways in which the judiciary does or does not exercise independent power and how it shapes public policies and political practices of citizens as well as of the state.

IV. Citizens, Society, and the State

Ultimately, politics hinges on the interactions between state and society. Therefore, the course should not be confined to the internal workings or the institutional underpinnings of states. Through country cases, students can learn how certain kinds of cleavages such as ethnicity, religion, or class become politically relevant. Some regimes like China and Iran have formal arrangements for representing social groups such as ethnic or religious minorities. A country’s political patterns are influenced by the characteristics and demands of its population. Institutions can blunt or exacerbate cleavages in society. The countries studied in this course provide ample evidence for pursuing questions about how states manage and respond to deeply held divisions among their citizens.

Gaining an understanding of civil society both conceptually and within countries gives students useful tools to explore the ways in which state power is mediated and the power of citizens may be enhanced. Much of politics is affected by the extent and nature of citizen organization independent of the state. Interest groups and social networks assist in the generation of social capital and mobilize political forces. The interaction between type of regime and patterns in civil society is often crucial. Students should explore the range of ways that a citizenry can act politically, through both traditional means such as voting and more forceful political action such as strikes and insurgencies. Events in some of the covered countries, such as Iran’s 1979 revolution, China’s 1989 Tiananmen crisis, and Mexico’s 1994 Chiapas revolt, provide examples of extraordinary political pressures. The emergence of global civil society, such as transnational networks of human rights and environmental groups, is also having a significant effect on government–citizen relations.

The media have also played an important role, not only within countries but as purveyors of global culture. Students should consider the relations between the various media and the state, as well as the ways the media influence and shape public perceptions, beliefs, and practices.

Citizens participate in politics in a variety of ways. A significant form of political behavior in most societies is political participation. Students should learn how to define the concept and be able to describe the ways in which political participation can both support and undermine a political system. Since participation can take a variety of forms and be either voluntary or coerced, students will need to discuss the different ways that citizens in China, for instance, participate and contrast those methods with methods used by citizens in other countries. In this process, students should be exposed to the continuum of participation, ranging from behavior supportive of a regime to behavior that seeks to change or overthrow it.

Participation takes both individual and group forms. In political science, citizen participation is often framed by social movements as well as by more organized interest groups. Contemporary social movements—ranging from antiglobalization to environmental issues, civil rights, and enfranchisement claims—have specific forms and particular methods. While it would be impossible to cover all the social movements in each of the countries, the curriculum should enable students to gain some insight into major social movements. In this process, students will need to grapple with the connection between social movements, interest groups, and representation, especially since this is often the most basic claim put forward by groups demanding the attention of their states.

V. Political and Economic Change

Much of the cross-case coverage will inevitably deal with processes of change, since this has been a primary theme of politics. One way to introduce students to the notion of change is to explore the interaction between political and economic trends. The countries studied will provide illustrative examples of this interaction, which can take the form of political and economic reform, revolutions, and even coups d’état. Students should be able to distinguish among these types of political and economic change.

Since the end of the Cold War, a wave of democratization has occurred throughout much of the developing world and in the former Communist bloc. Comparing Russia, Mexico, and Nigeria in light of their democratic transitions offers an interesting study in contrasts. The study of democratization should include examination of the preconditions, processes, and outcomes of these transitions. The success of democratization can be compared across countries, just as contrasts can be drawn with countries like China in which democratization has barely begun or has foundered. Democratic consolidation often requires new elite pacts, constitutional arrangements to minimize conflict, and acceptance of democracy by key social groups. The economic preconditions and effects of stable democracy will provide a useful counterpoint to studies of countries facing the upheavals of political change. In addition to democratization, students should reflect on the conditions that lead to breakdowns of authoritarianism. Cleavages within a regime, breakdowns in state capacity, international pressure, and a substantial degree of mobilization by opponents are all frequently associated with regime change.

All six countries studied in the AP course have undergone significant economic policy shifts over the past 25 years. Students should investigate the consequences of economic reform packages. Not only should students understand the basic economic policies, but they also need to understand the interaction between domestic economic reforms and their political effects. For instance, countries such as China and Mexico have revised fundamental national “bargains,” changing the relationship between capital and labor that dates back half a century or more. Students should be encouraged to trace outcomes such as income gaps, rising standards of living, or differential access to social services and education to economic policies and their impact. Within the context of economic change, the course should address issues such as corruption and economic inequality.

Students should be introduced to a variety of approaches to development, such as dependency, import substitution industrialization, export-led growth, and globalization, given that political and economic interdependence among countries has become increasingly important. How do global and domestic forces interact in such a context? Certain previously domestic economic policy responsibilities have been pooled by participating states in supranational organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the EU. Additionally, some attention should be given to the dynamics of globalization. Students should evaluate how these dynamics bear on themes such as sovereignty and the ideal of the nation-state. Some responses to globalization reaffirm the sovereignty of the modern state, while others transcend it by taking religious, cultural, or ethnic identities as a reference point. Furthermore, the cultural aspects of globalization must be examined. Fragmentation and the interplay between a worldwide consumer culture and class, gender, ethnic, and religious identities are important aspects to consider.

VI. Public Policy

Public policy will require analysis within each country as well as comparatively. Policy issues need to be approached both as domestic and as global policy matters, since there are broad and enduring policy areas common to most countries: How to ensure successful economic performance where poverty is widespread? How to provide for social welfare needs for citizens? How to extend and protect individual liberties and freedoms? In every state, the approach to these problems will be different, but in all states, these recurring puzzles demand the attention of the state’s policymakers.

Policymaking is influenced by a broad range of factors. First, consideration must be given to formal and informal institutional influences on policymaking. Interest groups, political parties, and executive, judicial, and legislative branches all participate in the creation of policy. For many of the systems studied, changes in the economic substructure have been the result of policy changes as well as causal factors in policy development. For example, privatization in Mexico has resulted in changing policy needs. Often, conservative economic trends that move away from the traditional social welfare state and its benefits also have an impact on liberal/ left party politics, as has happened in the Labour Party of Great Britain. Interest groups make different demands on government, with different consequences for public policy.

Second, development strategies have changed over time and resulted in numerous shifts and alterations in policy requirements. Thus, as the Chinese economy has transformed to a market socialist system, policymakers have been confronted with unintended consequences in noneconomic areas such as population and education. Likewise, Russian economic structural changes since 1990 have caused a wide range of policy challenges in the areas of civil rights, environmental concerns, and so on.

Third, global pressures are exerted on policymakers in both developed and developing systems. International agreements and organizations such as the WTO, the World Bank, the EU, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) push for policy changes in all six of the systems studied. Many of the countries have witnessed considerable policy debates over such issues as sovereignty and the conflicting interests of world and domestic policy needs. Globalization creates considerable tension in areas such as environmental policy, income distribution, taxation policy, and the like. Very often, global considerations have produced a divergence among different interest groups within the system itself.

Policy concerns are broad and may differ from country to country. Issues may include social welfare policy (including education, pension policy, poverty issues); civil liberties, rights, and freedoms; the environment; control and management of natural resources; economic performance (including employment, inflation, monetary policy in general, income distribution); and population and migration policies. Gender and ethnicity are also critical concerns to policymakers in all systems. Students should be able to discuss and analyze policy differences in a comparative context, exploring how different systems create different solutions to domestic and global problems.

Throughout the course, students should develop the ability to move back and forth between conceptualizing political problems and the practice of politics in the different countries. The emphasis should be on broad trends that allow comparison, rather than on details that are unrelated to larger trends and concepts.