The government of the United States is based on a written constitution, the shortest in the world in fact. This constitution consists of a Preamble, seven Articles, and 27 Amendments. From this document, the entire federal government was created. It is a living document whose interpretation has changed over time. The amendment process is such that while not easily amended, US citizens are able to make necessary changes over time.
Three Branches of Government
The Constitution created three separate branches of government. Each branch has its own powers and areas of influence. At the same time, the Constitution created a system of checks and balances that ensured no one branch would reign supreme. The three branches are:
- Legislative Branch - This branch consists of the Congress which is responsible for making the federal laws. Congress consists of two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- Executive Branch - The Executive power lies with the President of the United States who is given the job of executing, enforcing, and administering the laws and government. The Bureaucracy is part of the Executive Branch.
- Judicial Branch - The judicial power of the United States is vested in the Supreme Court and the federal courts. Their job is to interpret and apply US laws through cases brought before them. Another important power of the Supreme Court is that of Judicial Review whereby they can rule laws unconstitutional.
Six Foundational Principles
The Constitution is built on six basic principles. These are deeply ingrained in the mindset and landscape of US Government.
- Popular Sovereignty - This principle states that the source of governmental power lies with the people. This belief stems from the concept of the social contract and the idea that government should be for the benefit of its citizens. If the government is not protecting the people, it should be dissolved.
- Limited Government - Since the people give government its power, government itself is limited to the power given to it by them. In other words, the US government does not derive its power from itself. It must follow its own laws and it can only act using powers given to it by the people.
- Separation of Powers - As stated previously, the US Government is divided into three branches so that no one branch has all the power. Each branch has its own purpose: to make the laws, execute the laws, and interpret the laws.
- Checks and Balances - In order to further protect the citizens, the constitution set up a system of checks and balances. Basically, each branch of government has a certain number of checks it can use to ensure the other branches do not become too powerful. For example, the president can veto legislation, the Supreme Court can declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, and the Senate must approve treaties and presidential appointments.
- Judicial Review - This is a power that allows the Supreme Court to decide whether acts and laws are unconstitutional. This was established with Marbury v. Madison in 1803.
- Federalism - One of the most complicated foundations of the US is the principle of federalism. This is the idea that the central government does not control all the power in the nation. States also have powers reserved to them. This division of powers does overlap and sometimes leads to problems such as what happened with the response to Hurricane Katrina between the state and federal governments.
While the Constitution sets up the system of government, the actual way in which the offices of Congress and the Presidency are filled are based upon the American political system. Many countries have numerous political parties (groups of people who join together to try and win political office and thereby control the government) but the US exists under a two-party system. The two major parties in America are the Democratic and Republican parties. They act as coalitions and attempt to win elections. We currently have a two-party system because of not only historical precedent and tradition but also the electoral system itself.
The fact that America has a two-party system does not mean that there is no role for third parties in the American landscape. In fact, they have often swayed elections even if their candidates have in most cases not won. There are four major types of third parties:
- Ideological Parties, e.g. Socialist Party
- Single-issue parties, e.g. Right to Life Party
- Economic Protest Parties, e.g. Greenback Party
- Splinter Parties, e.g. Bull Moose Party
Elections occur in the United States at all levels including local, state, and federal. There are numerous differences from locality to locality and state to state. Even when determining the presidency, there is some variation with how the electoral college is determined from state to state. While voter turnout is barely over 50% during Presidential election years and much lower than that during midterm elections, elections can be hugely important as seen by the top ten significant presidential elections.