AMERICAN POLITICAL SYSTEM
The United States is the most powerful nation on earth, politically, economically and militarily, but its political system is in many important respects unlike any other in the world. This essay then was written originally to inform non-Americans as to how the American political system works.
What has been striking, however, is how many Americans - especially young Americans - have found the essay useful and insightful. There is considerable evidence that many Americans know and understand little about the political system of their own country - possibly more than is the case with any other developed democratic nation.
In the U.S., the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests what American students are learning. It has found that the two worst subjects for American students are civics and American history. One NAEP survey found that only 7% of eighth graders (children aged 13-14) could describe the three branches of government.
On a recent trip to the United States, I was eating cereal for breakfast and found that the whole of the reverse side of the cereal packet was devoted to a short explanation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the American government. I find it hard to imagine that many democratic nations would feel it necessary to explain such a subject in such a format.
So I hope that this explanation helps ...
Unlike Britain but like most nation states, the American political system is clearly defined by basic documents. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789 form the foundations of the United States federal government. The Declaration of Independence establishes the United States as an independent political entity, while the Constitution creates the basic structure of the federal government. Both documents are on display in the National Archives and Records Administration Building in Washington, D.C. which I have visited several times.
The United States Constitution is the shortest written constitution in the world with just seven articles and 27 amendments. As well as its brevity, the US Constitution is notable for being a remarkably stable document. The first ten amendments were all carried in 1789 - the same year as the original constitution - and are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. If one accepts that these first 10 amendments were in effect part of the original constitutional settlement, there have only been 17 amendments in over 200 years (the last substantive one - reduction of the voting age to 18 - in 1971).
One of the major reasons for this relative immutability is that - quite deliberately on the part of its drafters - the Constitution is a very difficult instrument to change. First, a proposed amendment has to secure a two-thirds vote of members present in both houses of Congress. Then three-quarters of the state legislatures have to ratifiy the proposed change (this stage may or may not be governed by a specific time limit).
At the heart of the US Constitution is the principle known as 'separation of powers', a term coined by the French political, enlightenment thinker Montesquieu. This means that power is spread between three institutions of the state - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary - and no one institution has too much power and no individual can be a member of more than one institution.
This principle is also known as 'checks and balances', since each of the three branches of the state has some authority to act on its own, some authority to regulate the other two branches, and has some of its own authority, in turn, regulated by the other branches.
Not only is power spread between the different branches; the members of those branches are deliberately granted by the Constitution different terms of office which is a further brake on rapid political change. So the President has a term of four years, while members of the Senate serve for six years and members of the House of Representatives serve for two years. Members of the Supreme Court effectively serve for life.
The great benefit of this system is that power is spread and counter-balanced and the 'founding fathers' - the 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution - clearly wished to create a political system which was in sharp contrast to, and much more democratic than, the monarchical system then in force in Britain. The great weakness of the system is that it makes government slow, complicated and legalistic which is a particular disadvantage in a world - unlike that of 1776 - in which political and economic developments are fast-moving and the USA is a - indeed the - super power.
Since the Constitution is so old and so difficult to change, for it to be meaningful to contemporary society it requires interpretation by the courts and ultimately it is the Supreme Court which determines what the Constitution means. There are very different approaches to the interpretation of the Constitution with the two main strands of thought being known as originalism and the Living Constitution.Originalism is a principle of interpretation that tries to discover the original meaning or intent of the constitution. It is based on the principle that the judiciary is not supposed to create, amend or repeal laws (which is the realm of the legislative branch) but only to uphold them. This approach tends to be supported by conservatives. Living Constitution is a concept which claims that the Constitution has a dynamic meaning and that contemporary society should be taken into account when interpreting key constitutional phrases. Instead of seeking to divine the views of the drafters of the document, it claims that they deliberately wrote the Constitution in broad terms so that it would remain flexible. This approach tends to be supported by liberals. Links:
Although the 'founding fathers' wanted to avoid a political system that in any way reflected the monarchical system then prevalent in Britain and for a long time the Presidency was relatively weak, the vast expansion of the federal bureaucracy and the military in the 20th century has in current practice given a greater role and more power to the President than is the case for any single individual in most political systems.
The President is both the head of state and the head of government, as well as the military commander-in-chief and chief diplomat. He presides over the executive branch of the federal government, a vast organisation numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. Within the executive branch, the President has broad constitutional powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government and he may issue executive orders to affect internal policies.
The President may sign or veto legislation passed by Congress and has the power to recommend measures to Congress. The Congress may override a presidential veto but only by a two-thirds majority in each house.
The President has the power to make treaties (with the 'advice and consent' of the Senate) and the power to nominate and receive ambassadors. The President may not dissolve Congress or call special elections, but does have the power to pardon criminals convicted of offences against the federal government, enact executive orders, and (with the consent of the Senate) appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges.
The President is elected for a fixed term of four years and may serve a maximum of two terms. Originally there was no constitutional limit on the number of terms that a President could serve in office and the first President George Washington set the precedent of serving simply two terms. Following the election of Franklin D Roosevelt to a record four terms, it was decided to limit terms to two and the relevant constitutional amendment was enacted in 1951.
Elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to coincide with Congressional elections.
The President is not elected directly by the voters but by an Electoral College representing each state on the basis of a combination of the number of members in the Senate (two for each state regardless of size) and the number of members in the House of Representatives (roughly proportional to population). The states with the largest number of votes are California (55), Texas (38) and New York (29). The states with the smallest number of votes - there are six of them - have only three votes. The District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress, has three Electoral College votes. In effect, therefore, the Presidential election is not one election but 51.
The total Electoral College vote is 538. This means that, to become President, a candidate has to win at least 270 electoral votes. The voting system awards the Electoral College votes from each state to delegates committed to vote for a certain candidate in a "winner take all" system, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska (which award their Electoral College votes according to Congressional Districts rather than for the state as a whole). In practice, most states are firmly Democrat - for instance, California and New York - or firmly Republican - for instance, Texas and Tennessee. Therefore, candidates concentrate their appearances and resources on the so-called "battleground states", those that might go to either party. The three largest battleground or swing states are Florida (29 votes), Pennsylvania (20) and Ohio (18). Others are Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6) and Nevada (6).
This system of election means that a candidate can win the largest number of votes nationwide but fail to win the largest number of votes in the Electoral College and therefore fail to become President. Indeed, in practice, this has happened three times in US history, most recently in 2000. If this seems strange (at least to non-Americans), the explanation is that the 'founding fathers' who drafted the American Constitution did not wish to give too much power to the people and so devised a system that gives the ultimate power of electing the President to members of the Electoral College. The same Constitution, however, enables each state to determine how its members in the Electoral College are chosen and since the 1820s states have chosen their electors by a direct vote of the people. The United States is the only example in the world of an indirectly elected executive president.
The President may be impeached by a majority in the House and removed from office by a two-thirds majority in the Senate for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors".
Since 1939, there has been an Executive Office of the President (EOP) which has consistently and considerably expanded in size and power. Today it consists of some 1,600 staff and costs some $300M a year.
The position of Vice-President is elected on the same ticket as that of the President and has the same four-year term of office. The Vice-President is often described as 'a heart beat away from the Presidency' since, in the event of the death or incapacity of the President, the Vice-President assumes the office. In practice, however, a Vice-Presidential candidate is chosen (by the Presidential candidate) to 'balance the ticket' in the Presidential election (that is, represent a different geographical or gender or ethnic constituency) and, for all practical purposes, the position only carries the power accorded to it by the President - which is usually very little (a major exception has been Dick Cheney under George W Bush). The official duties of the Vice-President are to sit as a member of the "Cabinet" and as a member of the National Security Council and to act as ex-officio President of the Senate.
Although the President heads the executive branch of government, the day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various federal executive departments, created by Congress to deal with specific areas of national and international affairs. The heads of the 15 departments, chosen by the President and approved with the 'advice and consent' of the Senate, form a council of advisors generally known as the President's "Cabinet". This is not a cabinet in the British political sense: it does not meet so often and does not act so collectively.
In fact, the President has powers of patronage that extend way beyond appointment of Cabinet members. In all, the President appoints roughly 3,000 individuals to positions in the federal government, of which about a third require the confirmation of the Senate. As the divisions in American politics have deepened, so the confirmation process has become more fractious and prolonged - when first elected, Barack Obama had to wait ten months before all his nominees were in their jobs.
The first United States President was George Washington, who served from 1789-1797, so that the current President Barack Obama is the 44th to hold the office. Four sitting Presidents have been assassinated: Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963.
The President is sometimes referred to as POTUS (President Of The United States) and the Presidency is often referred to by the media as variously the White House, the West Wing, and the Oval Office.
Such is the respect for the Presidency that, even having left office, a President is referred to by the title for the remainder of his life.
White House click here
Current members of the cabinet click here
An important feature of the American political system is that the two major parties - the Democrats and the Republicans - hold a system of primaries to determine who will be their candidate in the general election. These primaries are particularly important when it comes to the four-yearly Presidential election.
The key point to understand is that formally the Democratic and Republican Parties choose their Presidential candidate through a vote of delegates at a national convention and not directly through the various ballots in the various primaries.
Each party allocates delegates to each state, roughly proportionate to its size in numbers of citizens. There are two types of delegates. The normal delegates are those who are chosen by voters to back a specific candidate. Technically these delegates are pledged to that candidate but there are circumstances in which they can switch their support. Then there are what the Democrats call super delegates and the Republicans call unpledged delegates who are notable figures in the party such as former presidents, state governors and members of the two houses of Congress who are free to back whichever candidate they wish. They can do this any time they like. They can also change their mind before the convention.
For the 2008 convention, the Democrats had a total of 4,049 delegates including super delegates and so, to win the nomination, the Democratic front runner needed a total of 2,025 delegates. For the 2012 convention, the Republicans had a total of 2,226 delegates including unpledged delegates and so, to win the nomination, the Republican front runner needed a total of 1,114 delegates.
How the normal delegates are chosen is a matter for each party in each of the 50 states.
Some hold caucuses which require voters to turn up to discussions on the merits of the contending candidates. Most hold conventional-style elections. In the case of the Democrats in Texas, there is both a caucus and an election. Another variation is that, in some cases, one can only take part in a caucus or election if one is registered for that political party but, in other cases, anyone in the state - including those registered for another party or none - can vote.
How normal delegates are then allocated to the different candidates is also a matter for each party in each of the 50 states. In most of the Republican contests (but not all), the candidate who wins the most votes in that state's primary wins all the party's delegates for that state - a system known as 'winner takes all'. In all the Democrat contests, delegates are allocated roughly proportional to the vote secured by the candidate subject to a minimum performance. The allocation process varies, but typically it is based on the performance of the candidate in particular Congressional districts.
In practice, the parties have clearly decided on a candidate well before the holding of the convention which becomes more a coronation than a selection.
However, it is not unknown for a party to reach the convention with no clear choice. A deadlocked convention happens when no candidate arrives with a majority of votes. A second ballot takes place and delegates are then free to vote for whomever they want. This could include the other candidates or even people who are not candidates. Delegates keep on voting until someone wins a majority. The most famous deadlocked convention - it involved the Democrats - took place in 1924. It required 103 ballots to chose the Democratic candidate - who then lost to the Republican candidate in the general election.
THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
The House of Representatives is the lower chamber in the bicameral legislature known collectively as Congress. The founders of the United States intended the House to be the politically dominant entity in the federal system and, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the House served as the primary forum for political debate. However, subsequently the Senate has been the dominant body.
The House consists of 435 members, each of whom represents a congressional district and serves for a two-year term. House seats are apportioned among the states by population according to each decennial census. Typically a House constituency would represent around 500,000 people.
Members of the House are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana and Washington, which have run-offs. Elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years. Voting in congressional elections - especially to the House - is generally much lower than levels in other liberal democracies. In a year when there is a Presidential election, turnout is typically around 50%; in years when there is no Presidential election (known as mid-terms), it usually falls to around one third of the electorate.
In the event that a member of the House of Representatives dies or resigns before the end of the two-year term, a special election is held to fill the vacancy.
The House has four non-voting delegates from American Samoa (1981), the District of Columbia (1971), Guam (1972) and the Virgin Islands (1976) and one resident commissioner for Puerto Rico (1976), bringing the total formal membership to 440.
Much of the work of the House is done through 20 standing committees and around 100 sub-committees which perform both legislative and investigatory functions.
Each chamber of Congress has particular exclusive powers. The House must introduce any bills for the purpose of raising revenue. However, the consent of both chambers is required to make any law.
Activity in the House of Representatives tends to be more partisan than in the Senate.
The House and Senate are often referred to by the media as Capitol Hill or simply the Hill.
Link: House of Representatives click here
The Senate is the upper chamber in the bicameral legislature known collectively as Congress. The original intention of the authors of the US Constitution was that the Senate should be a regulatory group, less politically dominant than the House. However, since the mid 19th century, the Senate has been the dominant chamber and indeed today it is perhaps the most powerful upper house of any legislative body in the world.
The Senate consists of 100 members, each of whom represents a state and serves for a six-year term (one third of the Senate stands for election every two years).
Each state has two Senators, regardless of population, and, since there are 50 states, then there are 100 senators. This equality of Senate seats between states has the effect of producing huge variations in constituency population (the two senators from Wyoming represent less than half a million electors, while the two senators from California represent 34M people) with gross over-representation of the smaller states and serious under-representation of racial and ethnic minorities.
Members of the Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana and Washington, which have run-offs. Elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years.
In the event that a member of the Senate dies or resigns before the end of the six-year term, no special election is held to fill the vacancy. Instead the Governor of the state that the Senator represented nominates someone to serve until the next set of Congressional elections when a normal election is held to fill the vacancy.
Much of the work of the Senate is done through 16 standing committees and over 40 sub-committees which perform both legislative and investigatory functions.
Each chamber of Congress has particular exclusive powers. The Senate must give 'advice and consent' to many important Presidential appointments. However, the consent of both chambers is required to make any law.
Activity in the Senate tends to be less partisan and more individualistic than in the House of Representatives. Senate rules permit what is called a filibuster when a senator, or a series of senators, can speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a supermajority of three-fifths of the Senate (60 Senators, if all 100 seats are filled) brings debate to a close by invoking what is called cloture (taken from the French term for closure).
The Senate and House are often referred to by the media as Capitol Hill or simply the Hill.
Link: Senate click here
THE SUPREME COURT
The Supreme Court consists of nine Justices: the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices. They have equal weight when voting on a case and the Chief Justice has no casting vote or power to instruct colleagues.
The Justices are nominated by the President and confirmed with the 'advice and consent' of the Senate. As federal judges, the Justices serve during "good behavior", meaning essentially that they serve for life and can be removed only by resignation or by impeachment and subsequent conviction.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The court deals with matters pertaining to the federal government, disputes between states, and interpretation of the Constitution. It can declare legislation or executive action made at any level of the government as unconstitutional, nullifying the law and creating precedent for future law and decisions.
The Supreme Court in practice has a much more 'political' role than the highest courts of European democracies. For example, the scope of abortion in the USA is effectively set by the Supreme Court whereas, in other countries, it would be set by legislation. Indeed in 2000, it made the most political decision imaginable by determining - by seven votes to two - the outcome of that year's presidential election. It decided that George W Bush had beaten Al Gore, although Gore won the most votes overall.
A recent and momentous instance of this exercise of political power was the Supreme Court decision in the case of the challenge to Barack Obama's signature piece of legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often dubbed Obamacare. No less than 26 states challenged the legality of these health reforms under a clause in the constitution governing interstate commerce. In the end, the Court ruled by five to four that, while the individual mandate provision in the Act is not itself a tax, the penalties imposed for not buying health insurance do represent taxes and therefore the entire requirement falls within the remit of Congress's right to impose taxes.
Given how difficult it is to change the US Constitution through the formal method, one has seen informal changes to the Constitution through various decisions of the Supreme Court which have given specific meanings to some of the general phases in the Constitution. It is one of the many ironies of the American political system that an unelected and unaccountable body like the Supreme Court can in practice exercise so much political power in a system which proclaims itself as so democractic.
Since the Supreme Court makes so many 'political' decisions and its members are appointed so rarely and then for life, the appointment of Justices by the President is often a very charged and controversial matter.
Below the Supreme Court, there is a system of Courts of Appeal, and, below these courts, there are District Courts. Together, these three levels of courts represent the federal judicial system.
A special feature of the American political system in respect of the judiciary is that, although federal judges are appointed, nationwide 87% of all state court judges are elected and 39 states elect at least some of their judges. Outside of the United States, there are only two nations that have judicial elections and then only in limited fashion. Smaller Swiss cantons elect judges and appointed justices on the Japanese Supreme Court must sometimes face retention elections (although those elections are a formality).
Link: Supreme Court click here
POLITICAL PARTIES & ELECTIONS
To an extent quite extraordinary in democratic countries, the American political system is dominated by two political parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party (often known as the 'Grand Old Party' or GOP). These are very old and very stable parties - the Democrats go back to 1824 and the Republicans were founded in 1854.
In illustrations and promotional material, the Democratic Party is often represented as a donkey, while the Republican Party is featured as an elephant. The origin of these symbols is the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who came up with them in 1870 and 1874 respectively.
The main reason for the dominance of these two parties is that - like most other Anglo-Saxon countries (notably Britain) - the electoral system is 'first past the post' or simple majority which, combined with the large voter size of the constituencies in the House and (even more) the Senate, ensures that effectively only two parties can play. The other key factor is the huge influence of money in the American electoral system. Since effectively a candidate can spend any amount he can raise (not allowed in many other countries) and since one can buy broadcasting time (again not allowed in many countries), the US can only 'afford' two parties or, to put it another way, candidates of any other party face a formidable financial barrier to entry.
Some people tend to view the division between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the United States as the same as that between Labour and Conservative in Britain or between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Germany. The comparison is valid in the sense that, in each country, one political party is characterised as Centre-Left and the other as Centre-Right or, to put it another way, one party is more economically interventionist and socially radical than the other. However, the analogy has many weaknesses.
Two interesting features of American political elections are low turnout and the importance of incumbency.
Traditionally turnout in US congressional elections is much lower than in other liberal democracies especially those of Western Europe. When there is a presidential election, turnout is only about half; when there is no presidential election, turnout is merely about one third. The exception was the elections of 2008: the excitement of the candidacy of Barack Obama led to an unusually high turnout of 63%, the highest since 1960 (the election of John F Kennedy).
While Congress as an institution is held in popular contempt, voters like their member of Congress and indeed there is a phenomenon known as 'sophomore surge' whereby incumbents tend to increase their share of the vote when they seek re-election. More generally most incumbents win re-election for several reasons: they allocate time and resources to waging a permanent re-election campaign; they can win "earmarks" which are appropriations of government spending for projects in the constituency; and they find it easier than challengers to raise money for election campaigns.
The Democratic Party click here
The Republican Party click here
THE FEDERAL SYSTEM
Understanding the federal nature of the United States is critical to appreciating the complexities of the American political system.Most political systems are created top-down. A national system of government is constructed and a certain amount of power is released to lower levels of government. The unique history of the United States means that, in this case, the political system was created bottom-up.
First, some two centuries or so ago, there were were 13 autonomous states who, following the War of Independence against the British, created a system of government in which the various states somewhat reluctantly ceded power to the federal government. Around a century later, the respective authority of the federal government and the individual states was an issue at the heart of the Civil War when there was a bloody conflict over who had the right to determine whether slavery was or was not permissable. With the exception of Switzerland, no other Western democracy diffuses power to the same degree as America.
So today the powers of the federal government remain strictly limited by the Constitution - the critical Tenth Amendment of 1791 - which leaves a great deal of authority to the individual states.
Each state has an executive, a legislature and a judiciary.
The head of the executive is the Governor who is directly elected.
The legislature consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives (the exception is the state of Nebraska which has a unicameral system).
The judiciary consists of a state system of courts.
The 50 states are divided into counties (parishes in Louisiana and boroughs in Alaska). Each county has its court.
Althought the Constitution prescribes precisely when Presidential and Congressional elections will be held, the dates and times of state and local elections are determined by state governments. Therefore there is a plethora of elections in the United States and, at almost all times, an election is being held somewhere in the country. State and local elections, like federal elections, use the 'first past the post' system of election.The debate about federalism in the US is far from over. There are those who argue for a stronger role for the federal government and there are advocates of locating more power at the state level. The recent rise of the electorally-successful Tea Party movement owes a good deal to the view that the federal government has become too dominant, too intrusive and too profligate.
Meanwhile many states - especially those west of the Rockies - have what has been called "the fourth arm of government": this is the ballot or referendum initiative. This enables a policy question to be put to the electorate as a result of the collection of a certain number of signatures or the decison of the state legislation. Over the last century, some 3,000 such initiatives have been conducted - in some cases (such as California) with profound results.
In all political systems, there is a disconnect between the formal arrangements, as set out in the constitution and relevant laws, and the informal arrangements, as occurs in practice. Arguably, in the United States this disconnect is sharper than in most other democratic systems because:
A DIVIDED DEMOCRACY
Of course, all nation states are divided, especially in terms of power and wealth, but also - to different extents - by gender, race, ethnicity, religion and other factors. Indeed the constitution and institutions of a democratic society are deliberately intended to provide for the expression and resolution of such divisions. However, it is often observed that the USA is an especially divided democracy in at least three respects:
One of the most visible and dramatic illustrations of how the divisons in American politics frustrate decision-making is the regular failure to agree a federal budget before the start of the new financial period. This results in what is known as federal 'shutdown' when most federal employees are sent home because they cannot be paid and many federal institutions therefore close down. This is not an isolated occurrence: it has happened 17 times since 1977 (the last one was in 1995-1996).
Reading this short essay, it will be evident to many (especially non-American) readers that the United States is different from other democracies. This observation has given rise to the notion of "American exceptionalism". This is an ill-defined term which has been used differently at different times.
One important version of "American exceptionalism" revolves around the lack of a clear ideological or class-based division between the two major political parties. The USA has never had a credible socialist or anti-capitalist party; both the main parties are pro-capital and pro-business and speak to the 'middle class'.
Other versions of the concept revolve around the alleged 'superiority' of the United States because of its history, size, wealth and global dominance plus the 'sophistication' of its constitution and power of its values such as individualism, innovation and entrepreneurship.
In perhaps its most extreme form, the concept has a religious dimension with the belief that God has especially chosen or blessed the country.
Of course, it is easy to view the American political system as exceptional in negative terms such as the unusual influence of race, religion and money as compared to other liberal democracies.
In truth, for all its special features, the American political system needs to be seen as one among many models of democracy with its own strenghs and weaknesses that need to be assessed in comparison to those of other democracies.
Link: Discussion of "American exceptionalism" click hereCONCLUSION The debate about the effectiveness of the US political system is a part of the wider debate about whether or not the United States is in relative decline on the world stage. In his book "Time To Start Thinking: America And The Spectre Of Decline" [for my review click here], Edward Luce writes: "Sometimes it seems Americans are engaged in some kind of collusion in which voters pretend to elect their lawmakers and lawmakers pretend to govern. This, in some ways, is America's core problem: the more America postpones any coherent response to the onset of relative decline, the more difficult the politics are likely to get."
Last modified on 20 July 2013
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For a comparison of the American and British political systems click here
For guides to the political systems of other nations click here