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Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them.—Lily Tomlin
The United States is a federal republic consisting principally of 50 states and the District of Columbia, which is made up entirely of one city, Washington DC. It's often called simply "DC" in common usage and is the seat of the federal government.
Note that distinction: DC is in the United States, but not of them.
There is a feeling among some Americans that there may be a reality distortion field of some sort that follows the outer edge of the Capital Beltway (a highway that circles DC). Attempts to prove this fail to obtain federal funding.
Since the United States is a republic, you will occasionally find people trying to tell you that the United States "is not a democracy." This may or may not be true, since a republic and a democracy are technically two different forms of government, but a republic can still use democratic processes. So ask the person doing the claiming what he means before nodding sagely. The essential issue here is that the founders thought direct democracy (after the fashion of, say, ancient Athens) was a generally bad idea; for example, Thomas Jefferson claimed "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." More colloquially, "Democracy is three wolves and a sheep voting on dinner."
When people of other nations are trying to understand the rather odd political behavior of the USA, they would do well to remember that the United States is literally just that: fifty individual states, each with their own constitution, all under the aegis of a central federal government. The relationship between the federal government and the state governments can get contentious, to the point that there was a civil war about it.
Unlike many other nations, the US has had precisely one written constitution since independence in 1776, which is referred to simply as "the Constitution". This makes it the second-oldest written national constitution still in effect, and the third-oldest still in effect overall. The Constitution defines itself as "the supreme law of the land", and all other statutes and acts of government must defer to it or be rendered null and void. The thesis of the thing is that all people are guaranteed certain inalienable rights by virtue of their being, that government exists for the purpose of safeguarding those rights, and that Americans have the right and responsibility, if their representatives fail to do so, to kick them directly in the seat of their pants and replace them with people who will. A beautiful thing.
The Constitution is not set in stone. To date there are 27 amendments, the first ten of which are referred to as the Bill of Rights and were adopted before the Constitution was ratified. This gives you an idea of how hard the amendment process is -- 17 afterthoughts, one of which is in there to repeal an earlier afterthought. Not only that, but the 27th Amendment was actually proposed with the Bill of Rights -- it took some 200 years between proposal and ratification. As a result of its stability and endurance, Americans have a deep respect for the Constitution--a respect that can become downright reverential for some people. This makes it really quite difficult to even get a movement to propose an amendment, to the frustration of many reformers.
The structure of the federal government is delineated in the Constitution. It sets up a separation of powers between three separate branches; the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Following that lead, we will chunk up this article along those lines.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch of government consists of the President, Vice President, and the Cabinet.
Unlike in many other nations, the US President is both head of state and head of government. His principal powers are to sign or veto bills approved by Congress and to appoint Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, Supreme Court judges and other federal judges (all with Senate approval), to sign treaties (subject to Congressional approval) and to issue pardons, which are not subject to anyone's approval.
The president is also the Commander-in-Chief of the military and is the highest-ranking individual in the chain of command, though he is not himself considered part of the military. 
The president may issue "executive orders," directives to the Cabinet instructing them on the enforcement of laws. Most executive orders are kept running by the next President in line. Presidents protect the prerogatives of the office.
All those powers and responsibilities get summed up under the amorphous heading of "leadership", with all the free credit and lightning-rod for dissatisfaction that that entails.
You don't have to be crazy to run for President. That benefit will be provided by the Office.
The Vice President, in contrast, has little authority and more often functions as a government spokesman. He has the cushiest job in the world because he has absolutely nothing to do unless one of two things fails: the President's heartbeat, and the Senate. To be more precise, he officially has two jobs. The first is basically to sit around and wait for the President of the United States to drop dead; the second is to act as President of the Senate with nothing to do and no right to vote, except cast a tie-breaking vote if there is a deadlock.
Unofficially, however, the vice president does have more important work to do. In general, there are three kinds of veep: the ticket-balancer, the advisor, and the consolation prize.
- The first kind has historically been the most common: the presidential candidate's running mate would be of a different region or ideological orientation from the candidate himself. So if the Democratic presidential candidate was a Northern liberal, you'd expect the running mate to be a Southern or Western moderate or conservative--or any combination of these terms.
- The second kind has become increasingly common, particularly when the president is a highly-electable populistic type. This sort of VP is effectively chosen to be a Secretary Without Portfolio, providing advice on anything and everything and possibly bringing some other kind of political muscle to the picture.
- The best examples are probably Dick Cheney and Al Gore. Dubya is well known to have been a bit of a lightweight on some issues, and certainly wasn't a policy wonk. Bill Clinton actually was quite wonkish, but he wasn't quite as policy-oriented as Gore. Gore also brought political muscle to the table, as he was a confirmed Washington insider (not only had he been in Congress for ten years when he was elected, his father had been a powerful Senator from Tennessee), while Clinton had only ever been Governor of Arkansas. The same can be said of Cheney, who had been a Congressman from Wyoming and House Minority Whip, and had also been Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff and Bush Sr.'s Secretary of Defense, while the younger Bush had no direct Washington experience.
- A case might be made that Joe Biden was chosen for this reason, as while Barack Obama was a Senator before becoming President, he had only been in DC for four years at time of election, while Biden was a six-term (36-year!) Senator with far more connections.
- To give you an idea of how common this has become: while Obama was the first sitting member of Congress elected President since Kennedy, and indeed every President elected between Kennedy and Obama had either been a state governor or Vice President, every Vice President save Spiro Agnew elected since LBJ has been a Washington insider of some description: LBJ, Humphrey, Gore, and Biden were all sitting Senators, while Bush Sr. and Cheney were old hands who had served in the House and Executive Branch.
- The third kind was more common in the past--someone who ran for President and lost the nomination would be given the running mate's slot to soothe his ego.
- LBJ is the closest thing to this in recent history, as it was well-known that he wanted the top job himself. Along with the ticket-balancing issue and his Washington connections (which were a bit more extensive than Kennedy's), he was the perfect VP candidate. His actual presidency makes this situation either hilarious or more gut-wrenching.
- Bush Sr. may have been this as well, as he competed with Reagan in the Republican primaries of 1980. His victory over Reagan in the Iowa primary actually forced Reagan to replace his campaign manager and reorganize his staff.
- Joe Biden might also have been picked for this reason, as despite his serious case of foot-in-mouth disease, he had run two (kind of half-hearted) campaigns for President (in 1988 and 2008) and was seen as something of an elder statesman in the Democratic Party.
- There is some speculation that Mitt Romney may do this with Ron Paul to prevent a third-party or independent run from Paul.
John Adams, the very first vice president, described his office as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." John Nance Garner, Franklin D Roosevelt's first Vice President, was more direct, describing the vice presidency as "not worth a bucket of warm piss". (Ironically, FDR is one of the few presidents to have died in office, although Roosevelt had ditched Garner long before.)
At several points in American history the vice president has been, in effect, the Highest Elected Patsy, and has "taken the fall" for the administration. Since World War II (where Harry Truman didn't know about the Manhattan Project until he took office), the Vice-President has gained more influence, but it varies between administrations -- Dick Cheney was seen as very powerful, Joe Biden less so.
A presidential term lasts four years, and an individual President is limited to two terms in office, originally as a tradition and later codified in the Constitution through the 22nd Amendment in 1951, after Franklin D Roosevelt was elected to four consecutive terms, only leaving office because he died. Presidential elections are held every four years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Actually, all elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in the month of the election. This has historical reasons: the founding fathers didn't want the election to fall on the first of the month, and (depending on who you ask) they either (a) didn't want elections on Monday because most people would be too hungover from weekend binge drinking to be able to vote properly; or (b) because you had to go to the county seat to vote (which could take a day or two in rural areas), and you couldn't have it be a Monday (because that would entail leaving on Sunday) or Wednesday (which was a market day in many parts of the country and people would be too busy to vote).
Historically, the president is a White Protestant, though not always. John F Kennedy was Catholic, which was a big deal, and current president Barack Obama has an African father, which is an even bigger deal. Historically, the President has also always been male, though fiction has delighted in depicting female presidents and the possibility is considered more-or-less inevitable by now. Both these generalizations apply equally well to the vice president (twice a woman has been a major party's nomination for veep, the Democrats first picking Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and the Republicans picking Sarah Palin in 2008; Joe Biden is the first Catholic VP; and Herbert Hoover's VP Charles Curtis was 3/8ths Native American).
Article 2, clause 5 of the Constitution doesn't really go into race or gender, probably because in 1787 it was assumed that candidates would always be white men, but it does have some qualifications:
- 35 years of age or more.
- 14 years residency.
- Natural born citizen (read: US citizen by birth, rather than by naturalization) OR citizen at the time the Constitution was adopted. The latter was necessary because at the time of the Constitution's adoption, the United States had only existed for 7 years, meaning that the election of 1812 was the first in which it was mathematically possible for a natural born citizen to meet the 35 years of age requirement, and going for more than 20 years without a President was obviously not an option.
Note the requirement is technically a little more flexible than "only native-born", but unless you were alive in September 1787 and living between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean, it's pretty much limited to the native born. Either way, John McCain (who was born in the Panama Canal Zone) qualifies.
Admit it. You thought that was going to be a joke about John McCain being born before 1787. We wouldn't go for a laugh that cheap. Really. Observe how we are not going for that cheap joke.
One can be born anywhere on Earth (or space) and still be a "natural born citizen" of the US if at least one of your parents is an American citizen who has lived in the US for five years. A person born within the territorial boundaries of the United States is a natural-born citizen regardless of parentage, unless said person's parents are foreign diplomats or members of an invading force.
The only two Presidents that have actually been challenged in any way under the terms of eligibility to date are Barack Obama and Chester A. Arthur. Challengers to Obama claim that he was actually born in Kenya, and that his Hawaiian birth certificate and newspaper birth announcements were forgeries, no doubt by the same people who orchestrated the Area 51 coverup. He eventually got so annoyed with this that he released his long-form birth certificate, then splashed it on a mug with the slogan "Made in the USA" and killed Osama Bin Laden about two days later, which effectively shut up all but the noisiest of the "birther theorists." (Donald Trump was not among those shut up, which is highly entertaining to pretty much everyone who doesn't agree with him.)
Chester A. Arthur was accused by Arthur Hinman of being born in Ireland. No one took up that story, so Hinman then accused Chester of being born in Canada. Nobody could decide which was worse, so they elected Chester Vice President.
The President and Vice President positions were pretty well set up after 1800 as to who got them, and what they did. This lasted until 1841, when William Henry Harrison became the first man to die in office. The exact text of the Constitution said that should something happen to the President making him unable to actually use the President's powers (dead, incapacitated, thrown out), 'the Same shall devolve on the Vice President'. Note that it doesn't explicitly say that the veep becomes President. The brouhaha was settled when Harrison's vice president, John Tyler, just took the damn oath and did it anyway. This was finally patched by the 25th Amendment in 1967.
Also, if the sitting President dies and the vice president takes the oath, where do we get a new veep? Up until the 25th Amendment came around, the office was just left empty. That amendment lets the sitting President just appoint a new Vice President. This led to a man who never received even one electoral vote ascending to the Presidency. In 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned from the vice presidency over income tax evasion, and was replaced by Gerald Ford. The guy who was president? Richard Nixon. Even better, when Nixon resigned, Ford promptly pardoned the man who had just made him President, preventing Nixon from being put on trial for his various crimes.
The 25th Amendment also allows a President to temporarily relinquish the office due to incapacitation. This has happened a few times, such as when George HW Bush had to undergo a routine surgery. The amendment does allow the VP and a majority of the Cabinet to make this declaration for the President; see Air Force One or 24 for examples.
The Constitution itself lets Congress decide what happens if both POTUS and VPOTUS ((Vice) President of the United States) are gone. Currently, this falls under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. It goes from President, to Vice President, to Speaker of the House, to President pro tempore of the Senate, to the Cabinet members in order of the Cabinet post's longevity. Since the US hasn't gone past 'vice president' yet on the list, the fact that it ends at the Cabinet hasn't been tested.
The Secret Service designates one member of the line of succession the "Designated Survivor" to stay behind at any event where the entire line could be zapped.
The Electoral College
The President and Vice President are not elected directly by the people, but rather by a group called the Electoral College, an office created by the Founding Fathers to preserve the power of the smaller states in the voting process.
They also were not happy about the idea of the "mob" directly electing the president, so they had the state legislatures of each state choose the electors. It is only since the 20th Century that all states allow the common people to choose the electors. Technically, the Constitution has always given state legislatures the power to decide how their state's electors are chosen, and that has never changed. It's just that public demand eventually led every state to use actual elections to choose the electors. In theory, a state could allocate its electors by flipping a coin if the legislature passed a law to say so.
Each state boasts a number of electors equal to its Congressional representation: two senators plus however many representatives. When the College meets, about one month after the actual election, each state's electors vote for the presidential candidates; each state is allowed to set their own laws for how the electors vote, but in recent years 48 states have granted all their votes to whomever received the largest number of popular votes in their state.
Whichever presidential slate receives 50% + 1 of the electoral votes (currently, 270) is elected. In the rare event that no candidate receives the needed number of electoral votes, the House of Representatives votes in the new president, with the Senate selecting the Vice President.
On those occasions when a loser of the popular election gains office through this process -- thankfully a rare occasion, but the most recent case was in 2000 -- many Americans become confused and outraged. Newspapers and TV news are required to run articles explaining this all again for about two weeks, at which point it is promptly forgotten by Americans who have since moved on to something else outrageously confusing, like why all the rich celebrities are ending up in rehab all the time.
Because of the number of electors being roughly equivalent to population density, all one has to do is be elected President is to win the 11 states that have the most delegates: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. A president carrying said 11 states will win the election even if their opponent wins all of the delegates of all the other 39 states and the District of Columbia. In practice, this doesn't actually work due to the fact that many states are considered "safe" for one party or another–for example, in recent elections the Democrats have won California by comfortable margins each year, while the Republicans have done the same with Texas.
Thus, a lot of campaign drama ends up happening in 'swing' or 'battleground' states, states that have become strategically important in the election. Since each Senator counts for one electoral vote, it's actually the smaller states that have a disproportionately large influence in the electoral college. To win these states, presidential hopefuls spend millions upon millions of dollars on advertising, travel, staff, and various other campaign expenses, all for a job which pays a mere $400,000 per year over four years. And yet, the winner is largely in charge of how the American government spends its revenue. The irony of this is not lost on the American people.
Seriously. You can make more money running a school district. In a backwards state.
The Cabinet, Executive Departments, and Independent Agencies
The President’s cabinet by tradition consists of the leaders of the 15 executive departments -- State, the Treasury, Defense, Justice, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans' Affairs (there are a lot of US military veterans) and Homeland Security. Each department is headed by an official called a Secretary (with a capital S), except for the Department of Justice, whose chief is called the Attorney General instead. They’re all appointed by the President, subject to Senate approval and the parameters of their responsibilities are defined in federal law. They are in legal contemplation the President’s deputies with respect to the departments they head: which in simple terms means that they are the personal representatives of the President and that they have the final say in the internal and external management functions of their departments.
The average American (excluding the editors of the U.S. Government Manual & the Congressional Directory, and maybe Tom Clancy) has heard of maybe two or three of these guys, maybe four if they keep up enough with current events or teach political science, usually taken from the big four quartet: the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, and the Attorney General. The Cabinet typically also includes the Vice President, the President’s Chief of Staff, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Unlike in many other countries, the cabinet meetings are not the avenue where major policy decisions are made in foreign and military affairs: that takes place in the National Security Council where only the relevant officials, such as the President, Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense participates (The Secretary of Education, for instance, doesn’t need to know of diplomatic talks with a crazy playboy dictator, weapons sales to Israel or of the invasion plans of the next Middle Eastern Oil State waiting in line).
Under the auspices of the Secretaries and the Attorney General are the various government agencies: the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, reports to the Secretary of Transportation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports to the Attorney General. Some agencies may be (or were) in counter-intuitive departments. The Secret Service (originally founded to combat counterfeiting) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) reported to the Secretary of the Treasury before the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003.
The Department of Defense (DoD), in the vernacular known as The Pentagon (named after the geometrical shape of its headquarters building), is so freaking large in comparison with the other departments that almost 80 percent of the federal workforce gets their paycheck from it, and that the Department of Defense is considered the single largest employer in the US (right ahead of Wal-Mart and McDonald's.) The Office of the Secretary of Defense is the mainly civilian staff of the Secretary of Defense (duh!), and apart from the Honorable Mr. or Madam Secretary (who by the way must be a civilian to maintain the alibi of civilian control), there is 1 Deputy Secretary of Defense, 5 Under Secretaries of Defense, 14 Assistant Secretaries of Defense (all appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate); and a myriad of senior civil servants with titles like Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for whatever..., and Deputy Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for whichever…
Had enough of Secretaries? In addition, Defense has separate sub-departments within itself, known as military departments (Department of the Army, Department of the Navy and the Department of the Air Force) which includes the all the armed forces (except for the Coast Guard, which operates under Homeland Security during peactime and under the Department of the Navy during war or at the president's discretion), and they are led by their very own Secretaries, namely the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy (or SECNAV as the special agents and service members alike call him or her), and the Secretary of the Air Force who are subordinates of the Secretary of Defense. Each of those Secretaries, as you might have guessed, have their very own Under Secretary, and at least 4 Assistant Secretaries (5 in the Army) each.
Furthermore, Defense includes several large joint organizations (meaning that civilians and military personnel from all services participate) such as the National Security Agency (the people who know that you’re reading this article), the National Reconnaissance Office (the people whose satellites can spot insects on your lawn), The Defense Logistics Agency (big bloated defense bureaucracy in action) and DARPA (mad scientists studying brain implants). For more on the stiff but nevertheless crazy world of the U.S. military see Yanks With Tanks.
There are also a number of "independent agencies", like the Federal Communications Commission, Central Intelligence Agency and NASA, that don't report to any of the Departments, in order to make organization charts that much more confusing to average Americans and foreign spies alike.
In aggregate, all this confusion is commonly referred to as The Bureaucracy: the number two government source of fear, after the Internal Revenue Service (itself part of the Department of the Treasury).
You can sue City Hall. You can sue the IRS too, but any suit filed against it will not be decided in your lifetime, or that of your great-grandchildren, for that matter. And if you hit a really sensitive spot, like demanding in court to know what goes on at either that Area 51 in the Nevada desert or that underground base outside of Colorado Springs, the Government can always invoke the infamous State Secrets Privilege, which effectively shuts down litigation.
The Legislative Branch
John Adams: I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two become a law firm, and that any group of three or more is called a Congress!
1776, paraphrased from the historical Adams' writings
The legislative branch of government consists of two houses -- the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House members were elected directly by the populace of each State and the Senators of each State were appointed by the State Assemblies. The basic idea was one of tension between the two houses so that the rights of individual people and the rights of the States would both be represented.
However, since the ratification of the 17th Amendment, both Representatives and Senators are now directly elected by popular vote within each State, turning the Senate into just another 100 congressmen.
The House of Representatives has 435 members apportioned among the states based on their population. Apportionment is recalculated every ten years, after each national census. Each state is free to determine how congressional districts are drawn up.
This can lead to a practice called "gerrymandering" where the party in charge draws up ridiculously-shaped districts so as to secure as many safe districts for themselves as possible, while splitting up the other party's strongholds across multiple districts. Gerrymandering is legal in most states. Both parties squawk about reform, but neither is willing to be the first one to give up its precious safe seats. The name, incidentally, goes right back to the beginnings of the Republic, first appearing around 1812 and taking its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. The practice might have started even earlier.
Representatives are elected every two years and there is no limit on the number of terms one may serve.
While the House of Representatives is generally referred to as the "junior" house, this has little practical meaning, as bills can originate in either house, with the exception that bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives. The House also reserves the power to impeach the president or other federal officers upon a simple majority vote, whereupon a trial is carried out in the Senate. The House is chaired by an officer called the Speaker of the House, who is generally a senior representative from the majority party in the House.
Interestingly, unlike Parliamentary systems, the Speaker does not legally need to be a sitting representative or ever have been a representative at all, they just need to be any person that 51% of the House wants to be Speaker. In practice, though, no Congress has ever taken advantage of this potentially fun loophole, and instead the Speaker is always some sort of party leader. The Speaker is chosen at the beginning of each new Congress by a simple majority vote -- this vote is largely a formality, but don't tell the congressmen that: huge penalties like losing chairmanship positions are dolled out for not voting for your party's pick.
The Senate is described as the senior house of Congress, and reserves the power to confirm presidential appointees, ratify treaties, and conduct the trial of an impeached president or other officer, whereupon the accused may be removed from office by a two-thirds majority. Only two presidents have ever been impeached -- Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton -- and both escaped conviction. Richard Nixon would have been impeached, but resigned first.
The Senate is officially chaired by the Vice President, though he rarely ever exercises this duty except on particularly auspicious occasions, and may not speak or vote except in case of an exact tie (briefly the case in 2001, when the Senate was divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Dick Cheney as the tiebreaking vote). In his absence, the Senate is officially chaired by the president pro tempore (pronounced "pro tem"), the senior-most senator of the majority caucus, though he typically defers that job to a junior senator as well, owing to the fact that the pres. pro tem tends to be at the very least an octogenarian with little stamina to run the assembly. Informally, the reins of power in the Senate are wielded by the "Majority Leader" - i.e., the senator who chairs the majority party's caucus - typically a senior senator, though not quite as senior as the pro tem.
Members of Congress, of either house, are often identified in the media with a hyphenated suffix that abbreviates their affiliation and state -- "D-CA", for example, indicates a Democrat from California, while "R-IN" would refer to a Republican from Indiana, and "I-VT" would refer to Bernie Sanders from Vermont.
In order for a bill to become law, it must pass by a simple majority in both houses and receive the president's signature. This is not as simple as it sounds.
The bill, having been drawn up in some subsidiary committee or other (and usually after tons of debate over its contents), is presented at-large to the Congressional house from which it originated for a vote. If it passes the vote, it is then handed off to the other house, which goes through the exact same process of debating and rewording the bill before voting on its own version of it. Next, if it passes this second vote, the two different versions of the bill are brought to the "Conference Committee" -- members of both houses who come together to have another round of debates and rewording so as to craft a single, compromised version of the bill. Once the Conference Committee has finalized the content and wording of the bill, the bill once again goes back before each house for a secondary round of debate before its final votes. So, before the president even has the opportunity to give an official yes or no to a bill, it has been drafted, debated, re-written, added-to, subtracted-from, voted, folded, spindled, mutilated, re-debated, re-voted, and possibly used as a tea cozy.
As an added bonus, either time during this process when a bill is in the Senate, a senator determined to block the passage of a bill (either to kill it outright, or, in the first round, to tie it up until certain changes are made to its content) can "filibuster" its vote by lodging endless procedural motions to delay a vote, or simply getting up and talking for hours and hours until the bill's proponents get tired and go home, or (again, in the first round) concede to enough changes to its content that the filibuster is dropped. The record for a speech on the Senate floor is 24 hours and 18 minutes. Indeed, it takes more votes to end debate and bring a bill to a final vote -- 60 votes, or three-fifths of the Senate -- than it does to actually pass the bill once it comes to a vote. Nowadays senators don't usually bother getting up and speaking for hours. If 41 can get together and express an intention to filibuster, then the threat alone is enough to stop the bill in its tracks. Scrapping the filibuster entirely -- the so-called "nuclear option" -- has been considered by various blocs over the years. The general feeling has been that for a majority party to do so would weaken their position if and when they become the minority party. A reform was passed in 2011 that made filibusters slightly more difficult to carry out, though time will tell what effect (if any) it has on Senate business.
After all of this, the president still has the power to "veto" a bill -- an official rejection which voids the bill, unless Congress can successfully use its one opportunity to override the president's veto with a two-thirds majority in both houses. Overridden vetoes are somewhat rare, and were virtually non-existent for the first 90 years of the nation's history. However, if the president approves of the bill, he signs it, returns it to Congress for certification, and it becomes law.
And then there's the confusing bit. You see, the President always has the option of simply not vetoing or signing the bill, rendering the idea of returning it to Congress for certification something of a moot point. What this signifies, however, depends on whether Congress is adjourned or not.
If Congress is adjourned, the bill does not become law, there being no Congress in Washington to return the bill to. The President can--and indeed usually does--do this intentionally, and it's known as a "pocket veto." It's extremely useful for Presidents faced with a popular bill they don't want to sign, but can't be seen vetoing; this allows them to save face and say, "I didn't kill the bill; I merely allowed it to die." The format is also immune to overrides, so if Congress really wants to pass the bill, they have to go through the whole rigamarole again.
If Congress is still in session (i.e. hasn't adjourned), the bill automatically becomes law. Why this is isn't clear. There's no formal name for this method (although "default enactment" has started to gain currency among scholars), but some civics teachers have been known to call it the "stuff-it-in-your-desk" route. A President can also use this strategically: a bill that would cause a huge uproar if it failed to become law, but which the President dislikes on principle, can be stuffed in the Presidential desk. This allows him to say "I didn't sign the bill, I merely allowed it to become law." This isn't used as often as the pocket veto, but the possibility did come up in late 2011.
Because Senators are elected by the entire population of each state, serve terms three times longer than Representatives, and number the same from each state regardless of the size of the state's population, the Senate also tends to be more conservative and less radical than the House -- in other words, less subject to the changing whims of the people. This makes the Senate less partisan, less divisive, and more capable of passing important legislation. It also makes Senators less accountable to their constituents.
Congress can also propose amendments to the Constitution, which must receive two-thirds majority in both houses and must then be approved by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. There is no limitation on the scope of what an amendment may do, except that no state's Senate representation may be reduced without its consent. Unless explicitly stated in the text of the bill proposing it, there is no time limit on ratification; the proposal that eventually became the 27th amendment, for example, was first proposed shortly after the Constitutional Convention in 1789, and was fully ratified and enrolled in the Constitution two centuries later in 1992. The states also have the power to bypass Congress, and by the request of two-thirds of the state governments may call a Constitutional convention for proposing amendments, which upon approval by the convention must then be ratified in the normal fashion. To date, this has never occurred.
Yes, the representation for which Americans fought in the Revolution is this. Essentially two committees, one representing the people and one representing the States, who must pass bills twice each in order to send them to the President's desk. Pretty clever way to keep government busy in such a way that it can't get too uppity.
The Judicial Branch
The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the lesser federal courts established under it. For details beyond what you'll find below, see American Courts.
The Supreme Court consists of a number of judges, called justices, who are appointed by the president subject to Senate confirmation, and who serve "during good behavior", which, barring conviction or impeachment, means a lifetime tenure. The number of Supreme Court justices is not set by the Constitution, but a tradition has developed in the last 60 some-odd years that nine is a good number. The President appoints the Supreme Court justices, albeit with the advice and consent of the Senate. Interestingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to pack the Supreme Court with judges that would be inclined to rule his way and was talked out of it. The court stuck at nine members at that point in time and has stayed there ever since.
The Supreme Court is the ultimate body of appeal in US law, and is charged with the task of reviewing cases where the constitutionality of a law or governmental act is in question. If a law is deemed "unconstitutional" -- that is, contradictory to the letter or spirit of the Constitution -- the Court has the power to declare it null and void by a majority vote of justices. The Court also has the power to settle disputes between the states themselves, but these cases only make up a small minority of cases (one or two per term, at the most). The Court is also the highest level of appeal for all issues of federal law even when constitutionality is not a issue.
Interestingly, the one thing that most people assume the Supreme Court is supposed to do - "interpret" the Constitution - is a power that is NOT given in the Constitution. Life rarely being that simple, the S.C. gradually got in the habit of doing exactly that, and by the time most people noticed, it was a fait accompli.
Please note, however, that this was something most of the Founders could see coming, on account of America's legal tradition, The Common Law inherited from England. Interpretation of statutes has always been within the purview of common-law courts, and on the logic that the Constitution is a super-statute, the Court took it upon itself to interpret it as well (the decision in Marbury v. Madison makes this point in a manner that would make Xanatos proud). Stare decisis is part and parcel of the common-law system, as anyone who knows anything about English (or Canadian or Australian or...) law can tell you. However, two features make the American version of stare decisis interesting:
- Since the American Constitution is written and hard to amend, the decision of the Court in a question of constitutional interpretation tends to stay the law of the land for a very long time.
- Unlike English courts and most other common-law courts, the Supreme Court is allowed to overturn its previous decisions in cases regarding statutes and the Constitution, on the grounds that the old interpretation was wrong; the most famous case of this is Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared state-sponsored segregation based on race unconstitutional, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had previously allowed it. A complete overturn of a previous decision is rare, however.
Together, these make the Supreme Court very powerful indeed.
The Court is led by the Chief Justice (currently John Roberts, appointed by George W. Bush in 2005), a position that has the duties of chairing any meeting of the Court for both selection of cases to review and ruling on said cases. However, he or she does not have more power in any actual vote, although he DOES have a cooler robe. The Chief Justice also has the Constitutional duty of presiding over any impeachments of the President or Vice President (but not other officers), and traditionally administers the Oath of Office to new presidents and Supreme Court Justices (including his or her successor) unless unavailable (Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a notary public, after learning of Warren Harding's death, and Lyndon Johnson was sworn in by a federal district court judge, on-board Air Force One in Dallas, shortly after Kennedy's assassination). The Chief Justice is also administrator of the Federal Court system, making his position the technical equivalent of a cabinet secretary. William Howard Taft is the only person to have ever served both as President and as Chief Justice.
"Good behavior" is the only Constitutional requirement for a justice, so the office is theoretically open to anyone who the President may choose to nominate. Most nominees tend to be federal judges, but approximately one-third of all historical justices (including Chief Justices Warren and Rehnquist, and the most recently confirmed justice Elena Kagan) had never sat on the bench prior to their nomination.
In short, this committee tries to make sense of the output of the other two committees. They have a tougher rule to follow, in that they cannot "tie" on an issue, no matter how much they try to (the 5-4 Court vote is one of the most dreaded things in American politics). Since a justice might be absent from a case due to illness or he "recuses" (removes) himself because of a conflict of interest (it is up to the justice themselves to decide if they wish to recuse themselves) it is possible to have a 4-4 tie. Since almost every case before the court is an appeal, in the case of a tie, the decision of the court below the Supreme Court is upheld. (And before you think that this is just a factoid, realize that the already controversial Citizens United decision has become even more controversial due to this.)
On the plus side (for them), legally the only person that can overrule the Court decision is a later Court Decision or Constitutional amendment. These tend not to be common; the Court has a policy of not overruling past decisions unless the circumstances have massively changed, and amendments to the constitution are even rarer.
Still with us? This is the committee that is meant to simplify things.
The Supreme Court is theoretically an apolitical body, though more often than not presidents will appoint a judge whose political opinions agree with their own. Of course, it's hard to tell how a justice will rule once he's on the bench -- the retired David Souter, a justice appointed by George HW Bush, was commonly considered one of the more liberal-minded justices. At present, five of the nine justices on the bench were appointed by Republican presidents, and the other four by Democratic presidents. Of the nine, four are typically considered "conservative", four "liberal", and one "right-leaning moderate". The fact that Justices serve for life means that they, unlike Congress and the President, are free to issue rulings purely based on their own judgment and conscience, without worrying about the whims of public opinion, party support, or reelection. Supreme Court justices theoretically can be impeached; however, this has only occurred once, and the justice in question was acquitted.
Of some interest is that the vast majority of Supreme Court cases are actually quite boring; to take from three cases in the 2010 term, one case involved whether one state agency could sue another in federal court, another involved whether an employment benefits package summary or the detailed document governed when the two significantly disagreed, and a third involved whether Wyoming violated a water rights compact with Montana by using more efficient irrigation methods. Most fictional works ignore this rather mundane fact.
There are, at present, 50 states in the Union. Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are called Commonwealths in their full names, but are still states. There is also the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which are possessions of the United States, and not states at all. Clear as mud so far? Good, because it gets more interesting as we go along.
Each state is required by the Constitution to guarantee its citizens a "Republican form of government". That basically means that they are bound by the US Constitution to provide a system based on laws, with elected officials serving as management, not rulers. It probably also means that states are forbidden from having democratic constitutional monarchies, but frankly, no state has ever brought that issue up. For the most part, state governments are identical in their structure and function to the federal government, but on a smaller scale. Nebraska has a single-house legislature; the other 49 mimic the Federal Government, although some states have a Senate and an Assembly instead of a House of Representatives (and due to unique circumstances of history, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland each have a House of Delegates). The chief executive of a state is called a governor; his/her deputy, who may or may not be elected on the same ticket, is called a lieutenant governor. This does not, however, apply to Arizona, Wyoming, and Oregon, which have no lieutenant governor. There, when the Governor has either resigned or been impeached, the elected official who is technically the chief clerk of the state, the Secretary of State, becomes governor.
Nearly all 50 states have an elected chief clerk who is called the Secretary of that state, who, because that is an elected official, is not considered a cabinet secretary in the same way as the other cabinet departments of the Governor's Cabinet. As noted above, in most states, the Secretary of State of that state is the third in line to become Governor after the Lieutenant Governor. Note that while each state has a Secretary of State, this should not be confused with the head of the U.S. State Department, who is also called the Secretary of State. The one who runs the State Department in Washington (in the area of D.C. called Foggy Bottom) deals with the relationships between the United States and other countries, while each state's Secretary of State deals with the operations of that particular state. Nice and confusing, isn't it?
New states may be admitted to the Union upon Congressional approval. States may not raise their own armies (they are required by law to maintain an organized militia in the form of the Army and Air National Guards, and may raise a optional militia for in state use only), sign treaties (but with permission of Congress they may enter into a Compact with other states), or coin money on their own, and when a conflict between state and federal law arises, federal law wins out. Except when it doesn't. Basically, Federal law only has supremacy when it is Constitutional. Familiar with the phrase; "Can open, worms all over the ground"? Well, when THAT particular argument comes up, things get wormy.
One major difference between the States and the Federal governments is that states hold a lot more elections. A State need not limit its elections to the legislature and the governor, as the federal government does; they can also hold elections for secretary of state, attorney general, comptroller, state supreme court judges, judges of lower courts, district attorneys, sheriffs, and/or dog catchers. Much of this will be specified in the state constitution, which is generally amended by popular vote as well. Many states also have a procedure where an elected official may be removed (recalled) from office in a special election if a sufficient number of petitions are gathered. A significant example of this occurred in 2003, when California governor Gray Davis was successfully recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a special election that included 135 candidates for the office. As of this writing, a recall election is pending against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
All this voting theoretically makes state governments more accountable to the people. In practice, this doesn't quite work. Which is why in some states you have Initiative and Referendum, where, if the legislature doesn't pass an acceptable law, the people can propose one (meaning some well funded group or bunch of people ticked off enough send out people to collect signatures to have a ballot proposal put up for election), contrary to the Jefferson quote above. This is how the famous Proposition 13 slashed property taxes in California. It's also how a major manufacturer of gambling equipment and supplies was able to get a state lottery created there as well.
As these referenda are often written by non-politicians, or people with little formal legal training, they may ultimately prove to be of dubious constitutionality when enacted into law, and parts or all of them are often struck down by the courts after their passage. Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative in California that sought to deny certain entitlements and legal protections to illegal immigrants, was eventually struck down by the courts, and the recently-passed Proposition 8 (which reversed the state Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage) may be headed to a similar fate.
The Constitution says nothing about government below the state level, so states are free to set up whatever structure they'd like. There's a lot of variation from state to state here (Connecticut and Massachusetts have no county governments, while Hawaii has no municipal governments), so this is just a general overview.
48 of the 50 states are divided into counties. The exceptions: Louisiana is divided into "parishes" owing to its unique legal descendence from French civil law, which are identical to counties in all but name. Alaska is divided into "boroughs", which actually are a bit different from counties, but not enough to matter for our purposes. County governments are usually headed by a "Board of Supervisors" or "Board of Commissioners" or the like, and may have a "County Executive" overseeing the executive departments.
Size doesn't matter, nor does population. The least populous county is in the largest state, Loving County, Texas, and at last count had 69 people. Los Angeles County in California, the most populous in the country, has nearly 10 million people, making it more populous than all but eight states in the US. Number doesn't matter: Texas has 250 counties, Delaware has 3. Some states have laws that set minimum sizes on counties, or prohibit adding more counties. The smallest county is Arlington County, Virginia at 26 square miles. The largest (aside from the Alaskan boroughs) is California's San Bernadino County, which is bigger than each of the nine smallest states.
For an example of comparisons the states of Iowa (56 thousand square miles/2.9 million people), Kansas (82/2.6), Oklahoma (69/3.5) Nebraska (77/1.7), Minnesota (87/4.9), and Colorado (104/4.3) as a region have over 476,000 square miles and 19.9 million people. But this entire region obviously deserves considerably less attention and less resources than New York City, which has 468 square miles and 18.8 million people, even though New York has 1/1000 of the area and fewer people.
Municipal government can take various forms; depending on the state, municipalities can be called "cities", "towns", "villages", "townships", "boroughs", or something else, which may or may not have different meanings or governmental structures. A "town" is usually the smallest type of government, but there can be towns that have larger populations than some cities. Larger cities usually have their executive power vested in an elected mayor, with the city council (also elected) having legislative power over local ordinances. Many cities and towns tend to use a "city manager" system, in which the city council appoints a professional urban planner to run the executive departments, and the office of mayor is either nonexistent, ceremonial, or a glorified City Councilor.
The services provided by counties and cities overlap a lot (the police/sheriff's department, fire department, transportation, parks, etc.) and the precise arrangement varies from state to state, and sometimes within states as well. If there are any areas outside municipal governments, the county will provide all services there. In some states, mostly in the Northeast, cities and towns cover the entire state; this is how Connecticut gets away with not having any counties at all.
Cities can be combined with a county (like Denver and San Francisco), cross county lines (like Dallas, in five different counties), exist outside any county (like Baltimore, St. Louis, and all 'cities' in Virginia), or take up entire counties and merge with the county governments (New York City's five boroughs are five separate counties, none of which has an independent government). Many metropolitan areas cross state boundaries, but cities are always in the same state (Kansas City Missouri/Kansas is actually two separate cities, and Portland, OR forms a coterminous metropolitan area with Vancouver, WA).
There are also elected school boards that operate local schools independent of any government in much of the country, as well as independent Fire Department districts, waste management departments, parks & recreation bureaus, and other special districts or government corporations providing services, but describing all of them would make this article even more complicated than it is.
In short, then, the membership of all the elected committees in American government -- federal, state, county, and municipal -- is north of 60,000. In a country where getting five friends to agree on where to have dinner can result in fist-fights.
Separate from the states are several US territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, that are also under American sovereignty. Thirty one states were territories (or part of a territory) at one point, but these in particular have for various reasons never received statehood -- Puerto Rico in particular has had several referenda on the matter, all of which have been voted down by its citizens. Their citizens also receive United States citizenship, meaning that if they choose to "emigrate" to any of the states, they have no legal problems, with the exception of American Samoa who are considered "American Nationals". Unlike states, territories do not have voting representation in Congress; however, they also do not have to pay federal taxes, so many would argue they got the better deal.
The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with the intent of creating a state free from the influence of Factions (political parties). In this they failed, as parties began forming while the ink was still wet on the parchment, arguing over whether the federal government or individual states should have the greater power. Though parties have less official influence than they do in most countries, they still hold an immense amount of sway in the government, largely due to the funding they can collect for candidates who agree with their policies.
- The Democratic Party is recently viewed as being center-left to an actual centrist party within Americans eyes, although in most Western countries, they would be considered centrist or mildly social-democratic. Somewhat socially liberal and fiscally left-wing (although they have a nearly in times fiscally conservative contingent in recent years). Strong in urban areas, the Northeast, and the West Coast, and among minorities, youth, and poor-to-working class voters. They currently hold most the Senate with some in House of Representatives.
- The Republican Party, or the GOP (Grand Old Party, despite being younger than the Democrats), is the center-right to right-wing party in American politics. Unified by fiscal conservatism, and a lot (but not all) of them are social conservatives. Strong in rural areas and the South, and among evangelical Protestants and middle class-to-affluent voters. They currently hold Presidency, some the Senate and the House of Representatives.
These definitions apply to the current time; the Democrats used to be the party of white landowners and former slaveholders in the South, but lost their support -- and several legislators -- due to the Civil Rights Acts, and Nixon and Reagan both campaigned to disillusioned Southern voters. Conversely, the Democrats picked up African-Americans because they were disillusioned by the Republican "Southern Strategy". The Republicans were established from the remains of the leftist Whig Party, and it used to be even worse-- for a good 30-year period, both parties had right and left wings, which ended shortly before World War One.
Both parties tend to have their own core of rich and elite constituencies and support from industries that provide much of the financial backing for each, though the degree to which each party is the "party of (insert your favorite evil industry here)" is typically hyped-up by the other party. The Republicans tend to garner support from small- to medium-business owners, oil and gas corporations, manufacturing corporations, construction and contracting businesses, and most of the financial sector. The Democrats, meanwhile, are supported by lawyers and law firms, entertainment and technology companies (i.e. Hollywood and Silicon Valley), higher education, labor unions, and a smaller share of the financial industry. Most major industries and corporations, though, tend to spread their campaign contributions around, typically to incumbents, on the basis of not wanting to anger one side or another and to curry favor with whoever might be in office at the time. The influence of campaign money in politics is a very controversial issue in the United States and promises to become even more so after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision.
The distinction on geography is very important. The South tends to be more conservative than the North and West, and the Rocky Mountain states and the Midwest somewhere in the middle, which is a phenomenon that has existed most likely since the nation's inception. So a Maine Republican might be more liberal than a Mississippi Democrat. The historical shift of the parties can be seen very vividly in this context: the Republicans (based in the north) under Lincoln ended slavery, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was nearly unanimously opposed by Southern legislators and supported by the rest, and these days, most minorities often disfavor Republicans (especially southern ones, and they're now based in the south). The West tends to be more socially libertarian but economically conservative. Once again, these are all generalizations.
It's important to note that the American definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" are rather different from how the terms are used in most of the rest of the world. In most societies, a liberal favors letting events take their course unimpeded by government control, while a conservative wants the government to maintain the status quo through laws and regulations. In the US, however, these meanings are reversed, particularly on economic matters -- it is conservatives (Republicans) who favor small government and the free market, while liberals (Democrats) call for fair markets and consumer protection through regulation. These are huge generalizations, of course.
For social and moral issues, it's more complicated, and generally extremists on both ends tend to favor government policies that enforce their values and restrict (or outright prohibit) behavior they disapprove of, while moderates, who make up the vast majority of the American populace, would rather they all just shut up about it.
Also, note the unofficial colors of the two parties. In most of the Western world, the color red is used for left-wing parties (red having traditionally been the color of socialism), while blue was given to right-wing parties. In America, however, this is reversed -- the center-left (by American standards) Democrats have blue as their color, while the center-right Republicans are red. The terms "red states" and "blue states" stem from this dichotomy, and was born during a confluence of coincidences during the 2000 presidential election.
There are a number of smaller groups, typically called "third parties" in the US, which are largely active only at the municipal or state level and rarely if ever, elect members to either state or federal office. The largest third parties (with fourth party who win seats but not have big membership like others) in the country are as follows:
- The Libertarian Party is pretty much Exactly What It Says on the Tin: it aims to be the leading party for libertarianism (though some libertarians do not agree with some of the LP's stances). It is the third largest political party according to these sources as of 2018. Libertarians tend to favor maximum individual liberty (pro-gun rights, pro-gay rights, pro-drug legalization, pro-legal abortion, anti-Patriot Act, anti-censorship), maximum economic liberty (loose environmental and labor laws, pro-free trade, anti-tax, anti-bailout), and very limited government involvement in social welfare. Libertarians do not identify themselves as "left" or "right" in the traditional sense -- most would argue for a bi-axial system of political identification, with "conservative" and "liberal" on the economic axis and "libertarian" and "authoritarian" on the social axis.
- The Green Party is probably the most (in)famous third party in the country after the Libertarians, mainly thanks to the high-profile Presidential run of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 and again with second time run Jill Stein in 2016. By any measure, they are quite leftist, supporting fair trade, pacifism, an end to the War on Drugs, local government, internationalism, very liberal views on civil liberties and social issues, opposition to the Patriot Act, and a strong welfare state -- in other words, not too far from other Green Parties worldwide and European-style social democrats. Their main focus, however, is environmentalism, as their name suggests. Supporters are often stereotyped as tree-hugging hippies and socialists. If you see a character in fiction who supports the Green Party, then he or she is probably a New Age Retro Hippie, Granola Girl or for some saner members as 'Useful Idiot' according to from Anti-Green Party folk.
- The Constitution Party is a "paleoconservative" party, which means that, while they have very right-wing views on taxes, spending and social/cultural issues and an explicit rooting of their beliefs in Christianity, they also break from modern mainstream conservatism by opposing free trade in favor of a protectionist/mercantilist trade policy, as well as supporting a foreign policy of noninterventionism and a reduced role in world affairs, including repeal of the Patriot Act and withdrawal from the UN, the World Bank and the IMF.
- The Working Families Party is on/off Social Democratic Party that appears in some states (mostly in New York political history) formed by former members of New Party and some labor members of being felted disfranchised by the political establishment especially in New York. But they realized this country voting system will let them never win, they occasionally only way to get few seats were partnered up in Democratic Party to get them.
And before anyone asks:
- The Tea Party, despite its name, is not a political party per se, but rather, is a right-wing populist movement centered on the Republican Party right-wing circles. It is primarily composed of conservative, Christian, upper-middle-class citizens, and it had its genesis in early 2009, when CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli went on a rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange attacking Barack Obama's bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure. Some would argue it started with Ron Paul's Presidential campaign in 2007-08, but although he has a faction in the modern Tea Party, it appears that the majority are closer to mainline conservative Republican ideology than the anti-interventionist, staunch libertarian Paul. Their name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party, one of many protests by colonial Americans against the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Their initial goals were largely libertarian and financial in nature, including smaller government, lower taxes, states' rights, and opposition to the bailouts and growing government spending (especially deficit spending), but the specific goals of its constituent groups greatly broadened the movement's focus; in particular, illegal immigration, family values and opposition to climate change legislation have been taken up as additional planks by many local and regional groups. A few politicians, such as Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, frequently speak at Tea Party events and are considered by outsiders as the public face of the group, but various groups remain and have no unified official leader. This has been problematic, though less than usual in such cases. Since the Tea Party and the issues it champions are hot-button subjects within the United States, please remember the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment when discussing them.
While the modern third parties have not been very successful at winning elections, they're often very effective at being "protest" votes: if a voter feels that his Democratic Party's candidate for politically weak as example, let's say state house, is too conservative on issues such as environmental protection or healthcare, that voter can vote for the Green Party in protest of that candidate. This weakens the candidate's base and increases the possibility feared that the Republican opponent can win the seat. The next time around, the Democratic Party or the Democratic candidate are more likely to heed the whims of their constituents and will adjust their stance on those above issues accordingly. It sounds like a roundabout method, but it can be pretty effective.
These are by no means the only third parties in the United States, or the oldest (none of the three date back earlier than 1970). Third parties have a long history in US politics and have been known to take up issues that would later be co-opted by the major parties. Here is a list of some of the more notable ones throughout history:
- The Anti-Masonic Party, as its name suggests, was formed in 1828 in opposition to what they felt was the corrupting influence of Freemasonry, although it would eventually pursue a more general opposition to Jacksonian democracy. It introduced such political traditions as party platforms and nominating conventions, as well as being the Trope Maker for single-issue political parties. At their height in 1832, they managed to win 7.78% of the popular vote, with their greatest strength in Vermont (who gave them their only electoral college victory) and in New York. The movement would fizzle out and be absorbed into the growing Whig party by 1838 (Freemasonry no longer being that hot of an issue), although not before running future President William Henry Harrison in the 1836 election.
- The Whig Party were not a third party, but rather the primary opposition party to Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party from the early 1830s to the late 1850s. (Listed here for historical interest.) To vastly oversimplify: on the issue of who should have greater power, the President or the States, the Democrats favored the former while the Whigs favored the latter. Managed to win the presidency twice, both times by men who would later die in office: William Henry Harrison in 1840 (succeeded by vice president John Tyler), and then Zachary Taylor in 1848 (succeeded by vice president Millard Fillmore). As slavery became a bigger issue in the late 1850s, most Whigs in the North (such as Abraham Lincoln, who had been a Whig congressman from Illinois from 1847-1849) joined the then-fledgling Republican Party, and those in the South gravitated either to the American Party (see below) or the Constitutional Union party.
- The Know Nothings were a political party that existed under the names Native American Party (nothing to do with actual Native Americans) from 1845 to 1855, and the American Party from then until 1860. The Know Nothings were a nativist movement that was strongly opposed to immigration (particularly from Ireland and Germany), which they blamed for the crime in the cities, and Catholicism, which they felt was a foreign plot to subvert and overthrow American democracy. The name "Know Nothing" comes from the secret groups that preceded the party, whose members were told to say "I know nothing" if they were confronted about their involvement. They enjoyed massive success in the mid-1850s thanks to the collapse of the Whig Party and the two-party system, but they soon splintered and fell apart over the issue of slavery. The term "Know Nothing" would go on to be used as a derogatory term for a nativist for decades to come.
- The Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 to call for the restriction and prohibition of alcoholic substances. It had its greatest success in 1919, when national alcohol prohibition was enacted, causing it to change its message to calling for stricter enforcement of the ban. However, the growing distaste for prohibition cost them dearly, and the repeal of prohibition in 1933 set the party on a long decline. The party still exists, but in the last election, it only earned 643 votes -- a far cry from the days when they could win over a quarter of a million votes. By sheer twist of fate, they were responsible for the election of the first female mayor in American history, and did so completely by accident. For fun, take a look on their Wikipedia page and see where they held their conventions. Going down the list, it's kind of sad.
- There have been various groups that have been known as the Populist Party over the decades, but the most famous one is the People's Party, which existed from 1884 to 1908. The Populists were an agrarian movement born out of anger at falling crop prices and rising railroad rates, and called for economic action against the banks, the railroads and the merchants of the cities. The main plank in their platform was bringing an end to the gold standard and replacing it with the free coinage of silver currency, an issue that resonated among struggling farmers (rapid inflation would allow credit to flow more freely in rural areas and make it much easier to pay off debt). The Populists had their greatest success in 1892, when they won over a million votes and four western states. However, the 1896 campaign saw the Democrats co-opting the Populists' support of free silver, which was a stake through the heart for the movement. While the party withered into irrelevance after that, much of their platform, which included an eight-hour work week, civil service reforms, a graduated income tax, and direct election of Senators, would be co-opted by the progressive movement in the early 20th century.
- There have been three Progressive Parties, of which the most-well known is the 1912 edition, also known as the Bull Moose Party, a vehicle for former President Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 Presidential run. The Progressive Party was the culmination of the progressive movement, which called for broad-reaching social reforms for America's working classes, including a pension system, income taxes, women's suffrage, farm relief, the right of labor to organize, and expanded access to health care. Despite its short life, the Progressive Party is notable for being the only third party to beat one of the major parties in an election.
- The Socialist Party existed from 1901 until 1972, and enjoyed its greatest success in the early 20th century, proving that, no, socialism was not always a four-letter word in the US. In the elections of 1912 and 1920, the Socialists won over 900,000 votes with their candidate Eugene V. Debs (keeping in mind that, in the latter case, he was in prison). They had particular success in local government, electing several mayors; Milwaukee in particular elected three Socialist mayors over the course of fifty years, the last one only leaving office in 1960. They endorsed Robert La Follette in 1924 and continued to build support in the 1920s, but their support was undercut by FDR's New Deal during The Great Depression. After the war, anti-Communist fears caused the Socialist Party to fade away, and they finally broke into three parties in 1972 over the issue of The Vietnam War.
- The Communist Party USA was a Stalinist political party that was influential from the 1920s through the 1940s. It supported the Soviet Union and sought to bring its economic system to the United States, and sought to unite American leftists during The Great Depression. It was crushed by the second Red Scare in The Fifties, and it was left out of the "New Left" of The Sixties due to its uncritical support of Leonid Brezhnev and Soviet militarism, which alienated liberals. It remains active to this day as a more democratic socialist third party (as opposed to its past militancy), but it has failed to regain its past influence.
- The States' Rights Democratic Party, or simply the Dixiecrats, were a faction that broke off from the Democratic Party in 1948 in protest of the Democrats' support for Civil Rights Movement. The Dixiecrats, running on a segregationist platform, nominated Senator Strom Thurmond and managed to win over 1.1 million votes, 39 electoral votes and four Southern states. The Dixiecrats faded away as a party after 1948, but the split between Northern and Southern Democrats continued to linger, leading to...
- The American Independent Party, another segregationist splinter from the Democrats, this time from 1968 and led by Alabama Governor George Wallace. The American Independents won 13.5% of the popular vote, 46 electoral votes and five Southern states. The success of Wallace's candidacy, combined with Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," marked the end of the once-Democratic "Solid South," which felt that the Democrats had betrayed the principles of white supremacy. While the AIP still exists, it does so solely as the California affiliate of the Constitution Party.
- The Reform Party was a populist third party established in the wake of Texas billionaire Ross Perot's 1992 independent Presidential run, which won 19% of the popular vote and became the first Presidential campaign since 1912 that was seen as having been capable of winning an election. The Reform Party had its greatest success in 1998 when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, but it soon fell prey to infighting between three groups: the "old guard" Perot faction, the libertarian Ventura faction, and a Christian conservative wing led by former Republican candidate and pundit Pat Buchanan. The party collapsed in the wake of the 2000 election, where its nomination was won by Buchanan, and while there is still a national organization, the party no longer meaningfully exists as a national entity.
Currently, there are three third-party federal office holders, all of them senators. The first is Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont who identifies himself as a socialist, campaigns as an independent but for all intents and purposes caucuses ("hangs out") with the Democrats. The second is Joseph Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut who was not renominated by the Democratic Party in the 2006 election, but ran as an "Independent Democrat" without party funding, won reelection anyway, and continues to caucus as a Democrat. The third is Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; initially appointed as a Republican to the seat vacated by her father when he was elected governor, she lost to a Tea Party-backed candidate in the 2010 Republican primary, ran as a write-in candidate, and won; she continues to caucus with the Republicans. The latter two senators tend to break from their party line more, mostly out of bitterness due to being out-primaried (and in Lieberman's case, his long-standing and well-noted differences with the main line of the Democrats on foreign policy, which prompted his break in the first place).
No third party candidate has ever been elected president. Even when the Republican Party won its first presidential election with Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it was already one of the top two parties going into the election year. However, there have been several third party candidacies with a sizable impact on the two-party race -- which is to say, backlash on the third-party voters' second choice. This is known as the "spoiler" effect, most recently observed when Ross Perot ran as an independent candidate in 1992, received 19% of the popular vote and split conservatives, and in 2000, where Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's showing of 2% was sufficient to tip the scales in George W. Bush's favor in Florida.
America uses a first-past-the-post voting system -- in any election, one vote is cast and the candidate/option with the most votes is the winner, even if a majority did not vote for it. Quick example: In an election between A, B, and C, A gets 35%, B gets 45%, and C gets 20%. B wins, even though 55% of the electorate voted against it. If it seems to you that the A and C supporters should have teamed up and pooled their votes rather than splitting them, congratulations -- you've just discovered why America has only two major political parties. Using political science, it can be shown that plurality elections tend to lead to two-party systems, which is exactly what happened in America. This has led to calls for the implementation of alternative voting systems, such as the single transferable vote or instant-runoff voting, in order to break the monopoly of the two major parties, as well as the abolition of the Electoral College system.
In the 2011-2012 session, the Republicans hold the majority in the House of Representatives, while the Democrats hold the Senate majority. As the executive and legislative branches are distinct in the US government, it is possible for one or both houses of Congress to be controlled by the opposite party than the president, and indeed this is more often than not the case -- Democrat Bill Clinton had a Republican congress for six years of his presidency, and George W. Bush worked with a Democratic Congress for the final two years of his term. While such differences can often lead to a political stalemate -- a budgetary standoff between Clinton and Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich lead to a federal government shutdown in 1995 -- more often than not, compromise rules the day. Republican use of the filibuster rule during Barack Obama's term has served to give the minority party an effective veto, earned them the nickname "Party Of No" (due to an utter unwillingness to compromise) and revived serious discussion about doing away with the filibuster entirely, or at least seriously weakening it. The exact same debate, of course, happened with the parties reversed during the George W. Bush administration, when (until 2006) the Democrats were in the minority. And now you have an idea of why serious moves to eliminate the filibuster never go through -- the party in power may be annoyed by it, but they know that, when they become the minority on Capitol Hill, not having the filibuster means that they won't be able to make their dissent mean anything.
The Constitution makes no mention of political parties anywhere in the document; indeed, many of the nation's founders railed against "factions" in their writings. However, various laws have been passed (especially during the 20th century) that have given them official powers. Many of them are designed to make it very hard for a third party to acquire any real influence. Political parties are considered "private" organizations who just happen to be given government power in a number of ways. Since they are not "officially" part of the government, they are not required to adhere to the general principles of "the will of the people" or such. Understanding this will help in the next chapter on Primaries.
The majority of elections for office are a competition between two major candidates, one Republican and one Democrat. How each party picks their candidate is totally up to them (except in California, where the state has a blanket primary in place). Every state has laws which regulate this practice but each law is written by the parties, so they can choose whatever they want.
For example, the Democratic Party had a primary election in 2008 to decide if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would be their candidate for President. One might think that the party would simply have all members vote for who they want and which ever one gets the most votes would win. This is not how it works. The leaders of the Democratic Party, who are not elected, can choose any method they want to decide who their candidate is. The current method involves having the vote of the members choose most of the "delegates" (who themselves are chosen by the party), while the remaining delegates are high ranking party members ("superdelegates"). Depending on state law and state party rules, the delegates who were voted for might or might not be required to support the candidate they were elected to 
Just to mention, the Republican Party's rules are pretty much the same as far as this goes. The main differences are that they make far less use of caucuses and allocate delegates by winner-takes-all or by congressional district for many states, not proportionally to popular vote, and do not use the "superdelegate" system. There was once a time when Democrats didn't use superdelegates either, but after George McGovern's disastrous run in 1972 -- in which he picked Sam Eagleton, who proved to have had psychiatric issues in the past (as well as later having been found to have made some controversial remarks about McGovern to the press), as his running mate -- and Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, they added this feature as a safeguard.
As a general rule, winning a primary requires Pandering to the Base, while winning a general election requires appealing to centrist "swing voters". Expect accusations of "flip-flopping," particularly from an incumbent opponent who has the luxury of sitting out the primary. It's considered an especially bad sign of a politician's career if he or she faces a serious primary challenge as an incumbent, as that means that the party that put them in office is seriously considering kicking them out.
- ↑ This is to prevent it from being too heavily affected by any one state's petty local politics. Philadelphia was the original capital until the Pennsylvania state legislature effectively holding Congress hostage in 1783 convinced everyone else this was a bad idea. Lots of Hilarity Ensues from that fact, including the oddity that the citizens of DC - despite paying taxes - have no voting representation in the Legislative Branch (merely a non-voting representative), and until 1961 couldn't vote in Presidential elections. This from the country that revolted under the battle cry, "No taxation without representation!" The city's residents are disgruntled about it enough that the official DC automobile license plate reads "Taxation Without Representation".
- ↑ The Articles of Confederation were a wash and don't count
- ↑ The oldest is the constitution of San Marino, which went into effect in 1600
- ↑ The Constitution of Massachusetts, drafted by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin, went into effect in 1780 and had significant influence on the federal one.
- ↑ even if they were a Military officer before becoming President their former rank is now meaningless as far as the chain of command is concerned, one example would be Eisenhower who was a 5 star General before becoming President but then resumed his rank after his Presidency ended
- ↑ Bush had been Ambassador to the United Nations, then ambassador-in-all-but-name to Red China, and then Director of Central Intelligence; Cheney had been White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense.
- ↑ "Any person born in the Canal Zone on or after February 26, 1904, and whether before or after the effective date of this chapter, whose father or mother or both at the time of the birth of such person was or is a citizen of the United States, is declared to be a citizen of the United States."--8 USC § 1403
- ↑ Besides, it's just the same jokes we used about Bob Dole from 1996 to 1999
- ↑ This was later referred by him as My Greatest Failure.
- ↑ Similar to Parliamentary constituencies in the UK.
- ↑ by Strom Thurmond, opposing the 1957 Civil Rights Act
- ↑ Notionally, the President puts the bill in his pocket and forgets about it.
- ↑ Obama was faced with a defense appropriations bill that included a provision that explicitly authorized the Justice Department to detain American citizens accused of terrorism without charge. Obama thought that this was ridiculous and an offense to American values, but he couldn't be seen to be vetoing a defense appropriations bill--i.e. the bill that keeps the military in guns, uniforms, and food for the next year. In the end, he chose to sign the bill but include a signing statement--long story--saying that his administration would never actually detain anyone, but the fact remains that a default enactment was on the table and could have done the same thing.
- ↑ In theory this is a meaningless limitation, as any amendment reducing a state's representation could also include a clause retracting the requirement for consent, though this has never actually been attempted or tested.
- ↑ The rule that once a judicial decision is made, it stands forever
- ↑ After Brown, the next most important overturning is probably United States v. Darby (1941), in which the Court overturned the decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), which vastly expanded the ability of Congress to use the Commerce Clause. For non-lawyers/legal wonks: this is why Congress today can do half of what it does, from regulating labor relations (including banning child labor) to regulating health insurance.
- ↑ Or, in the case of statutory interpretation cases (the main bulk of the Court's caseload), Congress amending the statute
- ↑ Among whom were several odd personalities, including Gary Coleman, the former Commissioner of Baseball, and a porn star
- ↑ They oppose immigration, welfare and the income tax, support gun rights, states' rights and anti-federalism, and take a generally fundamentalist Christian stance on issues like homosexuality, abortion, gambling and pornography. Their anti-abortion position is a big enough issue that debates over whether to allow for abortions in the event of rape, incest and the health of the mother created a schism that saw several state affiliates break away.
- ↑ The other two were also candidate-driven; the 1924 edition was an electoral vehicle for Wisconsin Governor Robert M. La Follette, and continued for some time afterwards, primarily in Wisconsin and the Great Plains. The 1948 edition, meanwhile, was created by Henry Wallace as a left-wing challenge to Democratic President Harry Truman.
- ↑ The logic behind this system is that the appointed "superdelegates" may be able to influence the nomination if a candidate does something monumentally stupid or embarassing after the popular votes have been cast. Absent such an event, superdelegates generally vote with the national plurality.