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The 60 Most Important AP Gov Vocab Terms, Defined

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Apr 3, 2020 8:00:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



One of the most challenging aspects of the AP U.S. Government and Politics exam is the wide array of vocabulary terms that you need to understand in order to do well on the exam. Many of these terms and concepts dig deep into the U.S. Constitution, laws and policy, and the history of U.S. politics...and there are a lot of terms to know.

This guide will help you get acquainted with 60 important AP Gov vocab terms you need to know. by dividing the terms up into key content areas that are assessed on the exam and providing straightforward definitions for each term. In addition, we'll provide three crucial strategies for studying AP gov vocab terms in order to prepare effectively for the AP U.S. Gov exam.


Knowing how the AP Government test works can help you decide how you should use our vocabulary lists as part of your study plan.


The AP Government Exam

"AP Gov" is the abbreviation typically used to refer to the AP United States Government and Politics exam, which assesses exam takers' knowledge of the political system and culture of the United States. The AP exam focuses particularly on aspects of the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court decisions, and other defining documents.

The AP Gov exam consists of two sections, one multiple choice section and one free response section. The multiple choice section consists of 55 questions, a portion of which are individual questions, and a portion of which are set-based questions. The multiple choice section lasts for 1 hour and 20 minutes and is worth 50% of the overall exam score.

The free response section (FRQ) of the AP Gov exam consists of four writing-based questions. These FRQs include a concept application, a quantitative analysis, a SCOTUS comparison, and an argument essay. This section of the exam lasts for 1 hour and 40 minutes and is 50% of the overall exam score.

On both sections of the exam, you'll encounter a lot of specialized terms and concepts pertaining to the government and political system of the U.S. Having a solid understanding of this AP Gov vocab is extremely important if you want to score well on the AP exam. AP Gov terms that you need to know fall into five topic categories: Foundations of American democracy, interactions among branches of government, civil liberties and civil rights, American political ideologies and beliefs, and political participation.

Since you'll need to be able to answer questions about these concepts and show your knowledge of them, we've compiled a list of 60 common AP Gov vocab terms to help you study for the AP exam. We've divided our list of best 60 AP Gov vocab terms up by topic, then sorted the terms alphabetically. Check out the complete list below!




AP Gov Vocab Topic 1: Foundations of American Democracy

Below you'll find the most important vocabulary terms you'll need to know about the foundation of American democracy.

Checks and balances Key parts of the Constitution that require each branch of the federal government to acquire the consent of the other two branches in order to act
Cooperative federalism: Also known as "marble cake federalism." This is a political system wherein federal, state, and local governments share responsibility in governing the people, and they work together cooperatively to solve problems
Electoral college A body of representatives from each of the states in the U.S. who formally cast votes to elect the next president of the U.S.
Enumerated powers Powers held by the federal government that are mentioned by name in the U.S. Constitution
Faction A group that tries to influence the government for the benefit (or interest) of its own members
Federalism A political system that organizes a government into two or more levels that hold independent powers
Federalist Papers Essays written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton in 1788 urging the ratification of the U.S. Constitution following the drafting of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787
Inherent powers Powers held by the President that aren't explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, but which are sometimes necessary in order for the President to fulfill the duties of the office
Limited government A type of system of government in which the powers of the government are limited by or kept in check by laws or a written Constitution
Social contract An agreement between a government and the people, in which the people consent to be governed so long as the government protects the natural rights of the people



While we sometimes refer to traffic as "gridlocked," the government can end up in the same situation when it fails to pass bills.


AP Gov Vocab Topic 2: Interactions Among Branches of Government

These vocabulary terms help explain how the different branches of the U.S. Government interact and work together.

Block grants Grants given to local or state governments from the U.S. federal government. Block grants typically have some strings attached, but the local or state government also has the freedom to allocate the grant funds for a wide range of services to the state or locality
Casework Efforts by state representatives and senators to help individual constituents receive things that those constituents believe they deserve. Casework by members of Congress is a form of stepping around bureaucracy in order to get things done.
Civil Service All government officials who work in government occupations that are neither judicial nor political are in civil service, and they're referred to as "civil servants." In the U.S., civil servants are non-elected and non-military public sector employees of U.S. federal government departments and agencies.
Commerce clause Part of Article 1 of the Constitution that allows Congress to regulate the buying and selling of goods across state lines (also known as interstate commerce).
Concurrent powers Powers given by the U.S. Constitution to both national and state governments. An example of a concurrent power is the power to levy taxes.
Congressional oversight Authority held by Congress to review, monitor, and supervise federal agencies, programs, activities, and policy implementation. This authority is implied in the Constitution, public laws, and House and Senate rules.
Discharge Petition A petition used in the House that begins the process of forcing a bill out of committee (or "discharging" it from committee) and onto the House floor for a vote. A successful discharge petition needs signatures of 218 members, or a majority of the House.
Divided Government An instance in which one political party controls the executive branch, and another political party controls one or both houses of Congress.
Executive order A power enacted by the U.S. president allowing that office to pass a rule or regulation as law.
Gridlock A situation when there is difficulty in passing laws that satisfy the needs of the people, often due to a divided government. A government is considered gridlocked when the ratio between bills passed and the agenda of the legislature decreases. This is sometimes also referred to as a "deadlock" or "stalemate."
Iron Triangle A tripartite relationship among Congress (particularly sub-committees of Congress), government agencies, and interest groups that helps create U.S. policy. Participants in an iron triangle are also involved in policymaking in order to protect their own self-interests.
Judicial review A right held by the federal courts to make rulings on the constitutionality of laws and executive actions. Judicial review is one of the judicial branch's key checks and balances on the other two branches of government.
Logrolling A practice used by members of Congress in which two or more members of Congress agree to vote on each other's bills. Members of Congress typically use logrolling in order to pass bills that are personally important to them.
Reserved powers Powers given exclusively to the states or the people by the 10th amendment of the Constitution. These powers are not shared with the federal government. The purpose of reserved powers is to protect the rights of the states and the people.
Stare decisis A legal doctrine that requires judges to follow the precedents established in prior court decisions and historical court cases. Stare decisis intends to ensure fairness and consistency in court decisions by requiring judges to approach cases with similar scenarios and facts in the same way.


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One way to learn the definition of "civil rights" is to learn about foundational civil rights leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr.


AP Gov Vocab Topic 3: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

In this section, you'll find important vocabulary terms that will help you understand American civil liberties and civil rights.

14th Amendment This amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects various aspects of citizenship and citizens' rights and has been invoked in several well-known cases. The most familiar phrase in the 14th amendment is "equal protection of the laws"; this phrase played a key role in cases like Brown v. Board of Education (racial discrimination), Roe v. Wade (reproductive rights), and Reed v. Reed (gender discrimination).
Affirmative action The practice or policy of allocating resources or employment to individuals belonging to groups that have a history of being discriminated against.
Amendments Additions to the Constitution that further protect the rights and liberties of the people from government interference. The first ten amendments added to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. There are 27 constitutional amendments total.
Bill of attainder A legislative act (historically used by Parliament) that declares a person or group of people guilty of a crime and rendering punishment, often without a fair trial. A bill of attainder effectively nullifies the targeted person's civil rights. The use of such bills has been largely rejected due to the potential for abuse and violation of due process and separation of powers.
Civil liberties The freedom of citizens to exercise customary rights without abridgement by legislation or judicial interpretation. Five basic civil liberties are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These basic civil liberties are freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government.
Civil rights Ensure the individual citizen's rights and entitlement to participate in the civil and political life of society and state without discrimination or repression. Civil rights include protection from discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, color, race, ethnicity, age, political affiliation, religion, and disability.
Due process A citizen's entitlement to fair treatment through the judicial system. Due process requires the state to respect the legal rights owed to an individual or group.
Free exercise clause A section of the First Amendment that reserves the right of citizens to accept any religious belief and freely engage in religious rituals. This clause protects violation of certain laws, as long as these violations are made for religious reasons.
Selective Incorporation A constitutional doctrine, sometimes also called the incorporation doctrine, that makes the Bill of Rights binding on state governments, effectively holding them to the same standards as the federal government. Selective incorporation also allows the Supreme Court to incorporate certain parts of certain amendments, rather than incorporating entire amendments at once.
Writ of habeas corpus Latin for "that you have the body." The federal courts in the U.S. system may use the writ of habeas corpus to determine whether a state's detention of a prisoner is legally valid. Such a writ can be used to bring a prisoner or other detainee before the court to determine if that person's imprisonment or detainment is lawful.



Democrats and Republicans are the two biggest political parties in the United States...which is one reason why "political party" is one of the most important AP Gov vocab terms you should know!


AP Gov Vocab Topic 4: American Political Ideologies and Beliefs

Build your understanding about American political ideologies and beliefs by learning these vocab terms!

Dealignment A trend whereby a significant portion of the electorate abandons its previous party affiliation without developing a new partisan affiliation to replace it. Trends of dealignment have increased since the 1970s.
Liberal Refers to a person who adopts the political ideology of liberalism, which favors more government regulation of business and support for social welfare, but less regulation of private social conduct. The definition of "liberal" has changed over time, but contemporary liberals are said to fall on the "left-wing" of the spectrum of political beliefs.
Pluralism A political philosophy and essential element of democracy that promotes and encourages a diversity of political stance and participation. Pluralism also assumes that those with different political affiliations and beliefs will both coexist and negotiate solutions for the benefit of society.
Political efficacy Refers to the citizens' faith and trust in their government. Political efficacy also refers to the citizens' feeling that they can have an influence on the political system. In modern U.S. society, political efficacy has an effect on voter turnout.
Political culture A set of shared views and accepted judgments held by a population regarding its political system as a whole. A political culture is comprised of the population's underlying feelings, values, beliefs, and knowledge in relation to the political process.
Political parties An organized group of people who share the same ideology and seek out political positions in order to implement an agenda, typically based on the party's shared ideology. The two main political parties in the U.S. are the republican party and the democratic party.
Political socialization The process by which individuals learn and acquire a political lens. Political socialization frames an individual's perceptions of the world around them, how power is distributed in the world, and how this relationship affects who they are and how they should behave as members of their society.
Public policy A system of laws, regulations, and funding priorities concerning a topic that is of interest to a governmental entity or its representatives. Public policy is made on behalf of the public in order to solve a problem or achieve a goal that is in the best interest of society.




Mass media — like social media, newspapers, television news, and online news platforms — have a huge impact on Americans' political participation.


AP US Gov Vocab Topic 5: Political Participation

And finally, here are the most important political participation vocabulary terms you should know before taking the AP US Gov test.

Bully pulpit A term first used by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, used to refer to his office as president as an ideal position from which to advocate his political agenda. In general, the term refers to a position that provides an opportunity to speak out and be heard by many. While the word "bully" might hold negative connotations, President Roosevelt applied the term as a synonym for "terrific" or "superb."
Caucus A gathering of local party members to choose candidates for public office or delegates to the national party convention and to decide the party platform. Caucuses are often held in schools, churches, auditoriums, or other locations that can host large numbers of a party's base.
Gerrymandering The act of setting boundaries for electoral districts so as to favor political interests within legislative bodies or hurt the political interests of an opposing group. Gerrymandering often creates districts that have convoluted boundaries, rather than consolidating districts into compact areas.
Hard money A specific type of monetary contribution that is made to an individual candidate who is running for political office. Corporations and labor unions are legally banned from making hard money donations to individual candidates, and there are specific limitations on how much hard money an individual candidate may accept.
Hatch Act Officially known as "An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities," the Hatch Act of 1939 is a U.S. federal law put in place to prohibit members of the executive branch from engaging in certain forms of political activity. These restricted activities include bribing voters, coercing campaign contributions, and active political campaigning. The president, vice president, and certain high-level officials of the executive branch are exempt from these restrictions.
Issue network An alliance of various individuals and/or interest groups who unite for the purpose of influencing government or public policy in favor of a common cause or agenda. In the U.S. today, interest groups often push for policy changes within the government bureaucracy, can be domestic or international, and use the Internet and social media to promote and spread their causes.
Litmus test A question that is posed to a candidate for high office by a nominating official or a representative who must vote on a nominee for high office. The nominee's answer to the litmus test question determines whether the nomination official will proceed with the nomination. The litmus test answer may also determine whether a Supreme Court justice will vote for a nominee; the term is most often applied in the context of nominations to the judiciary.
Lobbying The act of attempting to influence the actions, policies, or decisions of government officials. Legislators and members of regulatory agencies are most often subject to lobbying, and lobbyists may be anyone from a legislator's constituents, to nonprofits, to corporations. Lobbying can result in conflicts of interest when a representative shapes the law in favor of a private group for personal or political gain.
Mandates A federal mandate is an order from the federal government that all state and local governments must follow. State and local governments must comply with federal mandates in order to receive federal aid.
Mass media Refers to television, radio, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, and other means of public communication. The mass media is heavily involved in distributing information about politics, and influences public perceptions of political leaders, social problems, and what Americans perceive as being "news."
McCain-Feingold Act Also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act is a federal law that amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 in order to provide bipartisan campaign reform. The act was specifically designed to ban soft money contributions to political parties and to limit advertising for political candidates by corporations.
Pork barrel The allocation of government funds for projects created to win votes or please voters and legislators. This metaphor usually applies to the appropriation of government spending on localized projects or within a representative's district.
Public opinion Refers to the opinions, wants, and desires of the majority of the people in regard to a political or social issue or problem. Public opinion can influence public policy, foreign policy, and decisions made by the president.
Revolving door A process whereby personnel move between roles as legislators or regulators and roles as members of industries affected by legislation and regulation. The notion of a "revolving door" between the private sector and government holds a negative connotation in American politics, as it can result in the granting of privileges that are not in the best interest of the nation.
Soft money Campaign contributions made to political parties and committees. Soft money campaign financing is a relatively new form of financing campaigns that is not yet heavily regulated. It often involves spending by Super PACs and can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Super PACs A specific type of independent political action committee, officially known as an "independent expenditure-only political action committee." Super PACs are legally able to raise and spend large amounts of money in support of a candidate running for political office, but cannot contribute money directly to the candidate they support.
Watchdog Associated with journalism, a watchdog is a journalist or publication that informs the public about events and happenings in government institutions and politics, particularly goings-on that may provoke a change in public opinion. Common practices of watchdog journalism include fact-checking, interviewing public figures and challenging them with concerns, and investigating journalism.




3 Tips for Studying AP Gov Terms to Optimize Your Exam Score

If you're feeling a little intimidated by this long list of AP Gov vocab words, don't worry—we've got you covered!

Read on for our three tips for studying AP Gov terms that will help you prep for success on the AP exam.


Tip 1: Create Flashcards

Whether they're hard copies or digital, flashcards are a go-to study method for AP Gov vocab for a reason: they facilitate active recall and are conducive to quick, repetitive practice. When you have 60+ vocabulary words to learn, the repetitive process of studying flashcards can help you with memorization.

Memorizing as many definitions as possible will help you maximize your time on the exam and make accurate use of the various AP Gov terms in your free response answers. If you want to create your own flashcards, the most effective method for boosting active recall is to write a question on one side of the card and an answer on the other side. Then experiment with different ways of employing flashcards to help you memorize the AP Gov vocab words.


Tip 2: Put It in a Sentence

Many of us have been doing this since elementary school, but it's worth mentioning as an AP Gov vocab study tactic: take each vocabulary term and use it in a sentence. Studying formal definitions of each vocab term is important, but another component of that is placing the terms in context so you know how to use them correctly on the exam.

Practicing using each AP Gov term in a sentence is especially important when it comes to the free response section of the exam. In each of the four written portions of that section, it's very likely you'll have to use terms from our vocab list in your responses. Most of the time, you won't be writing out formal definitions of those terms. Instead, you'll be using the terms in their correct context in order to perform an analysis or make an argument.

When you practice using AP Gov vocab in a sentence, you're preparing yourself to write effective essays on the AP exam.


Tip 3: Look for Real-World Examples

The definitions of many of the AP Gov vocab terms in our lists above might feel a bit abstract. There's quite a bit of legal jargon, and the wording of the Constitution itself can be a little confusing. One thing that can help abstract concepts become more concrete is to seek out real-life examples of those concepts in action.

One neat thing about much of the AP Gov vocab is that it refers to concepts that are important to U.S. government and politics because those concepts have a real impact on U.S. society and its citizens. It isn't too difficult to find examples of these concepts in action, like in the example we gave in the definition of the 14th Amendment, which was invoked in famous cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

Jotting down a phrase or two that conveys a real-world example of each AP Gov term will give you something concrete to recall when you're sitting for the exam and you can't remember what a specific term means.




What's Next?

One of the best ways to prepare for the AP US Government exam is by using a review sheet. We've put together the best AP US Government review to help you out! And if you're looking for excellent exam study notes, we've got you covered there, too.

There's more to the AP US Gov exam than just knowing vocabulary terms. You'll also have to tackle a series of Free Response Questions, or FRQs. Learn more about AP Us Gov FRQs--and how to answer them!--in this article.

One good way to study for any AP exam is through practice tests. But they're not always easy to find! Here's our step-by-step guide to finding AP practice tests you can use to prepare for your AP US Gov exam.

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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