Overview Of The U.S. Political System

I have been thinking to post my notes from Comparative Politics course for a while. Comparative politics is the study of the domestic politics, political institutions, and conflicts of countries. It is one of the basic courses that every student Political Science or International Relations student needs to take. In my opinion every citizen  should know these things in order to have an ability to compare and evaluate the system of  their countries with the others.

At the end I decided to write them down. My aims are; to deepen my understanding, to provide brief information about the political systems to my followers and to prepare study guides to my classmates for the final exam. I hope you will enjoy and learn while reading. Thanks for your visit!

Let’s start with United States of America;


Key Facts:

  1. The system of U.S. is a Federal system. This means that power is divided between a central/national government and the States. The national government is referred to as the Federal Government.
  2. The Federal Government has three branches/arms:There are 50 States. Each State has an elected Governor and a legislature consisting of a State House and a State Senate
    • Legislative Branch: House of Representatives and Senate
    • Executive Branch: President, Cabinet, Federal Departments and Agencies
    • Judicial Branch: Supreme Court, Other Federal Courts
  3. The United States is a federal constitutional republic, in which the President of the United States (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 executive branch is headed by the President and is independent of the legislature. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judicial branch (or judiciary), composed of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, exercises judicial power (or judiciary).

Two political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have dominated American politics since the American Civil War, although there are also smaller parties like the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party. There are major differences between the political system of the United States and that of most other developed democracies. These include greater power in the upper house of the legislature, a wider scope of power held by the Supreme Court, the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, and the dominance of only two main parties. Third parties have less political influence in the United States than in other developed country democracies.




Although the ‘founding fathers’ wanted to avoid a political system that in any way reflected the monarchical system then prevalent in Britain and for a long time the Presidency was relatively weak, the vast expansion of the federal bureaucracy and the military in the 20th century has in current practice given a greater role and more power to the President than is the case for any single individual in most political systems.

The President is both the head of state and the head of government, as well as the military commander-in-chief and chief diplomat. He presides over the executive branch of the federal government, a vast organisation numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. Within the executive branch, the President has broad constitutional powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government and he may issue executive orders to affect internal policies.

The President may sign or veto legislation passed by Congress and has the power to recommend measures to Congress. The Congress may override a presidential veto but only by a two-thirds majority in each house.

The President has the power to make treaties (with the ‘advice and consent’ of the Senate) and the power to nominate and receive ambassadors. The President may not dissolve Congress or call special elections, but does have the power to pardon criminals convicted of offences against the federal government, enact executive orders, and (with the consent of the Senate) appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

The President is elected for a fixed term of four years and may serve a maximum of two terms. Originally there was no constitutional limit on the number of terms that a President could serve in office and the first President George Washington set the precedent of serving simply two terms.

The President is not elected directly by the voters but by an Electoral College representing each state on the basis of a combination of the number of members in the Senate (two for each state regardless of size) and the number of members in the House of Representatives (roughly proportional to population). The states with the largest number of votes are California (55), Texas (38) and New York (29).

The total Electoral College vote is 538. This means that, to become President, a candidate has to win at least 270 electoral votes. The voting system awards the Electoral College votes from each state to delegates committed to vote for a certain candidate in a “winner take all” system, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska (which award their Electoral College votes according to Congressional Districts rather than for the state as a whole). In practice, most states are firmly Democrat – for instance, California and New York – or firmly Republican – for instance, Texas and Tennessee. Therefore, candidates concentrate their appearances and resources on the so-called “battleground states”, those that might go to either party. The three largest battleground or swing states are Florida (29 votes), Pennsylvania (20) and Ohio (18). Others are Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6) and Nevada (6).

This system of election means that a candidate can win the largest number of votes nationwide but fail to win the largest number of votes in the Electoral College and therefore fail to become President. Indeed, in practice, this has happened three times in US history, most recently in 2000. If this seems strange (at least to non-Americans), the explanation is that the ‘founding fathers’ who drafted the American Constitution did not wish to give too much power to the people and so devised a system that gives the ultimate power of electing the President to members of the Electoral College. The same Constitution, however, enables each state to determine how its members in the Electoral College are chosen and since the 1820s states have chosen their electors by a direct vote of the people. The United States is the only example in the world of an indirectly elected executive president.



The House of Representatives is the lower chamber in the bicameral legislature known collectively as Congress. The founders of the United States intended the House to be the politically dominant entity in the federal system and, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the House served as the primary forum for political debate. However, subsequently the Senate has been the dominant body.

The House consists of 435 members, each of whom represents a congressional district and serves for a two-year term. House seats are apportioned among the states by population according to each decennial (every 10 years) census.

Much of the work of the House is done through 20 standing committees and around 100 sub-committees which perform both legislative functions (drafting Bills) and investigatory functions (holding enquiries). Most of the committees are focused on an area of government activity such as homeland security, foreign affairs, agriculture, energy, or transport, but others are more cross-cutting such as those on the budget and ethics.

Each chamber of Congress has particular exclusive powers. The House must introduce any bills for the purpose of raising revenue. However, the consent of both chambers is required to make any law.

The House and Senate are often referred to by the media as Capitol Hill or simply the Hill.

Link: House of Representatives click here



The Senate is the upper chamber in the bicameral legislature known collectively as Congress. The original intention of the authors of the US Constitution was that the Senate should be a regulatory group, less politically dominant than the House. However, since the mid 19th century, the Senate has been the dominant chamber and indeed today it is perhaps the most powerful upper house of any legislative body in the world.

The Senate consists of 100 members, each of whom represents a state and serves for a six-year term (one third of the Senate stands for election every two years).

Each state has two Senators, regardless of population, and, since there are 50 states, then there are 100 senators. This equality of Senate seats between states has the effect of producing huge variations in constituency population (the two senators from Wyoming represent less than half a million electors, while the two senators from California represent 34M people) with gross over-representation of the smaller states and serious under-representation of racial and ethnic minorities.

Members of the Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana and Washington, which have run-offs. Elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years.

 In the event that a member of the Senate dies or resigns before the end of the six-year term, no special election is held to fill the vacancy. Instead the Governor of the state that the Senator represented nominates someone to serve until the next set of Congressional elections when a normal election is held to fill the vacancy.

Much of the work of the Senate is done through 16 standing committees and around 40 sub-committees which perform both legislative functions (drafting Bills) and investigatory functions (holding enquiries). Most of the committees are focused on an area of government activity such as homeland security, foreign relations, health, energy, or transport, but others are more cross-cutting such as those on the budget and rules.

Each chamber of Congress has particular exclusive powers. The Senate must give ‘advice and consent’ to many important Presidential appointments. However, the consent of both chambers is required to make any law.

Activity in the Senate tends to be less partisan and more individualistic than in the House of Representatives. Senate rules permit what is called a filibuster when a senator, or a series of senators, can speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a supermajority of three-fifths of the Senate (60 Senators, if all 100 seats are filled) brings debate to a close by invoking what is called cloture (taken from the French term for closure).

The Senate and House are often referred to by the media as Capitol Hill or simply the Hill.

Link: Senate click here

Elections in the United States

Presidential Elections

The United States has a presidential system of government, which means that the executive and legislature are elected separately. Congressional and presidential elections take place simultaneously every four years, and the intervening Congressional elections, which take place every two years, are called Midterm elections.The President and the Vice President are elected together in a Presidential election. The President and Vice President are not elected directly by the voters. Instead, they are elected by “electors” who are chosen by popular vote on a state-by-state basis.The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members of Congress to which the state is entitled.


It is possible for a candidate to win the electoral vote, and lose the (nationwide) popular vote (receive fewer votes nationwide than the second ranked candidate). In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the candidate that wins the most votes in the state receives all its electoral college votes (a “winner takes all” system)

Senate Elections

The Senate has 100 members, elected for a six-year term in dual-seat constituencies (2 from each state), with one-third being renewed every two years. The group of the Senate seats that is up for election during a given year is known as a “class”; the three classes are staggered so that only one of the three groups is renewed every two years.

House of Representatives Elections

The House of Representatives has 435 members, elected for a two-year term in single-seat constituencies. House of Representatives elections are held every two years on the first Tuesday after November 1 in even years. House elections are first-past-the-post elections that elect a Representative from each of 435 House districts which cover the United States.

State Elections

State law and state constitutions, controlled by state legislatures regulate elections at state level and local level. Various officials at state level are elected. Since the separation of powers applies to states as well as the federal government, state legislatures and the executive (the governor) are elected separately. Governors and lieutenant governor are elected in all states, in some states on a joint ticket and in some states separately, some separately in different electoral cycles.

Local Elections

At the local level, county and city government positions are usually filled by election, especially within the legislative branch. The extent to which offices in the executive or judicial branches are elected vary from county-to-county or city-to-city. Some examples of local elected positions include sheriffs at the county level and mayors and school board members at the city level. Like state elections, an election for a specific local office may be held at the same time as either the presidential, midterm, or off-year elections.


Political Parties

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

Third parties have achieved relatively minor representation from time to time at local levels. The Libertarian Party is the largest third party in the country, claiming more than 250,000 registered voters;[27] it generally positions itself as centrist or radical centrist and supports a classical liberal position. Other contemporary third parties include the left-wing Green Party, supporting Green politics, and the right-wing Constitution Party.

Some important questions for you to think;

  • Why some states prefer parliamentarism and some others prefer presidentialism?
  • Why U.S. Political Parties are weaker than their equivalents in other developed countries and there are few parties?
  • What is the philosophy behind the Electoral College system?
  • Why there are 2 senators from each state although they have huge differences in their populations.

You may watch this video to visualise what you have read! I would be glad to see our comments, thanks for your visit.








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