United States: Government

Principal Government Officials

Chief of State: President Barack H. Obama
Head of Government: President Barack H. Obama

The United States of America is based on the U.S. Constitution and comprises 50 States and the District of Columbia. This Federal Republic has universal suffrage for all citizens over 18 years and has a strong democratic tradition. The Executive branch (President), Legislative branch (bicameral Congress), and the Judiciary branch (Supreme Court) encompass the three facets of the Federal Government.

A two-party system
Since the 1850s the US political system has featured rivalry between the Democratic and Republican parties. Although each party embodies a broad coalition of interests, the Democrats tend to be pro-labor and have, especially since the 1960s, been more inclined to espouse socially liberal attitudes towards civil rights and welfare expenditure. The Republicans tend to promote low tax rates and a limited welfare system, combined with a strong military and a tough criminal justice system. Other parties have come and gone, usually leaving little impact on the political landscape. In elections at all levels, candidates of the two major parties are virtually certain to receive the vast majority of votes cast.

The Democrats can trace their origins to Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers, and finally took on the trappings of a formal political party in the 1820s under Andrew Jackson, the seventh president. In the 20th century, the Democrats came to dominate politics after the onset of the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s landslide victory in the 1932 presidential election. The Democrats held the White House for 28 of the following 36 years, while controlling the House and Senate for all but four of those years.

The New Deal coalition built by Roosevelt was always a fragile one, as its numbers included many Southern politicians, who until the 1960s, successfully blocked civil rights and other socially liberal legislation. Democratic president Lyndon Johnson managed to push the landmark Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964, but in so doing ended his party's stranglehold on the South.  Johnson's role in expanding US involvement in the Vietnam War and the social upheavals of the 1960s caused the Democratic Party to splinter internally, essentially between left-wingers and centrists. This split plagues the party to this day.

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by opponents of slavery. The GOP (Grand Old Party), the popular nickname of the Republicans, has contested presidential elections since 1856. The Republicans, who had begun to move to the right in the mid-1960s, were well placed to take advantage of many Americans' growing sense that the country was heading in the wrong direction and that the liberalism of the 1960s had gone too far. The Republicans' recovery after years as the minority party culminated in the election of Reagan in 1980. Reagan appealed to conservatives as well as working-class Democratic voters—the so-called Reagan Democrats—and the Senate changed to Republican control for the first time since a brief period in the early 1950s.

US politics is an intricate web of countervailing lobbies. Women, ethnic minorities, gays, gun-owners, labor unions, religious groups, veterans and the representatives of particular industries vie with each other to influence the agenda of the Democrats and the Republicans. Since the late 1970s, right-wing evangelical Christians have emerged as energetic opponents of abortion, gay rights and liberal public spending.

Lobbying plays a particularly important role in crafting legislation and the number of lobbyists on Capitol Hill has more than doubled since 2000, to around 35,000. A recent scandal has provoked a new outcry over the cozy ties between politicians and lobbyists, resulting in numerous proposals for tighter rules governing these relationships. Many lobbyists have become almost an adjunct to the politicians they court, helping them to raise campaign funds, paying for lavish trips and entertainment, and organizing special-interest “salutes” at party conventions. Lobbyists have even had access to the House floor, restaurants and gymnasium. The potential for conflicts of interest has grown, with about one-half of the senators and four in every ten House members who have retired over the past seven years registering as lobbyists.

Regions of the US show distinct voting patterns. In recent years, New England has been the most liberal of regions in which voters are the most likely to vote Democrat. In Massachusetts, for example, voters tend to support Democrat candidates over Republicans by a ratio of about 60-40. The mid-Atlantic states are also predominantly liberal, as are the states on the mainland west coast. The most conservative of regions is the mountain west, with voters in states such as Utah and Idaho supporting Republican candidates by a ratio of about 65-35. The Southern states are also predominantly conservative. In many states, for example New York and Pennsylvania, there is a sharp split between rural and urban voters, the latter tending to vote Democrat and the former tending to vote Republican. Recent presidential elections have thus largely been a battle for a handful of mid-western states and Florida.

For most of the US's history, political sentiment has been broadly centrist. Neither political party has been successful when it has promoted views that moved too far either to the left or to the right, with elections decided by a battle for the political middle ground and undecided voters. However, in recent elections, political strategists, particularly on the Republican side, have pushed the idea that the way to win is to motivate a party's base of support to turn out in strong numbers to the polls. This, coupled with the declining competitiveness of congressional districts, has pushed candidates, particularly incumbents, to appeal to their parties' core group of supporters, which tend to be more liberal or conservative than the electorate as a whole. This has led to greater divisiveness over the last 15 years and has made for close, but bitterly fought elections.

The US has an extensive bureaucracy but is, in general, less bureaucratic at the national level than most other countries, owing to the smaller relative size of government and a greater reliance on the private sector to deliver services. However, the presence of separate bureaucracies in each state (for example, 50 different regimes for local taxes, business registration, environmental regulation and the like) can be an impediment to the establishment of businesses, especially by foreign firms accustomed to one national set of rules.

Sources:

CIA World Factbook (October 2011)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( October 2011)

Glossary