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In January 2010, a Republican, Scott Brown, won the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts that had been held for almost a half century by the late Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy, who died in August 2009 from brain cancer. Like many Democrats throughout the country, business student Danielle Safran, who campaigned for Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential election, was distraught. She began to think she should get even more involved in politics and even run for office herself, and she also thought that maybe other Democrats were feeling the same way. This led to a brainstorm: start a Web site that would list open electoral positions around the country at various levels of government for potential candidates to consult. She got together with another business student, Robert Clifford, a Republican, and the two started a Web site to accomplish this purpose: WhatCanIRunFor.com. (Special to Capital Business, 2010)Special to Capital Business. (2010, May 10). Business Rx: Seeking to become an online political matchmaker. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/06/AR2010050603376.html
It was Election Day in the United States, and all over the nation people were voting for the candidates of their choice. At a high school in New York City, people carrying umbrellas lined up to vote on a cold, rainy day. Some walked quickly toward the school, while others strolled more leisurely. Not too far away, a woman in a wheelchair was wheeling herself down the street. She said she had come several blocks so that she could vote.
A few people were handing out campaign literature in front of the school. Some voters took their pamphlets, while others said they had already made up their minds. One voter said, “No thanks, don’t confuse me with facts.” Another took a pamphlet and said to the college student who gave it to her, “You’re a fine citizen. I’m proud of you.” She was about 50 years old and said she had voted in every election since she was old enough to vote.
Nearby, someone else was handing out campaign literature. He was a retired garment worker who had fled Nazi Germany. He looked frail and spoke little English, but he stood in the cold rain on Election Day, watching and helping democracy unfold (Barkan, 1974).Barkan, S. (1974, November 13). It takes all kinds, even on election day! Statesman [Student newspaper of the State University of New York at Stony Brook], p. 8.
The scene just described plays out across the United States and other democracies every election day, but voting remains only a dream in much of the world. And although the United States is one of the world’s leading democracies, its economy leaves many people behind, as we have seen before in this book and will continue to see in this and later chapters. When the 20th century ended little more than a decade ago, Americans everywhere paused to reflect on its most significant events, including two World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and the unleashing of the nuclear age. We thought about these and other events not only because they were historically important but also because they told us something about our society and the changes the last century brought. In all of these events, our political and economic institutions played a fundamental role.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the polity and the economy, as two of modern society’s most important institutions, intertwine day after day. When the economic recession began in the United States in 2008, it was the government that tried to deal with it by providing billions in federal stimulus money and “bailing out” huge banks and other financial institutions that had failed, among other measures. When unemployment soared in the aftermath of the recession, the government again was the institution to which Americans looked for relief. At the same time, as the recession and high unemployment continued well into 2010, political commentators predicted that the sour economy would hurt the chances of Democrats across the country to be elected or reelected. As these events suggest, the political and economic institutions cannot be fully understood without appreciating how they affect each other and work hand in hand, for better or worse, to help run the nation.
This chapter discusses what sociologists and other social scientists say about these two vital institutions. We will examine the major explanations about how they work and consider their operation within the United States and in other societies as well.