Politics of the United States

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Politics of the United States
Greater coat of arms of the United States.svg
Polity typeFederal presidential constitutional republic
ConstitutionUnited States Constitution
FormationMarch 4, 1789; 233 years ago (1789-03-04)
Legislative branch
Meeting placeCapitol
Upper house
Presiding officerKamala Harris, Vice President & President of the Senate
AppointerDirect Election
Lower house
NameHouse of Representatives
Presiding officerNancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives
AppointerFirst-past-the-post voting
Executive branch
Head of State and Government
CurrentlyJoe Biden
AppointerElectoral College
NameCabinet of the United States
Current cabinetCabinet of Joe Biden
Deputy leaderVice President
HeadquartersWhite House
Judicial branch
NameFederal judiciary of the United States
CourtsCourts of the United States
Supreme Court
Chief judgeJohn Roberts
SeatSupreme Court Building

The politics of the United States function within a framework of a constitutional federal republic and presidential system, with three distinct branches that share powers. The U.S. Congress forms the legislative branch, a bicameral legislative body comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. The executive branch is headed by the President of the United States, who serves as country's head of state and government. And the Judiciary branch forms the third branch, composed of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, and exercises judicial power.

Each of the 50 individual state governments have the power to make laws within their jurisdictions that are not granted to the federal government nor denied to the states in the U.S. Constitution. Each state also has a constitution following the pattern of the federal Constitution but differing in details. Each have three branches: an executive branch headed by a Governor, a legislative body, and judicial branch. At the local level, the states are further divided into local governments (counties or county-equivalents, include individual municipalities, townships, school districts, and special districts).

Officials are popularly elected at the federal, state and local levels, with the major exception being the President, who is instead elected indirectly by the people through the Electoral College. U.S. politics is dominated by two-parties, which since the American Civil War have been the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, although other parties have run candidates. Since the mid-20th Century, the Democratic Party has generally supported policies following "American liberalism", while the Republican Party has generally supported a platform following "American conservatism". However, both parties have no formal central organization at the national level that controls membership, and thus each have traditionally had factions and individuals that deviated from party positions.

Almost all public officials in America are elected from single-member districts and win office by winning a plurality of votes cast (i.e. more than any other candidate, but not necessarily a majority).

Suffrage is nearly universal for citizens 18 years of age and older. Nonetheless, concerns about under representation or lack of representation persist throughout areas and segments of the country. Although they have local governments, the District of Columbia and territories do not have voting membership in the U.S. Congress, nor are the latter allowed under the U.S. Constitution to participate in the Electoral College to elect the President. A number of corporations, wealthy individuals, special interest groups, and other political pressure groups spend large amounts of money on political campaigns and individual candidates and officeholders, attempting to influence public policy in their favor over the majority of citizens. There are concerns that political representatives generally do not share the same demographic backgrounds, characteristics, racial or gender makeup of the U.S. as a whole. The Economist Intelligence Unit rated United States a "flawed democracy" in 2021.[1]

Federal Government[edit]

The United States is a constitutional federal republic, in which the president (the head of state and head of government), Congress, and judiciary share powers reserved to the national government, and the federal government shares sovereignty with the state governments.

The federal government is divided into three branches, as per the specific terms articulated in the U.S. Constitution:

The federal government's layout is explained in the Constitution. Two political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have dominated American politics since the American Civil War, although other parties have existed.

There are major differences between the political system of the United States and that of many other developed countries, including:

  • an upper legislative house (the Senate), with much more power than is found in equivalent bodies in most other countries;
  • a Supreme Court that also has a wider scope of power than is found in most countries;
  • a separation of powers between the legislature and the executive; and
  • a political landscape dominated by only two main parties. The United States is one of the world's developed countries where third parties have minimal influence and almost no representation at the national and state level.

The federal entity created by the U.S. Constitution is the dominant feature of the American governmental system, as citizens are also subject to a state government and various units of local government (such as counties, municipalities, and special districts).

State government[edit]

State governments have the power to make laws on all subjects that are not granted to the federal government nor denied to the states in the U.S. Constitution. These include education, family law, contract law, and most crimes. Unlike the federal government, which only has those powers granted to it in the Constitution, a state government has inherent powers allowing it to act unless limited by a provision of the state or national constitution.

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

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

At the state and local level, the process of initiatives and referendums allow citizens to place new legislation on a popular ballot, or to place legislation that has recently been passed by a legislature on a ballot for a popular vote. Initiatives and referendums, along with recall elections and popular primary elections, are signature reforms of the Progressive Era; they are written into several state constitutions, particularly in the Western states, but not found at the federal level.

Local government[edit]

The United States Census Bureau conducts the Census of Governments every five years, categorizing four types of local governmental jurisdictions below the level of the state:[2]

  1. County governments
  2. Town or township governments
  3. Municipal governments
  4. Special-Purpose local governments, including both school districts and other special districts

In 2010, there were 89,500 total local governments, including 3,033 counties, 19,492 municipalities, 16,500 townships, 13,000 school districts, and 37,000 other special districts.[3] Local governments directly serve the needs of the people, providing everything from police and fire protection to sanitary codes, health regulations, education, public transportation, and housing. Typically local elections are nonpartisan - local activists suspend their party affiliations when campaigning and governing.[4]

County government[edit]

The county is the administrative subdivision of the state, authorized by state constitutions and statutes. The county equivalents in Louisiana are called parishes, while those in Alaska are called boroughs.

The specific governmental powers of counties vary widely between the states. In some states, mainly in New England, they are primarily used as judicial districts. In other states, counties have broad powers in housing, education, transportation and recreation. County government has been eliminated throughout Connecticut, Rhode Island, and in parts of Massachusetts; while the Unorganized Borough area of Alaska (which makes up about a half of the area of the state) does not operated under a county-level government at all. In areas that do not have any county governmental function and are simply a division of land, services are provided either by lower level townships or municipalities, or the state.

Counties may contain a number of cities, towns, villages, or hamlets. Some cities -- including Philadelphia, Honolulu, San Francisco, Nashville, and Denver -- are consolidated city-counties, where the municipality and the county have been merged into a unified, coterminous jurisdiction—that is to say, these counties consist in their entirety of a single municipality whose city government also operates as the county government. Some counties, such as Arlington County, Virginia, do not have any additional subdivisions. Some states contain independent cities that are not part of any county; although it may still function as if it was a consolidated city-county, an independent city was legally separated from any county. Some municipalities are in multiple counties; New York City is uniquely partitioned into five boroughs that are each coterminous with a county.

In most U.S. counties, one town or city is designated as the county seat, and this is where the county government offices are located and where the board of commissioners or supervisors meets. In small counties, boards are chosen by the county; in the larger ones, supervisors represent separate districts or townships. The board collects taxes for state and local governments; borrows and appropriates money; fixes the salaries of county employees; supervises elections; builds and maintains highways and bridges; and administers national, state, and county welfare programs. In very small counties, the executive and legislative power may lie entirely with a sole commissioner, who is assisted by boards to supervise taxes and elections.

Town or township governments[edit]

Town or township governments are organized local governments authorized in the state constitutions and statutes of 20 Northeastern and Midwestern states,[2] established as minor civil divisions to provide general government for a geographic subdivision of a county where there is no municipality. In New York, Wisconsin and New England, these county subdivisions are called towns.

In many other states, the term town does not have any specific meaning; it is simply an informal term applied to populated places (both incorporated and unincorporated municipalities). Moreover, in some states, the term town is equivalent to how civil townships are used in other states.

Like counties, the specific responsibilities to townships vary based on each state. Many states grant townships some governmental powers, making them civil townships, either independently or as a part of the county government. In others, survey townships are non-governmental. Towns in the six New England states and townships in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are included in this category by the Census Bureau, despite the fact that they are legally municipal corporations, since their structure has no necessary relation to concentration of population,[2] which is typical of municipalities elsewhere in the United States. In particular, towns in New England have considerably more power than most townships elsewhere and often function as legally equivalent to cities, typically exercising the full range of powers that are divided between counties, townships, and cities in other states.[5]

Township functions are generally overseen by a governing board, whose name also varies from state to state.

Municipal governments[edit]

Municipal governments are organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes, established to provide general government for a defined area, generally corresponding to a population center rather than one of a set of areas into which a county is divided. The category includes those governments designated as cities, boroughs (except in Alaska), towns (except in Minnesota and Wisconsin), and villages.[6] This concept corresponds roughly to the "incorporated places" that are recognized in by the U.S. Census Bureau, although the Census Bureau excludes New England towns from their statistics for this category, and the count of municipal governments excludes places that are governmentally inactive.

About 28 percent of Americans live in cities of 100,000 or more population.[when?] Types of city governments vary widely across the nation. However, almost all have a central council, elected by the voters, and an executive officer, assisted by various department heads, to manage the city's affairs. Cities in the West and South usually have nonpartisan local politics.

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


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


This combines both the legislative and executive functions in one group of officials, usually three or more in number, elected city-wide. Each commissioner supervises the work of one or more city departments. Commissioners also set policies and rules by which the city is operated. One is named chairperson of the body and is often called the mayor, although their power is equivalent to that of the other commissioners.[7]


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

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

Unincorporated areas[edit]

Some states contain unincorporated areas, which are areas of land not governed by any local authorities below that at the county level. Residents of unincorporated areas only need to pay taxes to the county, state and federal governments as opposed to the municipal government as well. A notable example of this is Paradise, Nevada, an unincorporated area where many of the casinos commonly associated with Las Vegas are situated.[8]

Special-purpose local governments[edit]

In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose areas may exist as well, provide one or more specific services that are not being supplied by other existing governments.[9] School districts are organized local entities providing public elementary and secondary education which, under state law, have sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments.

Special districts are authorized by state law to provide designated functions as established in the district's charter or other founding document, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments;[10] known by a variety of titles, including districts, authorities, boards, commissions, etc., as specified in the enabling state legislation.

Unincorporated territories[edit]

The United States possesses a number of unincorporated territories, including 16 island territories across the globe.[11] These are areas of land which are not under the jurisdiction of any state, and do not have a government established by Congress through an organic act. Citizens of these territories can vote for members of their own local governments, and some can also elect representatives to serve in Congress—though they only have observer status.[11] The unincorporated territories of the U.S. include the permanently inhabited territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; as well as minor outlying islands such as Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Navassa Island, Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island, and others. American Samoa is the only territory with a native resident population and is governed by a local authority. Despite the fact that an organic act was not passed in Congress, American Samoa established its own constitution in 1967, and has self governed ever since.[12] Seeking statehood or independence is often debated in US territories, such as in Puerto Rico, but even if referendums on these issues are held, congressional approval is needed for changes in status to take place.[13]

The citizenship status of residents in US unincorporated territories has caused concern for their ability to influence and participate in the politics of the United States. In recent decades, the Supreme Court has established voting as a fundamental right of US citizens, even though residents of territories do not hold full voting rights.[14] Despite this, residents must still abide by federal laws that they cannot equitably influence, as well as register for the national Selective Service System, which has led some scholars to argue that residents of territories are essentially second-class citizens.[14] The legal justifications for these discrepancies stem from the Insular Cases, which were a series of 1901 Supreme Court cases that some consider to be reflective of imperialism and racist views held in the United States.[11] Unequal access to political participation in US territories has also been criticized for affecting US citizens who move to territories, as such an action requires forfeiting the full voting rights that they would have held in the 50 states.[14]


Voters cast ballots for the 2020 elections at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa
U.S. presidential election popular vote totals as a percentage of the total U.S. population grew from 1-2% in the first American elections to over 40% by the 21st century. Note the surge in 1828 (extension of suffrage to non-property-owning white men), the drop from 1890 to 1910 (when Southern states disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites), and another surge in 1920 (extension of suffrage to women).
Women's suffragists parade in New York City in 1917, carrying placards with the signatures of more than a million women.[15]

As in the United Kingdom and in other similar parliamentary systems, in the U.S. eligible Americans vote for a specific candidate (there are sometimes exceptions in local government elections).[note 1] The U.S. government being a federal government, officials are elected at the federal (national), state and local levels. All members of Congress, and the offices at the state and local levels are directly elected, but the president is elected indirectly, by an Electoral College whose electors represent their state and are elected by popular vote. (Before the Seventeenth Amendment was passed, Senators were also elected indirectly, by state legislatures.) In modern times, the electors are chosen by the party whose candidate they are promised to vote for, (however in rare occurrences they may vote against the popular vote of their state, becoming what is known as a faithless elector).

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


Suffrage is nearly universal for citizens 18 years of age and older. Some key events of suffrage expansion are:

  • 1792–1856:. Abolition of property qualifications for white men were abolished.[17]
  • 1868: Citizenship was guaranteed to all persons born or naturalized in the United States by the Fourteenth Amendment, although Jim Crow laws prevented most African Americans from voting.
  • 1920: Women are guaranteed the right to vote in all US States by the Nineteenth Amendment.
  • 1964-66: Civil Rights laws and Supreme Court rulings eliminate tax payment and wealth requirements and protect voter registration and voting for racial minorities.
  • 1971: Adults aged 18 through 20 are granted the right to vote by the Twenty-sixth Amendment.

However, the District, and other U.S. holdings like Puerto Rico and Guam, lack representation in Congress. These constituencies do not have the right to choose any political figure outside their respective areas. Each commonwealth, territory, or district can only elect a non-voting delegate to serve in the House of Representatives. All states and the District of Columbia contribute to the electoral vote for president. Voting rights are sometimes restricted as a result of felony conviction, but such laws vary widely by state.[18] These presidential electors were originally expected to exercise their own judgement. In modern practice, though, they are expected to vote as pledged and some faithless electors have not.

Campaign finance[edit]

Successful participation, especially in federal elections, often requires large amounts of money, especially for television advertising.[19] This money can be very difficult to raise by appeals to a mass base,[20] although appeals for small donations over the Internet have been successful.[21] Both parties generally depend on wealthy donors and organizations - traditionally organized labor helping the Democrats and business donations the Republicans.[citation needed]. Since 1984, however, the Democrats' business donations have surpassed those from labor organizations[citation needed]. This dependency on donors snd the political influence it can give them is controversial, and has led to laws limiting spending on political campaigns being enacted (see campaign finance reform). Opponents of campaign finance laws cite the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, and challenge campaign finance laws because they attempt to circumvent the people's constitutionally guaranteed rights. Even when laws are upheld, the complication of compliance with the First Amendment requires careful and cautious drafting of legislation, leading to laws that are still fairly limited in scope, especially in comparison to those of other countries such as the United Kingdom, France or Canada.

Development of American political culture[edit]

Colonial origins[edit]

The American political culture is deeply rooted in the colonial experience and the American Revolution. The colonies were unique within the European world for their vibrant political culture, which attracted ambitious young men into politics.[22] At the time, American suffrage was the most widespread in the world, with every man who owned a certain amount of property allowed to vote. Despite the fact that fewer than 1% of British men could vote, most white American men were eligible. While the roots of democracy were apparent, deference was typically shown to social elites in colonial elections, although this declined sharply with the American Revolution.[23] In each colony a wide range of public and private business was decided by elected bodies, especially the assemblies and county governments.[24] Topics of public concern and debate included land grants, commercial subsidies, and taxation, as well as the oversight of roads, poor relief, taverns, and schools. Americans spent a great deal of time in court, as private lawsuits were very common. Legal affairs were overseen by local judges and juries, with a central role for trained lawyers. This promoted the rapid expansion of the legal profession, and the dominant role of lawyers in politics was apparent by the 1770s, with notable individuals including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, among many others.[25] The American colonies were unique in world context because of the growth of representation of different interest groups. Unlike Europe, where the royal court, aristocratic families and the established church were in control, the American political culture was open to merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers, and many other identifiable groups. Over 90% of the representatives elected to the legislature lived in their districts, unlike England where it was common to have a member of Parliament and absentee member of Parliament. Finally, and most dramatically, the Americans were fascinated by and increasingly adopted the political values of Republicanism, which stressed equal rights, the need for virtuous citizens, and the evils of corruption, luxury, and aristocracy.[26] None of the colonies had political parties of the sort that formed in the 1790s, but each had shifting factions that vied for power.

American ideology[edit]

The Statue of Liberty, a symbol of American freedom and openness to immigration

Republicanism, along with a form of classical liberalism remains the dominant ideology. Central documents include the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution (1787), the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers (1787-1790s), the Bill of Rights (1791), and Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (1863), among others. Among the core tenets of this ideology are the following:

Post-World War II[edit]

At the time of the United States' founding, the economy was predominantly one of agriculture and small private businesses, and state governments left welfare issues to private or local initiative. As in the UK and other industrialized countries, laissez-faire ideology was largely discredited during the Great Depression. Between the 1930s and 1970s, fiscal policy was characterized by the Keynesian consensus, a time during which modern American liberalism dominated economic policy virtually unchallenged.[27][28] Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, laissez-faire ideology has once more become a powerful force in American politics.[29] While the American welfare state expanded more than threefold after WWII, it has been at 20% of GDP since the late 1970s.[30][31] Today, modern American liberalism, and modern American conservatism are engaged in a continuous political battle, characterized by what The Economist describes as "greater divisiveness [and] close, but bitterly fought elections."[32] Since 2016, the United States has been recognized as a flawed democracy in the Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, partially due to increased political polarization.[33][34]

In foreign affairs, the United States pursued a noninterventionist policy of not taking sides in conflicts between foreign powers before World War II. The country abandoned this policy when it became a superpower, and in the following decades mostly supported internationalism.

According to at least some academics, authoritarian values have strengthened in the 21st century in the U.S. and elsewhere, with long-run economic changes from globalization having a negative impact on the social identity of historically dominant groups. This increases the incentive for these groups to use authoritarianism to force minority groups to conform to social norms.[35]

Political parties, pressure groups[edit]

The United States Constitution never formally addressed the issue of political parties, primarily because the Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first president of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or throughout his tenure as president, and remains to this day the only independent to have held the office. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation.[36] Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers, including Hamilton and Madison.

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

Political parties[edit]

American voter registration statistics as of
October 2020[37]
Party Registered voters Percentage
Democratic 48,517,845 39.58
Republican 36,132,743 29.48
No party preference 34,798,906 28.39
Other 3,127,800 2.55
Totals 122,577,294 100.00

The modern political party system in the United States is a two-party system where those parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. These two parties have won every United States presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress since at least 1856. From time to time, several other third parties have achieved relatively minor representation at the national and state levels.

Among the two major parties, the Democratic Party generally positions itself as center-left in American politics and features policies of American liberalism in its platform and legislation, while the Republican Party generally positions itself as center-right and supports an American conservatism platform.

Organization of American political parties[edit]

American political parties are more loosely organized than those in other countries, and the Democratic and Republican party have no formal organization at the national level that controls membership. Thus, for example, for many states the votes to determine who will be the party's candidate for office (political primaries) are open to all who have signed up as affiliated with that party when they register to vote, and are not limited to those who donate money and are active in the party.

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

The result is that American political parties have weak central organizations and little central ideology, except by consensus. A party really cannot prevent a person who disagrees with the majority of positions of the party or actively works against the party's aims from claiming party membership, so long as the voters who choose to vote in the primary elections elect that person. Once in office, an elected official may change parties simply by declaring such intent.

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

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

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

Despite these weak organizations, elections are still usually portrayed as national races between the political parties. In what is known as "presidential coattails", candidates in presidential elections become the de facto leader of their respective party, and thus usually bring out supporters who in turn then vote for his party's candidates for other offices. On the other hand, federal midterm elections (where only Congress and not the president is up for election) are usually regarded as a referendum on the sitting president's performance, with voters either voting in or out the president's party's candidates, which in turn helps the next session of Congress to either pass or block the president's agenda, respectively.[38][39]

Development and evolution of political parties[edit]

Many of America's Founding Fathers hated the thought of political parties,[40] which they believed would be factions more interested in quarreling with each other than in working for the common good. They wanted citizens to vote for candidates without the interference of organized groups, but this was not to be.

By the 1790s, different views of the new country's proper course had already developed, and those who held these opposing views tried to win support for their cause by banding together. The followers of Alexander Hamilton, the Hamiltonian faction, took up the name "Federalist"; they favored a strong central government that would support the interests of commerce and industry. The followers of Thomas Jefferson, the Jeffersonians and then the "Anti-Federalists," took up the name "Democratic-Republicans"; they preferred a decentralized agrarian republic in which the federal government had limited power.

Jacksonian era

By 1828, the Federalists had disappeared as an organization, replaced by the Whigs, brought to life in opposition to the election that year of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson's presidency split the Democratic-Republican Party: Jacksonians became the Democratic Party and those following the leadership of John Quincy Adams became the "National Republicans", (no connection to the later Republican Party that exists today). The two-party system, still in existence today, was born.

The early Democratic Party stood for individual rights and state rights, opposed banks and high tariffs, and styled itself as the party of the "common man". During the "Second Party System" (from 1832 to the mid-1850s) under Presidents Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk, the Democrats usually bested the other major party, the Whigs but by narrow margins.

In the 1850s, the issue of slavery took center stage, with disagreement in particular over the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the country's new territories in the West. The Whig Party straddled the issue and sank to its death after the overwhelming electoral defeat by Franklin Pierce in the 1852 presidential election. Ex-Whigs joined the Know Nothings or the newly formed Republican Party. While the Know Nothing party was short-lived, Republicans would survive the intense politics leading up to the Civil War. The primary Republican policy was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. Just six years later, this new party captured the presidency when Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, the election that established the Democratic and Republican parties as the major parties of America.

Post Civil War era

After the defeat of the Confederacy, the Republican Party, associated with the successful military defense of the Union and often known as "the Grand Old Party", became the dominant party in America.[41] The democrats were known as "basically conservative and agrarian-oriented"; their support came from the Jim Crow "Solid South" (i.e. solidly Democratic) where "repressive legislation and physical intimidation" prevented the "newly enfranchised African Americans from voting", and small farmers in the West. (Before the Sun belt boom, both regions being much less populated and politically powerful.) As the party of states rights it opposed civil rights legislation, as the (sometimes) populist party of small farmers, it opposed the interests of big business (such as protective tariffs that protected big American businesses but raised the prices on imported goods rural people needed); and favored cheap-money policies, (low interest rates and inflation favoring those with substantial debts, such as small farmers).[42][43]

During the post-civil war era (Third Party System), parties were well established as the country's dominant political organizations, and party allegiance had become an important part of most people's consciousness. Party loyalty was passed from fathers to sons, and party activities, including spectacular campaign events, complete with uniformed marching groups and torchlight parades, were a part of the social life of many communities.

Progressive Era

By the 1920s, however, this boisterous folksiness had diminished. Progressive Era programs -- municipal reforms, civil service reform, corrupt practices acts, and presidential primaries to replace the power of politicians at national conventions -- had all helped to clean up politics.[citation needed]

New Deal

The disruption and suffering of the Great Depression and the New Deal programs of Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt designed to deal with it, created a dramatic political shift. With the New Deal and its raising of the minimum wage, the establishment of the Social Security and other federal services, the Democrats were now the party of "big government". Roosevelt "forged a broad coalition—including small farmers, Northern city dwellers, organized labour, European immigrants, liberals, intellectuals, and reformers". The Democratic party now became the dominant party — retaining the presidency until 1952 and controlling both houses of Congress for most of the period from the 1930s to the mid-1990s.[42]

Post-World War II era

During the 1950s and the early 1960s, both parties had their liberal, moderate, and conservative wings, but expressed essentially a more centrist approach to politics on the national level. Among Republicans, the 1964 presidential election heralded the rise of the conservative wing, with the landslide election victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 marking its triumph.

Break up of New Deal coalition

Civil Rights legislation -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 — driven by Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson -- broke off the segregationist Solid South from the Democratic party and over time created a solidly Republican south. In the Democratic Party, the Civil Rights legislation and anti-Vietnam War movement further turned the Democrats to the left, while the Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign and president Richard M. Nixon's "Southern strategy" turned republicans to the right. Over the coming decades the blurred ideological character of American political parties -- where Democrats had a number of important elected office holders (mostly in the South) who were considerably more conservative than many important Republican senators and governors (for example Nelson Rockefeller) -- dissipated. In time, not only did conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans retire, switch parties, or lose elections, so did centrists (Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, Richard Riordan and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Not only did white southerners leave the Democratic party but eventually a large majority of rural and working class whites nationwide became the base of the Republican Party.[44] Whereas for decades the college-educated voters skewed heavily towards the Republican party, eventually high educational attainment was a marker of Democratic support, (leading Donald Trump to proclaim to supporters, "I love the poorly educated!")

Ronald Reagan

In, 1980 conservative Republican Ronald Reagan defeated a[45]n incumbent democratic president (Jimmy Carter) on a theme of smaller government, sunny optimism that free trade and tax cuts would stimulate economic growth which would then "trickle down" to the middle and lower classes (who might not benefit initially from these policies). The Republican party was now said to rest on "three legs" of Christian right/Social conservatism (particularly the anti-abortion movement), fiscal conservatism/small government (particularly supporters of tax cuts), and strong anti-communist military policy (with increased willingness to intervene abroad.

Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove

In 1995, after 40 years of uninterrupted dominance by the Democratic Party, Republican gained 54 seats to take control of the House of Representatives, (it also took control of the Senate). This was in part because the South turned Republican,[46] and in part because of the leadership of Newt Gingrich and his "Republican Revolution". Gingrich introduced a change in norms that continued with Donald Trump of eliminating the idea that Democrats were opponents in elections but later colleagues to negotiate and compromise with in the interest of good legislation. Instead they were the enemy to be attacked and defeated, to be denounced as "traitors ..liars, ... cheaters".[45]

Karl Rove, the political strategist of George W. Bush (president 2001 to 2009), also eliminated norms of behavior between the parties (such as not questioning the patriotism of the other side, seeking bipartisan cooperation),[45] which were often very effective though they increased polarization. Rove emphasized elections are won by energizing the party base of support, not reaching out to the persuadable or swing voter in the middle; attack opponents strong points (accusing Max Cleland who had lost three limbs in combat of being sympathetic to terrorism, Silver and Bronze Star wearing John Kerry of being a traitor to his country).[45] Conspiracy theories also began to become mainstream during this time (accusing Hillary Clinton of ordering the military to not protect Americans at the U.S. compound in Benghazi, that the Clintons ordered the murder of Bill's childhood friend Vince Foster), which remained energizing for the base no matter how many times they were investigated and debunked.[45]

Trump era

After decades of dominance, "Reagan Revolution" rhetoric and policy, began to be replaced by new themes Reaganism had not emphasized. Cultural/attitudinal conservatism (opposition to gay marriage, transgender rights, and especially abortion) or that it supported; (economic globalization, immigration from non-European countries). Historically the Republican Party always had strong bases in the business community both small local and big national or international. But now not only had conservative (white) blue collar workers migrated to the Republican Party, but a business class that had been part of the Republican Party since the post-Civil War Gilded Age began moving left. Ross Douthat explains the shift:[47]

The Republican Party in the Trump era remained a mostly pro-business party in its policies but its constituencies and rhetoric have tilted more working class and populist, ... much of corporate America has swung culturally into liberalism’s camp. ... accelerated by anti-Trump backlash, the more left-leaning commitments of big business’s younger customers and (especially) younger employees, ... As a consequence, today’s G.O.P. is most clearly now the party of local capitalism — the small-business gentry, the family firms.... Much of the party elite wish to continue doing business with big business as before. But the party’s base regards corporate institutions — especially in Silicon Valley, but extending to more traditional capitalist powers — as cultural enemies ...

Development of voting[edit]

In pre-colonial and post-revolutionary American times, voters went to the polls and publicly stated which candidate they supported, rather than voting secretly, which was considered "cowardly" and "underhanded".[48] Originally, state laws required voters to be property owners, but "by the time Andrew Jackson was elected President, in 1828, nearly all white men could vote".[48]

Later on, voting was done by written paper ballot. A broadened franchise where many voters were illiterate or misspelling disqualified a vote, led to the use of printed ballots. Each political party would create its own ballot -- preprinted “party tickets" -- give them to supporters, and who would publicly put the party's ballot into the voting box, or hand them to election judges through a window.[48] The tickets indicated a vote for all of that party's slate of candidates, preventing "ticket splitting".[48] (As of 1859 "nowhere in the United States ... did election officials provide ballots".) In cities voters often had to make their way through a throng of partisans who would try to prevent supporters of the opposing party from voting, a practice generally allowed unless it "clearly" appeared "that there was such a display of force as ought to have intimidated men of ordinary firmness.”[48] In "the middle decades of the nineteenth century," the tally of those killed in Election Day riots reached 89.[48]

It was not until the late nineteenth century that states began to adopt the Australian Secret Ballot Method (despite fears it “would make any nation a nation of scoundrels"),[48] and it eventually became the national standard. The secret ballot method ensured that the privacy of voters would be protected (hence government jobs could no longer be awarded to loyal voters) and each state would be responsible for creating one official ballot.

The two-party system in the U.S.[edit]

"Third" political parties have appeared from time to time in American history but seldom lasted more than a decade. They have sometimes been the vehicle of an individual (Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" party, Ross Perot's Reform Party); had considerable strength in particular regions (Socialist Party, the Farmer-Labor Party, Wisconsin Progressive Party, Conservative Party of New York State,[note 2] and the Populist Party); or continued to run candidates for office despite seldom winning even local elections (Libertarian Party, Natural Law Party, Peace and Freedom Party).

Factors reinforcing the two party system include:

  • The traditional American electoral format of single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes wins ("first-past-the-post" system), which according to Duverger's law favors the two-party system. This is in contrast to multi-seat electoral districts[note 3] and proportional representation found in some other democracies.
  • the 19th century innovation of printing "party tickets" to pass out to prospective voters to cast in ballot boxes (originally, voters went to the polls and publicly stated which candidate they supported), "consolidated the power of the major parties".[48]
  • Printed party "tickets" (ballots) were eventually replaced by uniform ballots provided by the state, when states began to adopt the Australian Secret Ballot Method. This gave state legislatures -- dominated by Democrats and Republicans -- the opportunity to handicap new rising parties with ballot access laws requiring a large number of petition signatures from citizens and giving the petitioners a short length of time to gather the signatures.
  • Unlike in many countries, elected officials who fail to "toe the party line" because of constituent opposition to it, and "cross the aisle" to vote with the opposition, have (relatively) little to fear from their party.

Some (Nelson W. Polsby writing before 1997) have argued that the lack of central control of the parties in America means they have become as much "labels" to mobilize voters as political organizations, and that "variations (sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant) in the 50 political cultures of the states yield considerable differences", suggesting that "the American two-party system" actually masks "something more like a hundred-party system."[49]

Others (Lee Drutman, Daniel J. Hopkins writing before 2018) argue that in the 21st century, along with becoming overly partisan, America politics has become overly focused on national issues and "nationalized".[50][51]

Religious groups[edit]

Religious groups and churches often become political pressure groups and parts of political coalitions, despite the Establishment Clause in the US Constitution. In recent decades, one of the most notable coalitions has been composed of conservative evangelical Protestants and the broader Republican Party.[52] However, some scholars have argued that this coalition may be starting to split, as non-conservative and moderate evangelical Protestants supported then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008.[52] Even if political coalitions between religious groups and political parties split or change, relative to other religions, Christianity has been noted as having a continual dominant impact on politics in the United States.[52] This dominance has translated to pressuring policymakers to pass laws influenced by religious views, such as laws related to morality and personal conduct.[53] A study focusing on this type of political pressure used the alcohol and gambling laws of states as case studies for measuring the impact of religious groups, and it found that large conservative Protestant populations and strong religious pressures had a greater association with more restrictive initial laws than economic development—demonstrating how the presence of religious groups can potentially influence policy.[53]

Political pressure groups[edit]

Street sign for K Street, with tall office buildings in background
K Street in Washington, D.C., has become a metonym for the American lobbying industry.

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

One type of private interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee or PAC. These are independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, which contribute money to political campaigns for United States Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. As of 2008, there were 4,292 PACs operating in the US.[54]

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

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

A survey of members of the American Economic Association find the vast majority regardless of political affiliation to be discontent with the current state of democracy in America. The primary concern relates to the prevalence and influence of special interest groups within the political process, which tends to lead to policy consequences that only benefit such special interest groups and politicians. Some conjecture that maintenance of the policy status quo and hesitance to stray from it perpetuates a political environment that fails to advance society's welfare.[55]

Concerns, problems, criticism in policy and representation[edit]

In a 31 August 2022 poll by Quinnipiac University, 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans replied yes to the question "Do you think the nation's democracy is in danger of collapse".[56] A 2020 study, “Global Satisfaction With Democracy” by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, found that

for the first time on record, polls show a majority of Americans dissatisfied with their system of government — a system of which they were once famously proud. Such levels of democratic dissatisfaction would not be unusual elsewhere. But for the United States, it marks an “end of exceptionalism” — a profound shift in America’s view of itself, and therefore, of its place in the world.[57]

“Concerns about the American political system include how well it represents and serves the interests of Americans. That it

  • underrepresents ethnic/racial, gender, age, and sexual orientation groups (women, backs, latinos, natives, gays, and those under 60 years old);
  • fails completely to represents other groups (citizens living in territories, in D.C. (for Congress), and felons in some states;
  • whether policy and law-making is dominated by a small economic elite molding it to their interests;[58][59]
  • whether a small cultural elite has undermined traditional values;[44]

More recently, concerns have included:

  • that a disconnect between what the majority of people want and what the government does (in supreme court rulings, legislation, etc.) has gotten worse in recent years because of some features and institutions of the American system (gerrymandering, the electoral college, “first-past-the-post” voting, etc.)
  • "a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties — the Republican Party — to refuse to accept defeat in an election".
  • a belief (without evidence) that voter fraud is "being committed by minority voters on a massive scale" preventing Republicans from being elected.[60]

Disconnect between public opinion and government policy[edit]

A disconnect between "the power to set government policy" and political opinions of the general public has been noted by commentators and scholars (such as David Leonhardt).[61] The United States “far and away the most countermajoritarian democracy in the world,” according to Steven Levitsky.[62]

Before the 2000 election, only three candidates for president won "while losing the popular vote (John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison), and each served only a single term", while as of 2022 "two of the past four presidents have taken office despite losing the popular vote"[61] -- Donald Trump winning in 2016 election while trailing Hillary Clinton by 2.87 million votes.[63]

Leonhardt points out that in one branch of the federal government -- the Supreme Court -- conservative legal decisions "both sweeping and, according to polls, unpopular" were delivered in 2022, what is likely the beginning of a reshaping of "American politics for years, if not decades" to come by the court's "Republican appointees". This is despite the fact that the president appoints the nominees, and that presidential candidates of the Democratic Party have won the popular vote in seven out of eight last elections (from 1992-2020).[61]

In the 2020 U.S. Senate, "50 Democratic senators effectively represent 186 million Americans, while the 50 Republican senators effectively represent 145 million".[61]

Explanations include

  • geographical sorting by ideology. "Parts of the country granted outsize power by the Constitution" (i.e. less populated states), formerly voted more or less similarly to the large states and urban areas that were granted less power. Thus "the small-state bonus" giving disproportionate power in "the Senate and Electoral College had only a limited effect on national results". This is no longer the case. Rural areas are more uniformly conservative and urban areas liberal.[61] More important is "the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College" (all states except Maine and Nebraska), which gives greater bias to Republicans.[61]
  • faster population growth of large (population) states than small states.[61] The state with the largest population in 1790 was Virginia with approximately 13 times as many residents as the smallest (Delaware). Today, "California, which consistently votes for liberal candidates statewide, "has 68 times as many residents as Wyoming; 53 times as many as Alaska; and at least 20 times as many as another 11 states". When a candidate wins a statewide election in California (or New York) by a landslide, these large numbers of popular votes mean nothing in the tally of Electoral College votes or Senate seats.[61]
  • while the House of Representatives would seem to have "a more equitable system for allocating political power" -- dividing the country "into 435 districts, each with a broadly similar number of people" (760,000 as of 2022) -- Leonhardt argues two features distort his equity:
    • gerrymandering, i.e. the drawing of district boundaries by State legislatures for partisan advantage, something Republicans have been "more forceful" about in recent years.[61]
    • the phenomenum of "wasted votes", whereby the increasing concentration of Democratic voters in large metro areas means Democratic often win elections in these districts by "landslides", leading to the overall nationwide proportion of votes for Democrats significantly less than the proportion of seats for Democrats in the House.[61]


Some views suggest that the political structure of the United States is in many respects an oligarchy, where a small economic elite overwhelmingly dominate policy and law.[58] Some academic researchers suggest a drift toward oligarchy has been occurring by way of the influence of corporations, wealthy, and other special interest groups, leaving individual citizens with less impact than economic elites and organized interest groups in the political process.[59][64][65][66]

A study by political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) released in April 2014, concluded that the U.S. government doesn't represent the interests of the majority of its citizens but instead is "ruled by those of the rich and powerful". The researchers after analysing nearly 1,800 U.S. policies between 1981 and 2002, stated that government policies tend to favour special interests and lobbying organizations, and that whenever a majority of citizens disagrees with the economic elites, the elites tend to prevail in getting their way.[59] While not characterizing the United States as an "oligarchy" or "plutocracy" outright, Gilens and Page give weight to the idea of a "civil oligarchy" as used by Jeffrey A. Winters, saying, "Winters has posited a comparative theory of 'Oligarchy,' in which the wealthiest citizens – even in a 'civil oligarchy' like the United States – dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection." In their study, Gilens and Page reached these conclusions:

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it. ... [T]he preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.[67]

E.J. Dionne Jr. described what he considers the effects of ideological and oligarchical interests on the judiciary. The journalist, columnist, and scholar interprets recent Supreme Court decisions as ones that allow wealthy elites to use economic power to influence political outcomes in their favor. In speaking about the Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC decisions, Dionne wrote: "Thus has this court conferred on wealthy people the right to give vast sums of money to politicians while undercutting the rights of millions of citizens to cast a ballot."[68]

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote:

The stark reality is that we have a society in which money is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. This threatens to make us a democracy in name only.[69]


Gerrymandering is the practice of shaping the boundaries of electoral districts for partisan advantage -- those boundaries being reviewed and usually changed after every United States census, i.e. every ten years. Gerrymandering involves what’s commonly called “cracking and packing”.

  • "Cracking" is the process of moving the boundaries of districts to spreads opposition voters thinly enough across many districts so that they constitute a safe margin below 50%. most districts dilute their power. are moved to of voters by moving the . Cracking spreads opposition voters thinly across many districts to dilute their power.
  • "Packing" is the process of concentrating opposition voters in one or more (but always a minority of) districts, to "waste" opposition votes.[46]

Used almost since the founding of the United States (the term was coined in 1810 after a review of Massachusetts's redistricting maps of 1812 set by Governor Elbridge Gerry noted that one of the districts looked like a salamander),[46] in the 21st century it has "become a much more effective tool".[46] Since 2010, detailed maps and high-speed computing have facilitated gerrymandering by political parties in the redistricting process, in order to gain control of state legislation and congressional representation and potentially to maintain that control over several decades, even against shifting political changes in a state's population. It allows the drawing of districts "with surgical precision".[46] According to Julia Kirschenbaum and Michael Li of the Brennan Center

In 2010, Republicans — in an effort to control the drawing of congressional maps — forged a campaign to win majorities in as many state legislatures as possible. It was wildly successful, giving them control over the drawing of 213 congressional districts. The redrawing of maps that followed produced some of the most extreme gerrymanders in history. In battleground Pennsylvania, for example, the congressional map gave Republicans a virtual lock on 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts, even in elections where Democrats won the majority of the statewide congressional vote.[70]

Attempts to appeal to the Supreme Court to disallow gerrymandering in cases such as Vieth v. Jubelirer in 2004 and its passing up of "numerous opportunities" in 2017 and 2018 "to decide upon the constitutional legality or illegality of gerrymandering" has "emboldened ever more partisan gerrymandering".[46]

In addition to giving one party power beyond its popular support, gerrymandering has been criticized for weakening the political power of minority voters by concentrated them into district(s) (though this process can also help ensure the election of a representative of the same race).[71]

Concerns about political representation of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation[edit]

Observations of historical trends and current governmental demographics have raised concerns about the equity of political representation in the United States. In particular, scholars have noted that levels of descriptive representation—which refers to when political representatives share demographic backgrounds or characteristics with their constituents—do not match the racial and gender makeup of the US.[72] Descriptive representation is noted to be beneficial because of its symbolic representative benefits as a source of emotional identification with one's representatives.[73] Furthermore, descriptive representation can lead to more substantive and functional representation, as well as greater institutional power, which can result in minority constituents having both representatives with matching policy views and power in the political system.[72][74] Serving as a congressional committee chair is considered to be a good example of this relationship, as chairs control which issues are addressed by committees, especially through hearings that bring substantial attention to certain issues.[72] Though minorities like African Americans and Latinos have rarely served as committee chairs, studies have shown that their presence has directly led to significantly higher likelihoods of minority issues being addressed.[72] Given that racial and ethnic minorities of all backgrounds have historically been marginalized from participating in the US political system, their political representation and access to policymaking has been limited.[72] Similarly, women lack proportional representation in the United States, bringing into question the extent to which women's issues are adequately addressed.[75] Other minority groups, such as the LGBTQ community, have also been disadvantaged by an absence of equitable representation—especially since scholars have noted their gradual shift from originally being perceived as more of a moral political issue to being considered an actual constituency.[76]

Political representation is also an essential part of making sure that citizens have faith that representatives, political institutions, and democracy take their interests into account.[73] For women and minorities, this issue can occur even in the levels of government that are meant to be closest to constituents, such as among members of Congress in the House of Representatives. Scholars have noted that in positions such as these, even close proximity to constituents does not necessarily translate to an understanding of their needs or experiences and that constituents can still feel unrepresented.[73] In a democracy, a lack of faith in one's representatives can cause them to search for less-democratic alternative forms of representation, like unelected individuals or interest groups.[73] For racial and ethnic minorities, the risk of seeking alternative representation is especially acute, as lived experiences often lead to different political perspectives that can be difficult for white representatives to fully understand or adequately address.[72] Moreover, studies have begun to increasingly show that people of all races and genders tend to prefer having members of Congress who share their race or gender, which can also lead to more engagement between constituents and their representatives, as well as higher likelihoods of contacting or having faith in their congressperson.[73] In addition to making it more likely that constituents will trust their representatives, having descriptive representation can help sustain an individual's positive perceptions of government. When considering women in particular, it has been suggested that broader economic and social equality could result from first working toward ensuring more equitable political representation for women, which would also help promote increased faith between women and their representatives.[77]

Race and ethnicity[edit]

There are 57 African American members of the US House (blue), 47 Hispanics and Latinos (red), 5 Native Americans (yellow), 18 Asian Americans (green), and 314 Whites (gray).
There are 3 African American members of the US Senate (blue), 7 Hispanics or Latinos (red), 0 Native Americans, 2 Asian Americans (green), and 88 Whites (gray).
African Americans[edit]

Although African Americans have begun to continually win more elected positions and increase their overall political representation, they still lack proportional representation across a variety of different levels of government.[78] Some estimates indicate that most gains for African Americans—and other minorities in general—have not occurred at higher levels of government, but rather at sub-levels in federal and state governments.[78] Additionally, congressional data from 2017 revealed that 35.7% of African Americans nationwide had a congressperson of the same race, while the majority of black Americans were represented by members of Congress of a different race.[73] Scholars have partially explained this discrepancy by focusing on the obstacles that black candidates face. Factors like election type, campaign costs, district demographics, and historical barriers, such as voter suppression, can all hinder the likelihood of a black candidate winning an election or even choosing to enter into an election process.[78] Demographics, in particular, are noted to have a large influence on black candidate success, as research has shown that the ratio of white-to-black voters can have a significant impact on a black candidate's chance of winning an election and that large black populations tend to increase the resources available to African American candidates.[78] Despite the variety of obstacles that have contributed to the lack of proportional representation for African Americans, other factors have been found to increase the likelihood of a black candidate winning an election. Based on data from a study in Louisiana, prior black incumbency, as well as running for an office that other black candidates had pursued in the past, increased the likelihood of African Americans entering into races and winning elections.[78]

Hispanic and Latino Americans[edit]

As the most populous minority demographic identified in the 2010 US Census, Hispanic and Latino Americans have become an increasingly important constituency that is spread throughout the United States.[79] Despite also constituting 15% of the population in at least a quarter of House districts, Latino representation in Congress has not correspondingly increased.[79] Furthermore, in 2017, Latino members of Congress only represented about one-quarter of the total Latino population in the US.[73] While there are many potential explanations for this disparity, including issues related to voter suppression, surveys of Latino voters have identified trends unique to their demographic—though survey data has still indicated that descriptive representation is important to Hispanic and Latino voters.[79] While descriptive representation may be considered important, an analysis of a 2004 national survey of Latinos revealed that political participation and substantive representation were strongly associated with each other, possibly indicating that voters mobilize more on behalf of candidates whose policy views reflect their own, rather than for those who share their ethnic background.[74] Moreover, a breakdown of the rationale for emphasizing descriptive representation reveals additional factors behind supporting Latino candidates, such as the view that they may have a greater respect and appreciation for Spanish or a belief that Latinos are "linked" together, indicating the significance of shared cultural experiences and values.[79] Although the reasons behind choosing to vote for Latino candidates are not monolithic, the election of Latinos to Congress has been identified as resulting in benefits for minorities overall. While it has been argued that unique district-related issues can take equal or greater precedence than Latino interests for Hispanic and Latino members of Congress, studies have also shown that Latinos are more likely to support African American members of Congress—and vice versa—beyond just what is expected from shared party membership.[74]

Native Americans[edit]

Similar to other minority groups, Native Americans often lack representation due to electoral policies. Gerrymandering, in particular, is noted as a method of concentrating Native voters in a limited number of districts to reduce their ability to influence multiple elections.[71] Despite structural efforts to limit their political representation, some states with large Native American populations have higher levels of representation. South Dakota has a Native population of about 9% with multiple federally recognized tribal nations, and it has been used as a case study of representation.[71] A 2017 study that conducted interviews of former state elected officials in South Dakota revealed that even though many felt that they were only able to implement a limited number of significant changes for tribal communities, they still considered it to be "absolutely essential" that Native Americans had at least some descriptive representation to prevent complete exclusion from the political process.[71] Moreover, formerly elected state and local government officials asserted that ensuring that the issues and concerns of tribal nations were addressed and understood depended on politicians with Native backgrounds.[71] Historically-backed suspicion and skepticism of the predominantly white US government was also considered to be an important reason for having representatives that reflect the histories and views of Native Americans.[71]

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders[edit]

Relative to other, larger minority demographics in the United States, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) face different challenges related to political representation. Few congressional districts have a population that includes over 50% Asian Americans, which can elevate the likelihood of being represented by someone of a different race or ethnicity.[73] As with other minorities, this can result in people feeling unrepresented by their member of Congress.[73]

Gender and political representation[edit]

There are 122 women members of the US House (blue) and 319 men (gray).
There are 24 women members of the US Senate (blue) and 76 men (gray).

Women have made continual socioeconomic progress in many key areas of society, such as in employment and education, and in comparison to men, women have voted at higher rates for over forty years—making their lack of more proportional representation in the political system surprising.[75][77] Some scholars have partially attributed this discrepancy to the electoral system in the United States, as it does not provide a mechanism for the types of gender quotas seen in other countries.[77] Additionally, even though gerrymandering and concentrated political representation can essentially ensure at least some representation for minority racial and ethnic groups, women—who are relatively evenly spread throughout the United States—do not receive similar benefits from this practice.[73] Among individuals, however, identifying the source of unequal gender representation can be predicted along party and ideological lines. A survey of attitudes toward women candidates revealed that Democrats are more likely to attribute systemic issues to gender inequalities in political representation, while Republicans are less likely to hold this perspective.[75] While identifying an exact source of inequality may ultimately prove unlikely, some recent studies have suggested that the political ambitions of women may be influenced by the wide variety of proposed factors attributed to the underrepresentation of women.[75] In contrast to attributing specific reasons to unequal representation, political party has also been identified as a way of predicting if a woman running for office is more likely to receive support, as women candidates are more likely to receive votes from members of their party and Independents.[75]

Social inequality and sexism[edit]

Social inequality and sexism have been noted by scholars as influencing the electoral process for women. In a survey of attitudes toward women candidates, women respondents were far more likely to view the process of running for office as "hostile" to women than men, especially when considering public hesitancy to support women candidates, media coverage, and public discrimination.[75] Political fundraising for candidates is also an area of inequality, as men donate at a higher rate than women—which is compounded by gender and racial inequalities related to income and employment.[77] However, recent increases in women-focused fundraising groups have started to alter this imbalance.[77] Given that disproportionate levels of household labor often become the responsibility of women, discrimination within households has also been identified as a major influence on the capability of women to run for office.[77] For women in the LGBTQ community, some scholars have raised concern about the unequal attention paid to the needs of lesbians compared to transgender, bisexual, and queer women, with lesbian civil rights described as receiving more of a focus from politicians.[76]

Social pressures and influences[edit]

Social pressures are another influence on women who run for office, often coinciding with sexism and discrimination. Some scholars have argued that views of discrimination have prompted a decrease in the supply of women willing to run for office, though this has been partially countered by those who argue that women are actually just more "strategic" when trying to identify an election with favorable conditions.[77] Other factors, like the overrepresentation of men, have been described as influencing perceptions of men as somehow inherently more effective as politicians or leaders, which some scholars argue could pressure women to stay out of elections.[77] However, others contend that the overrepresentation of men can actually result in "political momentum" for women, such as during the Year of the Woman.[77] Within some racial and ethnic groups, social influences can also shape political engagement. Among Latinos, Latinas are more likely to partake in non-electoral activities, like community organizing, when compared to men.[79] Despite differences in political activity and social pressures, elected women from both political parties have voiced their support for electing more women to Congress to increase the acceptance of their voices and experiences.[77] Furthermore, studies have found that increasing the descriptive representation of women can provide positive social influences for democracy as a whole, such as improved perceptions of an individual's political efficacy and government's responsiveness to the needs of people.[73] When women can vote for a woman candidate of the same party, studies have also found that these influences can be magnified.[73]

LGBT political representation[edit]

The White House illuminated in the colors of the rainbow flag after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationally

Although some scholars have disputed the benefits of descriptive representation, only a small number have argued that this form of representation actually has negative impacts on the group it represents.[80] Studies of bills relating to LGBT rights in state legislatures have provided a more nuanced analysis. Pro-LGBT bills tend to be introduced in higher numbers when more LGBT representatives are elected to state legislatures, which may also indicate an increased likelihood of substantive representation.[80] Increases in openly LGBT state lawmakers have also been hypothesized to inadvertently result in more anti-LGBT legislation, potentially as the result of backlash to their presence.[80] Despite the risk of negative consequences, at least one study has concluded that the LGBT community receives net-benefits from increased openly LGBT representation.[80] On the federal level, the presence of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus has been identified as improving the ability of Congress to address the intersectional issues faced by the LGBT community, as well as provide a source of pressure other than constituency on members of Congress to address LGBT issues.[76] Additionally, non-LGBT members of the caucus have been criticized for not sponsoring enough legislation, emphasizing the value of openly LGBT members of Congress.[76] While descriptive representation has provided benefits overall, scholars have noted that some groups in the community, such as transgender and bisexual people, tend to receive less focus than gays and lesbians.[76]

Concerns about refusal to accept defeat[edit]

Signs reading "Stop the Steal" and "Off with their heads", photographed on the day of the January 6 attack

Many commentators and scholars (such as David Leonhardt) have expressed alarm at the "growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties — the Republican Party — to refuse to accept defeat in an election".[61][81][82] In a survey by journalists (of the Washington Post) less than two months before the 2022 congressional election, a "majority of Republicans" in "important battleground" election campaigns, refused "to say they will accept the November election outcome".[83] Six key Senate and gubernatorial Republican party nominees refused to commit to accepting the results of the November election: BLAKE MASTERS in Arizona, J.D. VANCE in Ohio, Rep. TED BUDD in North Carolina, KELLY TSHIBAKA in Alaska, TUDOR DIXON in Michigan and GEOFF DIEHL in Massachusetts.[84]

While the claim by a losing candidate that they won "despite clear evidence he lost", may have start with Donald Trump after his loss in 2020, during primaries leading up to the November 2022 general election, "candidates across the country have refused to concede — even in races that are not remotely close".[85]

The trend has been manifest in the violent January 6 2022 attack on the US Capitol to prevent the certification of Joseph Biden as president, the hundreds of elected Republican officials throughout the United States that the 2020 presidential election was "rigged", some of whom "are running for statewide offices that would oversee future elections, potentially putting them in position to overturn an election in 2024 or beyond".[61] According to Yascha Mounk, “There is the possibility, for the first time in American history, that a legitimately elected president will not be able to take office”.[61]

In part the phenomenon is international, democracies are struggling in other parts of the world led by the forces of "digital media, cultural change and economic stagnation in affluent countries".[61] Leonhardt states that "many experts point out that it is still not clear how the country will escape a larger crisis, such as an overturned election, at some point in the coming decade."[61]


Electing Supreme Court Justices[edit]

With an implementation of term limits and holding elections for Supreme Court Justices the United States could simply solve the contentious battle for when Supreme Court members unexpectedly die. Packing the Supreme Court proposals would fade away if an election was going to decide the outcome. 33 States already elect their State Supreme Courts. William Watkins Jr. a Constitutional scholar from the Independent Institute on National Public Radio stated his proposal for 8 to 10 year one time term limits, he also said justices are suppose to be like umpires calling balls and strikes in the game but are acting more like coaches tinkering with starting lineups, and calling hit and runs. Local District attorneys and County Sheriffs are elected[86] and so could Supreme Court Justices. The United States Senate use to be appointed by State legislatures before the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913 for them to be elected. A Second Constitutional Convention of the States to Amend the Constitution could be a way for this reform to proceed. [87][88] [89] [90] [91]

Term limits for congress[edit]

Average Age of Congress
Percentage of Congress over the age of 70

Term limits for members of Congress was a movement that gained a lot of traction in the early 1990s. 23 State Governments passed legislation that term limited US Congress representatives from each respective state. A Supreme Court decision U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton in 1995 invalidated those 23 States term limits for their US Representatives. Newt Gingrich's Contract with America promised legislation in the first 100 days for a Constitution Amendment for term limits. The Term Limits Constitutional Amendment bill did not pass the 2/3 majority to move the bill forward and only passed with a simple majority of 227-204. It would have limited the House and Senate to 12 years total, six terms in the House, and two terms in the Senate. [92] [93] [94] [95]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ In 1970 a candidate of the Conservative Party of New York State (James L. Buckley) defeated the Democratic and Republican party candidates for U.S. Senate.
  3. ^ not to be confused with the American systems of having two senators representing each state, since the senator's elections in each state are staggered and do not run at the same time.


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Further reading[edit]

  • The Almanac of American Politics 2022 (2022) details on members of Congress, and the governors: their records and election results; also state and district politics; revised every two years since 1975. details; see The Almanac of American Politics
  • American National Biography (20 volumes, 1999) covers all politicians no longer alive; online at many academic libraries and at Wikipedia Library.
  • Brewer, Mark D. and L. Sandy Maisel. Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process (9th ed. 2020) excerpt
  • Edwards, George C. Martin P. Wattenberg, and Robert L. Lineberry. Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy (16th Edition, 2013), textbook
  • Finkelman, Paul, and Peter Wallenstein, eds. The Encyclopedia Of American Political History (2001), short essays by scholars
  • Greene, Jack P., ed. Encyclopedia of American Political History: Studies of the Principal Movements and Ideas (3 vol. 1984), long essays by scholars
  • Hershey, Marjorie R. Party Politics in America (18th Edition, 2021) excerpt
  • Hetherington, Marc J., and Bruce A. Larson. Parties, Politics, and Public Policy in America (11th edition, 2009), 301 pp; textbook
  • Kazin, Michael, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman, eds. The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2 vol 2009)
  • Kazin, Michael. What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (2022) excerpt
  • Magleby, David B. et al. Government by the People: Structure, Action, and Impact (2020 Presidential Election Edition; Pearson, 27th Edition, 2022) overview
  • Maisel, L. Sandy, ed. Political Parties and Elections in the United States: an Encyclopedia 2 vol (Garland, 1991). (ISBN 0-8240-7975-2), short essays by scholars
  • Maisel, L. Sandy. American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction (2007), 144 pp
  • O'Connor, Karen, Larry J. Sabato, and Alixandra B. Yanus. American Government: American Government: Roots and Reform (11th ed. 2011)
  • Wilson, James Q., et al. American Government: Institutions and Policies (16th ed. 2018) excerpt

External links[edit]

Official party websites