Politics of the United States

Politics of the United States
Greater coat of arms of the United States.svg
State typeFederal presidential constitutional republic
ConstitutionUnited States Constitution
Legislative branch
Meeting placeCapitol
Upper house
Presiding officerMike Pence
Vice President & President of the Senate
AppointerElectoral College
Lower house
NameHouse of Representatives
Presiding officerPaul Ryan
Speaker of the House of Representatives
AppointerExhaustive ballot
Executive branch
Head of State and Government
CurrentlyDonald Trump
AppointerElectoral College
NameCabinet of the United States
Current cabinetCabinet of Donald Trump
Deputy leaderVice President
HeadquartersWhite House
Judicial branch
NameFederal judiciary of the United States
Chief JusticeJohn Roberts
CourtsCourts of the United States
Supreme Court
Chief judgeJohn Roberts
SeatSupreme Court Building
Political system of the United States

The United States is a federal republic in which the President, Congress and federal courts share powers reserved to the national government, according to its Constitution. The federal government shares sovereignty with the state governments.

The executive branch is headed by the President and is formally independent of both the legislature and the judiciary. The cabinet serves as a set of advisers to the President. They include the Vice President and heads of the executive departments. 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. 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 structure is codified in the Constitution.

Two political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have dominated American politics since the American Civil War, although smaller parties exist such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and the Constitution Party. Generally, the Democratic Party is commonly known as the center-left liberal party within the United States, while the Republican Party is commonly known as a right-wing conservative party.

There are a few 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 democratically run developed countries; this is because of a combination of stringent historic controls. These controls take shape in the form of state and federal laws, informal media prohibitions and winner-take-all elections and include ballot access issues and exclusive debate rules. There have been five United States presidential elections in which the winner lost the popular vote.

Political culture

Scholars from Alexis de Tocqueville to the present have found a strong continuity in core American political values since the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century.[1]

Colonial origins

Some of Britain's North American colonies became exceptional in the European world for their vibrant political culture, which attracted the most talented and ambitious young men into politics.[2] Reasons for this American exceptionalism included:

  1. Suffrage was the most widespread in the world, with every man who owned a certain amount of property allowed to vote. While fewer than 20% 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.[3] That deference declined sharply with the American Revolution.
  2. In each colony, elected bodies, especially the assemblies and county governments, decided a wide range of public and private business.[4] 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 the 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.[5]
  3. The North American colonies were exceptional in the world context because of the growth of representation of different interest groups. Unlike in Europe, where royal courts, aristocratic families and established churches exercised control, the American political culture was open to merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers,[citation needed] and many other identifiable groups. Over 90% of the representatives elected to the legislature lived in their districts, unlike in the United Kingdom where it was common to have an absentee member of Parliament.
  4. Americans became 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.[6]

None of the colonies had political parties of the sort that formed in the 1790s, but each had shifting factions that vied for power.

American ideology

Republicanism, along with a form of classical liberalism, remains the dominant ideology.[7] Central documents include the Declaration of Independence (1776), Constitution (1787), The Federalist Papers (1788), Bill of Rights (1791), and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (1863), among others. The political scientist Louis Hartz articulated this theme in American political culture in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). Hartz saw the antebellum South as breaking away from this central ideology in the 1820s as it constructed a fantasy to support hierarchical, feudal society. Others, such as David Gordon of the libertarian, Alabama-based Mises Institute argue that the secessionists who formed the Confederacy in 1861 retained the values of classical liberalism.[8][9] Among the core tenets of this ideology are the following:[10]

  • Civic duty: Citizens have the responsibility to understand and support the government, participate in elections, pay taxes, and perform military service.
  • Opposition to Political corruption
  • Democracy: The government is answerable to citizens, who may change the representatives through elections.
  • Equality before the law: The laws should attach no special privilege to any citizen. Government officials are subject to the law just as others are
  • Freedom of religion: The government can neither support nor suppress religion
  • Freedom of speech: The government cannot restrict through law or action the personal speech of a citizen; a marketplace of ideas

In response to Hartz and others, political scientist Rogers M. Smith argued in Civic Ideals (1999) that in addition to liberalism and republicanism, United States political culture has historically served to exclude various populations from access to full citizenship. Terming this ideological tradition "ascriptive inegalitarianism," Smith traces its relevance in nativist, sexist, and racist beliefs and practices alongside struggles over citizenship laws from the early colonial period to the Progressive Era, and further political debates in the following century.[11]

At the time of the United States' founding, agriculture and small private businesses dominated the economy, and state government left welfare issues to private or local initiative. Laissez-faire ideology was largely abandoned in the 1930s 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.[12] While the American welfare state expanded more than threefold after World War II, it has been at 20% of GDP since the late 1970s.[13][14] As of 2014 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."[15]

Usage of "left–right" politics

The modern American political spectrum and the usage of the terms "left–right politics", "liberalism", and "conservatism" in the United States differs from that of the rest of the world. According to American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (writing in 1956), "Liberalism in the American usage has little in common with the word as used in the politics of any European country, save possibly Britain". Schlesinger noted that American liberalism does not support classical liberalism's commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economics.[16] Because those two positions are instead generally supported by American conservatives, historian Leo P. Ribuffo noted in 2011, "what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism."[17]

In American politics, the Democratic Party is commonly known as the well-established center-left liberal national party, while the smaller Green Party is known for being closer to the progressive anti-capitalist left-wing of modern American politics. The Republican Party is commonly known as the dominant right-wing national party, and the alternative Libertarian Party attracts some independent-leaning voters who tend to be more social liberal on social issues and fiscally conservative on economic policy.


The right of suffrage is nearly universal for citizens eighteen 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 federal 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 of 1861-65. 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 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.[18] The second group, the American Woman Suffrage Association formed by Lucy Stone, aimed to give women the right to vote.[19] 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.[20]

Student activism against the Vietnam War in the 1960s prompted the passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, the legal age of the draft.

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