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.
In the American Political System, 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.
To be President, one has to:
be a natural-born citizen of the United States
be at least 35 years old
have lived in the US for at least 14 years
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 under the American Political System.
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.
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 8 November 2016 and the next eelction will be held on 3 November 2020.
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).
Within the executive branch, the President has broad constitutional powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government.
Political parties seek to influence government policy by nominating select candidates to hold seats in political offices.
Typically, a political party is a political organization seeking to influence government policy by nominating its own select candidates to hold seats in political office, via the process of electoral campaigning. Parties often espouse an expressed ideology or vision, bolstered by a written platform with specific goals that form a coalition among disparate interests.
The type of electoral system is a major factor in determining the type of party political system. In countries with a simple plurality voting system there can be as few as two parties elected in any given jurisdiction. In countries that have a proportional representation voting system, as exists throughout Europe, or a preferential voting system, such as in Australia or Ireland, three or more parties are often elected to parliament in significant proportions, allowing more access to public office. In a nonpartisan system, no official political parties exist, sometimes due to legal restrictions on political parties. In nonpartisan elections, each candidate is eligible for office on his or her own merits. In nonpartisan legislatures, no formal party alignments within the legislature is common.
In two-party systems, such as in Jamaica and Ghana, the two political parties dominate to such an extent that electoral success under the banner of any other party is virtually impossible. Multi-party systems are systems in which more than two parties are represented and elected to public office. Australia, Canada, Pakistan, India, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Norway are examples of countries with two strong main parties, along with smaller or “third” parties that have also obtained representation. The smaller parties may form part of a coalition government together with one of the larger parties, or act independently.
Political parties, still called factions by some, are lobbied vigorously by organizations, businesses and special interest groups such as trades unions. Money and gifts-in-kind to a party, or its leading members, may be offered as incentives. Such donations are the traditional source of funding for all right-of-center cadre parties. In the late 19th century, these parties faced opposition by the newly founded left-of-center workers’ parties, who formed a new party type—the mass membership party—and a new source of political fundraising—membership dues.
Under the American Political System, 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.
To be a member of the House, one has to:
be at least 25 years old
have been a US citizen for at least seven years
live in the state which one represents (but not the actual district)
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 and Washington, which have run-offs if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote. 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.
Under the American Political System, 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.
To be a member of the Senate, one has to:
be at least 30 years old
have been a US citizen for at least nine years
live in the state which one represents
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 and Washington, which have run-offs. 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.
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 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).
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. 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).
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.
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