AMERICAN POLITICAL SYSTEM
The United States is - by size of electorate - the second largest democracy on the globe (India is the largest and Indonesia comes third) and 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 one of my trips 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 ...
To understand any country's political system, it is helpful to know something of the history of the nation and the background to the creation of the (latest) constitution. But this is a fundamental neccesity in the case of the American political system. This is because the Constitution of the United States is so different from those of other nations and because that Constitution is, in all material respects, the same document as it was over two centuries ago.
There were four main factors in the minds of the 'founding fathers' who drafted the US Constitution:
Also, whatever the 'founding fathers' intended, the sheer longevity of the Constitution and the profound changes in America since its drafting means that today the balance of power between the three arms of state is not necessarily what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind. So originally the legislature was seen as the most powerful arm of government (it is described first in the Constitution) but, over time, both the Presidency (starting with the time of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War) and the Supreme Court (especially on social issues like desegregation, marriage and abortion) have assumed more power.
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. Further information on the thinking expressed in the Constitution can be found in the Federalist Papers which are a series of 85 articles and essays published in 1787-1788 promoting the ratification of the Constitution.
The United States Constitution is both the longest-lasting in the world, being over two centuries old, and one of the the shortest in the world, having just seven articles and 27 amendments (the constitutions of Jordan, Libya and Iceland are the shortest in the world running to a mere 2,000-4,000 words).
As well as its age and brevity, the US Constitution is notable for being a remarkably stable document. The first 10 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 almost 230 years. In fact, famously the 27th Amendment took over 200 years to achieve ratification, having been originally proposed at the same time as the 10 that make up the Bill of Rights but having only reached ratification in 1992. The last new and substantive amendment - reduction of the voting age to 18 - was in 1971, almost half a century ago.
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. Article 5 of the Constitution sets out two mechanisms for amending the Constitution, although only the first of these has ever been used and most Americans have no knowledge whatsoever of the second.
The first process requires that 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 ratify the proposed change (this stage may or may not be governed by a specific time limit). As an indication of how challenging this process is, consider the case of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This was first written in 1920, shortly after women were given the vote in the USA. The proposed amendment was introduced in Congress unsuccessfully in every legislative year from 1923 until it was finally passed in 1972. It was then sent to each state for ratification but, by 1982, it was still three states short of the minimum of the 38 needed to add it to the constitution. Various attempts since 1982 to revive the amendment have all failed.
The second process requires two-thirds of the 50 states to demand that Congress convenes a constitutional convention. The 'Founding Fathers' feared that, if the federal government were to become oppressive, Congress would be unlikely to call a convention to correct matters and therefore, to protect the people's freedom, they provided that that a convening power should instead be vested in the states. Since the enactment of the Constution, a total of 33 amendments have been proposed (27 were passed) and every single one of these was initiated by the Congress and there has never been a constitutional convention. No one has a firm count of the number of resolutions that state legislatures have passed calling for such a convention, but it is over 500.
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 (President & Cabinet), the legislature (House of Representatives & Senate) and the judiciary (Supreme Court & federal circuits) - 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 short, 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:
What is the Presidency?
The President is the head of the executive branch of the federal government of the United States. He - so far, the position has always been held by a man - is both the head of state and the head of government, as well as the military commander-in-chief and chief diplomat.
The President presides over the executive branch of the government, a vast organisation numbering about four million people, including one million active-duty military personnel. The so-called Hatch Act of 1939 forbids anyone in the executive branch - except the President or Vice-President - from using his or her official position to engage in political activity.
Who is eligible to become a President?
To be President, one has to:
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 change - the 22nd Amendment - was enacted in 1951.
Elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to coincide with Congressional elections. So the last election was held on 3 November 2020 and the next election will be held on 5 November 2024. The ballot paper contains the names of the presidential and vice-presidential candidate for each political party.
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 seven 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. In virtually all cases, the winner of the presidential election in any given state secures all the Electoral College votes of that state. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska.
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 include North Carolina (15), 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 four times in US history: 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. On the last occasion, the losing candidate (Hillary Clinton) actually secured 2.9 million more votes than the winning candidate (Donald Trump). 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 Electoral College does not actually meet as one body. Instead, since 1936, federal law has provided that the electors in each of the states (and, since 1964, in the District of Columbia) meet "on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment" to vote for President and Vice-President. After the vote, each state then sends a certified record of their electoral votes to Congress. The votes of the electors are opened during a joint session of Congress, held in the first week of January.
In the event that the Electoral College is evenly divided between two candidates or no candidate secures a majority of the votes, the Constitution provides that the choice of President is made by the House of Representatives and the choice of Vice-President is made by the Senate. In the first case, the representatives of each state have to agree collectively on the allocation of a single vote. In the second case, each senator has one vote. This has actually happened twice - in 1800 and 1824. In 1800, the House of Representatives, after 35 votes in which neither Thomas Jefferson nor Aaron Burr obtained a majority, elected Jefferson on the 36th ballot. In 1824, neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson was able to secure a majority of the votes in the Electoral College and the House of Representatives chose Adams even though he had fewer Electoral College votes and fewer votes at the ballot boxes than Jackson.
What are the powers of the President?
Besides the formal powers of the President, there are informal means of exercising influence. Most notably, Teddy Roosvelt introduced the notion of 'the bully pulpit': the ability of the President to use his standing to influence public opinion. Over time, the changing nature of media - newspapers, radio, television, the Internet, social media - has presented a variety of instruments for the White House to use to 'push' Congress or other political players or indeed communicate directly with the electorate. As President, Donald Trump used his personal Twitter account to issue several messages a day to 88 million followers.
Other interesting facts about the Presidency
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 was 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.
White House click here
Current members of the cabinet click here
Assassinations and near misses of US Presidents 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.
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, normally the parties have clearly decided on a candidate well before the holding of the convention which therefore becomes more a coronation than a selection.
However, it is not unknown for a party to reach the convention with no clear choice. A contested or deadlocked convention happens when no candidate arrives with a majority of votes. On the first ballot, pledged delegates will vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged. But, in any subsequent ballots, delegates are then free to vote for whomever they want. This could include the other candidates or even - subject to the rules of the convention - 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 last deadlocked convention was experienced by the Republicans in 1976, when Gerald Ford did not have enough delegates before the convention to claim the nomination (his opponent was Ronald Reagan), but eventually won the nomination (Reagan withdrew) and went on to lose the general election. The last time a contested convention produced a candidate who went on to win in the general election was in 1932 with Franklin Roosevelt.
The tradition is that the political party holding the White House has its convention after that of the other party.
THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
What is 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.
Who is eligible to become a member of the House?
To be a member of the House, one has to:
How is a member of the House chosen?
The House consists of 435 members (set in 1911), 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 (every 10 years) census, but every state must have at least one member and in fact seven states have only one Representative each (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming). Typically a House constituency would represent around 700,000 people.
Once House seats are reapportioned to the states, it is state legislatures that must redraw the physical boundaries of Congressional districts. Although the states are bound by limits established by Congress and the Supreme Court, there is scope for gerry-mandering to ensure electoral advantage for the dominant political party in the state. Such reapportionment of members of the House takes effect three years after the decennial census so, as the next census will take place in 2020, reapportionment will take effect for the 118th Congress (2023-2025).
Members of the House are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana, Washington and Alaska. Louisiana and Washington have run-offs if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote. In Alaska, there are no party political primaries and no first-past-the-post voting. Instead there is an all-party primary with the top four candidates going forward to the general election. All elections use ranked choice voting which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. In the primary, if there are more than four candidates or, in the general election, if no candidate receives a majority of first choice votes in the first round of counting, then in each case more rounds of counting continue until a choice is made.
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 five non-voting delegates from the District of Columbia (1971), Guam (1972) the Virgin Islands (1976), American Samoa (1981) and the Northern Mariana Islands (2008) and one resident commissioner for Puerto Rico (1976), bringing the total formal membership to 441. Non-voting delegates are not allowed floor votes, but can vote in any committees to which they are assigned.
What are the powers of the House?
Other interesting facts about the House
Link: House of Representatives click here
What is the Senate?
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.
Who is eligible to become a member of the Senate?
To be a member of the Senate, one has to:
How is a member of the Senate chosen?
The Senate consists of 100 members, each of whom represents a state. 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.
A Senator serves for a six-year term. One third of the Senate stands for election every two years: class 1 involves 33 seats, class 2 involves 33 seats, and class 3 involves 34 seats. In practice, every two years, in addition to the class of that cycle, there may well be one or two extra seats up for election because of vacancies. In the event that a member of the Senate dies or resigns before the end of the six-year term, a special election is not normally held at that time (this is the case for 46 states). Instead the Governor of the state that the Senator represented nominates someone to serve until the next set of Congressional elections when the special election is held to fill the vacancy.
For a long time, Senators were elected by the individual state legislatures. However, since the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, members of the Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana, Washington and Alaska. Louisiana and Washington have run-offs if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote. In Alaska, there are no party political primaries and no first-past-the-post voting. Instead there is an all-party primary with the top four candidates going forward to the general election. All elections use ranked choice voting which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. In the primary, if there are more than four candidates or, in the general election, if no candidate receives a majority of first choice votes in the first round of counting, then in each case more rounds of counting continue until a choice is made.
Elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years.
Each Senator is known as the senior or junior Senator for his or her state, based on length of service.
What are the powers of the Senate?
Other interesting facts about the Senate
Link: Senate click here
THE SUPREME COURT
What is the Supreme Court?
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorised Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts.
Though the first Supreme Court comprised six justices, Congress has altered the number of Supreme Court seats - from a low of five to a high of 10 - six times over the years. In 1869, Congress set the number of seats to nine, where it has remained until today.
The nine Justices comprise 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. Decisions are made by a simple majority.
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.
There are 13 appellate courts that sit below the Supreme Court and they are called the U.S. Courts of Appeals. There are 94 federal judicial districts which are organised into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals.
Who is eligible to become a member of the Court?
The Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law. Many of the 18th and 19th century Justices studied law under a mentor because there were few law schools in the country.
The last Justice to be appointed who did not attend any law school was James F. Byrnes (1941-1942). He did not graduate from high school and taught himself law, passing the bar at the age of 23.
All Supreme Court judges are appointed for life.
How is a member of the Court chosen?
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.
Since the Supreme Court makes so many 'political' decisions and its members are appointed so rarely, the appointment of Justices by the President is often a very charged and controversial matter. Since Justices serve for life and therefore usually beyond the term of office of the appointing President, such appointment are often regarded as an important part of any particular President's legacy.
What are the powers of the Court?
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.
However, the Supreme Court can only rule on a lower court decision so it cannot take the initiative to consider a matter.
There are three ways that a matter can come to the Supreme Court:
Link: Supreme Court click here
POLITICAL PARTIES & ELECTIONS
The Federalist Party was the first American political party and existed from the early 1790s to 1816. The party was run by Alexander Hamilton, who was Secretary of the Treasury and chief architect of George Washington's administration. The Federalists called for a strong national government that promoted economic growth. The Democratic-Republican Party was an American political party formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1791–1793 to oppose the centralising policies of the new Federalist Party.
Although these parties were soon succeeded by others, there remains to this day the basic political cleavage between those who want to see an activist central government and those who want to limit the power of the central government - now represented broadly by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party respectively.
To an extent quite extraordinary in democratic countries, the American political system is dominated by these 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 240 years 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 contested is the whole notion of federalism in the American political system that initially (1775-1789) the country was not a federation but simply a confederation with minimal powers for the federal government. This system was found not to work and so the Constitution of 1789 provides a sophisticated balance of powers between the federal and state governments.
In fact, whatever the letter of the Constitution, in practice the balance of power has ebbed and flowed with circumstances and personalities and so historians have characterised different periods with their own terms: Dual Federalism (1789-1865 & 1865-1901), Co-operative Federalism (1901-1960), Creative Federalism (1960-1968), New Federalism (late 1960s-1980s) and Competitive Federalism (1990s-onwards).
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. As with the President at federal level, state Governors can issue Executive Orders.
The legislature consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives (the exception is the state of Nebraska which has a unicameral system which is non-partisan).
The judiciary consists of a state system of courts. Surprisingly - at least to non-Americans - around 90% of US judges are elected.
The 50 states are divided into 3,141 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.
In fact, most states choose to elect the governor and legislature when Congressional elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years. Exceptions are the states of Virginia and New Jersey which hold their governor and legislature elections in odd numbered years (known as "off-year elections"). This means that these states provide the first electoral indication of how voters view the performance of a newly-elected President and/or Congress.
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. Supporters of a more federal approach have pointed out that the country's failure to deal with the coronavirus pandemic was in part because of the existence aof almost 2,700 state and local health departments and the challenge of police reform is so huge beacuse the country has around 18,000 police departments. Conversely, the recent rise of the electorally-successful Tea Party movement owed a good deal to the view that the federal government has become too dominant, too intrusive and too profligate and efforts at federal level to reform such crucial issues as health insurance and gun control have been fiercely resisted by many states.
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:
One final trend worth noting is the frequency of the same family to provide members of Congress. Low polling in elections, the high cost of running for election, and the focus on the individual more than the party all mean that a well-known name can work successfully for a candidate. Everyone is familiar with the Kennedys, Clintons and Bushs in American politics but, in 2014, there are no less than 37 members of Congress who have a relative who has served in the legislature.
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 four 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 18 times since 1976 (the last one was in 2013).
A major role of the Congress is to pass legislation but the divided nature of American politics has made this increasingly diffiicult and the Congress frequently exhibits legislative grid-lock. Hillary Clinton - former First Lady, former Senator, and former Secretary of State - in her memoir "Hard Choices" (2014) talks of "all the horse trading, arm-twisting, vote counting, alternating appeals to principle and self-interest, and hard-ball politics that go into passing major legislation".
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.
From the creation of the Republic in 1776, there has been a sense that the United States has been exceptional in its commitment to freedom as expressed in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Even though today there are many challenges to freedom in the USA, many Americans still feel that their attachment to freedom - however defined - is a distinguishing feature of their nation as compared to all others.
Another 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 largely 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.
discussion of "American exceptionalism" click here
how to critique a political system click here
In "The World In 2015", John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of "The Economist", wrote: "In America, there is nothing particularly democratic about the ascent of money politics, the arcane blocking procedures of Congress or the gerrymandering of district boundaries. Indeed they are all reminiscent of the rotten boroughs of 18th century England that infuriated the Founding Fathers." In his book "Ten Lessons For a Post-Pandemic World", Fareed Zakaria asserted: "America has become what Francis Fukuyama calls a 'vetocracy'. The system of checks and balances, replicated at every level of government, ensures that someone, somewhere can always block any positive action. The United States has become a nation of naysayers."
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."
These issues were highlighted very dramatically by the 2016 election as president of Donald Trump, someone who ran for election as the anti-establishment candidate who was going to"drain the swamp", who had never previously held political office, and who governed in a most unconventional and controversial style, concluding his term of office by disputing the validity of the 2020 election and inciting an attack on the Capitol. Although Trump was defeated in the election of 2020, Trumpism remains strong since he won the second-largest number of votes of any presidential candidate in history.
President Joe Biden has much work to do to restore faith in American government at home and in American standing in the world.
Last modified on 21 June 2022
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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