Page 2 Social Studies Study Guide for the HiSET® Test

Civics and Government

Government is a social construction that people use to maintain order in a society. There are many different forms and types of government. Civics refers to the rights and duties that people have according to their government.

A Citizen’s Role

In a democratic society, it is the citizen’s role to actively engage in government. Citizens have both rights and responsibilities. To freely enjoy rights (freedom of speech, religion, etc.), citizens should actively perform their duties (which include things like paying taxes and voting). Democracies view government as a contract in which the people choose laws and regulations based on majority rule. Democracy fails if individual citizens fail to carry out their responsibilities.

Rights and Responsibilities

A right is a freedom that is protected, like the freedom of speech or right to petition. A responsibility is something you should do, like voting and writing to your representatives to make your voice heard. As Americans, we have both the right to vote and the responsibility to do so.

Informed Participation

Informed participation is an important part of a citizen’s civic responsibility. Not only should citizens vote and engage in the democratic process, they should be informed about their decisions as well. This simply means getting news from multiple sources and doing independent research on issues and candidates in order to make the best decisions when it comes to voting.

U.S. Government

In the United States, government is divided into three levels and branches. The levels include federal, state, and local government. At each level, power is divided between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. These branches provide checks and balances to make sure no one branch becomes too powerful. Power is entrusted to the government by the people and authority is the right to use that power to achieve the goals of the government.


The federal government is made up of the president (the head of the executive branch), the Supreme Court (the highest level of the judicial branch), and Congress (the highest law-making body in the country). As head of the executive branch, the president decides how laws are to be enforced and hires the right people to manage law enforcement. The Supreme Court interprets the law and has the final say on the constitutionality of laws. Congress, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, passes laws that the entire country must follow.


At the state level, the governor is the head of the executive branch and has similar duties as the president, simply at the state level instead. Each state also has their own state supreme court that hears cases related to legal issues arising from disputes over state laws. Finally, the state congress, much like the federal government, makes laws for the citizens of that particular state. Since each state has its own legislature, or lawmaking body, laws differ across state lines.


Local government tends to be the most diverse in the United States. Local governing bodies usually cover counties, cities, or townships. The local executive officer is most often called a mayor, supervisor, or manager. Every locality (usually a county) has a courthouse that oversees local law and settles common disputes. Finally, the local law-making body is usually called an assembly or board of supervisors that consists of a number of elected representatives from various districts within the county. This body passes laws and budgets that help local communities function on a daily basis.

Systems of Government

Even though you are probably familiar with the form of government we enjoy in the United States, democracy, you may not be aware of the various other forms of government practiced worldwide. Different countries have different forms or styles of government to best meet the needs of people in different cultures and places. Sometimes, government becomes corrupt and takes too much power, changing the entire system of government.

Unitary States

Unitary States centralize most power in the hands of the central government. Unitary states may not even have lower levels of government aside from the federal government. Unitary governments usually work best in small countries or countries with little to no diversity among the people. France and Japan are good examples of countries with unitary forms of government.

Federal States

Federal States divide power among different levels of government. The federal government makes laws for the entire country while lower levels of government focus on the laws and functions of smaller geographic areas. The United States and Germany are good examples of countries with federal forms of government.


In a democracy, the power is ultimately held by the people. People directly elect leaders to make and enforce laws. The United States is a democracy.


Communism is characterized by an equal distribution of wealth and resources among the people, or a classless society. The leadership of the country is often a single political party that controls all state and economic affairs. The Soviet Union was a good example of a communist country.


This form of government is characterized by a single ruling family that often has complete power in the country. The king or queen usually rules for life and power is passed down through the ruling family. No countries today still have a monarch that holds all governmental power.


In a dictatorship, a single ruler or small group of people hold all power in the country without the consent of the people. North Korea is an example of a dictatorship.


In socialism, the government attempts to spread resources and wealth equally among the population through a strong and influential central government. In many ways, the government controls the economy. Canada’s government and economy have many socialist aspects.