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Politics and government of
the United States
The United States is a federal constitutional republic, in which the President of the United States (the head of state and head of government), Congress, and judiciary share powers reserved to the national government, and the federal government shares sovereignty with the state governments.
The executive branch is headed by the President and is independent of the legislature. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judicial branch (or judiciary), composed of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, exercises judicial power (or judiciary). The judiciary's function is to interpret the United States Constitution and federal laws and regulations. This includes resolving disputes between the executive and legislative branches. The federal government's layout is explained in the Constitution. Two political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have dominated American politics since the American Civil War, although other parties have also existed.
There are major differences between the political system of the United States and that of most other developed democracies. These include greater power in the upper house of the legislature, a wider scope of power held by the Supreme Court, the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, and the dominance of only two main parties. Third parties have less political influence in the United States than in other developed country democracies.
The federal entity created by the U.S. Constitution is the dominant feature of the American governmental system. However, most people are also subject to a state government, and all are subject to various units of local government. The latter include counties, municipalities, and special districts.
This multiplicity of jurisdictions reflects the country's history. The federal government was created by the states, which as colonies were established separately and governed themselves independently of the others. Units of local government were created by the colonies to efficiently carry out various state functions. As the country expanded, it admitted new states modeled on the existing ones.
The American political culture is deeply rooted in the colonial experience and the American Revolution. The colonies were exceptional in the European world for their vibrant political culture, which attracted the most talented and ambitious young men into politics. First, suffrage was the most widespread in the world, with every man who owned a certain amount of property allowed to vote. While fewer than 1% of British men could vote, a majority of white American men were eligible. While the roots of democracy were apparent, nevertheless deference was typically shown to social elites in colonial elections. That deference declined sharply with the American Revolution. Second, in each colony a wide range of public and private business was decided by elected bodies, especially the assemblies and county governments. Topics of public concern and debate included land grants, commercial subsidies, and taxation, as well as oversight of roads, poor relief, taverns, and schools. Americans spent a great deal of time in court, as private lawsuits were very common. Legal affairs were overseen by local judges and juries, with a central role for trained lawyers. This promoted the rapid expansion of the legal profession, and dominant role of lawyers in politics was apparent by the 1770s, as attested by the careers of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, among many others. Thirdly, the American colonies were exceptional in world context because of the growth of representation of different interest groups. Unlike Europe, where the royal court, aristocratic families and the established church were in control, the American political culture was open to merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers, and many other identifiable groups. Over 90% of the representatives elected to the legislature lived in their districts, unlike England where it was common to have an absentee member of Parliament. Finally, and most dramatically, the Americans were fascinated by and increasingly adopted the political values of Republicanism, which stressed equal rights, the need for virtuous citizens, and the evils of corruption, luxury, and aristocracy. None of the colonies had political parties of the sort that formed in the 1790s, but each had shifting factions that vied for power.
Republicanism, along with a form of classical liberalism remains the dominant ideology. Central documents include the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution (1787), the Federalist Papers (1788), the Bill of Rights (1791), and Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (1863), among others. Among the core tenets of this ideology are the following:
At the time of the United States' founding, the economy was predominantly one of agriculture and small private businesses, and state governments left welfare issues to private or local initiative. Laissez-faire ideology was largely discredited during the Great Depression. Between the 1930s and 1970s, fiscal policy was characterized by the Keynesian consensus, a time during which modern American liberalism dominated economic policy virtually unchallenged. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, laissez-faire ideology, as explained especially by Milton Friedman, has once more become a powerful force in American politics. While the American welfare state expanded more than threefold after WWII, it has been at 20% of GDP since the late 1970s. Today, modern American liberalism, and modern American conservatism are engaged in a continuous political battle, characterized by what the Economist describes as "greater divisiveness [and] close, but bitterly fought elections."
Suffrage is nearly universal for citizens 18 years of age and older. All states and the District of Columbia contribute to the electoral vote for President. However, the District, and other U.S. holdings like Puerto Rico and Guam, lack representation in Congress. These constituencies do not have the right to choose any political figure outside their respective areas. Each commonwealth, territory, or district can only elect a non-voting delegate to serve in the House of Representatives.
Women's suffrage became an important issue after the American Civil War. After the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1870, giving African American men the right to vote, various women's groups wanted the right to vote as well. Two major interest groups were then formed. The first group was the National Woman Suffrage Association, formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that wanted to work for suffrage on the federal level and to push for more governmental changes, such as the granting of property rights to married women. The second group was the American Woman Suffrage Association, formed by Lucy Stone, whose goal was to give women the right to vote. In 1890, the two groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The NAWSA then mobilized to obtain support state-by-state, and by 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
States governments have the power to make laws for all citizens that are not granted to the federal government or denied to the states in the U.S. Constitution.These include education, family law, contract law, and most crimes. Unlike the federal government, which only has those powers granted to it in the Constitution, a state government has inherent powers allowing it to act unless limited by a provision of the state or national constitution.
Like the federal government, state governments have three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The chief executive of a state is its popularly elected governor, who typically holds office for a four-year term (although in some states the term is two years). Except for Nebraska, which has unicameral legislature, all states have a bicameral legislature, with the upper house usually called the Senate and the lower house called the House of Representatives, the House of Delegates, Assembly or something similar. In most states, senators serve four-year terms, and members of the lower house serve two-year terms.
The constitutions of the various states differ in some details but generally follow a pattern similar to that of the federal Constitution, including a statement of the rights of the people and a plan for organizing the government. However, state constitutions are generally more detailed.
There are 89,500 local governments, including 3,033 counties, 19,492 municipalities, 16,500 townships, 13,000 school districts, and 37,000 other special districts that deal with issues like fire protection. Local governments directly serve the needs of the people, providing everything from police and fire protection to sanitary codes, health regulations, education, public transportation, and housing. Typically local elections are nonpartisan—local activists suspend their party affiliations when campaigning and governing.
About 28% of the people live in cities of 100,000 or more population. City governments are chartered by states, and their charters detail the objectives and powers of the municipal government. For most big cities, cooperation with both state and federal organizations is essential to meeting the needs of their residents. Types of city governments vary widely across the nation. However, almost all have a central council, elected by the voters, and an executive officer, assisted by various department heads, to manage the city's affairs. Cities in the West and South usually have nonpartisan local politics.
There are three general types of city government: the mayor-council, the commission, and the council-manager. These are the pure forms; many cities have developed a combination of two or three of them.
This is the oldest form of city government in the United States and, until the beginning of the 20th century, was used by nearly all American cities. Its structure is like that of the state and national governments, with an elected mayor as chief of the executive branch and an elected council that represents the various neighborhoods forming the legislative branch. The mayor appoints heads of city departments and other officials, sometimes with the approval of the council. He or she has the power of veto over ordinances (the laws of the city) and often is responsible for preparing the city's budget. The council passes city ordinances, sets the tax rate on property, and apportions money among the various city departments. As cities have grown, council seats have usually come to represent more than a single neighborhood.
This combines both the legislative and executive functions in one group of officials, usually three or more in number, elected city-wide. Each commissioner supervises the work of one or more city departments. Commissioners also set policies and rules by which the city is operated. One is named chairperson of the body and is often called the mayor, although his or her power is equivalent to that of the other commissioners.
The city manager is a response to the increasing complexity of urban problems that need management ability not often possessed by elected public officials. The answer has been to entrust most of the executive powers, including law enforcement and provision of services, to a highly trained and experienced professional city manager.
The city manager plan has been adopted by a large number of cities. Under this plan, a small, elected council makes the city ordinances and sets policy, but hires a paid administrator, also called a city manager, to carry out its decisions. The manager draws up the city budget and supervises most of the departments. Usually, there is no set term; the manager serves as long as the council is satisfied with his or her work.
The county is a subdivision of the state, sometimes (but not always) containing two or more townships and several villages. New York City is so large that it is divided into five separate boroughs, each a county in its own right. On the other hand, Arlington County, Virginia, the United States' smallest county, located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is both an urbanized and suburban area, governed by a unitary county administration. In other cities, both the city and county governments have merged, creating a consolidated city–county government.
In most U.S. counties, one town or city is designated as the county seat, and this is where the government offices are located and where the board of commissioners or supervisors meets. In small counties, boards are chosen by the county; in the larger ones, supervisors represent separate districts or townships. The board collects taxes for state and local governments; borrows and appropriates money; fixes the salaries of county employees; supervises elections; builds and maintains highways and bridges; and administers national, state, and county welfare programs. In very small counties, the executive and legislative power may lie entirely with a sole commissioner, who is assisted by boards to supervise taxes and elections. In some New England states, counties do not have any governmental function and are simply a division of land.
Thousands of municipal jurisdictions are too small to qualify as city governments. These are chartered as towns and villages and deal with local needs such as paving and lighting the streets, ensuring a water supply, providing police and fire protection, and waste management. In many states of the US, the term town does not have any specific meaning; it is simply an informal term applied to populated places (both incorporated and unincorporated municipalities). Moreover, in some states, the term town is equivalent to how civil townships are used in other states.
The government is usually entrusted to an elected board or council, which may be known by a variety of names: town or village council, board of selectmen, board of supervisors, board of commissioners. The board may have a chairperson or president who functions as chief executive officer, or there may be an elected mayor. Governmental employees may include a clerk, treasurer, police and fire officers, and health and welfare officers.
One unique aspect of local government, found mostly in the New England region of the United States, is the town meeting. Once a year, sometimes more often if needed, the registered voters of the town meet in open session to elect officers, debate local issues, and pass laws for operating the government. As a body, they decide on road construction and repair, construction of public buildings and facilities, tax rates, and the town budget. The town meeting, which has existed for more than three centuries in some places, is often cited as the purest form of direct democracy, in which the governmental power is not delegated, but is exercised directly and regularly by all the people.
Successful participation, especially in federal elections, requires large amounts of money, especially for television advertising. This money is very difficult to raise by appeals to a mass base, although in the 2008 election, candidates from both parties had success with raising money from citizens over the Internet, as had Howard Dean with his Internet appeals. Both parties generally depend on wealthy donors and organizations - traditionally the Democrats depended on donations from organized labor while the Republicans relied on business donations. This dependency on donors is controversial, and has led to laws limiting spending on political campaigns being enacted (see campaign finance reform). Opponents of campaign finance laws cite the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, and challenge campaign finance laws because they attempt to circumvent the people's constitutionally guaranteed rights. Even when laws are upheld, the complication of compliance with the First Amendment requires careful and cautious drafting of legislation, leading to laws that are still fairly limited in scope, especially in comparison to those of other countries such as the United Kingdom, France or Canada.
Fundraising plays a large role in getting a candidate elected to public office. Without large sums of money, a candidate has very little chance of achieving their goal. In the 2004 general elections, 95% of House races and 91% of senate races were won by the candidates who spent the most on their campaigns. Attempts to limit the influence of money on American political campaigns dates back to the 1860s. Recently, Congress passed legislation requiring candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions, how the campaign money is spent, and regulated use of “soft money” contributions. (brookings.edu)
The 2012 presidential campaign was slow to develop in both candidates and fundraising. For example, by the end of September, the financial positions of Republican contenders in the cycle were worse than those of Democrats at the same point in the 2004 campaign. (opensecrets.org)
The United States Constitution has never formally addressed the issue of political parties, primarily because the Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first President of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or throughout his tenure as president. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation. Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers, including Hamilton and Madison.
In partisan elections, candidates are nominated by a political party or seek public office as an independent. Each state has significant discretion in deciding how candidates are nominated, and thus eligible to appear on the election ballot. Typically, major party candidates are formally chosen in a party primary or convention, whereas minor party and Independents are required to complete a petitioning process.
The modern political party system in the United States is a two-party system dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. These two parties have won every United States presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress since at least 1856. Third parties have achieved relatively minor representation from time to time at national and state levels.
Among the two major parties, the Democratic Party generally positions itself as left-of-center in American politics and supports a modern liberal platform, while the Republican Party generally positions itself as right-of-center and supports a conservative platform.
Unlike in some parliamentary systems, Americans vote for a specific candidate instead of directly selecting a particular political party. With a federal government, officials are elected at the federal (national), state and local levels. On a national level, the President, is elected indirectly by the people, through an Electoral College. In modern times, the electors virtually always vote with the popular vote of their state. All members of Congress, and the offices at the state and local levels are directly elected.
Both federal and state laws regulate elections. The United States Constitution defines (to a basic extent) how federal elections are held, in Article One and Article Two and various amendments. State law regulates most aspects of electoral law, including primaries, the eligibility of voters (beyond the basic constitutional definition), the running of each state's electoral college, and the running of state and local elections.
American political parties are more loosely organized than those in other countries. The two major parties, in particular, have no formal organization at the national level that controls membership, activities, or policy positions, though some state affiliates do. Thus, for an American to say that he or she is a member of the Democratic or Republican party, is quite different from a Briton's stating that he or she is a member of the Conservative or Labour party. In the United States, one can often become a "member" of a party, merely by stating that fact. In some U.S. states, a voter can register as a member of one or another party and/or vote in the primary election for one or another party. Such participation does not restrict one's choices in any way. It also does not give a person any particular rights or obligations within the party, other than possibly allowing that person to vote in that party's primary elections. A person may choose to attend meetings of one local party committee one day and another party committee the next day. The sole factor that brings one "closer to the action" is the quantity and quality of participation in party activities and the ability to persuade others in attendance to give one responsibility.
Party identification becomes somewhat formalized when a person runs for partisan office. In most states, this means declaring oneself a candidate for the nomination of a particular party and intent to enter that party's primary election for an office. A party committee may choose to endorse one or another of those who is seeking the nomination, but in the end the choice is up to those who choose to vote in the primary, and it is often difficult to tell who is going to do the voting.
The result is that American political parties have weak central organizations and little central ideology, except by consensus. A party really cannot prevent a person who disagrees with the majority of positions of the party or actively works against the party's aims from claiming party membership, so long as the voters who choose to vote in the primary elections elect that person. Once in office, an elected official may change parties simply by declaring such intent.
At the federal level, each of the two major parties has a national committee (See, Democratic National Committee, Republican National Committee) that acts as the hub for much fund-raising and campaign activities, particularly in presidential campaigns. The exact composition of these committees is different for each party, but they are made up primarily of representatives from state parties and affiliated organizations, and others important to the party. However, the national committees do not have the power to direct the activities of members of the party.
Both parties also have separate campaign committees which work to elect candidates at a specific level. The most significant of these are the Hill committees, which work to elect candidates to each house of Congress.
State parties exist in all fifty states, though their structures differ according to state law, as well as party rules at both the national and the state level.
Despite these weak organizations, elections are still usually portrayed as national races between the political parties. In what is known as "presidential coattails", candidates in presidential elections become the de facto leader of their respective party, and thus usually bring out supporters who in turn then vote for his party's candidates for other offices. On the other hand, federal midterm elections (where only Congress and not the president is up for election) are usually regarded as a referendum on the sitting president's performance, with voters either voting in or out the president's party's candidates, which in turn helps the next session of Congress to either pass or block the president's agenda, respectively.
Most of the Founding Fathers rejected political parties as divisive and disruptive. By the 1790s, however, most joined one of the two new parties, and by the 1830s parties had become accepted as central to the democracy. By the 1790s, the First Party System was born. Men who held opposing views strengthened their cause by identifying and organizing men of like mind. The followers of Alexander Hamilton, were called "Federalists"; they favored a strong central government that would support the interests of national defense, commerce and industry. The followers of Thomas Jefferson, the Jeffersonians took up the name "Republicans"; they preferred a decentralized agrarian republic in which the federal government had limited power.
By 1828, the First Party System had collapsed. Two new parties emerged from the remnants of the Jeffersonian Democracy, forming the Second Party System with the Whigs, brought to life in opposition to President Andrew Jackson and his new Democratic Party. The forces of Jacksonian Democracy, based among urban workers, Southern poor whites, and western farmers, dominated the era.
In the 1850s, the issue of slavery took center stage, with disagreement in particular over the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the country's new territories in the West. The Whig Party straddled the issue and sank to its death after the overwhelming electoral defeat by Franklin Pierce in the 1852 presidential election. Ex-Whigs joined the Know Nothings or the newly formed Republican Party. While the Know Nothing party was short-lived, Republicans would survive the intense politics leading up to the Civil War. The primary Republican policy was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. Just six years later, this new party captured the presidency when Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860. By then, parties were well established as the country's dominant political organizations, and party allegiance had become an important part of most people's consciousness. Party loyalty was passed from fathers to sons, and party activities, including spectacular campaign events, complete with uniformed marching groups and torchlight parades, were a part of the social life of many communities.
By the 1920s, however, this boisterous folksiness had diminished. Municipal reforms, civil service reform, corrupt practices acts, and presidential primaries to replace the power of politicians at national conventions had all helped to clean up politics.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (October 2008)|
Since the 1790s, the country has been run by two major parties. Many minor or third political parties appear from time to time. They tend to serve a means to advocate policies that eventually are adopted by the two major political parties. At various times the Socialist Party, the Farmer-Labor Party and the Populist Party for a few years had considerable local strength, and then faded away—although in Minnesota, the Farmer–Labor Party merged into the state's Democratic Party, which is now officially known as the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party. At present, the Libertarian Party is the most successful third party. New York State has a number of additional third parties, who sometimes run their own candidates for office and sometimes nominate the nominees of the two main parties. In the District of Columbia, the D.C. Statehood Party has served as a strong third party behind the Democratic Party and Republican Party.
Most officials in America are elected from single-member districts and win office by beating out their opponents in a system for determining winners called first-past-the-post; the one who gets the plurality wins, (which is not the same thing as actually getting a majority of votes). This encourages the two-party system; see Duverger's law. In the absence of multi-seat congressional districts, proportional representation is impossible and third parties cannot thrive. Although elections to the Senate elect two senators per constituency (state), staggered terms effectively result in single-seat constituencies for elections to the Senate.
Another critical factor has been ballot access law. Originally, voters went to the polls and publicly stated which candidate they supported. Later on, this developed into a process whereby each political party would create its own ballot and thus the voter would put the party's ballot into the voting box. In the late nineteenth century, states began to adopt the Australian Secret Ballot Method, and it eventually became the national standard. The secret ballot method ensured that the privacy of voters would be protected (hence government jobs could no longer be awarded to loyal voters) and each state would be responsible for creating one official ballot. The fact that state legislatures were dominated by Democrats and Republicans provided these parties an opportunity to pass discriminatory laws against minor political parties, yet such laws did not start to arise until the first Red Scare that hit America after World War I. State legislatures began to enact tough laws that made it harder for minor political parties to run candidates for office by requiring a high number of petition signatures from citizens and decreasing the length of time that such a petition could legally be circulated.
It should also be noted that while more often than not, party members will "toe the line" and support their party's policies, they are free to vote against their own party and vote with the opposition ("cross the aisle") when they please.
"In America the same political labels (Democratic and Republican) cover virtually all public officeholders, and therefore most voters are everywhere mobilized in the name of these two parties," says Nelson W. Polsby, professor of political science, in the book New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution. "Yet Democrats and Republicans are not everywhere the same. Variations (sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant) in the 50 political cultures of the states yield considerable differences overall in what it means to be, or to vote, Democratic or Republican. These differences suggest that one may be justified in referring to the American two-party system as masking something more like a hundred-party system."
Special interest groups advocate the cause of their specific constituency. Business organizations will favor low corporate taxes and restrictions of the right to strike, whereas labor unions will support minimum wage legislation and protection for collective bargaining. Other private interest groups, such as churches and ethnic groups, are more concerned about broader issues of policy that can affect their organizations or their beliefs.
One type of private interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee or PAC. These are independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, which contribute money to political campaigns for U.S. Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. PACs today number in the thousands.
"The number of interest groups has mushroomed, with more and more of them operating offices in Washington, D.C., and representing themselves directly to Congress and federal agencies," says Michael Schudson in his 1998 book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. "Many organizations that keep an eye on Washington seek financial and moral support from ordinary citizens. Since many of them focus on a narrow set of concerns or even on a single issue, and often a single issue of enormous emotional weight, they compete with the parties for citizens' dollars, time, and passion."
The amount of money spent by these special interests continues to grow, as campaigns become increasingly expensive. Many Americans have the feeling that these wealthy interests, whether corporations, unions or PACs, are so powerful that ordinary citizens can do little to counteract their influences.
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