The American Political System For Dummies
A simple explanation of American politics including an overview of US history, the political parties, and the political system.
Below we start at the formation of the United States of America, explain the structure of our government, and then end with an honest look at the state of the nation today here in 2017.
See the PBS CrashCourse history series for a more in-depth look at American politics.
TIP: The chart below shows the political spectrum as a four-point chart derived from the types of liberalism and conservatism (the political philosophies America is based on). You can see how the four complex American political ideologies, the two major parties, and their platforms, arise from these natural positions on the role of government.
A Summary of How America’s Political System Works
America had been a British colony since 1607, but by 1776 the time had come to Declare Independence.
By 1777 the Articles of Confederation began to create a unified government, but it wasn’t until 1787 until Madison’s Virginia plan replaced the Confederation with a more perfect Federal Union via the Constitution.
Although many more amendments would come, and although some elements of America start sooner (such as the Federalists and Anti-Federalists), from 1789 forward we can say:
- The United States of America is constitution-based Federal Republic; with strong Democratic tradition. Federal meaning “a federation of states” (50 Republican states specifically) Republic meaning “a lawful popular government with power delegated to elected officials,” and Democratic tradition meaning “a representative democracy by the people, and for the people. Meanwhile, America is liberal in the classical sense in its favoring individual and collective liberty, and not special interests, too much government power, or censorship. Learn more about the forms of government.
- America’s founding fathers modeled the country after past nations like Athens and Rome, two of the best examples of successful governments in recorded history. Athens was a type of democracy, Rome was (at one point) a type of Republic. The story of these governments, along with the liberal philosophers who also informed the constitution like Smith, Locke and Montesquieu, tell us a lot about America and our principles like “the separation of governmental powers and checks and balances.”
- Just like Athens or Rome, America distributes power to different “branches” of government, and this juxtaposes the naturally occurring roles of individuals, and the groups they form (like unions, political parties, and grassroots groups; AKA factions).
- Our Federal government has three branches (separation of powers) that are detailed in the first three articles of the Constitution. They are the Executive (President and about 5,000,000 workers), Legislative (Senate and House of Representatives), and Judicial (Supreme Court and lower Courts).
- Each branch is meant to address the law in a different way, and to generally keep each other in check and balance each other (checks and balances, see Federalist #51). This is meant to ensure that taking control of the government is difficult and that changes can’t be made too quickly. It’s designed to be slow and democratic, to create arguments rather than progress, and to refer to the law.
- There are also many federal agencies and commissions established by the branches (mostly the executive), but there is also independent agencies like the Federal Reserve, which aren’t part of the Government. Other powerful groups include “grassroots groups” like unions, and “grassroots special interests” like corporations and their lobbyists. In a similar, but more unofficial way, the branches check and balance each other, the federal agencies, commissions, and grassroots groups, check and balance each other as well.
- Although America is a Republic, the American political system is complex in practice. America is best described as a “mixed government” that draws from all the four basic government types to prevent tyranny
- The basic government types have been known since Ancient times and were noted by Plato and Aristotle. They include, roughly speaking, a monarchy (ruled by one), an oligarchy (ruled by a few), a republic (ruled by elected officials and ruled by law), and a democracy (ruled by the many).. There are different ways to express the classical government types, but generally our mixed-republic and different branches of government reflect this.
- America’s founding fathers specifically choose a Republic as the overarching government type. This is because a Republic governs by law, and not by the much less stable popular opinion (pure Democracy), special interest (oligarchy), or importantly “tyrannical” king. A benevolent oligarchy or monarchy might be more stable in the short-term, but America’s founding fathers believed a Republic was the best way to ensure collective and individual liberty in the long-term. By looking at a list of current governments from the CIA Factbook, we can see that America’s founding fathers were largely correct and that only a few constitutional and representative styles of government consistently work in practice.
How do American Elections Work? American Presidential elections, are complex, but generally they work like this: Each party designs it’s primary process. People vote in the primary, then delegates consider the votes of the people, then delegates pick the candidates. The people vote again, and then an appointed electoral college picks the president. Meanwhile there is direct voting on some state-laws and representatives in the legislative. This type of system is called a representative Republic / or representative democracy. This hybrid democratic/republic process, just like our government, is meant to be slow, somewhat difficult, and use a balance of powers to get a wise, ethical, and popular choice. The President isn’t meant to be chosen directly by the people, our forefathers rightly feared Mob Rule (even though today we also understand the value of the wisdom of crowds, we also understand that the most popular choice isn’t always the best one). Learn more about how voting works.US Elections — How do they work?. This video explains how American elections work in more detail, including how Senate and House representatives are chosen. There are many different types of electoral processes that happen in America. We won’t cover each one here.
Summary of the Founding Documents – the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist papers
- The basic democratic principles of the Republic are laid out in two key documents. The first, “the Constitution” defines the structure of our government. The second, “the Bill of Rights” amends the constitution to further define the role of government and, in essence, expresses what America means by “liberty” in regards to rights.
- “The Declaration of Independence” works as the third statement of intentions, but it doesn’t describe how the country should be run like the other documents. The Declaration of Independence is the one that says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
menpeople are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
- Arguably, the most important foundation of American idealism is found in the 1st amendment of the Bill of Rights. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
- Despite talking points since the 60’s, the second amendment doesn’t suggest everyone should own guns. It suggests the only reason to own a weapon is to defend the Republic. It says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Most governments actually understand their own version of this and teach this to their citizens (see Switzerland), we don’t in America because of special interests like the NRA. Our forefathers called these special interests “factions” (typically referring to money interest related plutocracies, but also to political, and bloodline or ideology related aristocracies).
- It has been long known that a little bit of wealth can buy a lot of influence in politics as many governments have fallen to “monied” interests/factions/special interests historically. The founder’s thoughts on factions and most of the other key points America’s founding fathers were trying to make can be found in the Federalist papers which lay out how our founding fathers (but mostly Madison and Hamilton) understood the role of government and the constitution.
Summary of the American Political Parties
- There are two basic political parties, “the left” (Democrats) and “the right” (Republicans). These groups have always contained a variety of viewpoints, and the names and positions of the parties have changed over time (we can explain this as the idea that “factions have changed parties.”) Sometimes, like in the 1890’s with the Socialist and Populist parties, or leading up to the 2016 primaries, with Democratic-Socialists and Democrats on “the left”, and Republican-Libertarians and Republicans on “the right”, we can see multiple versions of the left and right. While this better represents the true four-quadrant political spectrum, it also democratizes the election in a way that, counter-intuitively, hasn’t been shown to work well for America in practice.
- With the above point in mind, the American political parties have always been broadly represented. Hamilton was a Federalist, today’s Liberal or Conservative. He wanted federal power and a central bank. Jefferson was what we would today call a Socialist or Libertarian, but was in his day called an “anti-Federalist.” He wanted small groups and didn’t want large city-states like we have today. They both wanted a Republic; they just didn’t agree on what type. This means they both had centered views in the grand scheme like any good American politician always does.
- The reason party politics can get so messy is, in-part, because “left” and “right” aren’t two points on a single line, rather, the political spectrum is a combination of many complex paradigms. This concept is an essay in itself, but for simplicity, in modern America, the political parties are the Liberal, Socialist, Conservative, and Libertarian parties.
- The parties should not be confused with the overarching political spectrum, specific leaders, an ideology of a given party member, or even a specific bit of legislation. Today’s parties each represent a mix of view points from across the political spectrum, and are only loosely “left” or “right.” This is not widely understood and leads to a lot of arguing over viewpoints.
- Due in part to the complexity of the world, one view is not always correct all the time, and all views need to be tempered and balanced against each other. Extreme positions of political parties are almost always dangerous. Too much push in any one direction can easily lead to oligarchies. Our founding fathers knew this because this story has often played out in history. The Republic protects against extremism through law although as the American rebels knew, when a government itself has become too extreme itself and no longer represents the people, rebellion is the only choice.
- In simple terms, no one political party or ideology is 100% correct on every issue. The parties represent opposing viewpoints inherent in the human condition, and each viewpoint is meant to temper the other. When governments fall it is often because an extreme ideology has taken over “unchecked”, and this unbalances the system leading the way for a Despot to take over, that despot then delegates power to the oligarchs. The only way to stop the cycle seems to be to form a Republic (or, the closely related representative democracy… or, to have a benevolent and constitutional monarchy).
Summary of Income and Wealth Inequality in America
- The most dangerous extreme isn’t ideological; it is a disparity of wealth.
- Oligarchs almost always come to power through the disparity of wealth, building fortunes over time and indebting the people. When this happens, we call these oligarchs “plutocrats.” When plutocrats, the aristocracy of old money and inherited power, and politicians become bed-fellows, the people typically suffer.
- You may think income inequality is an issue in America, but wealth inequality is even more problematic, and it always has been. Wealth inequality was what Athens rebelled against, it contributed to the downfalls of Rome, and it was the reason America rebelled too. The battle has always been the same, and war aside, the battle is always fought with money and rhetoric.
- America, since it’s inception, has gone through periods where oligarchs had too much power like the Industrial Revolution. There have also been periods when the collective may have been exerting too much force on individual liberty like when Lincoln, FDR, or Kennedy/LBJ pushed for the expansion of Civil Rights against those claiming states’ rights.
- In FDR’s time the tax rate was high (top rate of 90%+) and nationalism was rampant. Shortly after that, there was pushback from McCarthy. Next Kennedy and LBJ passed their Civil Rights and social programs pushing America in a “social” direction like FDR.
- Libertarians and Conservatives didn’t like this “socialism”, and they took action with some rather militant tactics. This reaction by the oligarchs, against the liberal-backed masses, begins the era of modern politics
A Summary of Modern Politics
- In the 60’s the pro-south Socially Conservative Democrats (who would have been the 1960’s version of the Confederates of the Civil War; the Dixiecrats) broke away from the Democratic party and joined the Republicans as a response to the rise of Progressivism (see Hippies, Civil Rights, and College Campus protests). The pro-south religious folks and traditional Republicans joined the new “Libertarians” like Goldwater and Reagan in the big tent that today houses characters like Trump (pro-business Libertarian) and Cruz (traditional big government pro-Christian conservative). This big tent employed some key tactics that shaped modern American politics, media, and in many ways the current corporate environment (sometimes called a corporatocracy, which is a type of oligarchy).
- The Powell Memo (read) and repealing the Fairness Doctrine created an environment in which special interests could team up to spread their pro-business message via Fox News and right wing radio, which both formed after these changes. The Citizen United rulings led to the current state of campaign finance. These trends can be traced to figures like Reagan and a lot of deregulation pushed by lobbyists in back-room deals.
- To be fair, the above was a response to what they all felt was Liberals exerting too much pressure on business and favoring the people too strongly.
- Also to be fair, Liberals have contributed to the problem in their way too.
- First, the left has historically pushed for higher taxes on the rich to “redistribute the wealth”, which while not unjust, can be a slippery slope (the social “populist party” started the income tax, while the pro-business libertarians, including J.P. Morgan and Nelson W. Aldrich, essentially created the FED about 15 years later).
- Second, and not directly related to economics, the left tend to represent more democratic groups like unions, but one can argue that their use of Media, and their pandering to special interests, isn’t much different than “the right” tactics-wise (although it certainly is in tone). How exactly is using Powell’s tactics any different than Bernays’s tactics, or from Saul Alinsky’s 12 Rules for Radicals? Or, how is the different from adhering to Aristotle’s rhetoric? That answer can be found by referencing Aristotle’s Ethics, and other moral philosophies (like say, Adam Smith, father of modern capitalist economics), but I think most of us know the answer in our hearts without looking it up.
- This means both the left and right hold positions that are vital to liberty and justice, but also hold the seeds for despotism (the left through social tyranny, the right through oligarchical tyranny). When we divide as a nation, and don’t respect our rather purple nature, we start down a slippery slope.
- Regardless of our personal views, there is only one truth. Focus must always, first and foremost, be on liberty and the Republic. We protect the weak to balance the scales, not to favor the weak or to take liberty away from the strong. Sometimes this will require tactics, but our primary tactic is, as Madison suggests, “the freedom of speech and press”, and as Aristotle suggests, this is an approach that must be rooted in morality and ethics to be legitimate.
- It’s tempting to think the people should win, and oligarchs should bow down but of course, that is a description of “mob rule” (specifically tyranny of the mob), which is exactly what the pro-south “right” was rebelling against in the first place. Better then to consider why monied interests rebelled under Powell, and address that in an honest and ethical way.
- We may need social justice and taxes, but the wrong individual or group can and will use this to gain a choke hold on our nation, and that can only be avoided with conservative and libertarian ideals. Likewise, the oligarchs are only kept at bay with liberal and social ideals. We safeguard against tyrants with liberty, truth, and justice, as intended.
- In sum, the overarching issue has been framed as if it is about individual liberty, but it isn’t, it’s about collective liberty and individual liberty. It’s about the fact that weakening of the protective power of Republic’s laws has led to politicians pandering to lobbyists and corporations (special interests), instead of ensuring the liberty of the people, or importantly focusing on truth, justice, and “the rule of law.” We can see this in the way everyone treats Communism and Socialism like dirty words. Sure, Communism as a system of government is toxic in practice and leads to something worse than a corporatocracy, but the smear campaign against the concept of “socialism” is meant to make Americans embrace pro-business ideology, and fight against their own interests (see the Powell Memo). Communism is an extreme form of socialism, and it’s equivalent to the Libertarians pushing for “no government”, or Democrats or Conservatives pushing for too much Government for whatever reason. All are equally awful ideas, and not in line with the Republic or our founding fathers, but what can you expect from special interest-backed groups? As Adam Smith points out, you should expect nothing short of self-interest. This is why checks and balances are needed to “balance the scales.”
Balancing the Scales – How to Protect America From Special Interests
- When Athens declared itself a Democracy, it did so by rebelling against the special interest oligarchs who had taken over and enslaved the people with debt. When Caesar became King, and Rome became a monarchy, it was because the senators were corrupt and pandered to special interests at the expense of the people. The main theme of both was wealth inequality.
- If the scales are to remain in balance, then neither the collective or the oligarchs can have too much power. At a given time, either one will be weaker, but if we value liberty we can eliminate neither. It may seem counter-intuitive to protect your opponent, especially when they pool money to brainwash your parents into fighting against your interests, but oligarchs are a natural artifact of liberty. One can’t prevent monied power without force, and in a nation that values liberty and law, force should never be the go-to solution.
- Instead of force, the answer is that we must use our first amendment rights to protect the Republic. At times, this could mean fighting for collective liberties, and at other times this could mean fighting for individual liberty. What is the right thing to do will not fall consistently into a neat point on the left-right spectrum, but from “behind a veil of ignorance“, and with the right moral ethics, you’ll always be able to spot the correct side on a given issue. Spotting the correct ideal isn’t hard, but predicting the complex mechanics of an action can be. The world is complex!
ADVICE: There is no one political party that holds all the correct views at any time. When we divide over politics, we show our Achilles heel to the special interests. When we come together and demand change, by electing the right representatives, utilizing our fist amendment rights, avoiding extremes, and by respecting the rule of law, we protect the Republic.
When we protect the Republic, we protect Democracy and Oligarchies. We don’t protect the oligarchy because we want them to overpower us, we protect them because in the words of Madison:
“Like fire is to air, liberty is to factions” – Madison Federalist #10 (playing off of Hamilton’s rant against factions in #9, factions are one of the major themes of the papers). It’s Liberty and Justice for all, not just for those in our in-group. It’s a matter of morality and ethics, not guerrilla tactics.
A Timeline of Democracy
Below is a rough timeline of Democracy from Athens to today. Notice how roughly every 300 years there is a major change.
- In roughly 600 BC, Solon liberated Athens from the Oligarchs and created what would become Athenian Democracy.
- In roughly 350 BC, shortly after Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Athens fell to Rome. Rome based its Democratic Republic on Athens.
- Around 50 BC, Caesar becomes God-King of Rome overthrowing the Senate and oligarchs. This move was very popular with the people who had suffered oppression at the hands of the Roman aristocrats and plutocrats (the Senate and oligarchs).
- Starting around 320 Constantine the Great makes his rise, bringing Christianity to Rome and changing history in the process.
- Around 620 the Golden Age of Islam begins. This is important as they focus on obtaining and preserving the knowledge of the Greeks during the European dark ages.
- Around 1,100 the Golden Age of Islam winds down and the Dark Ages of Europe do too. For the next 300 years, the cultures mix and share ancient knowledge. Oxford University is one of the first European Universities, and it’s based on the Islamic houses of wisdom (the first Universities).
- Around 1,440, the printing press is created, and the European age of enlightenment really takes off. The Greek texts are printed off for the first time after being preserved throughout our timeline. For the first time, knowledge was democratized, governments began to change quickly. Shortly after this we get characters like Copernicus, Galilee, and Newton; or perhaps for our conversation Hobbes and Locke.
- In 1,776, America’s forefathers Declare independence drawing inspiration from those before them. Knowing the importance of the written word Freedom of Press and Freedom of Speech are insured. Hamilton demands a national bank, Jefferson opposes. Eventually under Wilson and the Industrialists in the 1900’s Hamilton wins, but shortly after the big monopolies are broken up creating many of the large corporations we know today.
- Around 1,860, Lincoln frees the slaves, but at what cost? A Civil War divides the country. Do we protect the collective liberties by freeing the slaves, or do we favor individual authority of slave owners? Whose liberty is more important? The question is answered by bloodshed, not by consensus. The North prospers as they built their fortune on industry and not slavery. Shortly after the industrial revolution ensures power for the north while keeping peace through a system of credit and debt.
- Around 1,960, special interests band together to push back against the increasingly authoritative liberalism found in Civil Rights. But at what cost?
- Around 1,980, a new era of Deregulation and polarized politics begins. From here we see economic growth in the markets, surmounting debt for the public, and the birth of the modern age.
Below are experts from the Athenian Constitution and the American Declaration of Independence.
Excerpt from The Athenian Constitution
“…there was contention for a long time between the upper classes and the populace. Not only was the constitution at this time oligarchical in every respect, but the poorer classes, men, women, and children, were the serfs of the rich. They were known as Pelatae and also as Hectemori because they cultivated the lands of the rich at the rent thus indicated. The whole country was in the hands of a few persons, and if the tenants failed to pay their rent they were liable to be haled into slavery, and their children with them. All loans secured upon the debtor’s person, a custom which prevailed until the time of Solon, who was the first to appear as the champion of the people. …As soon as he was at the head of affairs, Solon liberated the people once and for all, by prohibiting all loans on the security of the debtor’s person: and in addition he made laws by which he canceled all debts, public and private. This measure is commonly called the Seisachtheia [= removal of burdens], since thereby the people had their loads removed from them.” – The founding of Athenian Democracy, The Athenian Constitution
Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind is more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” – The Declaration of Independence
… Lastly, where we have been is important, but where we are going is what matters. Learn more about globalization and hegemonies.Globalization I – The Upside: Crash Course World History #41. Globalization II – Good or Bad?: Crash Course World History #42.
- “CIA World Factbook” CIA.gov
- “The Executive Branch” Whitehouse.gov
- ‘THREE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT” Trumanlibrary.org
- “Checks and Balances” Congressforkids.net
- “List of federal agencies in the United States” Wikipedia.org
- “The Republic By Plato” classics.MIT.edu
- “The Wisdom of Crowds: James Surowiecki“
- “United States presidential election” Wikipedia.org
- “The Constitution” Archives.gov
- “The Declaration of Independence” Archives.gov
- “The Bill of Rights” Archives.gov
- “The Federalist papers” Archives.gov
- Powell memo
- Fairness Doctrine
- Citizen United
- “The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection” Congress.gov
- “Federalist #10” Congress.gov
- “Declaration of Independence: Making Comparisons TEACHER’S COPY” LOC.gov