Politics of the United States

Political system of the United States

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

The executive branch is headed by the President and is formally independent of both the legislature and the judiciary. The cabinet serves as advisers to the President. They include the Vice President and heads of the executive departments. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judicial branch (or judiciary), composed of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, exercises judicial power (or judiciary). The judiciary's function is to interpret the United States Constitution and federal laws and regulations. This includes resolving disputes between the executive and legislative branches. The federal government's layout is explained in the Constitution.

Two political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have dominated American politics since the American Civil War, although there are also smaller parties like the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party.

There are major differences between the political system of the United States and that of most other developed democracies. These include greater power in the upper house of the legislature, a wider scope of power held by the Supreme Court, the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, and the dominance of only two main parties. Third parties have less political influence in the United States than in other developed country democracies; this is because of a combination of stringent historic controls. These controls take shape in the form of state and federal laws, informal media prohibitions, and winner-take-all elections, and include ballot access issues and exclusive debate rules.

This multiplicity of jurisdictions reflects the country's history. The federal government was created by the states, which as colonies were established separately and governed themselves independently of the others. Units of local government were created by the colonies to efficiently carry out various state functions. As the country expanded, it admitted new states modeled on the existing ones.

Political culture

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

Colonial origins

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

  1. Suffrage was the most widespread in the world, with every man who owned a certain amount of property allowed to vote. While fewer than 20% of British men could vote, a majority of white American men were eligible. While the roots of democracy were apparent, nevertheless deference was typically shown to social elites in colonial elections.[3] That deference declined sharply with the American Revolution.
  2. In each colony, elected bodies, especially the assemblies and county governments, decided a wide range of public and private business.[4] Topics of public concern and debate included land grants, commercial subsidies, and taxation, as well as oversight of roads, poor relief, taverns, and schools. Americans spent a great deal of time in court, as private lawsuits were very common. Legal affairs were overseen by local judges and juries, with a central role for trained lawyers. This promoted the rapid expansion of the legal profession, and the dominant role of lawyers in politics was apparent by the 1770s, as attested by the careers of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, among many others.[5]
  3. The North American colonies were exceptional in the world context because of the growth of representation of different interest groups. Unlike in Europe, where royal courts, aristocratic families and established churches exercised control, the American political culture was open to merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers, and many other identifiable groups. Over 90% of the representatives elected to the legislature lived in their districts, unlike in the United Kingdom where it was common to have an absentee member of Parliament.
  4. Americans became fascinated by and increasingly adopted the political values of republicanism, which stressed equal rights, the need for virtuous citizens, and the evils of corruption, luxury, and aristocracy.[6]

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

American ideology

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

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

At the time of the United States' founding, agriculture and small private businesses dominated the economy, and state governments left welfare issues to private or local initiative. Laissez-faire ideology was largely abandoned in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Between the 1930s and 1970s, fiscal policy was characterized by the Keynesian consensus, a time during which modern American liberalism dominated economic policy virtually unchallenged. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, laissez-faire ideology, as explained especially by Milton Friedman, has once more become a powerful force in American politics.[12] While the American welfare state expanded more than threefold after World War II, it has been at 20% of GDP since the late 1970s.[13][14] As of 2014 modern American liberalism, and modern American conservatism are engaged in a continuous political battle, characterized by what The Economist describes as "greater divisiveness [and] close, but bitterly fought elections."[15]

Usage of "left–right" politics

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


The right of suffrage is nearly universal for citizens 18 years of age and older. All states and the District of Columbia contribute to the electoral vote for President. However, the District, and other U.S. holdings like Puerto Rico and Guam, lack federal representation in Congress. These constituencies do not have the right to choose any political figure outside their respective areas. Each commonwealth, territory, or district can only elect a non-voting delegate to serve in the House of Representatives.

Women's suffrage became an important issue after the American Civil War of 1861-1865. After the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1870, giving African American men the right to vote, various women's groups wanted the right to vote as well. Two major interest groups formed. The first group was the National Woman Suffrage Association, formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that wanted to work for suffrage on the federal level and to push for more governmental changes, such as the granting of property rights to married women.[18] The second group, the American Woman Suffrage Association formed by Lucy Stone, aimed to give women the right to vote.[19] In 1890, the two groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The NAWSA then mobilized to obtain support state-by-state, and by 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.[20]

Student activism against the Vietnam War in the 1960s prompted the passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and prohibited age discrimination at the voting booth.

State government

States governments have the power to make laws that are not granted to the federal government or denied to the states in the U.S. Constitution for all citizens.These include education, family law, contract law, and most crimes. Unlike the federal government, which only has those powers granted to it in the Constitution, a state government has inherent powers allowing it to act unless limited by a provision of the state or national constitution.

Like the federal government, state governments have three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The chief executive of a state is its popularly elected governor, who typically holds office for a four-year term (although in some states the term is two years). Except for Nebraska, which has unicameral legislature, all states have a bicameral legislature, with the upper house usually called the Senate and the lower house called the House of Representatives, the House of Delegates, Assembly or something similar. In most states, senators serve four-year terms, and members of the lower house serve two-year terms.

The constitutions of the various states differ in some details but generally follow a pattern similar to that of the federal Constitution, including a statement of the rights of the people and a plan for organizing the government. However, state constitutions are generally more detailed.

Local government

The United States has 89,500 local governments, including 3,033 counties, 19,492 municipalities, 16,500 townships, 13,000 school districts, and 37,000 other special districts that deal with issues like fire protection.[21] Local governments directly serve the needs of the people, providing everything from police and fire protection to sanitary codes, health regulations, education, public transportation, and housing. Typically local elections are nonpartisan—local activists suspend their party affiliations when campaigning and governing.[22]

About 28% of the people live in cities of 100,000 or more population. City governments are chartered by states, and their charters detail the objectives and powers of the municipal government. The United States Constitution only provides for states and territories as subdivisions of the country, and the Supreme Court has accordingly confirmed the supremacy of state sovereignty over municipalities. For most big cities, cooperation with both state and federal organizations is essential to meeting the needs of their residents. Types of city governments vary widely across the nation. However, almost all have a central council, elected by the voters, and an executive officer, assisted by various department heads, to manage the city's affairs. Cities in the West and South usually have nonpartisan local politics.

There are three general types of city government: the mayor-council, the commission, and the council-manager. These are the pure forms; many cities have developed a combination of two or three of them.


This is the oldest form of city government in the United States and, until the beginning of the 20th century, was used by nearly all American cities. Its structure is like that of the state and national governments, with an elected mayor as chief of the executive branch and an elected council that represents the various neighborhoods forming the legislative branch. The mayor appoints heads of city departments and other officials, sometimes with the approval of the council. He or she has the power of veto over ordinances (the laws of the city) and often is responsible for preparing the city's budget. The council passes city ordinances, sets the tax rate on property, and apportions money among the various city departments. As cities have grown, council seats have usually come to represent more than a single neighborhood.

The Commission

This combines both the legislative and executive functions in one group of officials, usually three or more in number, elected city-wide. Each commissioner supervises the work of one or more city departments. Commissioners also set policies and rules by which the city is operated. One is named chairperson of the body and is often called the mayor, although his or her power is equivalent to that of the other commissioners.[23]


The city manager is a response to the increasing complexity of urban problems that need management ability not often possessed by elected public officials. The answer has been to entrust most of the executive powers, including law enforcement and provision of services, to a highly trained and experienced professional city manager.

The city manager plan has been adopted by a large number of cities. Under this plan, a small, elected council makes the city ordinances and sets policy, but hires a paid administrator, also called a city manager, to carry out its decisions. The manager draws up the city budget and supervises most of the departments. Usually, there is no set term; the manager serves as long as the council is satisfied with his or her work.

County government

The county is a subdivision of the state, sometimes (but not always) containing two or more townships and several villages. New York City is so large that it is divided into five separate boroughs, each a county in its own right. On the other hand, Arlington County, Virginia, the United States' smallest county, located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is both an urbanized and suburban area, governed by a unitary county administration. In other cities, both the city and county governments have merged, creating a consolidated city–county government.

In most U.S. counties, one town or city is designated as the county seat, and this is where the government offices are located and where the board of commissioners or supervisors meets. In small counties, boards are chosen by the county; in the larger ones, supervisors represent separate districts or townships. The board collects taxes for state and local governments; borrows and appropriates money; fixes the salaries of county employees; supervises elections; builds and maintains highways and bridges; and administers national, state, and county welfare programs. In very small counties, the executive and legislative power may lie entirely with a sole commissioner, who is assisted by boards to supervise taxes and elections. In some New England states, counties do not have any governmental function and are simply a division of land.

Town and village government

Thousands of municipal jurisdictions are too small to qualify as city governments. These are chartered as towns and villages and deal with local needs such as paving and lighting the streets, ensuring a water supply, providing police and fire protection, and waste management. In many states of the US, the term town does not have any specific meaning; it is simply an informal term applied to populated places (both incorporated and unincorporated municipalities). Moreover, in some states, the term town is equivalent to how civil townships are used in other states.

The government is usually entrusted to an elected board or council, which may be known by a variety of names: town or village council, board of selectmen, board of supervisors, board of commissioners. The board may have a chairperson or president who functions as chief executive officer, or there may be an elected mayor. Governmental employees may include a clerk, treasurer, police and fire officers, and health and welfare officers.

One unique aspect of local government, found mostly in the New England region of the United States, is the town meeting. Once a year, sometimes more often if needed, the registered voters of the town meet in open session to elect officers, debate local issues, and pass laws for operating the government. As a body, they decide on road construction and repair, construction of public buildings and facilities, tax rates, and the town budget. The town meeting, which has existed for more than three centuries in some places, is often cited as the purest form of direct democracy, in which the governmental power is not delegated, but is exercised directly and regularly by all the people.

Campaign finance

Successful participation, especially in federal elections, requires large amounts of money, especially for television advertising.[24] This money is very difficult to raise by appeals to a mass base,[25] although in the 2008 election, candidates from both parties had success with raising money from citizens over the Internet,[26] as had Howard Dean with his Internet appeals. Both parties generally depend on wealthy donors and organizations—traditionally the Democrats depended on donations from organized labor while the Republicans relied on business donations. This dependency on donors is controversial, and has led to laws limiting spending on political campaigns being enacted (see campaign finance reform). Opponents of campaign finance laws cite the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, and challenge campaign finance laws because they attempt to circumvent the people's constitutionally guaranteed rights. Even when laws are upheld, the complication of compliance with the First Amendment requires careful and cautious drafting of legislation, leading to laws that are still fairly limited in scope, especially in comparison to those of other countries such as the United Kingdom, France or Canada.

Fundraising plays a large role in getting a candidate elected to public office. Without money, a candidate may have little chance of achieving their goal. In the 2004 general elections, 95% of House races and 91% of senate races were won by the candidates who spent the most on their campaigns. Attempts to limit the influence of money on American political campaigns dates back to the 1860s. Recently, Congress passed legislation requiring candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions, how the campaign money is spent, and regulated use of "soft money" contributions.[27]

Political parties and elections

The United States Constitution does not mention political parties, primarily because the Founding Fathers did not intend for American politics to be partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first President of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or during his tenure as president. Washington hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation.[28] Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system.

In modern times, in partisan elections, candidates are nominated by a political party or seek public office as an independent. Each state has significant discretion in deciding how candidates are nominated, and thus eligible to appear on the election ballot. Typically, major party candidates are formally chosen in a party primary or convention, whereas minor party and Independents are required to complete a petitioning process.

Political parties

The modern political party system in the United States is a two-party system dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. These two parties have won every United States presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress since 1856. The Democratic Party generally positions itself as left-of-center in American politics and supports a modern American liberal platform, while the Republican Party generally positions itself as right-of-center and supports a modern American conservative platform.

Third parties have achieved relatively minor representation from time to time at local levels. The Libertarian Party is the largest third party in the country, claiming more than 250,000 registered voters in 2013;[29] it generally positions itself as centrist or radical centrist and supports a classical liberal position. Other contemporary third parties include the left-wing Green Party, supporting Green politics, and the right-wing Constitution Party, supporting paleoconservatism.


For more details on this topic, see Elections in the United States.

Unlike in some parliamentary systems, Americans vote for a specific candidate instead of directly selecting a particular political party. With a federal government, officials are elected at the federal (national), state and local levels. On a national level, the President, is elected indirectly by the people, through an Electoral College. In modern times, the electors virtually always vote with the popular vote of their state. All members of Congress, and the offices at the state and local levels are directly elected.

Various federal and state laws regulate elections. The United States Constitution defines (to a basic extent) how federal elections are held, in Article One and Article Two and various amendments. State law regulates most aspects of electoral law, including primaries, the eligibility of voters (beyond the basic constitutional definition), the running of each state's electoral college, and the running of state and local elections.

Organization of American political parties

American political parties are more loosely organized than those in other countries. The two major parties, in particular, have no formal organization at the national level that controls membership, activities, or policy positions, though some state affiliates do. Thus, for an American to say that he or she is a member of the Democratic or Republican party, is quite different from a Briton's stating that he or she is a member of the Conservative or Labour party. In the United States, one can often become a "member" of a party, merely by stating that fact. In some U.S. states, a voter can register as a member of one or another party and/or vote in the primary election for one or another party. Such participation does not restrict one's choices in any way. It also does not give a person any particular rights or obligations within the party, other than possibly allowing that person to vote in that party's primary elections. A person may choose to attend meetings of one local party committee one day and another party committee the next day. The sole factor that brings one "closer to the action" is the quantity and quality of participation in party activities and the ability to persuade others in attendance to give one responsibility.

Party identification becomes somewhat formalized when a person runs for partisan office. In most states, this means declaring oneself a candidate for the nomination of a particular party and intent to enter that party's primary election for an office. A party committee may choose to endorse one or another of those who is seeking the nomination, but in the end the choice is up to those who choose to vote in the primary, and it is often difficult to tell who is going to do the voting.

The result is that American political parties have weak central organizations and little central ideology, except by consensus. A party really cannot prevent a person who disagrees with the majority of positions of the party or actively works against the party's aims from claiming party membership, so long as the voters who choose to vote in the primary elections elect that person. Once in office, an elected official may change parties simply by declaring such intent. An elected official once in office may also act contradictory to many of his or her party's positions (this had led to terms such as "Republican In Name Only").

At the federal level, each of the two major parties has a national committee (See, Democratic National Committee, Republican National Committee) that acts as the hub for much fund-raising and campaign activities, particularly in presidential campaigns. The exact composition of these committees is different for each party, but they are made up primarily of representatives from state parties and affiliated organizations, and others important to the party. However, the national committees do not have the power to direct the activities of members of the party.

Both parties also have separate campaign committees which work to elect candidates at a specific level. The most significant of these are the Hill committees, which work to elect candidates to each house of Congress.

State parties exist in all fifty states, though their structures differ according to state law, as well as party rules at both the national and the state level.

Despite these weak organizations, elections are still usually portrayed as national races between the political parties. In what is known as "presidential coattails", candidates in presidential elections become the de facto leader of their respective party, and thus usually bring out supporters who in turn then vote for his party's candidates for other offices. On the other hand, federal midterm elections (where only Congress and not the president is up for election) are usually regarded as a referendum on the sitting president's performance, with voters either voting in or out the president's party's candidates, which in turn helps the next session of Congress to either pass or block the president's agenda, respectively.[30][31]

General developments

Most of the Founding Fathers rejected political parties as divisive and disruptive. By the 1790s, however, most joined one of the two new parties, and by the 1830s parties had become accepted as central to the democracy.[32] By the 1790s, the First Party System was born. Men who held opposing views strengthened their cause by identifying and organizing men of like mind. The followers of Alexander Hamilton, were called "Federalists"; they favored a strong central government that would support the interests of national defense, commerce and industry. The followers of Thomas Jefferson, the Jeffersonians took up the name "Republicans"; they preferred a decentralized agrarian republic in which the federal government had limited power.[33][34]

By 1828, the First Party System had collapsed. Two new parties emerged from the remnants of the Jeffersonian Democracy, forming the Second Party System with the Whigs, brought to life in opposition to President Andrew Jackson and his new Democratic Party. The forces of Jacksonian Democracy, based among urban workers, Southern poor whites, and western farmers, dominated the era.[35]

In the 1860s, the issue of slavery took center stage, with disagreement in particular over the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the country's new territories in the West. The Whig Party straddled the issue and sank to its death after the overwhelming electoral defeat by Franklin Pierce in the 1852 presidential election. Ex-Whigs joined the Know Nothings or the newly formed Republican Party. While the Know Nothing party was short-lived, Republicans would survive the intense politics leading up to the Civil War. The primary Republican policy was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. Just six years later, this new party captured the presidency when Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860. By then, parties were well established as the country's dominant political organizations, and party allegiance had become an important part of most people's consciousness. Party loyalty was passed from fathers to sons, and party activities, including spectacular campaign events, complete with uniformed marching groups and torchlight parades, were a part of the social life of many communities.

By the 1920s, however, this boisterous folksiness had diminished. Municipal reforms, civil service reform, corrupt practices acts, and presidential primaries to replace the power of politicians at national conventions had all helped to clean up politics.

Development of the two-party system in the United States

Since the 1790s, the country has been run by two major parties. Many minor or third political parties appear from time to time. They tend to serve a means to advocate policies that eventually are adopted by the two major political parties. At various times the Socialist Party, the Farmer-Labor Party and the Populist Party for a few years had considerable local strength, and then faded away—although in Minnesota, the Farmer–Labor Party merged into the state's Democratic Party, which is now officially known as the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party. At present, the Libertarian Party is the most successful third party. New York State has a number of additional third parties, who sometimes run their own candidates for office and sometimes nominate the nominees of the two main parties.[36] In the District of Columbia, the D.C. Statehood Green Party has served as a strong third party behind the Democratic Party and Republican Party.[37]

Most officials in America are elected from single-member districts and win office by beating out their opponents in a system for determining winners called first-past-the-post; the one who gets the plurality wins, (which is not the same thing as actually getting a majority of votes). This encourages the two-party system; see Duverger's law. In the absence of multi-seat congressional districts, proportional representation is impossible and third parties cannot thrive. Although elections to the Senate elect two senators per constituency (state), staggered terms effectively result in single-seat constituencies for elections to the Senate.

Another critical factor has been ballot access law. Originally, voters went to the polls and publicly stated which candidate they supported. Later on, this developed into a process whereby each political party would create its own ballot and thus the voter would put the party's ballot into the voting box. In the late nineteenth century, states began to adopt the Australian Secret Ballot Method, and it eventually became the national standard. The secret ballot method ensured that the privacy of voters would be protected (hence government jobs could no longer be awarded to loyal voters) and each state would be responsible for creating one official ballot. The fact that state legislatures were dominated by Democrats and Republicans provided these parties an opportunity to pass discriminatory laws against minor political parties, yet such laws did not start to arise until the first Red Scare that hit America after World War I. State legislatures began to enact tough laws that made it harder for minor political parties to run candidates for office by requiring a high number of petition signatures from citizens and decreasing the length of time that such a petition could legally be circulated.

It should also be noted that while more often than not, party members will "toe the line" and support their party's policies, they are free to vote against their own party and vote with the opposition ("cross the aisle") when they please.

"In America the same political labels (Democratic and Republican) cover virtually all public officeholders, and therefore most voters are everywhere mobilized in the name of these two parties," says Nelson W. Polsby, professor of political science, in the book New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution. "Yet Democrats and Republicans are not everywhere the same. Variations (sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant) in the 50 political cultures of the states yield considerable differences overall in what it means to be, or to vote, Democratic or Republican. These differences suggest that one may be justified in referring to the American two-party system as masking something more like a hundred-party system."


U.S. congressional districts covering Travis County, Texas (outlined in red) in 2002, left, and 2004, right. In 2003, the majority of Republicans in the Texas legislature redistricted the state, diluting the voting power of the heavily Democratic county by parcelling its residents out to more Republican districts.
Shaw v. Reno was a United States Supreme Court case involving the redistricting and racial gerrymandering of North Carolina's 12th congressional district (pictured).

The United States has a long tradition of gerrymandering. In some states, bipartisan gerrymandering is the norm. State legislators from both parties sometimes agree to draw congressional district boundaries in a way that ensures the re-election of most or all incumbent representatives from both parties. Rather than allowing more political influence, some states have shifted redistricting authority from politicians and given it to non-partisan redistricting commissions. The states of Washington,[38] Arizona,[39] and California's Proposition 11 (2008) and Proposition 20 (2010) have created standing committees for redistricting following the 2010 census. Rhode Island[40] and New Jersey have developed ad hoc committees, but developed the past two decennial reapportionments tied to new census data. Florida's amendments 5 and 6, meanwhile, established rules for the creation of districts but did not mandate an independent commission.[41]

International election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, who were invited to observe and report on the 2004 national elections, expressed criticism of the U.S. congressional redistricting process and made a recommendation that the procedures be reviewed to ensure genuine competitiveness of Congressional election contests.[42]

Political pressure groups

Special interest groups advocate the cause of their specific constituency. Business organizations will favor low corporate taxes and restrictions of the right to strike, whereas labor unions will support minimum wage legislation and protection for collective bargaining. Other private interest groups, such as churches and ethnic groups, are more concerned about broader issues of policy that can affect their organizations or their beliefs.

The Israel lobby is the diverse coalition of those who, as individuals and as groups, seek to influence the foreign policy of the United States in support of Zionism, Israel or the specific policies of its government.[43] The Israel lobby is known for its success in encouraging U.S. lawmakers to support the policies that it supports.

One type of private interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee or PAC. These are independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, which contribute money to political campaigns for U.S. Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. PACs today number in the thousands.

"The number of interest groups has mushroomed, with more and more of them operating offices in Washington, D.C., and representing themselves directly to Congress and federal agencies," says Michael Schudson in his 1998 book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. "Many organizations that keep an eye on Washington seek financial and moral support from ordinary citizens. Since many of them focus on a narrow set of concerns or even on a single issue, and often a single issue of enormous emotional weight, they compete with the parties for citizens' dollars, time, and passion."

The amount of money spent by these special interests continues to grow, as campaigns become increasingly expensive. Many Americans have the feeling that these wealthy interests, whether corporations, unions or PACs, are so powerful that ordinary citizens can do little to counteract their influences.

Concerns about oligarchy and a diminishing democracy

Some views suggest that the political structure of the United States is in many respects an oligarchy, where a small economic elite overwhelmingly determines policy and law.[44] Some academic researchers suggest a drift toward oligarchy has been occurring by way of the influence of corporations, wealthy, and other special interest groups, leaving individual citizens with less impact than economic elites and organized interest groups in the political process.[45][46][47][48][49]

A study by political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) released in April 2014 suggested that when the preferences of a majority of citizens conflicts with elites, elites tend to prevail.[50][51][52][53][54][55] While not characterizing the United States as an "oligarchy" or "plutocracy" outright, Gilens and Page do give weight to the idea of a "civil oligarchy" as used by Jeffrey A. Winters, saying, "Winters has posited a comparative theory of 'Oligarchy,' in which the wealthiest citizens – even in a 'civil oligarchy' like the United States – dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection."

In their study, Gilens and Page reached these conclusions:

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.... [T]he preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, 2014[56]

E.J. Dionne Jr. described what he considers the effects of ideological and oligarchical interests on the judiciary. The journalist, columnist, and scholar interprets recent Supreme Court decisions as ones that allow wealthy elites to use economic power to influence political outcomes in their favor. "Thus," Dionne wrote, in speaking about the Supreme Court's McCutcheon et al. v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC decisions, "has this court conferred on wealthy people the right to give vast sums of money to politicians while undercutting the rights of millions of citizens to cast a ballot."[57]

Paul Krugman wrote:

The stark reality is that we have a society in which money is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. This threatens to make us a democracy in name only.
Paul Krugman, 2012[58]

See also


  1. Samuel P. Huntington (1981). American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. Harvard University Press. pp. 21–7.
  2. Patricia U. Bonomi, A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York (Columbia U.P., 1971) p. 281
  3. Richard R. Beeman, "The Varieties of Deference in Eighteenth-Century America," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 3#2 Fall 2005, pp. 311–40
  4. Patricia U. Bonomi, A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York (Columbia U.P., 1971) pp. 281–2
  5. Anton-Hermann Chroust, The Rise of the legal profession in America (2 vol. 1965), vol. 1.
  6. Bonomi, A Factious People, pp. 281–86
  7. Cal Jillson (2013). American Government: Political Development and Institutional Change. Taylor & Francis. p. 14.
  8. Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. Orlando: Harcourt, 1955.
  9. David Gordon, ed. (2002). Secession, State, and Liberty. Transaction Publishers. p. 99.
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  48. Alan Wolfe (book reviewer), October 24, 2010, The Washington Post, Review of "The Mendacity of Hope," by Roger D. Hodge, Accessed April 26, 2014, "...Although Hodge devotes a chapter to foreign policy, the main charge he levels against Obama is that, like all politicians in the United States, he serves at the pleasure of a financial oligarchy...."
  49. COLIN MOYNIHAN, September 17, 2011, The New York Times, Wall Street Protest Begins, With Demonstrators Blocked, Accessed April 26, 2014, "...End the Oligarchy and said ..."And 1 percent of the people have 99 percent of the money."
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  52. Nesbit, J. (April 21, 2014) "Oligarchy Nation: Political scientists find wealthy elites control politics in America" US News& World Report
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  57. E.J. Dionne Jr., April 6, 2014, Washington Post, Supreme oligarchy, Accessed April 26, 2014, "...Thus has this court conferred on wealthy people the right to give vast sums of money to politicians while undercutting the rights of millions of citizens to cast a ballot...."
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Further reading

  • Barone, Michael et al. The Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (2011); covers every member of Congress and governor in depth; rich details on politics of each state
  • Edwards, George C., Martin P. Wattenberg, and Robert L. Lineberry. Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy (15th Edition, 2010)
  • Finkelman, Paul, and Peter Wallenstein, eds. The Encyclopedia Of American Political History (2001), short essays by scholars
  • Greene, Jack P., ed. Encyclopedia of American Political History: Studies of the Principal Movements and Ideas (3 vol. 1984), long essays by scholars
  • Hansen, Susan B. (January 2016). "Women's equality, candidate difference, and the vote". Journal of Women, Politics & Policy. Taylor and Francis. 37 (1): 47–67. doi:10.1080/1554477X.2016.1116917. 
  • Harrington, Mona. The Dream of Deliverance in American Politics. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1986. ISBN 0-394-54973-2
  • Hershey, Marjorie R. Party Politics in America (14th Edition, 2010)
  • Hetherington, Marc J., and Bruce A. Larson. Parties, Politics, and Public Policy in America (11th edition, 2009)
  • Kazin, Michael, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman, eds. The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2 vol. 2009); Concise edition (2011)
  • Maisel, L. Sandy, ed. Political Parties and Elections in the United States: an Encyclopedia 2 vol. (Garland, 1991). (ISBN 0-8240-7975-2), short essays by scholars
  • Maisel, L. Sandy. American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction (2007)
  • O'Connor, Karen, Larry J. Sabato, and Alixandra B. Yanus. American Government: American Government: Roots and Reform (11th ed. 2011)
  • Swirski, Peter. Ars Americana Ars Politica: Partisan Expression in Contemporary American Literature and Culture. Montreal, London: McGill-Queen's University Press (2010) ISBN 978-0-7735-3766-8
  • Wilson, James Q., and John J. Diiulio and Meena Bose. American Government: Institutions and Policies (12th ed. 2010)

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