The unique U.S. political system
A quick glance at the tabulation reveals that a Republican president has been in power for 36 years, just over half the time. However, the Democrats have reigned in the House for 48, and in the Senate for 44 of those 64 years. How many of you knew that?
In the elections of 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000, the President-elect was selected with less than 50% of the votes cast. In the hotly contested
election of 2000, the loser, Al Gore, actually received more of the votes cast than George Bush! This occurs because of the unique situation in the United States, in which voters do not actually vote directly for president. Instead they vote for delegates to the Electoral College, which in turn elects the President. In 48 of the states (and the District of Columbia) all the state's Electors cast their votes for the candidate who received the majority of the popular votes in that state.
The number of Electors in each state is equal to the sum of Senators and Representatives from the state, with a total of 538. Thus several smaller states have a minimum of 3 Electoral votes. The voters in those states have a disproportional effect on the election of a President. Consequently huge efforts are made by the Presidential candidates to gain majorities in the states with the largest number of Electors - California (55), Florida (27), Illinois (21), New York (31), Ohio (21), Pennsylvania (21), Texas (34).
Surprise! Richard Nixon is widely considered to have been an unpopular President. Note, however, that for his second term, he received the largest majority both of popular vote and Electoral votes of any other candidate in the 64 years! Too bad that he got himself involved in the Watergate conspiracy, and facing impeachment resigned.
In the United States, the Senate has a very large influence on the policies of the nation. It must approve all legislation, and confirm all appointments of the President to major executive positions in the government, and of judges in the Supreme Court and Appeals courts. It must also confirm any treaties with foreign countries or agencies. For example, the United State never joined the League of Nations after World War I because the Senate refused consent. The Constitution established that each state has two members in the Senate, the voters in states with smaller populations (such as Alaska or Montana) exercise a much stronger relative influence on national policies than those in populous states (such as New York or California).
The Constitution also requires that Representatives (members of the House) be elected by popular vote, and that after each national Census, the number of Representatives from each state be adjusted. With increase in the size of the nation the number of House members also continued to rise. In 1911 Congress passed Public Law 62-5 which effectively set the maximum size of the House of Representatives at 435 members. After each Census Congressional districts are
reapportioned, thus some states lose, others gain their share of of seats. Currently each member represents just under 700,000 voters. However, each state must have at least one Representative, consequently in some smaller states the number represented is much smaller. For example, Wyoming's single House member represents 494,000 voters.
Unless the party of the President has at least 60 Senators, the opposition party can delay legislation endlessly. If the Senate is evenly split, as was the case from 1950 to 1958, and again 2000-2002 and 2006-2008, very little is accomplished.
Fortunately in the crucial period, 1948-1952, at the beginning of the Cold War, the Senate leadership followed a long-range bi-partisan foreign policy supporting President Truman's efforts for the build-up of NATO and opposition to Soviet aggression, including the Berlin-airlift.
A weakness of the United States government is the stipulation in the Constitution that Representatives to the House are re-elected every two years. This results in many decisions being made with a short term view to please the voters supporting a given Member at the next election, just a few months away.
By contrast,Senators serve for six years. Furthermore only 1/3 of the senators come up for election in each two-year period, thus maintaining some continuity of policy.
Another negative effect of the present American political system is the enormous amount of time and money spent on the election process. The primary and final election campaigns in the 2008 presidential election lasted a year and a half and reportedly cost about one billion dollars! Therefore only very rich people, or ones with the strong backing of various political and commercial organizations, can afford to run for office.
Note the low voter turnout, usually less than 60%, lower in years with only congressional elections. However, the number is a percentage of total population of voting age. Since about 5% are not eligible to vote, for example non-citizen residents, the true number for voter turnout is really about 3% points higher than reported.
Comparison with other democratic nations
In most other democracies, the Head of State, whether a monarch or elected President, serves a more ceremonial role than in the U.S.A. The Prime Minister, usually the leader of the party with strongest electoral support, is the head of government. Therefore the head of government and parliamentary support are from the same political party. This leads to much faster decisions.
Although their constitutions provide for national elections on a regular basis, usually five or seven years, parliaments may take a vote of "No confidence" which will precipitate a sudden earlier election. In some countries, with several large political parties (Italy is a prime example), governments often result from a coalition of several parties, with consequent instability and frequent government changes and national elections.
Most other democratic countries require important positions, such as president, to receive at least 50.1% of the vote. Consequently in elections with many candidates, a runoff election is held within four to six weeks. In this election all but the two top contenders are eliminated, ensuring that one of the two remaining candidates is elected with a plurality.
NOTE The table is in printable form. Please use it for reference, take it to the office or school, use as a basis for discussions.
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