After putting this project off for nearly a year, I’m finally writing a “brief” explainer about how the U.S. government works, because this isn’t taught as widely/deeply as it should be. This is mostly intended for non-Americans who don’t have a deep background in American history, but I don’t doubt that some American readers might learn some new stuff here. I’m not a constitutional lawyer, and I’d make a lousy one if I were, so don’t @ me.
The Government of the United States
PART ONE: The 13 Colonies + Basic Historical Context.
(To skip the section on colonial history and the Articles of Confederation, skip to Pt. 3)
To understand how America’s government developed over the past 250 years, we need to understand how the American colonies developed ever since the first successful British settlers arrived in 1607. Not wanting to be outdone by the Spanish and French Empires who had beaten them to the punch, the British wanted to set up colonial holdings in the New World to get incredibly rich and incredibly powerful.
Spain had laid claims on much of the land that is now the western United States, and France (Britain’s arch-nemesis) had just started to settle the nation now known as Canada, and would eventually stake a claim on some land in the American interior (seen here in green), largely bounded by the Rocky Mountains to the west and the vast Mississippi River to the east. Spain had also gotten mind-blowingly wealthy off of looting the gold-rich Aztec and Incan empires in Mexico and South America, and was using what was left of the indigenous populations to mine for more riches and to grow expensive crops like sugarcane (which, obviously, can be converted to sugar, which was in high demand back home). With the potential to get filthy rich, and a decent amount of unclaimed land stretching across the American east coast from modern-day Maine to modern-day Georgia, the British wasted no time in getting moving.
By the end of the 1600s, the British had built thirteen distinct colonial ‘provinces’ along the Eastern seaboard of North America: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island (which isn’t an island), Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Although these colonies weren’t filled with lavish treasures of gold and silver and exotic plants, the climate was similar to that of northern/western Europe, therefore making it fairly hospitable for British colonists who wanted to set up farms, towns, and cities like the ones they had back home. Although Britain had other colonies (mostly in the Caribbean), these 13 colonies shared a semi-similar climate, had their own economies, used British legal codes, traded raw material for British goods, were largely English or Scottish by blood (except the slaves), spoke English, and were members of various Protestant Christian churches. On the other hand, the British Caribbean colonies were almost entirely populated by enslaved laborers and weren’t really culturally connected to the other American colonies.
I should note, however, that although these 13 colonies were culturally similar, their economies ran on different engines. The colonies of the south (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) got their wealth from using rich soil and plentiful slave labor to grow ‘cash crops’ like tobacco and cotton, whereas the colonies to the north had very few slaves and either grew food crops like corn and wheat or worked in completely different industries like shipbuilding or fishing. This meant that while Georgia swore allegiance to the same crown as Massachusetts, the plantation owners of Georgia didn’t want their lives to be run by the merchant classes of Boston, and vice versa. This will become important later.
Fast forward to the year 1763. The British, with the help of colonial militias and local Native American tribes, had just defeated the French and their colonial militias/local Native allies after seven years of war. In their peace treaty, France surrendered Canada to the British, along with a hefty chunk of land bounded by the Mississippi River to the west and the Appalachian Mountains to the east. Unfortunately for the British, seven years of war in Europe and North America had put a huge dent in their treasury, and they imposed a series of taxes on the American colonies to make up the difference. The taxes themselves weren’t that big and made a lot of sense (since they had racked up that debt from protecting the colonists from the French), but American patriots were pissed as hell anyways, especially because the American colonies had no representation in the British Parliament and felt resentful about having to answer to a faraway ruler (hence the famous phrase “no taxation without representation”).
Tensions rose repeatedly over the next ten years, and by 1775 the mainland American colonies were in open revolt against the British Empire. This history is incredibly important and goes way deeper than just simple taxes, but this is about America’s government, not history, so if you want to learn extra info about the Revolution, just check out this video and its sequel – it’s very good, even for people who know stuff about the Revolution. The 13 colonies assembled a delegation of representatives in the Continental Congress, which declared independence from Britain on July 4th 1776, and by 1777 they had organized an independent American government by passing the Articles of Confederation.
PART TWO: BOY, THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION SURE DO SUCK.
The Articles of Confederation was an absolutely terrible document that did an awful job of running the independent United States of America during and after the Revolution. The 13 states had just declared independence from Britain and wanted their new government to be as far away as possible from the British model of government. King George III, in their view, had too much power and too little accountability, and the vast majority of the Declaration of Independence was a list of complaints about how King George and Parliament had mistreated the colonies in recent years and abused their powers unjustly. The delegates of the Continental Congress therefore wanted their new central government to have almost zero power, to ensure that no King George III could ever arise again, and that no one state could abuse the central government to overrule and push around another state.
Where King George was able to tax the Americans on everything from sugar to tea to paper, the new Congress was only empowered to request money from the states, which states could (and frequently did) ignore. This was a huge problem, because for 4 years of its existence the Continental Congress was trying to fund a Continental Army and a Continental Navy in order to fend off the largest empire the world had ever seen, paying soldiers in worthless paper currency and IOUs. More than once, General George Washington had to feed his rebel army by stealing food from local farmers in exchange for Continental Dollars (because only the most ardent patriots would ever accept that stuff over good, empire-backed British Pound Sterling). King George used a series of colonial governors and British Army generals to execute and enforce the laws, so the Articles of Confederation dictated that there would be no executive at all, and therefore the Continental Congress had no power to actually enforce any national laws. As for passing new laws (as useless as those laws were), Congress would only pass laws with the assent of 9 out of 13 states, because nothing says “gridlock” like a 70% threshold to do anything ever. Worse, if anyone wanted to amend the Articles of Confederation, amendments had to be passed unanimously. The only benefit to such a weak central government is that it allowed the states to just “do their own thing” like they had ever since 1607, if that can even be counted as a benefit. Indeed, the states of Virginia and Maryland nearly went to war with each other over disputes regarding who owned which part of the Potomac River, which is always fun.
So, in short, the United States of America’s provisional government had no ability to raise money to pay off massive war debts, no ability to enforce the few laws it had jurisdiction over, and no bill could pass Congress unless it got 70% of the vote, unless that bill was an amendment to the Articles in which case it required 100% of the vote. It was useless beyond belief, so in 1787 the Continental Congress convened to pass a new, completely original document to govern the people of the United States of America without being complete shit (for more on this process, check this video series out). They called it… the Constitution of the United States of America.
PART THREE: THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Constitution of the United States was cut out of whole cloth, an entirely original document that founded (depending on which scholars you ask) the world’s first liberal democratic republic. Drawing upon the lessons of the Articles of Confederation, the British Parliament, the Dutch Republic, the Iroquois Confederacy, and god-knows-how-many other founding documents, the founding fathers of the Constitution and the nation decided to accomplish a few basic goals with their new government:
- Empower a federal government with the ability to write laws, enforce them, and mediate disputes, while ensuring that individual states retain some power.
- Create a newer, better legislature, the United States Congress, that fairly represented the interests of the states and write national laws. (Article One)
- Invest executive power in a single individual, the President of the United States of America, whose responsibility would be to carry out the laws written by the legislature and control the military. (Article Two)
- Create an independent federal judiciary to hear criminal cases and civil suits that individual states did not have jurisdiction over, and interpret the validity and scope of existing laws, led by the Supreme Court of the United States. (Article Three)
- Make the Constitution adaptable to modern times by allowing for the amendment process (Article Five).
- Do some other stuff (Articles Four, Six, Seven).
To translate this into normal English, the Constitution laid out a federal government divided into three co-equal branches, each one having power over the other. The legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch enforces the laws, and the judicial branch interpreted the law. This is called the system of checks and balances, or the separation of powers, and it’s important because if you don’t separate governmental powers among different groups of people, you’re going to get King George III in the best case (a mildly abusive and authoritarian figure) and Joseph Stalin in the worst case (who was not mild about any of his abusiveness).
Here’s how it works, in order:
ARTICLE ONE: THE CONGRESS.
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
Congress, the legislature of America, is placed first among the three branches because the writers of the Constitution intended for it to be the most important branch. After all, Congress is the institution that writes laws, enacts taxes, and creates the federal budget. Better yet, Congress has the power to regulate the other two branches of government with its laws and investigative authority.
Just to make sure everyone is on the same page, Congress is divided into the House of Representatives (the lower house) and the Senate (the upper house). Although the two bodies usually work together on most things, the Senate has a few extra responsibilities in its oversight of the other two branches.
Members of the House of Representatives are chosen by communities within each state every two years, and larger states get more House members (for example, California has 53 but Wyoming has just 1). This was designed to be the legislative body that represented “the people,” and benefited populous states like Virginia, which didn’t want to get pushed around by tiny states that disagreed with them, like Rhode Island or New Hampshire. Right now, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives, and its presiding officer is the Speaker of the House, (usually) a fellow Representative who controls the House’s agenda and (generally speaking) chooses which bills get voted on and stuff. In modern history, the Speaker is the leader of the party that has a majority in the House. There are lower positions (Majority Leader and Majority Whip for the majority’s 2nd and 3rd in command, Minority Leader and Minority Whip for the minority’s 1st and 2nd) that aren’t as relevant to the day-to-day business of Congress.
The presiding officer of the Senate is the vice president of the United States, though he usually doesn’t cast votes, just makes sure nobody is talking when it’s not their turn. Realistically, it is led by the Majority Leader, the leader selected by the Senate’s majority party (duh), who works with the Minority Leader to get stuff done. There is also a “president pro tempore” of the Senate who presides over the body when the VP is out of town, but this post has zero power and is usually just given to the oldest member of the majority party.
Members of the Senate are chosen by the populations of their respective states every six years, and every state gets exactly 2 members, no matter their size. Fifty states means 100 members (in the event of a 50-50 tie, the vice president can cast a tiebreaker vote). This equality between states was developed in order to appease the smaller states like Rhode Island, which didn’t want to get pushed around by the big ones like Virginia. The drafters of the Constitution also staggered the Senate’s elections such that one third of the Senate is elected every two years. This means in 2018, 33 members of the Senate were elected to their offices, and won’t be up for reelection until 2024. In 2020, 33 more members will be elected or re-elected for terms ending in 2026, and in 2022 the remaining 34 members of the Senate will be up for election for terms ending in 2028, and you get the idea from there.
This staggering was imposed as an anti-populist measure, such that if a massive popular movement were to suddenly arise during an election, it would only affect some members of the Senate and presumably die out before the other 2/3rds are up for reelection. This measure, among others, was meant to make the Senate a calmer, slower deliberative body immune to “mob rule.” There is also a tradition inside the Senate known as filibustering, which dictates that any member of the Senate can shut down the business of the Senate and talk nonstop until being told to shut up by 60% of senators. This means that certain pieces of legislation like the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Obamacare) needed 60 votes to pass, rather than a simple majority of 51, because opposition needs to be reduced to just 40 legislators or fewer. This process is dying out right now and no longer applies to a lot of things, because this filibuster power has been abused a lot. More on that later.
The House and the Senate are also divided up into dozens of committees each, and each legislator is assigned to a handful of committees empowered to investigate various aspects of America and the world, oversee the other two branches of government, and take a first look at legislative bills before they get voted on by the rest of the legislature. For example, the House Intelligence Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee are currently investigating Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election, and the two Agriculture Committees keep a close eye on what farmers are up to and if they need help from the government. As noted above, both bodies also share the responsibility of passing laws, taxes, and budgets, but I think I’ve hammered that home enough. Here’s four where the two bodies differ: impeachment/conviction, approving the nominations of government officers, approving treaties, and declarations of war.
Impeachment and Conviction: In the event that an officer of the government (including, among others, the sitting president of the United States) has committed a high crime or misdemeanor, the House of Representatives and the Senate are responsible for conducting two different parts of a criminal trial of sorts: indictment (called impeachment in this case), and conviction. The House of Representatives decides whether or not to impeach said officer by drafting Articles of Impeachment and voting on them, which is equivalent to if a grand jury decides there’s enough pieces of evidence to start a criminal trial. In the event of impeachment, the House sends this evidence to the United States Senate, which puts the government officer on trial. The trial is presided over by the Chief Justice of the United States, and the goal is to convince two-thirds of the Senate (67 out of 100 senators today) that such an officer is guilty of various high crimes and misdemeanors. If 67 senators vote to convict the officer on a charge, then the officer on trial is convicted and punished by the Senate, usually by removal from office.
I should note that out of the 44 people to have ever become POTUS, only 2 have ever been impeached (Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998/1999), and the Senate voted to acquit both men on the basis that the charges were created by politically-motivated members of the House. There have, however, been two men who have definitely committed criminal acts and resigned from their offices to avoid being impeached: President Richard Nixon in 1974 (the only POTUS to ever resign, owing to the Watergate scandal), and vice president Spiro Agnew in 1973 (who was Nixon’s VP until federal prosecutors found out about a decades-long bribery scheme entirely separate from Watergate). Both men would have been impeached by Congress had they not resigned, though regular old prosecutors in regular old courts could have indicted them as well (but that’s a long story).
Advice/Consent: The Senate is also responsible for approving or disapproving of the people that the President of the United States appoints to various governmental posts, derived from their power to advise the president and consent to certain actions of his. If the POTUS appoints someone to a position on the Supreme Court, or wants a particular person to be Secretary of Defense or Secretary of Education, he has to clear that pick with the Senate first. Usually, the Senate will approve of any presidential nominee who isn’t a complete idiot, although there have been instances when the Senate has snubbed the sitting president by refusing to vote on certain appointments, effectively rejecting them (most notably, President Obama’s appointment of a judge named Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, which languished without a vote for nearly a year before the nomination died). All federal judges, high-ranking cabinet officials, prosecutors, ambassadors, even reassignments for high-ranking military officers are under the jurisdiction of the United States Senate.
Advice/Consent, Part II: As another consequence of the Senate’s responsibility to provide “advice and consent” is that the Senate also has the ability to accept or reject international treaties and major trade agreements. This is very important, but it only comes up once every few years, which is why it only gets a very small paragraph.
War: Even though the President of the United States runs the military, the Senate is responsible for declaring war on other nations. If a simple majority of the Senate votes to declare war, then the president must wage that war. This power has not actually been used since 1942, when the US declared war on a few allies of Nazi Germany – every military conflict since World War II has been of a “small” enough scope that the Senate never bothered declaring war, and also never bothered stopping the president from fighting. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc., were all “wars” in which the U.S. was technically not at war with the people it was killing. Even the American Civil War did not involve an official declaration of war, because the U.S. government treated the Confederacy as a rebel organization and not a dignified foreign nation. In the case of undeclared wars, Congress technically has the power to shut down the military’s warfighting power, but has never really bothered. Instead, it chooses to exercise its power through proper oversight and investigations, and can approve or deny funding to the Defense Department.
Congress has other powers enumerated to it, but I’m not going to cover them right now. Here’s a list in case you wanna check it out anyways. Congress is also limited in one key aspect by the judicial branch of the federal government: if it passes a law that the Court finds to be unconstitutional, that law is taken off the books. More on that later.
Moving on to the executive branch.
ARTICLE TWO: THE EXECUTIVE.
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows…
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Next up is the leader of the Free World: the President of the United States of America. He is the nation’s top law enforcement officer, the Chief Executive, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, our Chief Diplomat to allies and enemies abroad, and a million other things.
The Continental Congress responsible for drafting the Constitution was initially worried that the president would be too powerful and too similar to the British line of kings and queens (which is why the Articles of Confederation didn’t have an executive at all). The delegates to the Constitutional Convention who wanted a new constitution with a strong executive helped ease the doubts of the skeptics by making two points clear: First, the president would not be as powerful as Congress, and secondly the First president of the United States would almost certainly be General George Washington (hallowed be his name).
By the time the Constitution was ratified in 1788, George Washington was universally admired both in America and around the world (including in Great Britain) after having served the people of America and the colony of Virginia for over thirty years. He had served in the Virginia militia with British forces in the Seven Years’ War, served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, led the Continental Army through nearly a decade of revolutionary conflict, and even presided over the very Constitutional Convention that was busy creating this new document. The framers of the new Constitution were therefore willing to grant the office of the presidency a great deal of power, trusting that George Washington would start it off on the right track.
Accordingly, when the Constitution was ratified and the first-ever presidential election was held in 1788, George Washington won 100% of the vote, a feat that will never be matched as long as American democracy exists. Finally, America had a true leader.
On April 30th, 1789, George Washington became the 1st president of the United States. Open to any lifelong citizen of the United States over the age of 35, the president serves the United States of America for up to two four-year terms (it used to be unlimited, but that’s since changed), with a “backup” vice president of the United States serving alongside the president, ready to take over in case the president died. As the nation’s chief executive, the president does not make the laws – that’s up to Congress – but he is responsible for executing them. If Congress passes a law saying that all farms must comply with certain regulatory standards, it’s up to the president to figure out a way to make sure the stipulations of that law were being met. As such, every Chief Executive since Washington has made use of advisers and staffers, known as the Executive Branch (for fairly obvious reasons).
At first, the Executive Branch was small: the War Department (war (duh)), the State Department (foreign diplomacy), and the Treasury Department (managing funds). George Washington then created a Cabinet of advisers, primarily the men who headed each executive branch department – his first cabinet was composed of his vice president plus the three Senate-confirmed leaders of the above three departments and the Attorney General, who frequently met with him at lunches and dinners to discuss the issues of the day. Back in his day, the executive branch of the government was tiny, because there weren’t very many laws that needed enforcing. Today, the Executive Branch encompasses something like 5 million employees spread across seven branches of the military, the president’s personal offices, fifteen cabinet departments, and an untold number of relatively minor offices.
So, what does the president and his executive branch do? How does it interact with the rest of the government and the rest of the world? I’m gonna do this one in a list.
- Enforces the bills passed by Congress, using the Executive Branch. Using the words of the Constitution, he must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
- Check/Balance: The president has the option of vetoing bills and sending said bills back to Congress, if he doesn’t want to enforce them.
- Check/Balance to this Check/Balance: Congress can override a presidential veto by passing a vetoed bill with a two-thirds majority in each chamber of Congress.
- Check/Balance: Legislation that requires some form of executive branch enforcement usually gives the president a lot of leeway to enforce it however he wishes. As long as he doesn’t violate the law or refuse to enforce it, Congress can’t really complain. He can also issue executive orders to the staff of his executive offices, which are rules that carry the force of law but only affect what the executive branch does (ex: an executive order can instruct the State Department to provide free bagels at every meeting, but it cannot instruct Congress to do the same).
- Check/Balance to this Check/Balance: Congress can pass a bill that overrides an executive order (and if the Prez vetoes that bill, override said veto). They can even add or remove entire executive branch departments at will, because they were all made by acts of Congress.
- Check/Balance: Many of the government officials within the executive branch have to be confirmed by the Senate before they can do anything.
- Check/Balance: The president has the option of vetoing bills and sending said bills back to Congress, if he doesn’t want to enforce them.
- Lead the United States military as its Commander-in-Chief, with the ability to unilaterally order military action without having to ask Congress. This can range from a one-time missile strike on a terrorist training camp to enforcement of a UN Security Council “police action” to the invasion of an entire nation. In the past, presidents like George Washington and James Madison actually led troops into battle from the field while serving as C-in-C, but nobody has done it since 1814.
- Check/Balance: The Senate is the only body that can declare war against a nation or group, which frees up resources within the government that can be diverted to said war. The United States Coast Guard, a branch of the Armed Forces that usually works for the Department of Homeland Security, is absorbed into the United States Navy, and the president is permitted to seize factories and railroads and other things that help the war effort. Without an official declaration of war, none of that happens.
- Check/Balance: Congress has budget powers, and can exercise control over even undeclared wars by refusing to fund it or something along those lines. Further, current law dictates that the president must notify Congress of any military action, and has to ask for Congressional approval if the war runs more than 2-3 months.
- Check/Balance: Although the president is allowed to wage undeclared wars, his soldiers are not bound to follow all of his orders just because he is the Commander-in-Chief. Like all members of the United States government, members of the military swear loyalty to the Constitution, not the president. If the president orders his armed forces to do something illegal (like killing children or POWs) or unconstitutional (aid the enemies of the country during wartime), soldiers MUST disobey that order, and if they don’t, they are criminals too.
- After World War II, officials from the former Nazi Germany were put on trial and made to answer for their many crimes committed against Allied forces and the German people, most infamously the Holocaust. They unsuccessfully defended their actions by saying that they were “just following orders“ from Adolf Hitler or other superiors of theirs. Following illegal orders is a crime.
- (Vice President) Because the Senate has always had an even number of people, there needs to be someone ready to break ties. The vice president is empowered to do this, and because he is almost always an ally of the president and his administration, this gives extra power to the administration.
- As America’s chief diplomat, the president is responsible for negotiating and signing treaties/international agreements. He is also the head of the Diplomatic Corps and the State Department, and therefore appoints foreign ambassadors.
- Check/Balance: The Senate can confirm or reject treaties and agreements, and can confirm or reject ambassadorial appointments.
- The President exercises power over the federal judiciary, appointing judges to lower federal courts and justices to the Supreme Court. These judges/justices can be ideologically similar to the sitting president, which means that they usually agree with the president’s interpretation of the law and are willing to side with the administration on certain issues.
- Check/Balance: Congress is responsible for setting up the size of the federal judiciary minus the Supreme Court (see the next section). The Senate can also confirm or reject judicial appointments, and has done so in the past.
- Check/Balance: Judges and Supreme Court justices serve for life, and cannot be removed unless there’s evidence of criminal conduct that deserves impeachment. This means that 99.9% of the time, the president can only replace a judge if he/she dies or voluntarily retires – he can only fill vacancies. Likewise, once a judge/justice is confirmed to the bench, and decides to start disagreeing with the president who appointed him/her, that’s perfectly fine.
- The president and vice president are elected entirely separately from members of Congress, unlike parliamentary systems in which the leader of the government is the leader of the ruling political coalition in the legislature. They are elected by the people.
- Check/Balance: If there’s evidence of criminal activity, the House can impeach the president (or vice president), and the Senate can vote to convict him (or his running mate).
- The president can pardon or commute the prison sentences of anyone convicted (or about to be convicted) of federal crimes.
- Check/Balance: …Unless the pardon is part of a criminal conspiracy, in which case it’s illegal and therefore an impeachable offense. The president is also forbidden from pardoning people convicted of state crimes, so he can’t go around freeing random thieves and murderers who violated regular old laws.
- The president gives a yearly address to Congress to keep them updated on the state of the Union (this address is called, you guessed it, the State of the Union Address), and is also responsible for recommending certain actions to Congress and working with them to keep the government working. The president needs to work with Congress to get stuff done, and as the leader of the nation it’s up to him to take initiative on these negotiations.
Despite all these checks and balances (and there are a lot of them), the framers of the Constitution knew that the government’s needs might end up changing in the future. Hence, they left the presidency very open-ended, giving it certain powers with the implicit allowance that future leaders could add new powers to their office as long as they didn’t infringe on powers specifically given to Congress. During the Washington administration, President Washington had a lot of free time when he wasn’t negotiating treaties with foreign governments and signing bills passed by Congress, and his executive branch was tiny. President Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, worked practically non-stop to create new federal agencies, manage a vast wartime industry and build a vast social safety net, helped by a large personal staff circumventing Senate confirmation and a bureaucracy of many many thousands of people. As a result, America’s understanding of the office has changed from “a guy who makes sure Congress works” to a pseudo-Emperor who is restricted by the laws and term limits, yet still allowed great leeway to mold large portions of the government in his image. Can this power be abused? Yes, it can – look no further than the Roman Republic to see how individual leaders can abuse political systems and drive their society into strife and civil war.
Congress faces more restrictions because they are enumerated (given) a very specific list of powers in the Constitution, but even they are allowed “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper [to help exercise the enumerated powers].”
Anyways, we’re almost done. All I have to do now is explain the Judiciary, federalism itself, all 27 Constitutional amendments, how presidential elections work, and how political parties work. Great.
ARTICLE THREE: THE FEDERAL JUDICIARY
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.
The third branch of the federal government is the federal judiciary, and though it has wielded immense power throughout history, it is probably the “least” important of the three branches. In short, the judiciary is responsible for handling all legal disputes pertaining to federal law, as well as any legal problems that cannot neatly fit into one state court or another. The Constitution only dictates that the judiciary has at least one component, the Supreme Court of the United States, but Congress is given the power to create new courts and control their sizes. Indeed, the federal court system is composed of tiers of “lower courts” that handle federal crimes or lawsuits before they reach the highest court in the land. At its lowest tier is the federal district court system, composed of 94 district courts that represent regions within the United States (ex: the Southern District of New York, the Northern District of Alabama, and so forth), each of which is filled by judges appointed by the president for lifetime terms. Above that are 13 federal appellate courts representing twelve large regions (plus a thirteenth that covers the entire nation for certain issues). If you file a lawsuit and a district court rules against you, you have the option of appealing to your local federal appellate court (why do you think it’s called an appellate court?). If you lose there, you can appeal that lawsuit to the highest court in the land: the Supreme Court.
There are nine members of the Supreme Court, and they are appointed for lifelong terms by the President of the United States and their appointments have all been confirmed by the Senate. They are led by the Chief Justice of the United States, a person with “first among equals” status. The Chief Justice’s vote does not count more than the votes of their colleagues, but they are responsible for administration of the Court, assigning who gets to write the Court’s opinions, and deciding on which cases get heard. The Chief Justice’s name defines the era of each court because of his administrative influence, which is why we remember the progressive “Warren Court” and the relatively conservative “Roberts Court” of the present era.
Of course, the Supreme Court doesn’t have to hear your case. There are only nine members and they’re not in session for 12 months a year, so the Court only takes up about 2% of the cases presented before it, ideally the few cases that speak to the nation’s biggest problems and deserve the attention of the nation’s wisest jurists. If the Supreme Court hears a case and rules on it, their decision can have enormous consequences, because the word of the Supreme Court is law.
The Court has the power to interpret the Constitution and laws passed by Congress in an irrefutable manner – if the Court deems a practice (like racial segregation in public places) unconstitutional and therefore illegal, that practice can only be reinstated if the Court changes its mind or if the Constitution is amended to fit it in.
This power, called judicial review, was not officially and explicitly granted to the Supreme Court by the Constitution, but it is heavily implied to be one of its responsibilities based on how Article III is worded. This is how legal scholars and the federal judiciary can check/balance the powers of Congress and the president of the United States: if a majority of the members of the Supreme Court come to the conclusion that a practice is completely illegal under the framework of the Constitution, that practice can be wiped out, sometimes instantly. In Miranda v. Arizona (1969), the Supreme Court ruled that criminal courts could not use police interrogations of suspects as evidence if the suspects were not informed of their constitutional rights to speak with legal counsel or otherwise stay silent. Ever since, practically every arrest in real life (and on TV/in the movies) involves the recitation of a suspect’s Miranda rights (“you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law, you have the right to an attorney,” etc). In Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are afforded the right to marry on equal footing with heterosexual couples. On June 25th 2015, only 35 states (+ DC) recognized same-sex marriage, but by the end of the day on June 26th, the day of the ruling, all 50 states did, because refusing to do so would be unconstitutional. Neither of these changes happened because Congress passed a law, but because the Supreme Court delivered its ironclad interpretation of what existing law meant.
Like many other aspects of the federal government, the Supreme Court is designed to be slow and deliberative, and not all rulings are as broad as Obergefell was. Even the Supreme Court can be flexible over the course of years and decades, as SCOTUS justices retire/die or simply change their minds and adapt to new moral positions. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court ruled that racial segregation in public buildings was perfectly legal so long as both whites and blacks got “separate but equal” facilities, and the practice of “black-only” schools continued in the South for many decades, stopping only when the Court ruled that racial segregation in public facilities was completely unconstitutional in Brown v. Board (1954). Hell, in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that black slaves could not sue in federal courts because they weren’t even people, let alone citizens, so it’s pretty easy to see how much society (and, presumably, the Court) has progressed since then.
But this article speaks at great length about checks and balances between the branches of government, so that’s what I’ll do. The judiciary provides a critical check on the power of Congress by being allowed to strike down unconstitutional laws, and it also has the power to strike down unconstitutional executive orders (especially since executive orders are treated as laws until replaced by acts of Congress anyways). Congress and the executive also check the judiciary’s power, as mentioned many times above, by handling the appointment and nomination of specific judges and justices. Congress is also responsible for handling the size of every court’s bench as well as the number of lower federal courts (as is the president, to an extent, because he can ask Congress to change the court system or sign acts of Congress that do such a thing). In the event that a member of the federal judiciary is caught committing some kind of high crime or misdemeanor, the House and Senate are responsible for impeaching + removing said member of the judiciary. Furthermore, criminal convictions by federal courts can be overruled by the sitting president, who may grant pardons and commutations for those convicted/about to be convicted of federal crimes.
I also briefly mentioned the concept of circumventing a court’s ruling by amending the Constitution. This is a power shared by Congress, the executive, and the 50 states that compose the United States of America. This is a power detailed in Article Five of the Constitution (and this is just the section on Article Three), but I may as well preview it now: If Congress wants to change the Constitution, the House and Senate must both vote to approve a constitutional amendment with 2/3rds majorities. After that, 75% of the states (aka 38 out of 50 states) must vote to approve said amendment in their individual state legislatures. I’ll explain this in greater detail when we get there, but it’s relevant because of one particular case:
In 1970, the minimum voting age used to be 21 in a lot of states. Inspired by the deaths of 18 year old soldiers in Vietnam who were old enough to die for their country, but not old enough to vote in it, Congress passed a bill called the Voting Rights Act of 1970, setting the minimum voting age to no more than 18 in all federal, state, and local elections. The Supreme Court declared that the law was unconstitutional in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) because it was trying to enforce laws on state elections (whereas Congress usually only has power to regulate federal elections). The next year, both chambers of Congress passed a bill to amend the United States Constitution that prohibited any state or entity from setting the voting age above 18 years. By July of 1971, 38 states ratified the amendment and it passed into law as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Court cannot rule something unconstitutional if it’s in the Constitution, so Congress was able to dodge the judiciary’s power fairly easily.
In short, the Supreme Court and its lower courts act as the country’s legal referees, to ensure the rest of the government (and the rest of the country) doesn’t break the rules. If you’re familiar with the system of common law vs. civil law, the Supreme Court works off the basis of common law, because the Court places a great deal of value on past court decisions (precedent) to guide its current decision-making process. The English work off a similar system.
ARTICLE FIVE: THE AMENDMENTS
Skipping Article Four because I feel like it. Articles One through Three are the important ones, anyways. Article Four just talks about the relationship between states.
The Constitution was designed to be amended, and so far it has been amended 27 times. There are technically two ways to amend the Constitution, but ever since the initial drafting of the Constitution only one has ever been used: 2/3rds of each chamber of Congress votes to pass a bill containing new text for the Constitution, and instead of going to the president, the bill goes to all the states in the country. Individual state legislatures (aka the California State Legislature and the Maryland State Legislature) will then either vote to ratify it, kill it, or ignore it. If 75% of the states (38/50) vote to ratify it, the new amendment is placed into the Constitution where it becomes law.
When the Constitution was first up for debate, a lot of delegates in the Continental Congress worried that it gave too much power to the central federal government, and therefore wanted the Constitution to contain specific provisions that would protect the rights of the states and individuals. Desperate to get enough states on board to make the Constitution the official law of the land, the framers agreed. In the 1st Congress (1789-1791), lawmakers passed twelve amendments, ten of which were ratified into the Constitution. Because they were all passed as more or less one unit, and because they all focus on granting rights to the people and the states, the first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. The 11th through 27th amendments were passed between 1795 and 1992, often after specific events remind the Congress and the American people that the Constitution needs fixing. Although amendments usually pertain to matters of the federal government, some will directly affect how state governments work, and even those that don’t have been incorporated into individual state legal codes, because they’re so important.
THE BILL OF RIGHTS:
1st Amendment: Free speech, free press, free religion, and free protest.
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.
This is the most important amendment to the Constitution. You cannot be imprisoned for speaking your mind (under normal circumstances – you can’t incite dangerous things by yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or appear to threaten the life of the president). Granted, you can still get kicked out of private buildings for saying things, or ostracized from the public at large, but at least you won’t rot in a jail cell.
Further, in a country dominated by diverse Protestant sects from the day of its founding, the freedom of religion clause is incredibly important – Congress can’t pass a law that substantially favors one religion/sect or another (though since most of America is Christian or has elements of Christian culture, no sane person minds if they put up a nice Christmas tree or string up lights). This also means you can’t be jailed/executed for blasphemy, heresy, or even anti-religious sentiments. These freedoms do allow people to shout hurtful rhetoric at religious groups (e.g. neo-Nazis screaming at Jews), so long as it doesn’t fall under regular criminal statutes, but on the flipside they can always ignore them… or shout back.
The right of a free press, free assembly, and free petition of the government is incredibly important, too. The Supreme Court has even upheld the right of the free press to print sensitive information more than once, including when the New York Times got its hand on military documents proving that the Vietnam War was being horribly mismanaged and the Court ruled that they have the right to tell the American people about government misdeeds, so long as they don’t do grave or irreparable damage to our national security. Likewise, if a gathering of peaceful, law-abiding protesters show up in front of the White House, the military isn’t allowed to open fire on them, and if someone petitions the government, they can’t be locked in jail for sedition.
Hell, you can even light the American flag on fire and stomp on it and shout “I don’t like baseball.” I can’t stop you, and neither can the Attorney General. Just don’t set any people on fire while you’re at it.
Second Amendment: The right to bear arms.
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.
This means that law-abiding American citizens are allowed to own firearms, and this was passed for two reasons: self-defense of an individual against another individual (or, like, a bear) and self-defense of the people against a hostile government (foreign or domestic). Think back to 1791, when this was first passed: the frontier was dangerous, filled with potentially hostile Native American tribes and foreign troops, and some people didn’t exactly respect private property. Furthermore, George Washington’s revolutionary army had only won the nation’s independence just eight years prior, using a combination of uniformed Continental Army troops and normal citizens participating in local militias. By 1791, the U.S. was surrounded on all sides by Britain (Canada), France (Louisiana), and Spain (Florida) – if another war broke out, the federal government would need to call upon militiamen to supplement the nation’s defenses. If every able-bodied man had a gun in the closet and knew how to use it, taking over the United States would be like invading Russia in the winter x1000 in terms of difficulty.
There was, of course, the additional worry that the people would have to take up arms against a different kind of occupying force – one from within. If the new central government decided that civil rights were for wimps, then there’d be local militias and individual citizens armed to the teeth, ready to stop an evil tyrant with a hail of righteous lead.
This one’s been causing some problems lately, and unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1999, you know what I mean – mass shootings and gun violence plague the United States more than any other nation. This article is already 7,900 words long, so I won’t get into the issue of gun violence, but to sum it up: we have a lot of guns, and not a lot of laws regulating how guns should be kept, used, and sold. There is an entrenched opposition to any sort of regulation, and a lot of it stems from this amendment (even though it’s possible to regulate gun ownership without grabbing law-abiding citizen’s guns).
Third Amendment: The Amendment That Time Forgot.
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
To put it another way: the military cannot take over your house and force you to let a dozen soldiers sleep in your living room for the night. This used to be a big deal from the 1750s-1780s, because the British military loved to do this – if the army was on patrol and they needed a place to stay, they might set up tents in your front yard and stick an officer in your spare bedroom… or stick officers in all your bedrooms and soldiers in all your other rooms. When the colonies declared independence in 1776, they listed “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us” as one of their many grievances against King George and Parliament. This continued throughout the American Revolution when Brits would move through towns on the way to beat up patriot militias and needed a place to stay for the night or the winter, and the new country wanted to make sure that’d never happen again.
Well… it didn’t really happen again. Times have changed, and since the Revolution only two wars have been fought on American soil: the War of 1812 (part of the Napoleonic Wars), and the American Civil War. Troops probably did move into houses, but that was in wartime and there were technically laws to allow such acts. Plus, some of the houses were in rebel territory, so nobody gave a shit about those homeowners. This amendment sticks out because no Third Amendment-based court case has ever reached the Supreme Court, and there is no conceivable scenario in which it could ever become relevant in the future. The military has modern logistical needs that can’t be met by letting your troops crash on a citizen’s couch.
Fourth Amendment: Warrants and Criminal Investigations.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendments Four through Eight all deal with criminal investigations in one way or another, to ensure the rights of individuals against potentially overzealous state/federal investigators. The clause on unreasonable searches and seizures means the government can’t just kick your door down and steal your shit because they think you look like a criminal and they might be able to find evidence there. If there’s no imminent and obvious danger, and the police suspects you might be up to no good, they must ask a judge for a warrant to arrest you and/or go through your stuff, and must demonstrate probable cause, or the notion that you are probably up to no good based on existing evidence. If the cops were to search your house and find strong evidence of a crime, but your lawyer can prove that the cops didn’t follow the procedures laid out in this amendment, that evidence gets thrown out of court and cannot be considered in your trial. That’s how seriously we take our rights.
Fifth Amendment: Trial by Jury, Trial Rights, and Due Process
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
This can be broken down into a few parts. The federal government can only charge you with a felony crime if prosecutors can prove probable cause to a grand jury, or a group of 12-20ish people (not the same thing as a trial jury), that you probably committed the crime and that there’s enough evidence to go to trial. Furthermore, the double jeopardy rule states that if the government puts you on trial and the trial jury rules you “innocent,” the government cannot immediately hold another trial and repeat the process until a new jury decides you are guilty.
The Fifth Amendment also gives criminal defendants the right to remain silent, such that he/she cannot be compelled to speak in his/her own defense and that a defendant cannot be tortured into providing a confession of guilt. Furthermore, because the legal system is incredibly complicated to regular citizens, and criminals have an especially poor understanding of law, forcing a defendant to answer questions from lawyers can very easily lead into said defendant being tricked into self-incrimination even if the prosecution doesn’t have a rock-solid case. This amendment allows for defendants to state they are “pleading the Fifth,” in reference to the enshrined right to remain silent during trials.
Said defendants also get the right to due process, in which the government must meet certain conditions before imprisoning someone or depriving them of their life or property. The basic summary is that every criminal defendant has the right to a trial, a decision from a neutral party like a judge, and advanced notice. Other restrictions, like the opportunity for the defendant to see opposing evidence and the opportunity to defend yourself with your own evidence, also apply in most cases. The short description of “due process” is that defendants deserve a fair trial.
Sixth Amendment: Rules for criminal trials, and the right to counsel.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
This is very similar to the 5th amendment: if the Feds wanna charge you with a crime, they better be ready to put you on trial before the nation and a jury of your peers, close to home (because if you commit a crime in New York, a California jury might not understand who you really are), and given certain due process rights. You don’t have to stand before a judge and jury and skilled lawyers while conducting your own, pro se, defense – you can get a real lawyer to defend you. After the landmark SCOTUS case Gideon v. Wainwright, you don’t even have to pay for a lawyer because the court is required to provide you with counsel if you can’t afford one. If you believe you have witnesses who can exonerate you or prove that your accuser is a liar, you can call them up, and you or your lawyer can question all the participants in said trial. The government also has to put you on trial fast – they can’t just let you rot in a temporary cell “awaiting trial” for twenty years like in a lot of third world countries.
Seventh Amendment: Trial by jury.
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Simple one. If you’re charged with a crime and you want a public trial by jury instead of a hearing with a local judge, you can get that public trial. The decisions reached by a jury cannot be overruled by a judge, no matter how stupid the jury’s deliberations may seem to said judge. The clause about “twenty dollars” is pretty much irrelevant, because that was written in 1791 and no legal scholar has cared about it since.
Eighth Amendment: Cruel and unusual punishment.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
This deals with punishments before and after trials. If a criminal defendant is arrested, he/she is permitted to remain at home pending trial by posting a bail of cash or some other important collateral, lowering the possibility that the defendant will try to run away. However, the bail system doesn’t really work if the courts set, say, a $10,000 bail for someone who might not have $10,000 lying around, thereby ensuring he/she will spend time in jail while a richer defendant can sit at home. Likewise, if someone steals a loaf of bread, the justice system might require that the thief pay the government a fine and compensate the baker $4 for his loaf, but it is unconstitutional for the justice system to make the thief pay the government $4 million dollars as punishment.
The most important part of this amendment, however, deals with cruel and unusual punishment, effectively banning torture and other unnecessary and arbitrary acts. This means the federal government is required to feed and clothe its prisoners and provide for their basic human dignity, and may not, for example, zap them with a cattle prod or break their fingers if they don’t make their bed properly. No punishment deemed unacceptable to normal society, arbitrary in nature, completely unnecessary given the crime committed, or so heinous as to offend basic human dignity (torture) may be imposed. To do otherwise is a serious criminal violation of the Constitution. Even if a guy is convicted of murdering 50 people, the government is still forbidden from responding with something similarly barbaric, like chopping his head off in public or burning him at the stake.
Ninth Amendment: The rights of the people.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
This one’s really simple: the Bill of Rights only grants a small list of civil rights to the people, and this amendment is meant to tell the readers that people have more rights than just the ability to speak and have public trials or whatever. Amendments 1 through 8 were largely specific responses to infringements of civil liberties by British colonial authorities, but the framers of the Constitution knew that there was more to life than owning guns and not letting soldiers sleep in your bed. Even though those rights aren’t mentioned in the Bill of Rights, they still do exist.
Tenth Amendment: The rights of the states (and, also, a brief explanation of federalism).
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
I’ve already discussed the basics of what federalism is, but I’ll take the opportunity to do it again. In a federal republic, individual states retain some powers to regulate the lives of their citizens according to their needs. Further, these states each have their own say in how the federal government operates, by signing off on constitutional amendments and maintaining some control over the electoral process (more on that later). In unitary states like the UK or Bangladesh or China, states are merely administrative subdivisions that cannot exert any meaningful power over the central government, and any power devolved to them can be taken away at will.
Because Article IV, Section 2, of the Constitution mandates that each of these states are run with “republican forms of government,” the federal government is really the overseer of fifty miniature republics led by fifty independently-elected governors, fifty state supreme courts, and nearly one hundred state legislatures. If the federal authorities get mad at a governor or state legislator… they can’t do a thing about it.
This amendment lays out the basics of how the federal system works in just one sentence – the federal government has a lot of powers given to it by the Constitution, but everything else that cannot be justified as a federal power belongs to the states. Over the past two hundred years, a good many things have fallen under federal jurisdiction thanks to intentionally vague clauses in the Constitution (like the one that gives Congress the power to regulate “interstate commerce” which applies to everything from grain moving between states to racial segregation in private businesses), but things like criminal laws are almost entirely handled by the states alone.
The next seventeen amendments were passed between 1795 and 1992, and most aren’t really related to each other. Let’s go through them now. Important ones will get more attention, trust me.
Eleventh Amendment: State sovereign immunity.
The text here isn’t super important, and neither is the amendment itself. This amendment limits the power of the judiciary, preventing federal courts from hearing disputes between citizens of one state and the government of another state (e.g. a person from Maryland cannot sue the state of Pennsylvania in federal court). You can sue your own state in federal court, and you can sue other states in their respective state courts.
Twelfth Amendment: Changing how the POTUS and VPOTUS are elected.
This one is pretty important, but it uses a giant wall of text, so I’ll just summarize. Before this amendment was passed, the person who received the most electoral votes became the new president of the United States, and the second-place contender became the new vice president of the United States. This wasn’t a problem when the Constitution was first written – George Washington ran unopposed in 1788 and 1792 and his vice president, John Adams, was not a rival of his. Indeed, those two elections were both run specifically to ensure that the only contest was to decide the new VPOTUS, leaving Washington clear of any opponents. This didn’t last long, however.
When John Adams of the Federalist Party became the 2nd President in 1796, Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party became the 2nd Vice President. Likewise, when Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800, he had to share power with a member of his own party who he still had massive disagreements with, Aaron Burr (Jefferson would later attempt to put an exiled Burr on trial for treason a few years later, but that’s a different story).
This amendment sought to stop that stuff from ever happening again. Instead of making the runner-up in the presidential election the vice president as a consolation prize, ballots are now cast separately such that the 538 members of the Electoral College (which I’ll explain later) cast 538 ballots for president and 538 ballots for vice president, and the winner of each election wins their respective office. The amendment also sets up the framework for certain tiebreaker elections (since there are 538 electoral votes, it’s possible to tie 269-269), such that the House of Representatives gets to pick the president in the event of a tie and the Senate picks the VP. It also lays out the procedures on how these ballots end up getting cast.
Thirteenth Amendment: Abolition of slavery.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Passed by Congress in the last months of Abraham’s Lincoln presidency and of the Civil War, this amendment was designed to wipe out the practice of slavery once and for all. For about two hundred years (1665ish – 1865), slavery was legal in some form in many of the American colonies and states. Like I mentioned at the very top of this article, this led to huge divisions between the northern colonies/states which saw slavery as a moral wrong, and the southern colonies/states which saw it as a necessity to support their plantation economy. After Great Britain skipped town, this North/South divide intensified as each side vied to compromise, over and over again, about the future of slavery. If the northern states wanted to add a state (thereby making abolitionists more powerful in Congress), then the southern states had to get one too. This went on until 1860 when the anti-slavery Republican Party, founded just four years prior and now led by Abraham Lincoln, campaigned on stopping the spread of slavery into the American West. In the period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, seven southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four more joined in mid-1861, and the Civil War was on.
As we all know, this went horribly for the CSA, and on January 1st, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that black slaves in all eleven rebel states were free, and Union troops were ordered to free any slaves they came across in their campaign. Abraham Lincoln had spent his entire presidency as a wartime leader and knew that slavery, ruled illegal in Britain 30 years prior, was morally wrong. By February 1865, the Republican-controlled Congress passed this constitutional amendment banning slavery in all American states, rebel or not (since four states held slaves but hadn’t tried to secede). Now, the amendment had to get approval from 27 out of 36 states, including some former Confederate states.
President Abraham Lincoln did not live to see the ratification of the 13th Amendment. On the evening of April 14th, 1865, Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer and popular theater actor. Lincoln never regained consciousness, and died at 7:22am the next morning.
The amendment was ratified by December of that year. Slavery was finally over.
Fourteenth Amendment: Equal Protection.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Passed in 1868, the 14th Amendment was the second of three Reconstruction amendments, and one of the most important amendments ever passed. It guarantees two things: firstly, anyone born in the United States is granted citizenship automatically. This was imposed so that the children of slaves, who were treated as property at worst and foreigners at best, would be afforded the rights of citizenship. This clause was also adopted in many other New World nations because it helped allow for the speedier assimilation of immigrant populations, ensuring that there wouldn’t be enclaves of stateless immigrants living outside the law indefinitely.
This amendment also guarantees that the United States and individual states must provide all its people equal protection under the law. This Equal Protection Clause is why the 14th Amendment is one of the most fought-over provisions in the entire Constitution, responsible for dismantling racial segregation, legalizing gay marriage nationwide, securing voting rights… everything. I could go on for another two thousand words about the 14th Amendment and the doctrine of equal protection, but I’m not a lawyer and this is supposed to be a lesson about the basics of government that is already 11,000 words long. Point is, it’s important because it reinforces the principles of equality that are core to American ideology. Very important.
Fifteenth Amendment: Voting rights and race.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The third of three Reconstruction amendments, the 15th Amendment forbade the practice of, well, preventing someone from voting because they’re black or any other race. This doesn’t forbid implicit restrictions on voting that target racial minorities, like imposing a fee to vote (a poll tax) that prevents poor people from voting in communities where black people are disproportionately poor, etc. This was a problem in the post-war southern states, because those southern states went all-out on imposing ostensibly race-neutral restrictions on voting that just happened to screw over the black electorate in those states as soon as the Union troops left their state legislatures alone.
At least they tried.
Sixteenth Amendment: The federal income tax.
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
The Constitution, as originally written, does grant the federal government (and Congress in particular) the right to impose taxes however it sees fit. Before this amendment was passed in 1913, the feds got most of their money from taxing international trade with tariffs and whatnot. For a brief period centered around the Civil War, the government had imposed an income tax to fund the Union Army and Navy, but the government was so small in peacetime that they didn’t need an income tax to fund much of anything. Taxes on traded goods did, however, disproportionately affect the poor, and progress-minded members of Congress wanted a way to raise money without hurting the poor. There were some legal challenges to the idea of a federal income tax in the past, so Congress passed this amendment to guarantee that they could do such a thing without complaints from anti-tax litigants.
Seventeenth Amendment: Direct election of Senators:
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.
I neglected to mention this in the section on Article I of the Constitution because it would have been confusing, but until 1913 the people had no direct say in electing United States Senators. The original text of the Constitution says that individual state legislatures were responsible for electing members of the Senate, and the people could only affect the election of Senators by voting for their state-level legislators. This was originally meant as an anti-populist and anti-federalist measure, such that the U.S. Senate would be controlled by “cooler heads” in state governments that wouldn’t be as susceptible to quick populist trends (on top of the staggered election structure), while also allowing individual states to exercise another degree of control over the operations of the federal government.
By 1913, this method of elections was fairly unpopular, and some members of the Senate were already being picked by unofficial elections run by individual political parties. This amendment changed things by guaranteeing that U.S. Senators would be elected the exact same way that governors and U.S. House members get elected: through direct elections by the people.
Eighteenth Amendment: Alcohol prohibition.
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
The federal government of the United States, pressured by a growing temperance movement that saw alcohol as the root of much of the evil in America circa 1918, decided that it would be a great idea to ban alcohol. This period, known as Prohibition, was characterized by the federal government’s ill-advised attempts to crack down on alcohol consumption, dismantling legitimate alcohol-based businesses and letting them get replaced by organized crime outfits. Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit and dozens of other mobs got their start “bootlegging” alcohol from Canada into the United States to circumvent the law. This amendment was so ridiculously unpopular and idiotic that it has the dubious honor of being the only constitutional amendment to ever be repealed by a subsequent amendment.
Nineteenth Amendment: Giving women the right to vote.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
In 1920, only 15 out of the then-48 states (Alaska and Hawaii were just territories) allowed women to vote in all elections. The other 33 had some level of restrictions, allowed to do so because the Supreme Court at this time did not believe that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause granted women the right to vote. This amendment, backed primarily by western states that were founded with the help of female pioneers (who did just as much work founding towns and farms as the men did), passed in 1920 and granted all women (who met age and citizenship requirements, obv) the right to vote. Yay.
Twentieth Amendment: Rescheduling the start and end of presidential administrations.
This is important, but the text is long so I’ll summarize: before this amendment was passed, there would be a four month gap (early November to March 4th) between the election of a new POTUS and his inauguration. This caused especially big problems in two administrations: the Lincoln administration in which seven southern states seceded from the Union before Abraham Lincoln could take office to try and stop them, and the Franklin Roosevelt administration in which the Great Depression ravaged the nation while he was unable to get any of his policy proposals enacted before he took office.
This amendment sets Inauguration Day as January 20th on the year after a presidential election, where it used to be March 4th. This shortens the “lame duck” period in which a sitting executive is still technically in power, but everyone around him is just waiting for him to be replaced with the new one, and smooths the transitions between POTUSes. The amendment also sets up procedures to pick a new president-elect in case the winner of the election dies before taking office or something.
Twenty-first Amendment: Undoing Prohibition.
The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Turns out the Prohibition movement was a total shitshow. After over a decade of organized crime, smuggling, et cetera, the federal government recognized that Prohibition was a futile effort. This amendment, passed in 1933, undoes all the actions of the 18th Amendment, though a second section of the amendment allows for individual states to continue the prohibition of alcohol if they wished.
Twenty-second Amendment: Term limits.
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
In 1796, President George Washington announced he was retiring from public service after two terms in office. Although Washington was a tall and athletic man, he was 64 years old and had spent almost his entire adult life in military and political service. Thanks to the limited medicine of the time, Washington also suffered from extreme tooth decay and wore sets of false teeth to cover up the fact that he only had one tooth left by the end of his life. Washington was getting old and tired and wanted to go home to his Virginia plantation (dying there in 1799), but just as importantly he knew that he should relinquish the title of president of the United States willingly to show the world that the office was not a hereditary one with unofficial lifetime tenures. Presidents, in his view, should serve for a certain length of time and then step aside to let someone else take over the reins of government. This “two term precedent” was followed faithfully by most of his successors (two, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, tried to run for a non-consecutive third term, but lost).
This all changed in 1940. Buoyed by intense popularity and fears of a war in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt (fifth cousin of Theodore) ran for – and won – an unprecedented third term. In 1944, with America on the brink of victory in Europe, Roosevelt ran for a fourth term, and although Roosevelt’s health was obviously failing, he won (albeit by a thinner margin than in his past three races). This victory would be his last – Franklin Delano Roosevelt died three months after the start of his fourth term on April 12th, 1945. Although Roosevelt conducted himself honorably and with respect (more or less) for democratic institutions, it was clear that there was no legal barrier that could stop a healthier and less dignified populist from taking over the presidency for twenty, thirty, or maybe even forty years.
By 1951, the 22nd Amendment was ratified by the states, pushed through Congress by Republican legislators who had long been marginalized by FDR’s Democratic majorities. It sets a lifetime limit on the presidency – no man can be elected more than twice, and the maximum length of time anyone can serve is ten years (if, for example, the sitting president dies more than two years into his term, his VP becomes the new POTUS but is still allowed to run for two more terms). There are no exceptions: no matter how much confidence the government has in the president, no matter how successful he is, he has a very clear time limit. The republic should always be bigger than one man.
Twenty-third Amendment: DC gets a vote.
The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:
A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State…
The Constitution, as originally drafted, stipulated that the new nation’s capital had to be placed in neutral territory outside of any one state’s control. As a result of some political compromises, Congress authorized George Washington to personally select the site for a 10 mile x 10 mile federal district, the District of Columbia, that would serve as the headquarters for the federal government. The District was directly governed by Congress for almost two hundred years, and its citizens were not given the right to vote for members of Congress or in presidential elections. Although the roughly 700,000 residents of Washington, D.C, still do not have any voting power in Congress (they have one non-voting House member who can only vote in committee meetings), this amendment gives them 3 electoral votes out of a total of 538 in all presidential and vice presidential elections since 1964.
Twenty-fourth Amendment: No poll taxes.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
This amendment, passed in 1964, is close to irrelevant today, because it has a very narrow scope: states cannot prevent people from voting in federal elections (e.g. House, Senate, President) if they fail to pay a poll tax to the local board of elections. Racist southern governments used poll taxes as a disenfranchisement tactic to stop poor people (who just so happened to be disproportionately black and Hispanic) from voting in these elections. The narrow scope of the amendment did not technically prevent these states from retaining poll taxes for state-level elections, but in 1966 the Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia that any poll tax at any level violated the 14th Amendment anyways.
Wealth-based disenfranchisement isn’t over, though. Today, the issue is centered around the costly practice of requiring voters to present ID cards in order to vote. Voters are already required to prove that they are registered voters by stating their name and address to a poll worker anyways, so the idea that voters should have to present a government-issued identification card isn’t that crazy. The problem arises when state governments refuse to provide these voter IDs for a reduced price if not for free, which means that poorer voters are subjected to an unofficial poll tax that (in some cases) requires them to travel to faraway government offices with limited hours and pay something around $75 to $150 for an ID card. This totally coincidental inaccessibility, combined with the fact that voter impersonation is incredibly rare, has led to legal challenges in the states that enacted voter ID laws, at least the ones that don’t make them easy to obtain.
Twenty-Fifth Amendment: Presidential Succession.
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
This is a very long, but very important amendment. The first two sections of the 25th Amendment formalize the first part of the line of succession (namely the relationship between the president and the vice president): if the president dies/resigns/is removed, the incumbent vice president takes over as the president of the United States for the rest of the four-year term. This kind of already happened anyways, but the 25th Amendment formalized it.
If the vice presidential office is empty, then the incumbent president (possibly the guy who previously held the VP slot) has to nominate a new one and get confirmation from Congress. This VP replacement clause has been invoked twice since its ratification in 1967: when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and Nixon replaced him with Gerald Ford, and (less than a year later) when Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president, and Ford named Nelson Rockefeller to become the new VP.
If the president is aware that he is not capable of doing his job, he can also tell Congress that he’s letting the VP take over temporarily as Acting President, pending a written letter informing Congress that he’s ready to return. Since the 25th Amendment was ratified, this “Acting President” clause in its third section has been invoked three times, and all three times were the result of presidents undergoing colonoscopies or colon surgery and being knocked out by general anesthesia for a couple hours. Nothing serious.
But there’s a fourth section to this amendment, one in which the executive branch of the United States can declare that the sitting president is unable to do his job, even if the president is unable or unwilling to tell Congress himself (it’s a long one, so I’m cutting some text out):
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to [Congress] their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to [Congress] his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to [Congress] their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue… If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration… determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
This translates to a relatively simple procedure. If the vice president and a majority of the department chiefs (aka Secretary of State, Defense, etc) in the Cabinet decide that the president has lost the ability to govern, then the vice president becomes the acting president of the United States. If, however, the president still thinks he’s capable (assuming he’s not, y’know, braindead or in a coma) then he is permitted to send a contradictory letter. In the event of such a contradiction, Congress is responsible for deciding which person becomes the president of the United States.
If two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate side with the vice president, then the vice president remains the acting president. If not, the “normal” president remains in his job. This standard is higher than the one imposed for impeachment and conviction (which needs a two-thirds majority of the Senate and only a simple majority in the House), because this is only supposed to be invoked in cases where the president is obviously incapacitated and has to be removed, even if he hasn’t committed any crimes. After all, the vice president only automatically takes office if the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office. What if the president is convicted of crimes separate from the impeachment process and is locked up in a prison cell where he can’t perform his duties? What if he’s shot in an assassination attempt and he won’t be able to do anything until he fully heals months from now? What if that attempt reduces him to quadriplegia, unable to move his arms or legs? What if he’s not just paralyzed, but seriously brain damaged or comatose? What if he legitimately goes nuts (and I don’t just mean broadcasting his inane dumbfuckery on national television, I mean “drilling holes in his own skull while screaming about brain worms” nuts)? If it’s not this obvious, Congress is incentivized to side with the president, lest they disrupt the democratic process unnecessarily.
While we’re on the topic of presidential replacements, I want to mention one other emergency apparatus of the U.S. government that comes into play if, say, the president and the vice president are both killed in action. Using the powers outlined in an obscure section of Article II of the Constitution, Congress has set up a very deep “presidential line of succession” that sets up a smooth, automatic method to maintain government continuity in the event of a catastrophic attack or natural disaster. Everyone knows that if the president dies, the VP takes over. But what if the VP dies before he can nominate a replacement using Section 2 of the 25th Amendment? What if the next guy down dies? What if twelve senior members of the government die simultaneously? Here’s the full table, because… hey… who knows, it could be interesting. Individuals on this list are skipped over if they are not eligible to be president (aka under 35 or not a citizen) or if they are an acting cabinet secretary with no Senate confirmation (which is rare). Cabinet secretary seniority is based off of the age of the executive branch department (which is why State, founded in 1789, comes before Homeland Security, founded in 2001).
If the president dies, the vice president takes over. If the vice president dies, the Speaker of the House takes over. If the Speaker dies too, the president pro tempore of the Senate (aka a really old dude) takes over. If he/she dies, the Secretary of State takes over. After that, it’s Treasury, then Defense, then the Attorney General (Justice), then Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veteran Affairs, and finally Homeland Security.
If everybody on that list dies, then there is no president of the United States, acting or otherwise. To ensure that the bottom of this list is never reached, one member of government or another will always be missing from major events like inaugurations or States of the Union addresses (called a designated survivor).
That one official is usually hidden in a secret bunker – bonus points if there’s a second official who gets to hide in a different secret bunker.
Okay, moving on.
Twenty-Sixth Amendment: Voting age == 18.
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
I already explained this one when talking about the judiciary and constitutional amendments: this amendment was passed during the Vietnam War because legislators (and the people) were angry that 18 year old conscripts could die fighting for their country even if they weren’t allowed to vote for its leaders. This fix initially came in a regular act of Congress, but the Supreme Court struck it down because it attempted to legislate the voting age in individual states, which overstepped its bounds as a regular federal law. By making this stipulation into an amendment, Congress was able to legislate the new voting age ceiling without leaving its constitutionality in doubt (because now the constitution said it was okay). Some states now allow people under the age of 18 to vote, and in a lot of states it’s legal to vote in a political party primary if a person will be 18 by the date of the general election but aren’t quite there yet. This amendment just forbids any state from setting the minimum voting age to, say, 19 or 21.
Twenty-seventh Amendment: Pay raises.
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
This one is very unimportant compared to the big hitters like Amendments 1 or 14 or whatever, but I’m on a roll here so back off. Members of Congress are supposed to be paid by the federal government so that those who aren’t already rich can use their income as a politician to support themselves. It’s very popular, politically speaking, to say that a politician doesn’t deserve a paycheck because their job isn’t a “real” job (ugh) but it’s necessary because otherwise the only people willing to take up full-time jobs in politics would be those who are already rich, or are being paid for by wealthy special interest groups.
On the flipside, Congress controls its own paychecks. This amendment was written so that Congress would not be able to give all its sitting members an instant one-time 10,000,000% pay raise or something. Congress can still raise its pay by that much, but the pay raise would only come into effect after the next election, at which point there’s no guarantee that the legislators who voted for that pay raise would get it.
The 27th Amendment was actually written in 1789 and was sent to the states along with the 10 amendments that became the Bill of Rights (plus another amendment that never passed and was instead replaced by a regular act of Congress), but it fizzled out and wasn’t ratified. It sat in limbo until 1982, when a student at UT-Austin realized that the amendment didn’t have a time limit – if enough states picked it up, it could join its lost colleagues in the Constitution. Twenty-nine states hopped on board the ratification train in the 1980s and 1990s, and by 1992 the amendment got approval from 38 out of 50 states. It became law. The UT-Austin student who rediscovered the amendment had written about it in an essay, but he got a C for it. Reporters supposedly tracked down the professor, who ordered his grade changed to an A on account of him changing the United States Constitution and all that jazz.
If you’re going to pay attention to the Constitution in the future, remember these amendments: 1 (because freedom), 2 (because the freedom to have guns), 10 (because federalism), 14 (so much stuff), and 25 (because it’s used in a lot of TV political dramas). All are important, but these (especially 1, 2, and 14) will come up a lot.
Now that we’ve finally finished the section on the United States Constitution and explained federalism, checks/balances, and all that cool shit, let’s go over one last section: elections and political parties.
PART FOUR: HOW ELECTIONS AND PARTIES WORK
American elections, except the presidential election, are based off of the simple “first-past-the-post” model, in which the candidate with the most votes will win, and nobody cares about the runner-ups. In nearly every election from “county sheriff,” electoral candidates have the support of one of two major parties: the Democrats and the Republicans, but the major parties offer only organizational and financial support: the national strength of a political party does not directly determine how many seats they hold in Congress.
As covered earlier, the U.S. House elects its members from 435 separate district elections in which the only voters are residents of the same state and same congressional district.
Congressional districts are regions drawn within states by the state government such that a Representative is representing a contiguous community of people within that state, ideally roughly 710,000 people. Unfortunately, states often “gerrymander” their congressional districts to maximize the chances that members of the dominant political party will win their re-election campaigns, splitting up communities of opposition-friendly voters into multiple districts or packing them into just one district. Although these maps frequently change, it’s no wonder why incumbent legislators have >90% reelection rates. Anyways, U.S. House elections are held every two years, in every November of an even-digit year. Sometimes, if a House member dies or resigns, the relevant governor might fill the vacancy with a temporary appointment or call a special election outside of the normal schedule. Every single member of the U.S. House of Representatives is either a Democrat or a Republican, but the individual views of a House member rarely perfectly align with that of the national party. As long as you’re over the age of 25 and have lived in the U.S. for a certain amount of time, you can become a member of the House of Representatives. There are no term limits – Ann Arbor’s longtime Representative, John Dingell Jr., took office when his father died in 1955 and only retired in 2015… after thirty terms and sixty years in the House (Dingell died on 7 February 2019 at the age of 92, survived by his wife… incumbent three-term House member Debbie Dingell).
Senators are elected to six year terms, but as mentioned earlier these elections are staggered to fit with the House election schedule: one third of the Senate is elected every two years, and with 50 states and 2 senators per state that means there are 100 senators (not counting the vice president). Every eligible voter in the state votes in the Senate election, and becomes a constituent of said senator – senators don’t “split up” the state and say “I represent upstate New York, you represent NYC” or whatever. States do not elect their two senators simultaneously, except in rare cases of special elections – Maryland elected one senator in 2016, and re-elected another in 2018. This staggering between and within states means that the Senate is a relatively moderate body that takes a long time to change hands, and individual states can have senators from two different parties: currently, nine out of fifty states have split Senate delegations.
The Constitution requires that every state must have a republican form of government, and because the states are especially creative, they mostly just copied the U.S. federal government: every state has a governor elected by the people who runs the state executive branch, and a state legislature (also elected by the people (duh)), all but one of which are bicameral like the U.S. Congress (Nebraska has just one chamber). Much like how the vice president of the United States presides over the United States Senate, 45 of the 50 states have lieutenant governors (elected through various means, usually directly by the people but sometimes by the state senates) who preside over the Senate and chair a few advisory boards or task forces or whatever. There’s also a state judiciary + state supreme court to handle state-level civil/criminal/constitutional disputes, but their members are elected or appointed in a bunch of different ways (none of which are important). Below them are local government officials overseeing the counties within each state, like county executives and county councils and county boards of health or education or any number of other departments, whose members are usually elected by the residents of each county or appointed by officials who are elected by said residents.
But you’re not here to learn about the intricacies of local government. You’re here to learn about how the most powerful man (or woman) on Earth gets elected every four years: the presidential election.
The presidential election isn’t really one election. It’s fifty. Fifty-one if you count the District of Columbia. Fifty-two for the actual meeting of the electors of the Electoral College, and one hundred and sixty-five if you count the 113 individual primary elections held in the Republican and Democratic primaries. Let’s break this into two categories: the primaries and the general election.
The primaries are the nominating process that takes all eligible candidates of that party and puts them through hell until only one person is left, and the general election is a series of 51 elections in which each state (+ the District) decides who they want to see in the White House. The winner of each contest gets a certain number of electoral votes, and the candidate who possesses a majority of the total electoral votes becomes the president.
To become the president of the United States, you must be a natural-born American citizen over the age of 35 with at least 14 of those years spent on American soil. You should also be a member of, or at least closely affiliated with, either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, because every president except for one was a member of one of the two major parties – the exception being George Washington, who famously warned against the power of political parties in his farewell address (oops).
Without the financial and organizational support of either the Democrats or the Republicans, you basically have a 0% chance of becoming the president. Yes, you can run as an independent or as a member of a third party like the Libertarians or the Greens, but a government structured like the United States heavily favors the use of two major parties, because it takes an immense amount of infrastructure to hold sway in Congress and in presidential elections. This is a phenomenon known as Duverger’s Law, which can be explained like this:
Let’s take a simple election, in which two candidates are competing: Candidate A and Candidate B. 55/100 voters are aligned with A, and 45/100 are aligned with B. Ordinarily, this means that Candidate A is going to win. But one day, a candidate who believes that A doesn’t go far enough on certain issues appears, and runs as candidate C with the support of 11 voters who used to be on team A. This reduces A’s support to 44 voters, even though there are 11 people who kinda agree with him on most issues, and Candidate B sails to victory with 45 votes despite winning only a plurality, not a majority. A and C have the majority of voters between them, but B wins because he was able to keep the people who were relatively ideologically aligned with him in a united party. Therefore, the only way to defeat B in the future is to maintain a similar level of unity, because fractured opposition means useless opposition, and A becomes the leader of that opposition because he was the strongest opponent. The opposition fuses back together, and candidate C is no longer relevant. This happens all the time. In the 1912 election, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won 40 out of 48 states because the Republican Party split in half and ensured that its two candidates would end up in second and third place behind Wilson in almost every state. By 1916, the Republican Party was back in one piece and although Wilson still won, he did so with a much smaller margin of victory. It is for this reason that there are only two parties in America: disunity guarantees defeat.
Since 1856, the two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans, and although their ideological platforms have shifted (the Democrats used to be pro-slavery, and the Republicans used to be smart and reasonable) their organizations are rock-solid. They also have very similar primary election processes, so I don’t have to explain them separately.
PRIMARIES: Stage One: The invisible primary.
You can run for the Democratic or Republican nomination, provided you meet the age and citizenship/residency requirements, but you need serious support before you can cash in on your political party’s vast resources and have a reasonable shot of actually winning something. You need to get to work, and fast.
This means you need to lay the groundwork for your campaign years ahead of time, often as soon as the previous presidential election ends… or even earlier. You and your aides travel across the nation, asking wealthy donors or local political leaders to consider supporting you. You raise your profile in public by speaking out about various issues and going on “listening tours” where you eat large amounts of fast food in shitty burger joints in the hopes of making a connection with an voter or two. Op-eds appear in newspapers in which people say that you’re the best person for the job, and the writer just so happens to be a friend of a friend of yours. You begin to assemble staffers who have experience running other campaigns, and start looking at office spaces to rent in the future. You publish a really cheesy book about your vision for America that people will pretend to read. You wake up in a cold sweat with only one thought: Somehow you must get to Iowa.
At this point, you’re not officially a candidate, but if you succeed in the “invisible primary” by lining up donors, supporters, and staffers, you will become a visible presence in the party and your chances of winning increase drastically (from 0.0002% to 2%). That means when you officially announce your candidacy, people might take you seriously. Usually the only people who make it this far are cabinet officials, House or Senate members, or governors – occasionally, a businessman with no experience but a lot of name recognition will make it through, but that’s really rare.
PRIMARIES: Stage Two: The actual primary.
The election is less than two years away. At this point, you and about a dozen of your co-partisans will announce credible presidential candidacies and begin openly campaigning for funds and support. Everyone else has been weeded out by the invisible primary, and lacks the resources and media attention to win, so it’s really just down to about twelve credible, well-known-ish politicians.
You have about one year to travel the country, show up in public debates, and make a case for yourself before the 50-odd primary elections begin. The primaries are staggered over a period of about five months (usually February to June of an election year), so you’ll have enough time to travel to each state and change people’s minds before anyone casts a ballot. That way, if a candidate fizzles out after one bad primary election, he can drop out and not waste resources trying to win everywhere else. This period is characterized by debates and polls and stump speeches and nonstop media coverage, and although candidates travel everywhere during this time, they usually gather in the states that hold the first two primary elections: Iowa and New Hampshire. If a presidential candidate can pull off a strong performance in Iowa or New Hampshire, they get a massive media/fundraising/polling boost, even if they don’t come in first place. Likewise, candidates who have really weak performances in those states usually drop out, knowing that their chances of making a comeback are weak. Therefore, candidates will spend as much time as humanly possible going to every single public event in those two states + the other early states to gauge how much support they actually have.
Then, on one cold February day… the Iowa caucuses are held. A caucus is a weird, esoteric type of primary in which a billion local chapters of the Iowa Democratic/Republican parties will rent out ballrooms in as many small towns as possible, and instead of filling out a ballot, local voters will crowd into corners of the room and try to convince other voters to join them in their corners. If a candidate only has a small group of people (like <15% of the people in the room) then that group is disbanded and the supporters must join up with one of the bigger huddles. After that, the relative size of each group is recorded, and the Iowa Democratic/Republican party allots a certain number of convention delegates to the candidates who got the most support in all the local caucuses. For the top five or so candidates in Iowa, it’s time to move on to New Hampshire and the other primary states. For everyone else, it’s time to think about giving up the fight.
The caucus isn’t a simple system, and if it sounds stupid and confusing (why is the strength of a candidate determined by the number of people standing next to each other?) you wouldn’t be wrong – only a few states do it, and it’s mostly for ceremony’s sake. That said, it’s a lot of fun and I really want to participate in one some day.
A week later, New Hampshire votes. New Hampshire is a normal state populated by (mostly) normal people, so they conduct their primary election the normal way: voters go to polling stations and cast their ballots for the candidates they think should be the president. Convention delegates are allotted to the presidential candidates who perform well, and the people who don’t make it to the top four or five are encouraged to drop out of the race. If a candidate gets 40% of the vote in New Hampshire, he/she gets 40% of the delegates, but candidates who fail to get more than, say, 4% of the vote get nothing.
From here, the pace quickens. The media zeroes in on the top few candidates remaining as they travel to the last two “early states” – South Carolina and Nevada – and the televised debates inevitably get angrier and louder. By early March, large numbers of states begin to vote simultaneously (these are called Super Tuesday elections because it’s a bunch of states voting at once, and election day is usually on a Tuesday), and the only people who stand a chance of winning are those who have lots of money and manpower spread across the nation, plus strong performances in the early states.
In the Democratic Party primaries, proportional representation reigns supreme, so if three candidates each get about a third of the vote in a state, that state will give them a roughly equal number of convention delegates. In the Republican Party, many of these later states have “winner-take-all” policies (or winner-take-half, etc), so if three candidates do roughly equally well, the one candidate who did the best among them gets between 50% and 100% of the state’s delegates (even if he/she only got one more vote than the other candidates). This is how Donald Trump won the Republican primary in 2016: he won pluralities in each state, but got almost all the convention delegates, and his campaign rapidly outstripped everyone else’s until his last opponent dropped out in May. This is also why Hillary Clinton took until June to defeat Bernie Sanders in 2016: even though Clinton routinely beat Sanders in a lot of states throughout the primary season, Sanders was still able to get 30-40% of the delegates in those states because he kept getting 30-40% of the vote (plus >50% of delegates in the places he actually won).
This process continues until one of three things happens: a candidate wins over 50% of the total number of delegates, everyone else drops out and lets the last man/woman standing win every remaining contest by default, or if every contest finishes, but nobody has a clear majority. The primary process then goes to the convention!
PRIMARIES: Stage Three: The convention.
Both the Democrats and Republicans end the primary process with a national convention (DNC and RNC, respectively). This is where each political party officially nominates its presidential and vice presidential candidates, and rallies a ton of support to excite their supporters. To select the nominee, they hold a vote of all the convention delegates, all of whom were selected over the past six months of primary elections.
If one candidate has a majority of the convention delegates won in the primary process, then he/she will win the party’s nomination for president on the first round of delegate voting without a fuss, sometimes before the first vote is even finished. If no candidate has a clear majority of the delegates, then the delegates will all cast their votes as assigned and no candidate will win a majority in the first round. It then goes to a second round of voting, in which the delegates are no longer bound to vote for the candidate who won (or did fairly well in) their local primary election, and can be cajoled and convinced into voting for other candidates. This process is known as a contested convention, and can be won by any candidate whose name is placed into nomination by the delegates, even a complete outsider. This rarely happens, because most candidates are smart enough to know if and when they’re beaten, but it is the worst fear of any party organizer because a contested convention means days of public infighting around presidential candidates. Once the presidential nominating votes are over, the party’s nominee for president then nominates his/her vice presidential candidate for a vote by the convention delegates, though usually the delegates will waive the privilege and nominate him/her by a unanimous voice vote.
The next few days of the convention are then taken up by private meetings of organizers, plus public speeches and rallies by prominent and up-and-coming party members. In 2004, an obscure state senator from Illinois was chosen to give the keynote address at the 2004 DNC in Boston in order to boost his profile for his U.S. Senate race that fall. He did an excellent job and fired up the crowd. Four years later, Senator Barack Obama stood on the DNC’s stage to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States of America. After the two conventions are done, it’s time for the general election season.
GENERAL ELECTION: The campaign and the election.
Nowadays, the general election season usually runs from early September to early-mid November (the first Tuesday after November 1st, technically), in which the two presidential candidates become the default leader of their parties. Third party candidates and centrist independent candidates often run (dozens of them, even) but they rarely gain enough political support or ballot access to matter (the last time was in 1992, when billionaire Ross Perot appeared on stage at presidential debates and won 19% of the vote), so everything revolves around the big two candidates. They drum up support for themselves and down-ballot allies like House and Senate candidates, and visit certain key states in order to maximize their chance at winning the Electoral College.
Unlike the losers in the rest of the world, the United States of America doesn’t use a simple popular vote to elect its presidents. Instead, we use an electoral college with 538 members appointed by the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The electoral votes are apportioned among the states approximately equal to each state’s population, with a minimum of 3 for the smallest states. The formula is “# of Senators (always 2) + # of House members (at least 1),” or just 3 for DC, and through this formula we reach 538 electoral votes (because 100 senators + 435 House members + 3 DC votes). To win, you must have 270 out of 538 electoral votes – a simple majority. The reasons for the college are varied and complicated, but in part it guarantees that election winners have broad bases of support across much of the country, not just a few big cities.
Each state has a lot of freedom to decide how those electoral votes are cast, and in 49 out of the 51 jurisdictions, the states have chosen to use a “winner-take-all” system in which the person who gets the most votes wins everything. That means in California, if you win 100% of the vote, you get all 55 electoral votes. If you get only 30% of the vote, but no other candidate got more than 29%, you still get all 55 electoral votes. That means you don’t need to waste time trying to get landslide elections within each state, because it makes no difference if you win by one vote or one million. Maine and Nebraska apportion their votes weirdly (in each state, the winner of each congressional district gets one electoral vote, and the remaining two votes go to the statewide winner – splits happened in 2008 when Barack Obama won Omaha, NE, and in 2016 when Donald Trump won rural Maine).
Most of America’s population lives in “safe” states, where one party or another can count on their votes in the presidential election – the state of Oklahoma hasn’t voted for a Democrat in the presidential election since 1964 (and that was a complete landslide nationwide), so no Democrat is going to set foot in Oklahoma during the general election season. Likewise, no Republican is going to try to campaign for votes in Massachusetts or California because they have no hope of winning pluralities. Because neither party has enough safe state electoral votes to win a majority of the electoral college, almost all attention goes to swing states that have the potential to vote for either a Republican or a Democrat. This is what the electoral map looks like, using Cook Political Report’s early 2019 estimates:
The deeper each state’s color is, the safer, and you can see how many votes each state has. The status of swing states change all the time, because demographics and viewpoints change all the time. Some, like Florida, have always gone to the winner of the presidential election, and others like Michigan and Pennsylvania have historically gone for one party but haven’t done so lately. Even Texas, the stronghold of the Bush family that has voted for Republicans in every election since 1976, is at risk of flipping if Democrats outperform by a wide enough margin. Arizona is a traditionally Republican state that is now a genuine swing state (as evidenced by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s victory in its Senate election), and its new “swing state” status comes just in time because the Democratic Party can no longer rely on its traditional power base. In 2000, the entire presidential election hinged on an insanely close victory by George W. Bush in the swing state of Florida (537 vote margin out of nearly 6 million cast – there were various plans for recounts, but the Supreme Court ordered them stopped after about a month), and while the state is getting more Republican, it’s big enough that credible candidates must campaign there just in case. You get the idea from here.
Presidential elections usually match the nationwide popular vote, and there have only been five instances out of fifty-eight total elections when the winner of the presidential election did not actually win the popular vote: 1824 (a four-way race that had to be decided through other means), 1876 (in which four states had unclear results), 1888, 2000, and 2016. In those five cases, the actual popular vote was incredibly close, a far cry from resounding popular/electoral vote victories like in 1984, 1996, and 2008.
BUT, there have been two instances when no candidate achieves a majority of the allotted electoral votes: 1800 and 1824. 1800 was a giant mess as I explained briefly in the section on the 12th Amendment (because it inspired said amendment), just in time for the 1824 election. The new procedure is fairly simple: if nobody wins a majority of the Electoral College, the election is thrown to the United States House of Representatives. The fifty delegations from all fifty states gather together and decide who they want to be president among the top three elector-vote-getters, and each state delegation gets one vote. The winner is the person who gets at least 26 “state votes.” This happened once in 1824, when a four-way election meant that the election was thrown to the House. The fourth-place finisher, Henry Clay, happened to be the Speaker of the House and cut a deal to make second-place finisher John Quincy Adams the president, on the condition that he become the Secretary of State. The first-place finisher, Andrew Jackson, was outraged that he was denied the presidency despite winning a plurality of the electoral votes and beat Adams four years later, then won reelection by beating Clay four years after that. Jackson later said that one of his two regrets in life was not shooting Clay.
Although this measure is technically egalitarian, it would currently favor the Republican Party because there are a lot of small states out west that have >50% Republican House delegations that carry just as much weight as states like California and New York.
If the vote for vice president of the United States is similarly deadlocked (which would probably follow if the vote for president is also deadlocked) then the VP election goes to the Senate. All 100 senators will then vote to pick between the top two vote-getters, and the person who gets 51 votes or more becomes the new vice president. If the Senate picks a new vice president before the House can pick a new president (which has never happened), then the VP-elect becomes the acting president. What happens after that is a long list of weird procedures that have never, and probably will never occur, so I won’t go into them. Point is, we have backup measures.
At this stage, somehow – some way – the people of the United States have elected a new president of the United States. On the same day as that presidential election, 435 members of the House and ~33 members of the Senate are also elected. On January 3rd of the next year, the new Congress is sworn in, and at 12:00pm on January 20th, the president-elect of the United States places his left hand on a book and his/her right arm towards the sky and recites the following oath as it is read aloud to him/her by the Chief Justice of the United States:
I, [name], do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
And just like that, America gets a new president. To recap, there are two major parties, and the two people who survive the two primaries square off in the general election, and the winner is based off of who wins the most + the biggest states in the Electoral College.
Almost at the finish line. Let’s go over the two parties. What do the Democrats and Republicans believe in?
PARTIES: What each party believes in.
Because this piece is already 20,000 words long, this section has been shortened so that it doesn’t collapse in on itself to become a black hole. The beliefs of the Democratic and Republican parties are so varied and nuanced that it would take another 10,000 words to explain what exactly they believe in. Instead, here’s a few paragraphs for each party.
Democrats (aka liberals, aka the left wing) are governed by the general philosophy that the everyone deserves a fair shot in life (equality of opportunity, or equity), which means an expansion of civil rights for groups that need it but don’t have it, plus expansion of social services so people can see doctors without going bankrupt, and improving laws and regulations to keep people and the environment safe. Democrats believe that the government should spend less money on the military and border walls and more money on diplomacy and health care. They also believe in immigration reform to allow more immigrants to enter the country legally and add to American culture.
See how many of these apply to you: If you believe that gun violence is too high in America because too many people have guns, you’re a Democrat. If you know that climate change is a threat and want to actually do something to stop the largest crisis humanity has seen possibly ever, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that war is a last resort for when diplomacy, foreign aid, and economic pressure have all failed, you’re a Democrat. If you know that sexual orientation is a trait and not a choice and that gay people should be allowed to marry, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that women should have the right to a safe, legal, and rare abortion, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that criminal law codes are too harsh and disproportionately affect minorities, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that immigration is a good phenomenon that strengthens nations, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that government is a useful tool that fixes problems in the economy that free market capitalism cannot, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share in taxes, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that health care is a right of all people and not a privilege based on wealth, you’re a Democrat. If you believe that workers should be paid enough in a 40(-ish) hour work week to support themselves, you’re a Democrat.
I am personally a Democrat because I believe in all of these things to an extent. Of course, not all Democrats believe in the same stuff I do – I’m a personal fan of nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels (which isn’t super popular among environmentalist Democrats), and I like large free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP (which progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders are allergic to), and I want to spend more money on NASA (which Democrats are okay with, but not super enthusiastic about). But that’s fine – the Democratic Party is a big tent party. It’s home to young voters, racial minorities, working-class voters, those with college educations or higher, those with no strong religious affiliations, and has more women than men. It is a distinctly urban and suburban party, compared to the rural and suburban Republican Party.
The Republican Party (aka conservatives, aka the right wing) believes that the country is more or less fine as it is, and doesn’t need to change or have new regulations. Their general philosophy is that the government that governs best is the one that governs least, and that it cannot be the solution to our problems. The free market works best when unrestrained, as do its people. They are home to a fairly big coalition of religious “moral majority” Republicans, business-friendly Republicans, and libertarian Republicans – none of which are mutually exclusive categories. There is no need to provide universal health insurance because the free market already has private health insurance companies, and it is not government’s responsibility to make colleges and universities cheap because you don’t need to go to expensive schools. To them, immigrants are mostly okay, but in general there shouldn’t be as much new immigration. They find government regulations to be burdensome and unnecessary, especially when it comes to environmental and employment laws. With the exception of Donald Trump, Republicans find that tariffs and other such restrictions on international trade are bad because they get in the way of economic growth. They believe the 2nd Amendment means that the federal government should not regulate guns any more than they already do (that is to say, barely at all). Some religious Republicans also believe that homosexuality is a choice (where they got that notion is beyond me) and that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry. The government, in their view, should spend less on socialist welfare programs and more on the military, and should stop taxing rich people because that curtails economic growth.
If you read the list from three paragraphs ago and went “I don’t agree with most of this stuff,” then you’re probably more of a Republican than a Democrat… but not all Republicans think alike, just like how not all Democrats think alike. Some Republicans are members of the party because they firmly believe that government’s role in society is too big and burdensome. Others join because they believe the Republicans are strong and can keep the country safe, unlike the hippies in the Democratic Party (disregard that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a Democrat and he did more to prepare the nation for World War II than any Republican at the time). Some do so because they believe the Republican Party will protect Judeo-Christian values in America. Some want all of the above.
It’s also worth noting that party philosophies change all the time, because the world changes all the time. Until 2001, barely any politicians cared about terrorism, and after 1991 almost no politician cares about the threat of international communism. In 1912, the Democrats and the Republicans were competing to see which party was the most “progressive,” a label that belongs to the leftmost wing of the Democratic Party today and has zero place in the Republican Party. If you go further back in history, the Democratic and Republican parties become practically unrecognizable.
Beyond that, the role and scope of government itself changes constantly. The Constitution has been amended 27 times and will likely be amended more in the future, and although the president has amassed enormous powers, the other two branches may choose to claw some of them back. Maybe the election system will change (in fact, it probably will).
What is constant is this: the Constitution of the United States of America is the most successful founding document for a democratic republic, and it has built the most powerful nation on Earth. When first written in 1787, the Americans were nearly alone among vast colonial empires who mocked America for being so naive to believe that a republic, especially a democratic republic, could govern a vast land and compete with the rest of the world without collapsing like the Romans. Now, the people of every nation believe in Abraham Lincoln’s now-immortal words spoken on the Gettysburg battlefield:
We here highly resolve … that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.
Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.