The United States is a federal republic consisting principally of 50 states. When people of other nations are trying to understand the rather odd political behavior of the USA, they would do well to remember that the United States is literally just that: fifty individual states, each with its own constitution, all under the aegis of a central federal government. The relationship between the federal government and the state governments can get contentious, to the point that there was a civil war about it.
Elected representatives of the 50 states meet in the District of Columbia, which consists entirely of one city, Washington, D.C.. Note that distinction: DC is in the United States, but not of them.note The result includes the oddity that the citizens of DC — despite paying taxes — have no voting representation in the legislative branch (merely a non-voting representative), and until 1961 couldn't vote in presidential elections. This is irony from the country that revolted under the battle cry, "No taxation without representation!" The city's residents are disgruntled about it enough that the official DC automobile license plate reads "Taxation Without Representation." To people who live in DC (though not so much the people who work there, many of whom live in bedroom communities across state lines, further complicating the issue of local politics), this is so serious that, when the city got its third Major League Baseball franchise, the local population didn't want a third team bearing the name Washington Senators, because, although at any given time, 100 senators are tasked with working in Washington, the District itself has none of its own.
There is a feeling among some Americans that there may be a reality distortion field of some sort that follows the outer edge of the Capital Beltway (a highway that circles D.C.). Attempts to prove this fail to obtain federal funding.
Since the United States is a republic, you will occasionally find people trying to tell you that the United States "is not a democracy". This is debatably true, since a republic and a democracy are technically two different forms of government, but a republic can still use democratic processes. So ask the person saying this what they mean before nodding sagely. The essential issue here is that the founders thought direct democracy (after the fashion of, say, ancient Athens) was a generally bad idea. For example, Thomas Jefferson claimed "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." More colloquially: "Democracy is three wolves and a sheep voting on dinner." That said, direct democracy does in fact exist on smaller levels in the United States, namely the "town meeting" form of government often practiced in the New England states, in which citizens may show up to vote directly on town laws and ordinances, as well as poll-style voting utilized in some states to vote on specific laws (signs reading "Vote YES/NO on Prop. 47" or something similar will, more often than not, be ubiquitous in such states come election season). The debate over to what extent the government should engage in majority-ruled democracy or function as a democratic republic, or whether ultimate authority should rest with a strong centralized government (federalism) or with the individual state (anti-federalism/confederacy) predates the existence of the country itself, and is still debated today, with citizens, politicians, and pundits alike jumping from one side to the other (depending on which would result in their side of an issue winning).
Unlike many other nations, the US has had precisely one written constitution since independence in 1776,note which is referred to simply as "the Constitution". This makes it the second oldest written national constitution still in effect,note and the third oldest still in effect overall.note The Constitution defines itself as "the supreme law of the land", and all other statutes and acts of government must defer to it or be rendered null and void. Since its drafting, the US Constitution has served as an inspiration for many other written constitutions around the globe. Indeed, it was the USA that popularized the codified constitution — of the nations of the world, only Britain, New Zealand, and Israel have uncodified constitutions, something which law students from those countries continue to lament bitterly come finals time.
The Constitution is not set in stone. To date, there have been 27 amendments, the first ten of which are referred to collectively as the Bill of Rights and were adopted before the Constitution was even ratified. This gives you an idea of how hard the amendment process is — 17 afterthoughts, one of which is in there to repeal an earlier afterthought (18 and 21, the Prohibition amendments). Not only that, but the 27th Amendment was actually proposed with the Bill of Rights — it took some 200 years between proposal and ratification (not surprising, seeing as it limits Congress in giving itself raises). As a result of its stability and endurance, arguably-most Americans have a deep respect for the Constitution — a respect that can become downright reverential for some people. This makes it really quite difficult even to get a movement to propose an amendment, to the frustration of many aspiring reformers.
The Constitution delineates the structure of the federal government. It sets up a separation of powers between three separate branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. Following that lead, we will chunk up this article along those lines.
The executive branch of government comprises the President, Vice President, and the Cabinet.
Unlike in many other nations, the US president is both head of state and head of government. The president's principal powers are to sign or veto bills approved by Congress and to appoint Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, Supreme Court judges, and other federal judges (all with Senate approval), to sign treaties (subject to congressional approval) and to issue pardons (which are not subject to anyone's approval). The president is also the commander-in-chief of the military and is the highest-ranking individual in the chain of command, though they are not personally considered part of the military.note The president may issue "executive orders", directives to the Cabinet instructing them on the enforcement of laws. Most executive orders are generally kept running by the next president in line, as presidents protect the prerogatives of the office, though this trend has fallen off as presidents have gotten a lot more eager to issue the orders along ideological lines. All those powers and responsibilities get summed up under the amorphous heading of "leadership", with all the free credit and lightning-rod for dissatisfaction that that entails. You don't have to be crazy to run for President. The Office will do that for you — or, if you're cynical, to you.
The vice president, in contrast, has little authority and more often functions as a government spokesperson. The vice presidency might be the cushiest job in the world because there is absolutely nothing to do unless one of two things fails: the president's heartbeat or the Senate. To be more precise, they officially have two jobs. The first is basically to sit around and wait for the President of the United States to drop dead (or otherwise become incapable of carrying out the duties of the office of President); the second is to act as President of the Senate with nothing to do and no right to vote, except cast a tie-breaking vote if there is a deadlock.
Unofficially, however, the vice president actually does have a lot of important work to do. In general, there are three kinds of veep: the advisor/enforcer, the ticket-balancer, and the consolation prize, or as Chris Matthews has called them, the January,note the November,note and the August.note
- The first kind has become increasingly common since World War II, particularly when the president is a highly-electable populistic type and most particularly when the president is basically new to Washington. This sort of VP is effectively chosen to be a Secretary without Portfolio, providing advice on anything and everything and/or bringing political muscle and Washington connections to the administration. Indeed, the only major-party vice-presidential candidates since 1948 (the first post-World War II presidential election) who had neither served in Congress nor held high-level executive-branch positions have been three Republican governors: Sarah Palin (of Alaska, 2008), Spiro Agnew (of Maryland, 1968), and Earl Warren (of California, 1948). Almost all the rest have been sitting members of Congress (usually senators); the exceptions are Sargent Shriver,note George H. W. Bush,note and Dick Cheney.note
- The second kind has historically been the most common: the presidential candidate would pick (or have picked) a running mate from a different region or ideological orientation from the candidate himself. Thus, if the Democratic presidential candidate was a Northern liberal, you'd expect the running mate to be a Southern or Western moderate or conservative — or any combination of these terms. The classic example is Lyndon Johnson, a pragmatic Protestant Texan specifically chosen to retain the Southern vote that John F. Kennedy as a liberal Catholic Yankee might not have gotten otherwise.note
- Another classic example occurred in 1864, when Republican Abraham Lincoln chose War Democrat Andrew Johnson from Tennessee as his running mate, when the Republican Party temporarily changed its name to the National Union Party, hoping to preserve the Union by gaining support from War Democrats and border states. Of course, this resulted in Johnson taking office for nearly a full term, placing a de facto Democrat in the White House and warning all future candidates against taking this strategy too far.
- Also, this was the reasoning behind the choices of the three women that so far have been picked as major-party vice-presidential candidates: Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, and Kamala Harris. Ferraro was added to Democrat Walter Mondale's ticket in 1984 mainly to build support in the future; it was thought that Mondale's campaign against popular incumbent Ronald Reagan was hopeless (and it ultimately was), so putting a woman on the ticket would help the Democrats curry favor with female voters in the future. Meanwhile, the 2008 Republican candidate, John McCain, was under pressure on both the left and the right. From the right, he had a reputation for being such a moderate Republican, many conservatives declared that they'd vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton or a third party over him. From the left, McCain had the misfortune of being a stuffy old white guy running against Barack "Hope and Change" Obama, a dynamic young black guy who himself had just emerged from a tough Democratic primary campaign against a rival who also wasn't an old white guy — the aforementioned Hillary Clinton, who still had a lot of supporters in the party. It was thought that Palin, being both ultra-conservative and a woman, would solve both problems simultaneously. And in Harris's case, who was selected as Joe Biden's running mate for the 2020 presidential election, gender was only one of the aspects involved; Harris was also only the third person of color (after Obama and Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover's VP) to run on a major presidential ticket and the first woman of color to do so, was much younger than the 77-year-old Biden, and had disagreed politically with Biden on key questions in the past. While the first two times it backfired, note Harris was a strong running mate, as she was fairly popular in her own right and was clearly competent. Perhaps not coincidentally, this ticket succeeded where the previous two had failed.
- The third kind was more common in the past: someone who ran for president and lost the nomination would be given the running mate's slot to soothe his ego. LBJ, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1960, is the closest thing to this since World War II, as it was well-known that he wanted the top job himself. Along with the ticket-balancing issue and his Washington connections (which were a bit more extensive than Kennedy's), he was the perfect VP candidate. His actual presidency makes this situation either hilarious or more gut-wrenching. Bush Sr. may have been this as well, as he competed with Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries. His victory in the Iowa caucus actually forced Reagan to replace his campaign manager and reorganize his staff. Joe Biden might also have been picked for this reason, as despite his serious case of foot-in-mouth disease, he had run two (notably unsuccessful) presidential campaigns (in 1988 and 2008) and was seen as something of an elder statesman in the Democratic Party.
John Adams, the very first vice president, described his office as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's first vice president, was more direct, describing the vice presidency as "not worth a bucket of warm piss".note (Ironically, FDR went on to become one of the few presidents to have died in office, although Roosevelt had ditched Garner long before.)
At several points in American history the vice president has been, in effect, the Highest Elected Patsy, and has "taken the fall" for the administration. Since World War II (where Harry Truman didn't know about the Manhattan Project until he got promoted), the VP has gained more influence, but it varies between administrations — Dick Cheney was seen as very powerful, Joe Biden less so.
A presidential term lasts four years, and an individual president is limited to two terms, with the total time in office not to exceed ten years. In other words, a vice president who ascended to the presidency more than halfway through one four-year term could run for re-election twice, as Lyndon Johnson was eligible to do (though he chose not to because backlash against The Vietnam War had made him increasingly unpopular). Originally a tradition, this was later codified in the Constitution through the 22nd Amendment in 1951, after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four consecutive terms, only leaving office because he died early in his fourth term. Presidential elections are held every four years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Actually, all elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in the month of the election. This has twisted, complicated historical reasons. The founding fathers didn't want the election to fall on the first of the month, because business owners would be balancing their checkbooks on this day.note Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday were out of the question, as those were religious days for many (the latter being a sabbatical day for many agrarian communities). Friday and Monday were then excluded, as those days surrounded the weekends. British elections were on Thursdays, and Americans wanted to break free from British traditions. Tuesday was then the best choice, but, if the election were on the first Tuesday of the month, then in some years, the Electoral College would then convene over a month after the election, a violation of existing laws. Finally, the election was set to be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday.
Historically, the president is a white Protestant, though not always. John F. Kennedy was Catholic, which was a big deal, and Barack Obama's father was a black African man, which was an even bigger deal. Historically, the president has also always been male, though fiction has delighted in depicting female presidents and the possibility is considered nigh inevitable by now. In fact, Hillary Rodham Clinton came very close to being chosen as the Democratic candidate for president in 2008, was considered a virtual lock for the position until Obama's rise to prominence, and made history (again) by clinching the nomination after a much more successful primary fight in 2016. Both these generalizations apply equally well to the vice president (three times a woman has been a major party's nomination for veep, the Democrats first picking Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Kamala Harris in 2020, and the Republicans picking Sarah Palin in 2008; Herbert Hoover's VP, Charles Curtis, was three-eighths Native American; Joe Biden was the first Catholic VP before going on to be president himself with Harris as veep).
Article 2, clause 5 of the Constitution doesn't really go into race or sex, probably because in 1787 it was automatically assumed that candidates would always be white men, but it does have some qualifications:
- 35 years of age or more.
- 14 years residency.
- Natural-born citizen (read: U.S. citizen by birth, rather than by naturalization) OR citizen at the time the Constitution was adopted.note
Note the requirement is technically a little more flexible than "only native-born", but unless you were alive in September 1787 and living between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean, it's pretty much limited to the native born. Either way, John McCain (who was born in the Panama Canal Zone) qualified.note One can be born anywhere on Earth (or space) and still be a "natural-born citizen" of the U.S. if at least one of your parents is an American citizen who has lived in the U.S. for five years. A person born within the territorial boundaries of the United States is a natural-born citizen regardless of parentage, unless said person's parents are foreign diplomats or members of an invading force.
The only two presidents who have ever been truly challenged for being ineligible to date are Barack Obama and Chester A. Arthur. Challengers to Obama claimed that he was actually born in Kenya and that his Hawaiian birth certificate and newspaper birth announcements were forgeries, no doubt by the same people who orchestrated the Area 51 coverup.note President Obama originally chose to ignore the allegations, likely perceiving them of beneath his attention, but eventually got so annoyed that he released his long-form birth certificate, then splashed it on a mug with the slogan "Made in the USA" and killed Osama bin Laden about two days later, which effectively shut up all but the noisiest of the "birther theorists." As for Chester Arthur, he was accused by Arthur Hinman of being born in Ireland. No one took up that story, so Hinman then claimed Chester had been born in Canada. Nobody could decide which was worse, so they elected Chester vice president. After Chester became president, Hinman wrote a book called How a British Subject Became President of the United States.
The positions of president and vice president were pretty well set up after 1800 as to who got them and what they did. The only real controversy occurred in 1841, when William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office. The Constitution's Exact Words said that should some circumstance (death, incapacitation, expulsion) keep the president from using the office's powers and fulfilling its responsibilities, "the Same shall devolve on the Vice President." Note that it doesn't explicitly say that the veep becomes president. The brouhaha was settled when Harrison's vice president, John Tyler, just took the damn oath and did it anyway.note This was finally patched into law by the 25th Amendment in 1967.
Also, if the sitting president dies and the vice president takes the presidential oath, where do we get a new veep? Until the 25th Amendment was ratified, the office was just left empty. The first four people to ascend to the presidency never were elected to a full term.note That amendment lets the sitting president just appoint a new vice president. This led to a man who never received even one electoral vote ascending to the presidency. In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned over income tax evasion and was replaced by longtime Michigan congressman Gerald Ford. The president at the time was Richard Nixon. Compounding the magnitude of this provision, when Nixon resigned, Ford promptly pardoned the man who had just made him President, preventing Nixon from being put on trial for his various crimes.note
The 25th Amendment also allows a president to relinquish the office temporarily due to incapacitation. So far this has only been used when the president has to undergo some medical procedure that requires anesthesia, so that if something truly terrible happens while the president is knocked out, there will be an acting president who can take action immediately without provoking a constitutional conflict. It's never happened and may never, but why take the risk? The 25th Amendment further allows the VP and a majority of the Cabinet to declare a president unfit for duty and remove him, even against his will, causing the VP to become acting president immediately. This is a safety valve of obvious last resort and has never yet been invoked in practice, though some very noisy voices suggested that controversial President Donald Trump should have been ousted using it. Air Force One and 24 have both used it for its dramatic possibilities, though.
The Constitution itself lets Congress decide what happens if both President and Vice President of the United States are gone. Currently, this falls under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. It goes from President, to Vice President, to Speaker of the House, to President pro tempore of the Senate, to the Cabinet members in order of the Cabinet post's longevity. Since the US hasn't gone past 'vice president' yet on the list, the fact that it ends at the Cabinet hasn't been tested. A person in the line of succession must satisfy the constitutional eligibility requirement — a foreign-born cabinet officer (e.g., Elaine Chao, who led the Labor and Transportation departments under Bush 43 and Trump respectively)note would be passed over.
The Secret Service designates one member of the line of succession the "Designated Survivor" to stay behind at any event where the entire line could be zapped, which is pretty much only the State of the Union Address (where the President, Vice President, both houses of Congress, the entire Cabinet, and the Supreme Court are all gathered together in a single building). It's always a minor Cabinet member, too. So yes, one night a year, there's a chance that the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, or the Secretary of Agriculture could end up as President.
A small side-note. Some Americans believe in the "Twenty-Year Curse", also known as Tecumseh's Curse or the Curse of Tippecanoe, that affects the presidency and has existed since 1840 (though it was first popularized in 1931 by Ripley's Believe It or Not!). Basically, with the exception of Zachary Taylor (who was elected in 1848 and died in 1850), every president who has died in office was elected in a year divisible by twenty.
- William Henry Harrison (elected in 1840) died of pneumonia in 1841, a month after his inauguration. He remains the shortest-serving president in US history. Incidentally, he is also the reason why the "curse" is associated with Tecumseh and Tippecanoe; he was the American general during the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, in which he fought off a band of Indians led by Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who had attacked his army as revenge for his forcing the native tribes to cede large amounts of their land to white settlers. After the battle, so the story goes, Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa placed the curse upon Harrison and the presidency.
- Abraham Lincoln (elected for the first time in 1860) was assassinated in 1865 by Confederate diehard John Wilkes Booth six weeks after being inaugurated for his second term of office.
- James Garfield (elected in 1880) was killed by Charles Guiteau, a man dissatisfied with the "spoils system",note in 1881.
- William McKinley (elected for the second time in 1900) was murdered in 1901, six months after being inaugurated for his second term, by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.
- Warren Harding (elected in 1920) died of a stroke in 1923, after numerous scandals perpetrated by his cabinet members destroyed his credibility.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (elected for the third time in 1940) also died of a stroke in 1945, twelve weeks after being inaugurated for his fourth term, with mounting illness and war-related stress combining to end him.
- John F. Kennedy (elected in 1960) was shot in 1963, probably by Lee Harvey Oswald, after declining to have a protective cover around his car when he visited Dallas.
Ronald Reagan, notably, broke the curse. He was elected in 1980, then was shot and badly wounded in 1981 but survived the attack, and the Twenty-Year Curse seems to have ended, as George W. Bush got elected in 2000 and served (and survived) two full terms. This doesn't mean there weren't assassination attempts made on other presidents; thankfully, however, none has been killed.
The Electoral College
The President and Vice President are not elected directly by the people, but rather by a group called the Electoral College, a body created by the Founding Fathers to preserve the power of the smaller states in the voting process. They were also wary about the idea of the 'mob' directly electing presidents, so they encouraged each state's legislature to choose its electors. It is only since the 20th century that all states allow civilians to choose the electors. Technically, the Constitution has always given state legislatures the power to decide how their state's electors are chosen, which has never changed. It's just that public demand eventually led every state to choose the electors via actual elections. In theory, a state could allocate its electors by flipping a coin if the legislature passed a law to say so.
Each state boasts a number of electors equal to its congressional representation: two senators plus however many representatives. When the College meets, about one month after the election, each state's electors vote for the presidential candidates. Each state is allowed to set its own laws for how the electors vote, but in recent years 48 states have granted all their votes to whomever received the largest number of popular votes in their state; Maine and Nebraska are the outliers, giving two electoral votes to the statewide popular-vote winner and one more to the person who wins in each of their congressional districts.
Whichever presidential slate receives 50% + 1 of the electoral votes (since 1964, this has meant 270 out of 538) is elected. In the rare event that no candidate receives the needed number of electoral votes, the House of Representatives votes in the new president, with the Senate selecting the vice president. This has only happened once, in 1824 when the House selected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson (who won the largest pluralities of both the electoral and popular votes) in a four-man race.
On those occasions when a loser of the popular election gains office through this process — thankfully rare, but it's happened five times: in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — many Americans become confused and outraged. All the news media are required to run articles explaining this all again for about two weeks, at which point it is promptly forgotten by Americans who have since moved on to something else outrageously confusing, like why all the rich celebrities are ending up in rehab all the time.
There have been numerous attempts throughout the years to reform the system but none has succeeded. The closest anyone ever got was early in the Nixon administration in 1969, when he and Congress attempted to implement a system that would eliminate the EC and use a run-off between the top two vote-getters if no one got over 50% in the first round. It sailed through the House on a huge margin but couldnt get over the hump in the Senate or state legislatures because of Dixiecrat opposition. It came up a dozen votes short of earning the necessary supermajority in the Senate, was filibustered, and then died when the congressional term ended.
Because the number of electors is roughly equivalent to population density, theoretically all it takes to be elected President is to win the 11 states that have the most delegates: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. A presidential candidate carrying said 11 states will win the election even if their opponent wins every delegate from all the other 39 states and the District of Columbia. In practice, though, this rarely happens (outside of occasional years like 1936, 1972, or 1984) because many states across the spectrum of population count are considered 'safe' for one of the two biggest parties — for example, since the 1990s, the Democratic presidential candidates have won California by comfortable margins, while the Republicans have done the same with Texas (although its getting less Republican with every passing year).
Thus, a lot of campaign drama ends up happening in 'swing' or 'battleground' states, states that have become strategically important in the election. Since each senator counts for one electoral vote, it's the smaller states that have a disproportionately large influence in the Electoral College. To win these states, presidential hopefuls spend millions upon millions of dollars on advertising, travel, staff, and various other campaign expenses, all for a job which pays a mere $400,000 per year over four years. (Seriously—you can make more money running a school district.) And yet, the winner is largely in charge of how the American government spends its revenue. The irony of this is not lost on the American people.
The Cabinet, Executive Departments, and Independent Agencies
The president's cabinet by tradition consists of the leaders of the 15 executive departments — State, the Treasury, Defense, Justice, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans' Affairs (there are a lot of US military veterans), and Homeland Security. Each department is headed by an official called a Secretary (with a capital S), except for the Department of Justice, whose chief is called the Attorney General instead. Theyre all appointed by the president, subject to Senate approval, and the parameters of their responsibilities are defined in federal law. They are in legal contemplation the presidents deputies with respect to the departments they head, which in simple terms means that they are the personal representatives of the president and that they have the final say in the internal and external management functions of their departments.
The average American (excluding the editors of the U.S. Government Manual & the Congressional Directory, and maybe Tom Clancy) has heard of maybe two or three of these guys, maybe four if they keep up enough with current events or teach political science, usually taken from the 'Big Four' quartet: the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, and the Attorney General, positions that date back to the literal Washington administration. The Cabinet typically also includes the Vice President, the Presidents Chief of Staff, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Unlike in many other countries, the cabinet meetings are not the avenue where major policy decisions are made in foreign and military affairs: that takes place in the National Security Council where only the relevant officials participate, such as the President, Vice President, and Secretaries of State and Defense (the Secretary of Education, for instance, doesnt need to know of diplomatic talks with a crazy playboy dictator, weapons sales to Israel, or the invasion plans of the next Middle Eastern oil state waiting in line).
Under the auspices of the Secretaries and the Attorney General are the various government agencies: the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, reports to the Secretary of Transportation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports to the Attorney General. Some agencies may be (or were) in counter-intuitive departments. The Secret Service (originally founded to combat counterfeiting) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (usually simply called "ATF"; "Explosives" was added to the title relatively recently) reported to the Secretary of the Treasury before the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003.
The Department of Defense (DoD), in the vernacular known as The Pentagon (named after the geometrical shape of its headquarters building), is so freaking large in comparison with the other departments that almost 80 percent of the federal workforce gets their paycheck from it, and that the Department of Defense is considered the single largest employer in the U.S. (right ahead of Walmart and McDonald's). The Office of the Secretary of Defense is the mainly civilian staff of the Secretary of Defense, and apart from the Honorable Mr. or Madam Secretary (who incidentally must be a civilian to maintain the alibi of civilian control), there is one Deputy Secretary of Defense, five Under Secretaries of Defense, 14 Assistant Secretaries of Defense (all appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate); and a myriad of senior civil servants with titles like Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for P, and Deputy Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Q
Had enough of secretaries? In addition, Defense contains a raft of sub-departments, known as military departments (Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, and Department of the Air Force) which include all the armed forces (except for the Coast Guard, which operates under Homeland Security during peacetime and under the Department of the Navy during war or at the president's discretion), and they are led by their very own secretaries, namely the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy (or SECNAV as the special agents and service members alike call him or her), and the Secretary of the Air Force who are subordinates of the Secretary of Defense. Each of those secretaries, as you might have guessed, has their very own under secretary, and at least four assistant secretaries (five in the Army) each.
Furthermore, Defense includes several large joint organizations (meaning that civilians and military personnel from all services participate) such as the National Security Agency (the people who know that youre reading this article), the National Reconnaissance Office (the people whose satellites can spot insects on your lawn), the Defense Logistics Agency (big bloated defense bureaucracy in action) and DARPA (mad scientists studying brain implants). For more on the stiff but nevertheless crazy world of the U.S. military see Yanks with Tanks.
There are also a few "independent agencies", like the Federal Communications Commission, Central Intelligence Agency and NASA, that don't report to any of the departments, just to make organization charts that much more confusing to average Americans and foreign spies alike.
In aggregate, all this confusion is commonly referred to as The Bureaucracy: the number two government source of fear, after the Internal Revenue Service (itself part of the Department of the Treasury).
You can sue City Hall. You can sue the IRS too, but no suit filed against it will be decided in your lifetime, nor that of your great-grandchildren, for that matter. And if you hit a really sensitive spot, like demanding in court to know what goes on at either that Area 51 in the Nevada desert or that underground base outside of Colorado Springs, the government can always invoke the infamous State Secrets Privilege, which effectively shuts down litigation.
The legislative branch of government consists of two houses — the House of Representatives (often simply "the House") and the Senate. The House members were elected directly by the populace of each state, while the senators of each state were appointed by the state assemblies. The basic idea was one of tension between the two houses, the better to represent the rights of individual people and those of the states alike. However, since the ratification of the 17th Amendment, representatives and senators alike are now directly elected by popular vote within each state, turning the Senate into just another 100 congressmen/women.note
The House of Representatives has 435 members apportioned among the states based on their population. Representatives are elected every two years and there is no limit on the number of terms one may serve. Apportionment is recalculated every ten years, after each national census. Each state is free to determine how congressional districts (similar to parliamentary constituencies in the UK) are drawn up. This can lead to a practice called "gerrymandering" where the party in charge draws up ridiculously-shaped districts to secure as many safe districts for themselves as possible, while splitting up the other party's strongholds across multiple districts. Gerrymandering is legal in most states. Both parties squawk about reform, but neither is willing to be the first one to give up its precious "safe seats". The name, incidentally, goes right back to the beginnings of the Republic, first appearing around 1812 and taking its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. The practice might have started even earlier.
While the House of Representatives is generally referred to as the "junior" house, this has little practical meaning, as bills can originate in either house, with the exception that bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives. The House also reserves the power to impeach the president or other federal officers upon a simple majority vote, whereupon a trial is carried out in the Senate, with conviction upheld upon a two-thirds majority. The House is chaired by an officer called the Speaker of the House, who is generally a senior representative from the majority party in the House.
Interestingly, unlike in parliamentary systems, the Speaker does not legally need to be a sitting representative or ever have been a representative at all, they just need to be any person that 50% + 1 of the House's members want to be speaker. In practice, though, no Congress has ever taken advantage of this potentially fun loophole, and instead the Speaker is always some sort of party leader.note The Speaker is chosen at the beginning of each new Congress by a simple majority vote — this vote is largely a formality, but don't tell the representatives that: they can incur huge penalties like losing chairmanship positions for not voting for their party's pick.
The Senate is described as the senior house of Congress and reserves the power to confirm presidential appointees, ratify treaties, and conduct the trial of an impeached president or other officer, whereupon the accused may be removed from office by a two-thirds majority. Only three presidents have ever been impeached, and all three have escaped conviction:
- Andrew Johnson, for violating the Tenure of Office Act. The impeachment did succeed, though, in politically weakening Johnson to the point where he could no longer seek reelection, relegating him to just filling out the remainder of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln's term.
- Bill Clinton, for lying under oath (which technically wasn't true thanks to some semantic oddities on his part) and obstructing justice via his role in the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals. As Clinton was in the middle of his second and legally final term, he wouldn't have been able to run for reelection anyways, though the trial did influence the election of George W. Bush in 2000 over Clinton's vice president Al Gore thanks in part to Gore's attempts at distancing himself from Clinton in the wake of the trial.
- Donald Trump, for soliciting aid from the government of Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential election (specifically, he wanted damaging information on Joe Biden, who he expected would be his challenger in the general election, and was) and for obstructing justice by resisting investigation attempts into the matter. Trump would continue to seek reelection anyways, but the impeachment trial still played a role in his loss to Biden.
- Trump would later be impeached a second time with more bipartisan support in January 2021 for inciting an attempted coup against Congress in his favor after months of contesting Biden's electoral victory, as well as for pressuring the Georgia Secretary of State to fabricate votes in his favor. Despite his acquittal, he holds the distinction of being the only president in US history to be impeached twice, as well as the first to have his trial occur after leaving office; Johnson, Clinton, and Trump's prior trials were held while they were still the incumbent.note
Because no impeachment trial has ever successfully resulted in the conviction of a US president, the act is becoming seen as more of a symbolic gesture than anything else; because of how the Electoral College functions, no sitting president has had a supermajority of the opposing party in the Senate since the special case of Andrew Johnson, and even he wasn't convicted. If you want an image of how unlikely a conviction would be, imagine if you got put on trial for a crime and half of the jury was made of your best friends who also depend on you for re-election endorsements. Richard Nixon did resign while a strongly Democratic Congress was moving impeachment proceedings against him for his role in the Watergate scandal, and it's widely agreed upon that enough Republicans would have crossed the aisle to impeach and convict him had he stayed. Tellingly, Watergate weakened Nixon enough to render him a Persona Non Grata in American politics for years following his departure.
The vice president officially chairs the Senate, but in practice they seldom do except on particularly auspicious occasions, and may not speak or vote except in case of an exact tie (which was the case for the first few months of 2001, when the Senate was divided 50 to 50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Dick Cheney as the tiebreaking vote, and became the case again after Kamala Harris was inaugurated as VP in 2021 with another 50-to-50 tie). Instead, the Senate is officially chaired by the president pro tempore (pronounced "pro tem"), the senior-most senator of the majority caucus, though that senator typically defers that job to a junior senator as well, because the pres. pro tem tends to be at least an octogenarian with little stamina to run the assembly. The person chairing the Senate is always referred to as "Mr./Madam President" during sessions, regardless of actual rank. Informally, the reins of power in the Senate are wielded by the "Majority Leader" — i.e., the senator who chairs the majority party's caucus — typically a senior senator, though not quite as senior as the pro tem.
Senate seniority, by the way, is a funny thing. There are two types: seniority in the general body, and seniority in terms of a state. Seniority is decided by length of tenure in the Senate, so a senator can be quite senior and still be the "junior senator" of a particular state. And yes, the senior senator of one state can be junior to the junior senator of another state. The most senior "junior senator" is Maria Cantwell of Washington, who took office in 2001; the most junior "senior senator" is Jon Ossoff of Georgia, who took office in 2021 on the same day as his states junior senator Raphael Warnock, after they won runoff elections for both of the state's Senate seats held on the same day. Seniority among an incoming class — i.e. a group of newly elected senators sworn in on the same day — is determined by former service in order as senator, vice president, House member, cabinet secretary, governor, by state population as of the most recent census, and finally by the length of the term they were first elected to. So, if two senators from the same state were sworn in on the same day, neither with any prior governmental service, the senator elected to a full six-year term would be senior to the senator elected to finish a predecessor's term.note Whew!
Members of Congress, of either house, are often identified in the media with a hyphenated suffix that abbreviates their affiliation and state — "D-CA", for example, indicates a Democrat from California, while "R-IN" would refer to a Republican from Indiana, and "I-VT" would refer to Bernie Sanders from Vermont.
For a bill to become law, it must pass by a simple majority in both houses and receive the president's signature. This is not nearly as simple as it sounds.
The bill, having been drawn up in some subsidiary committee or other (and usually after tons of debate over its initial contents), is presented at-large to the congressional house from which it originated for a vote. If it passes the vote, it goes to the other house, which goes through the same process of debating and rewording the bill before voting on its own version of it. Next, if it passes this second vote, the two different versions of the bill are brought to the "Conference Committee" — members of both houses who come together to have another round of debates and rewording to craft a single, compromised version of the bill. Once the Conference Committee has finalized the content and wording of the bill, the bill again goes back before each house for a secondary round of debate before its final votes. So, before the president can even say yes or no to a bill officially, it will have been drafted, debated, rewritten, added to, subtracted from, voted, folded, spindled, mutilated, re-debated, re-voted, and possibly used as a tea cozy.
As an added bonus, either time during this process when a bill is in the Senate, a senator determined to block the passage of a bill (either to kill it outright, or, in the first round, to tie it up until certain changes are made to its content) can "filibuster" its vote by lodging endless procedural motions to delay a vote, or simply getting up and talking for as long as possible until the bill's proponents get tired and go home, or (again, in the first round) concede to enough changes to its content that the filibuster is dropped. The record for a speech on the Senate floor is 24 hours and 18 minutes.note Indeed, it takes more votes to end debate and bring a bill to a final vote — 60 votes, or three-fifths of the Senate — than it does to pass the bill itself once it comes to a vote. Nowadays senators don't usually bother getting up and speaking for hours. If 41 can get together and express an intention to filibuster, then the threat alone is enough to stop the bill in its tracks. Scrapping the filibuster entirely — the so-called "nuclear option" — has been considered by various blocs over the years. The general feeling has been that for a majority party to do so would weaken their position if and when they become the minority party. A reform was passed in 2011 that made filibusters slightly more difficult to carry out, though time will tell what effect (if any) it has on Senate business.
After all this, the president still has the power to "veto" a bill — an official rejection which voids the bill, unless Congress can then successfully use its one opportunity to override the president's veto with a two-thirds majority in both houses. Overridden vetoes are somewhat rare, and were virtually non-existent for the first 90 years of the nation's history. However, if the president approves of the bill, he signs it, returns it to Congress for certification, and it becomes law.
And then there's the confusing bit. You see, the president always has the option of simply not vetoing or signing the bill, rendering the idea of returning it to Congress for certification something of a moot point. What this signifies, however, depends on whether Congress is adjourned or not.
If Congress is adjourned, the bill does not become law, there being no Congress in Washington to return the bill to. The president can — and indeed usually does — do this intentionally, and it's known as a "pocket veto."note It's extremely useful for presidents faced with a popular bill they don't want to sign, but can't be seen vetoing; this allows them to save face and say, "I didn't kill the bill; I merely let it die." The format is also immune to overrides, so if Congress really wants to pass the bill, they have to go through the whole rigmarole again.
If Congress is still in session (i.e. hasn't adjourned), the bill automatically becomes law. Why this is isn't clear. There's no formal name for this method (although "default enactment" has started to gain currency among scholars), but some civics teachers have been known to call it the "stuff-it-in-your-desk" route or "pocket enactment". A president can also use this strategically: a bill that would cause a huge uproar if it failed to become law, but which the president dislikes on principle, can go into the presidential desk. This allows him to say "I didn't sign the bill; I merely let it become law." This isn't used as often as the pocket veto, but the possibility did come up in late 2011.note
Because senators are elected by the entire population of each state, serve terms three times longer than representatives, and number the same from each state regardless of the size of the state's population, the Senate also tends to be more conservative and less radical than the House — in other words, less subject to the changing whims of the people. This makes the Senate less partisan, less divisive, and more capable of passing important legislation. In a classic trade-off, it also makes senators less accountable to their constituents.
Congress can also propose amendments to the Constitution, which must receive two-thirds majority in both houses and must then be approved by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. There is no limitation on the scope of what an amendment may do, except that no state's Senate representation may be reduced without its consent.note Unless explicitly stated in the text of the bill proposing it, there is no time limit on ratification; the proposal that eventually became the 27th Amendment, for example, was first proposed shortly after the Constitutional Convention in 1789, and was fully ratified and enshrined in the Constitution in 1992, 203 years later. The states also have the power to bypass Congress, and by the request of two-thirds of the state governments may call a Constitutional convention for proposing amendments, which upon approval by the convention must then be ratified in the normal fashion. To date, this has never occurred.
Yes, the representation for which Americans fought in the Revolution is this: Essentially two committees, one representing the people and one representing the states, who must pass bills twice each just to send them to the president's desk. Pretty clever way to keep government busy in such a way that it can't get too self-important.
And now you understand his pain.
The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the lesser federal courts established under it. For details beyond what you'll find below, see American Courts.
The Supreme Court (often called SCOTUS, from its full title of Supreme Court of the United States) consists of a number of judges called "justices", who are appointed by the president, subject to Senate confirmation, and who serve "during good behavior", which, barring conviction or impeachment, means a lifetime tenure. The number of Supreme Court justices is not set by the Constitution, but a tradition has developed in the last 60 some-odd years that nine is a good number. The President appoints the Supreme Court justices, albeit with the advice and consent of the Senate. Interestingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to add judges to the Supreme Court, presuming they would be inclined to rule his way, and was talked out of it.note The court stuck at nine members then and has stayed there ever since.
The Supreme Court is the ultimate body of appeal in U.S. law and is charged with the task of reviewing cases where the constitutionality of a law or governmental act is in question. If a law is deemed "unconstitutional" — that is, contradictory to the letter or spirit of the Constitution — the Court has the power to declare it null and void by a majority vote of justices. The Court also has the power to settle disputes between the states themselves, but these cases only make up a small minority of cases (one or two per term, at the most). The Court is also the highest level of appeal for all issues of federal law even when constitutionality is not a issue.
Interestingly, the one thing that most people assume the Supreme Court is supposed to do — "interpret" the Constitution — is not stated by the Constitution. Life rarely being that simple, SCOTUS gradually got in the habit of doing exactly that, and by the time most people noticed, it was a fait accompli.
Please note, however, that this was something most of the Founders could see coming, on account of America's legal tradition, The Common Law inherited from England. Interpretation of statutes has always been within the purview of common-law courts, and on the logic that the Constitution is a super-statute which justifies and overrides every other statute (i.e., law), the Court took it upon itself to interpret it as well (the decision in Marbury v. Madison makes this point). Stare decisis (the rule that once a judicial decision is made, it stands forever) is part and parcel of the common-law system, as anyone who knows anything about English (or Canadian or Australian or ) law can tell you. However, two features make the American version of stare decisis interesting:
- Since the American Constitution is written and hard to amend, the decision of the Court in a question of constitutional interpretation tends to stay the law of the land for a very long time.
- Unlike English courts and most other common-law courts, the Supreme Court is allowed to overturn its previous decisions in cases regarding statutes and the Constitution, on the grounds that the old interpretation was wrong; the most famous case of this is Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared state-sponsored segregation based on race unconstitutional, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had previously allowed it. A complete overturn of a previous decision is rare, however.note
Together, these make the Supreme Court very powerful indeed.
The Court is led by the Chief Justice (currently John Roberts, appointed by George W. Bush in 2005), a position that has the duties of chairing any meeting of the Court for both selection of cases to review and ruling on said cases. However, he or she does not have more power in any actual vote, although they do have a cooler robe. The Chief Justice also has the constitutional duty of presiding over any impeachments of the President or Vice President (but not other officers), and traditionally administers the Oath of Office to new presidents and Supreme Court justices (including his or her successor) unless unavailable (Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a notary public, after learning of Warren Harding's death, and Lyndon Johnson was sworn in by a federal district court judge, on-board Air Force One in Dallas, shortly after Kennedy's assassination). The Chief Justice is also administrator of the Federal Court System, making the position the technical equivalent of a cabinet secretary. William Howard Taft is the only person to have ever served both as President and as Chief Justice.note
"Good behavior" is the only constitutional requirement for a justice, so the office is theoretically open to anyone whom the president may choose to nominate. Most nominees tend to be federal judges, but approximately one-third of all historical justices (including former Chief Justices Warren and Rehnquist and current justice Elena Kagan) had never sat on the bench prior to their nomination.
In short, this committee tries to make sense of the output of the other two committees. They have a tougher rule to follow, in that they cannot "tie" on an issue, no matter how much they try to (the 5–4 Court vote is one of the most dreaded things in American politics). Since a justice might be absent from a case due to illness or he "recuses" (removes) himself because of a conflict of interest (it is up to the justice themselves to decide if they wish to recuse themselves) it is possible to have a 4–4 tie. Since almost every case before the court is an appeal, in case of a tie, the decision of the court below the Supreme Court is upheld. (And before you think that this is just an amusing little fact, realize that the already controversial Citizens United v. FEC decision has become even more controversial due to this.)
On the plus side (for them), legally the only person that can overrule the Court decision is a later Court Decision or Constitutional amendment.note These tend not to be common; the Court has a policy of not overruling past decisions unless the circumstances have massively changed, and amendments to the constitution are even rarer.
Still with us? This is the committee that is meant to simplify things.
The Supreme Court is theoretically an apolitical body, though more often than not presidents will appoint a judge whose political opinions agree with their own.note Of course, it's hard to tell how a justice will rule once on the bench — David Souter, a justice appointed by George H. W. Bush, was commonly considered one of the more liberal-minded justices, and Chief Justice John Roberts, usually a solidly conservative judge, famously crossed the bench and voted to uphold Barack Obama's healthcare reform act. At present, six of the nine justices on the bench were appointed by Republican presidents, and the other three by Democratic presidents. Of the nine, six are typically considered "conservative" and three "liberal". The fact that justices serve for life means that they, unlike Congress and the president, are free to issue rulings purely based on their own judgment and conscience, without worrying about the whims of public opinion, party support, or reelection. Supreme Court justices theoretically can be impeached; however, this has only occurred once, in the very early days of the Republic, and the justice in question was acquitted.
Of some interest is that the vast majority of Supreme Court cases are, well, rather boring: to take from three cases in the 2010 term, one case involved whether one state agency could sue another in federal court, another involved whether an employment benefits package summary or the detailed document governed when the two significantly disagreed, and a third involved whether Wyoming violated a water rights compact with Montana by using more efficient irrigation methods. Most fictional works ignore this rather mundane fact.
There are, at present, 50 states in the Union. Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are called Commonwealths in their full names, but are still states. There are also the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which are possessions of the United States and not states at all. Clear as mud so far? Good, because it gets muddier and more interesting as we go along.
Each state is required by the U.S. Constitution to guarantee its citizens a "Republican form of government". That basically means that they are bound by the Constitution to provide a system based on laws, with elected officials serving as management, not rulers. It probably also means that states are forbidden from having democratic constitutional monarchies, but no state has ever tried that issue. Most state governments are identical in their structure and function to the federal government, just on a smaller scale. Nebraska has a single-house legislature; the other 49 mimic the federal government, although some states have a Senate and an Assembly instead of a House of Representatives (and due to unique circumstances of history, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland each have a House of Delegates). The chief executive of a state is called a governor, whose resemblance to the president also varies;note their deputy, who may or may not be elected on the same ticket, is called a lieutenant governor. This does not, however, apply to Arizona, Wyoming, and Oregon, which have no lieutenant governor. There, when the governor has either resigned or been impeached, the elected official who is technically the chief clerk of the state, the Secretary of State, becomes governor.
Nearly all 50 states have an elected chief clerk who is called the Secretary of State, who, because that is an elected official, is not considered a cabinet secretary à la the other cabinet departments of the Governor's Cabinet. As noted above, in most states, the Secretary of State of that state is the third in line to become governor after the Lieutenant Governor. Note that while each state has a Secretary of State, this should not be confused with the head of the U.S. State Department, who is also called the Secretary of State. The one who runs the State Department in Washington (in the area of D.C. called Foggy Bottom) deals with the relationships between the United States and other countries, while each state's Secretary of State deals with the operations of that particular state, and is mainly responsible for overseeing elections in the state. Nice and confusing, isn't it?
New states may be admitted to the Union upon congressional approval. States may not raise their own armies (they are required by law to maintain an organized militia in the form of the Army and Air National Guards, and may raise an optional militia for in-state use only), sign treaties (but with permission of Congress they may enter into a Compact with other states), or coin money on their own, and when a conflict between state and federal law arises, federal law wins out. Except when it doesn't. Basically, federal law only has supremacy when it is constitutional. Familiar with the phrase, "Can open, worms all over the ground"? Well, when THAT argument comes up, things get wormy.
One major difference between the state and federal governments is that states hold a lot more elections. A state need not limit its elections to the legislature and the chief executive, as the federal government does; they can also hold elections for secretary of state, attorney general, comptroller, state supreme court judges, judges of lower courts, district attorneys, sheriffs, and/or dog catchers. Much of this will be specified in the state constitution, which is generally amended by popular vote as well. Many states also have a procedure where an elected official may be removed (recalled) from office in a special election if enough petitions are gathered. A significant example of this occurred in 2003, when California governor Gray Davis was successfully recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a special election that included 135 candidatesnote for the office. In 2012, an attempt to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was defeated, making Gov. Walker the first governor in American history to survive a recall attempt (and only the third to be recalled).
All this voting theoretically makes state governments more accountable to the people. In practice, this doesn't quite work. This is why in some states you have Initiative and Referendum, where, if the legislature doesn't pass an acceptable law, the people can propose one (meaning some sufficiently well-funded and/or ticked-off group sends out people to collect signatures to have a ballot proposal put up for election), contrary to the Jefferson quote above. This is how the famous Proposition 13 slashed property taxes in California. It's also how a major manufacturer of gambling equipment and supplies could get a state lottery created there as well.
As these referenda are often written by non-politicians, or people with little formal legal training, they may ultimately prove to be of dubious constitutionality when enacted into law, and parts or all of them are often struck down by the courts after their passage. For example, California's Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative that sought to deny certain benefits and legal protections to illegal immigrants, was eventually struck down by the courts, and Proposition 8, which reversed the state Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage, was also struck down by the US Supreme Court.
The Constitution says nothing about government below the state level, so states are free to set up whatever structure they like. There's a lot of variation from state to state here (Connecticut and Massachusetts have county governments in name only, while Hawaii has no municipal governments), so this is just a general overview.
Forty-eight of the 50 states are divided into counties. The exceptions: Louisiana is divided into "parishes" owing to its unique legal descendance from French civil law, which are identical to counties in all but name. Alaska is divided into "boroughs", which are a bit different from counties, but not enough so to matter for our purposes. County governments are usually headed by a "Board of Supervisors" or "Board of Commissioners" or the like, and may have a "County Executive" overseeing the executive departments.
In addition to these, four states have so-called "independent cities", which are cities that do not have a county government at all and deal directly with their state government. These can be found in Maryland (Baltimore), Missouri (St. Louis), Nevada (Carson City), and Virginia (a total of 38). Under Virginia's constitution, any community that is incorporated as a "city" is completely separate from any countyeven though a fair number of these communities also serve as county seats, as they were chosen as seats before seceding from the county.note Several communities in the South Hampton Roads metro area of southeast Virginia are independent cities formed from former counties; Virginia Beach and Norfolk were formerly located in Princess Anne and Norfolk counties until the voters approved referendums with the independent city of Virginia Beach emerging from its consolidation with Princess Anne County, while Norfolk County became the independent cities of Norfolk and Chesapeake. This differs from cases such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, in which the city and county (or, in the case of New Orleans, parish) both nominally exist even though the governments are merged.
Size doesn't matter, nor does population. The least populous county is in the second largest state, Loving County, Texas, and at last count had 69 people. Los Angeles County in California, the most populous in the country, has nearly 10 million people, making it more populous than all but eight entire states in the U.S. Number doesn't matter: Texas has 254 counties, Delaware has three. Some states have laws that set minimum sizes on counties, or prohibit adding more counties. The smallest county is Arlington County, Virginia at 26 square miles; the smallest county-equivalent unit by area is the city of Falls Church, Virginia, at a hair over two square miles. The largest (aside from the Alaskan boroughs) is California's San Bernardino County, which is bigger than each of the nine smallest states (Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island).
For an example of comparisons, the states of Iowa (56 thousand square miles/2.9 million people), Kansas (82k/2.6m), Oklahoma (69k/3.5m) Nebraska (77k/1.7m), Minnesota (87k/4.9m), and Colorado (104k/4.3m) as a region have over 476,000 square miles and 19.9 million people. But this entire region obviously deserves considerably less attention and less resources than New York City, which has 468 square miles and 18.8 million people, even though New York has 1/1000 of the area and fewer people.
Municipal government can take various forms; depending on the state, municipalities can be called "cities", "towns", "villages", "townships", "boroughs", or something else, which may or may not have different meanings or governmental structures. A "town" is usually the smallest type of government, but there can be towns that have larger populations than some cities. Larger cities usually have their executive power vested in an elected mayor, with the city council (also elected) having legislative power over local ordinances. Many cities and towns tend to use a "city-manager" system, in which the city council appoints a professional urban planner to run the executive departments, and the office of mayor is either nonexistent, ceremonial, or a glorified city councilor.
The services provided by counties and cities overlap a lot (the police/sheriff's department, fire department, transportation, parks, etc.) and the precise arrangement varies from state to state, and sometimes within states as well. If there are any areas outside municipal governments, the county will provide all services there. In some states, mostly in the Northeast, cities and towns cover the entire state; this is how Connecticut and Rhode Island get away with not having any counties at all; today, their counties are merely geographic subdivisions.
Cities can be combined with a county (like Denver and San Francisco), cross county lines (like Dallas, in five different counties), exist outside any county (like Baltimore, St. Louis, and all 38 'cities' in Virginia), or take up entire counties and merge with the county governments (Nashville with Davidson County, Louisville, Kentucky with Jefferson County, and Carson City, Nevada with the former Ormsby county).note Many metropolitan areas cross state boundaries, but cities are always in the same state (Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas is actually two separate cities, and Portland, Oregon forms a coterminous metropolitan area with Vancouver, Washington).
There are also elected school boards that operate local schools independent of any government in much of the country, as well as independent Fire Department districts, waste management departments, parks and recreation bureaus, and other special districts or government corporations providing services, but describing them all would make this article even more complicated than it is.
In short, then, the membership of all the elected committees in American government — federal, state, county, and municipal — is north of 60,000. In a country where getting five friends to agree on where to have dinner can result in fistfights.
Separate from the states are several US territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, that are also under American sovereignty. Thirty-one states were territories (or part of a territory) at one point, but these in particular have for various reasons never received statehood — Puerto Rico in particular has had several referenda on the matter, all of which have been voted down by its citizens until the 2012 election, where a 61% majority voted in favor of statehood. Their citizens also receive United States citizenship, meaning that if they choose to "emigrate" to any state, they have no legal problems, with the exception of American Samoa who are considered "American Nationals". Unlike states, territories do not have voting representation in Congress; however, they also pay fewer federal taxes, so many would argue they got the better deal.
The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with the intent of creating a state free from the influence of factions. In this they failed, as parties began forming while the ink was still wet on the parchment, arguing over whether the federal government or individual states should have the greater power. Though parties have less official influence than they do in most countries, they still hold an immense amount of sway in the government, largely due to the funding they can collect for candidates who agree with their policies.
There are two major parties in the U.S. today. Americans' general feeling about these parties is that one is evil and the other is inept. Which is which depends on who you ask.
- The Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the world. It's typically viewed as being center-left, although in most Western countries, they would be considered centrist or tepidly social-democratic. Somewhat socially liberal and fiscally left-wing (although they have a small fiscally conservative contingent, most famously represented by Bill Clinton, as well as a progressive faction represented today by people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Strongest in urban areas, towns anchored by major universities, the Northeast, and the West Coast, and among minorities, youth, and poor to working-class voters. As of the 2018 midterms, they control the House of Representatives, and as of the 2020 elections they also hold the Presidency and the Senate (albeit the latter by a margin of only the Vice-President).
- The Republican Party, or the GOP (Grand Old Party, despite being younger than the Democrats), is the right-wing party in American politics. United by fiscal conservatism, and many (but not all) of them are social conservatives. Strongest in rural areas and the South, and among evangelical Protestants and middle-class to affluent voters. Reports of its imminent demise have been tossed around for decades now and are (probably) greatly exaggerated; while Republicans have only won the popular vote for the presidency once in the last three decades and are currently (just barely) minorities in Congress, the federal system more than balances the scales in their favor, as they control the vast majority of state legislatures.
These definitions apply to the current time; the ideologies of both parties have been extremely fluid and really only coalesced into firmly partisan lines in the latter half of the twentieth century. The original iterations of the party are almost completely unrecognizable from today's versions. The Democrats started out in 1828 as followers of Andrew Jackson and generally aligned themselves as supporters of states' rights, a smaller federal government with a strong executive, and slavery, because those aligned with his agenda; these are essentially the exact opposite of modern Democrat principles, and you would be hard pressed to find a Democrat today who sees Jackson in a good light. The Republicans came along in 1854 as a coalition of various groups whose only real uniting factor was opposition to slavery, which means Republicans today are much less shy about claiming credit for their past.
From the Civil War until shortly before World War I, both parties were a hodgepodge of different groups and ideologies and had left and right wings. The Republicans were established from the remains of the leftist Whig Party and were originally a coalition between industrial interests, left-wing moral reformers, and black Southerners who viewed the GOP as the "party of Lincoln", while the Democrats used to be a coalition between Northern labor and white ethnic communities on one hand and white landowners and former slaveholders in the South on the other, the latter also viewing the GOP as the "party of Lincoln". During the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Democrats were further split into War Democrats and Peace Democrats ("Copperheads"), while the Radical Republicans were a faction that opposed Lincoln and the moderate Republicans, with the Radicals favoring strong punitive measures against the rebellious Southern states and pushing for immediate abolition of slavery as opposed to Lincoln and company's cautious approach.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal coalition" during The Great Depression helped to pull progressives into the Democratic fold and also saw the party start making inroads into the African American community, culminating in the party putting civil rights as one of its platforms in The '60s and passing several Civil Rights Acts. This led to Democrats losing much of their white Southern support — and several legislators — and Nixon and Reagan both campaigned with at least an eye to picking up disillusioned Southern voters, though the Democrats established a virtual lock on the African-American vote because they were disillusioned by the Republican "Southern Strategy". The ideology-based party layout described above largely crystallized by The '80s, though just how progressive or conservative individual members of either party are can vary and still lead to some party infighting and occasional aisle-crossing.
Both major parties tend to have their own core of rich and elite constituencies and support from industries that provide much of the financial backing for each, though each party also usually exaggerates the degree to which its opponent is the "party of [insert your Acceptable Target industry of choice here]." The Republicans tend to garner support from small- to medium-sized business owners, oil/gas and manufacturing corporations, construction and contracting businesses, and most of the financial sector—groups that generally benefit from lower taxes and fewer regulations. The Democrats, meanwhile, are supported by lawyers and law firms, entertainment and technology companies (i.e. Hollywood and Silicon Valley), higher education, K–12 public school teachers, labor unions, and a smaller share of the financial industry—groups that tend to benefit from greater government aid and contracting. These interests are by no means exclusive, however, and most major industries and corporations tend to spread campaign contributions around, typically to incumbents, because they want to avoid angering either side and thus curry favor with whoever might be in office at the time. The influence of campaign money in politics is a very controversial issue in the United States, especially after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision.
Geography is very important for understanding modern party lines. The South tends to be more conservative than the Northeast and Pacific West, and the Rocky Mountain West and the Midwest somewhere in the middle; unlike the parties themselves, this has stayed consistent for decades, most likely since the nation's inception. Today, and especially before about 1964, a Maine Republican might be more liberal than a Mississippi Democrat. Region even helps explain the parties' ideological realignment, as best seen in the political history of the American South: Southern Democrats had long used rhetoric of states rights to support the institution of slavery, and Northern Republicans under Lincoln ended slavery through federal action. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was championed by progressive Democrats and supported by progressives from both parties in most of the country, but it met fierce resistance in the South where conservative Democrats held most offices. Many of them left the Democrats, started their own parties, and eventually turned Republican when the GOP advocated states' rights as a platform; today, the Republicans have the strongest regional hold in the South. In other words: the politicians' parties changed, but their politics generally did not. On a more local level, one of the quickest ways to determine how someone likely votes is whether they live in an urban or rural environment: cities tend to attract and employ those who are most likely to align with liberal causes while rural communities tend to align more with conservatives. Once again, these are all generalizations, but they are useful for explaining a) why physical electoral maps often appear overwhelmingly red even when Democrats win majorities, b) why Republicans do so much better in state and local elections, and c) why suburbs are so hotly contested as electoral battlegrounds.
It's important to note that the American definitions of 'liberal' and 'conservative' are rather different from how the terms are used in most of the rest of the world. In most societies, a liberal favors letting events take their course unimpeded by government control, while a conservative wants government to maintain the status quo through laws and regulations. In the US, however, these meanings are shifted, particularly on economic matters — it is conservatives (Republicans) who favor less regulation, while liberals (Democrats) call for fair markets and consumer protection through federal action. (Again, these are huge generalizations.) On social and moral issues, it's even more complicated — generally, extremists on both ends tend to favor government policies that enforce their values and restrict (or outright prohibit) behavior they disapprove of, while moderates, who make up the vast majority of the American populace, would rather they all just shut up about it.
Also, note the unofficial colors of the two parties. In most of the Western world, the color red is used for left-wing parties (red having traditionally been the color of socialism), while blue was given to right-wing parties. In America, however, this is reversed — the center-left (by American standards) Democrats have blue as their color, while the center-right Republicans are red (though both their logos make use of both colors, said colors being a prominent part of Old Glory). The terms "red states" and "blue states" stem from this dichotomy, and was born during a confluence of coincidences during the 2000 presidential election.note
While the Democratic Party can trace a roughly direct continuity to Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, the Republican Party has only existed since 1854, when slavery came to the forefront of American politics. Before the GOP came into existence, the other major parties were:
- The Federalist Party existed from 1789 until 1816. Formed by Alexander Hamilton, it argued for a strong central government, free trade, and close ties to Great Britain. Though they dominated American politics in the 1790s, electing John Adams to the presidency in 1796, the Federalists were seen as the party of elitist Northern businessmen, limiting their national appeal (though they did, for a time, boast a sizable Periphery Demographic in South Carolina). Backlash over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the feud between Adams and Hamilton during the 1800 election, Hamilton's death in 1804, and the lead-in to the War of 1812 marginalized the Federalists; by the final years of their existence, they were a regional party restricted to New York and New England. After the 1816 election, the Federalists ceased to exist.
- The Democratic-Republican Party existed from 1792 to 1834, though it was never called that at the time, instead being a term used to distinguish the loose coalition of Jefferson supporters (who typically referred to themselves as "Republicans" and eventually became the "Democratic" party) from the two modern parties of the same names. The Democratic-Republicans dominated federal politics, holding the presidency for 28 years (the longest stretch of any party) as well as most of Congress. However, the party generally lacked an identity beyond opposing the Federalists' calls for a centralized government and soon fell into factions after their opponents faded from relevance. The contentious election of 1824 was the death blow for the party, and once Jackson firmly defined his own Democratic party and won the next election, what was left soon formed
- The Whig Party were the primary opposition party to Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party from the early 1830s to the late 1850s. To oversimplify vastly: on the question of which federal actor should have greater power, the President or the Congress, the Democrats favored the former while the Whigs favored the latter. Managed to win the presidency twice, both times by men who would later die in office: William Henry Harrison in 1840 (succeeded by Vice President John Tyler, who was essentially a Democrat and broke from the party after becoming president), and then Zachary Taylor in 1848 (succeeded by Vice President Millard Fillmore). As slavery became a bigger issue in the late 1850s, the Whig Party essentially self-destructed due to internal disagreement on the subject. Most Whigs in the North (such as Abraham Lincoln, ex-Whig congressman from Illinois, 1847–1849) joined the then-fledgling Republican Party, and those in the South gravitated either to the American Party (see below) or the Constitutional Union Party.
There are a number of smaller groups, typically called "third parties" in the US, which are largely active only at the municipal or state level and seldom elect members to federal office. The largest third parties in the country are as follows:
- The Green Party is probably the most famous third party in the country, mainly thanks to the high-profile presidential run of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000. By any measure, they are quite leftist, supporting fair trade, pacifism, an end to the War on Drugs, local government, internationalism, very liberal views on civil liberties and social issues, opposition to the Patriot Act, and a strong welfare state — in other words, not too far from other Green Parties worldwide and European-style social democrats. Their main focus, however, is environmentalism, as their name suggests. Supporters are often stereotyped as tree-hugging hippies and socialists. If you see a character in fiction who supports the Green Party, then he or she is probably a New-Age Retro Hippie or a Granola Girl. Recently, Green Party ideology has started to be adapted by Democrats like Bernie Sanders.
- The Constitution Party is a "paleoconservative" party, which means that, while they have very right-wing views on taxes, spending, and social/cultural issuesnote and an explicit rooting of their beliefs in Christianity, they also break from modern mainstream conservatism by opposing free trade in favor of a protectionist/mercantilist trade policy, as well as supporting a foreign policy of noninterventionism and a reduced role in world affairs, including repeal of the Patriot Act and withdrawal from the UN, the World Bank and the IMF. Recently, Republicans have absorbed much of the Constitution Party's support.
- The Libertarian Party aims to be the leading party for libertarianism (though some libertarians do not agree with some of the LP's stances). It is America's third-largest political party according to these sources as of 2011. Libertarians tend to favor maximum individual liberty (pro-gun rights, pro-gay rights, pro-drug legalization, pro-legal abortion, anti-Patriot Act, anti-censorship), maximum economic liberty (loose environmental and labor laws, pro-free trade, anti-tax, anti-bailout), and very limited government involvement in social welfare. Libertarians do not identify themselves as 'left' or 'right' in the traditional sense — most would argue for a biaxial system of political identification, with 'conservative' and 'liberal' on the economic axis and 'libertarian' and 'authoritarian' on the social axis.
And before anyone asks:
- The Tea Party, despite its name, was not a political party per se, but rather was a right-wing populist movement centered in the Republican Party. It was primarily composed of conservative, Christian, nationalist, middle-class citizens, and it had its genesis in early 2009, when CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli went on a rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange attacking Barack Obama's bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure. Some would argue it started with Ron Paul's presidential campaign in 2007–08, but although he had a faction in the Tea Party, the majority were closer to mainline conservative Republican ideology than the anti-interventionist, staunch libertarian Paul. Their name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party, one of many protests by colonial Americans against the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament in 1773.
Their initial goals were largely libertarian and financial in nature, including smaller government, lower taxes, states' rights, and opposition to the bailouts and growing government spending (especially deficit spending), but the specific goals of its constituent groups greatly broadened the movement's focus; in particular, illegal immigration, family values, and opposition to "Global Warming" climate change legislation have been taken up as additional planks by many local and regional groups. A few politicians, such as Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Michele Bachmann, have frequently spoken at Tea Party events and are considered by outsiders as the public face of the group, but various groups remain and have no unified official leader. Their relationship with the Republican establishment was fraught, as they helped drive the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republicans' presidential candidate in 2016, despite fierce opposition by the moderate and business wings of the party. Following his election, the movement has now essentially evolved into the dominant wing of the party, the "Tea Party" moniker mostly forgotten.
These are by no means the only third parties in the United States, or the oldest (none of the Greens, Libertarians, or Constitutionalists dates back earlier than 1970). Third parties have a long history in US politics, and have been known to take up issues that would later be co-opted by the major parties. Here are some of the more notable ones throughout history:
- The Anti-Masonic Party, as its name suggests, was formed in 1828 in opposition to what they felt was the corrupting influence of Freemasonry, although it would eventually pursue a more general opposition to Jacksonian democracy. It introduced such political traditions as party platforms and nominating conventions, setting an example of single-issue political party. At their height in 1832, their presidential candidate William Wirt (a former Mason himself) won 7.78% of the popular vote, with his greatest strength in Vermont (who gave them their only Electoral College victory) and in New York. The movement would fizzle out and be absorbed into the growing Whig Party by 1838 (Freemasonry no longer being that hot of an issue), although not before running future President William Henry Harrison in the 1836 election.
- The Free Soil Party was a short-lived single-issue coalition party first formed for the 1848 presidential election when neither the Democrats nor Whigs put forward candidates who pledged not to extend slavery into Mexico. Anti-slavery members of both parties supported former Democrat president Martin Van Buren as a candidate, and though he failed to win a single state, the party collected over 10% of the popular vote, proving the growing importance of opposition to slavery in American politics. Several Free Soilers were elected to Congress before the coalition merged with the Republican Party in 1854, which likewise centered opposition to slavery as its core policy issue.
- The Know Nothings were a political party that existed under the names Native American Party (nothing to do with actual Native Americans) from 1845 to 1855, and the American Party from then until 1860. The Know Nothings were a nativist movement that was strongly opposed to immigration (particularly from Ireland and Germany), which they blamed for crime in the cities, and Catholicism, which they felt was a foreign plot to subvert and overthrow American democracy. Consequently, they were also major contributors to The Irish Diaspora, especially the enactment of anti-Irish legislation in America at a time when the Irish were considered nonwhite. The name "Know Nothing" comes from the secret groups that preceded the party, whose members were told to say "I know nothing" if they were confronted about their involvement. After a few years in relative obscurity, they enjoyed massive success in the mid-1850s thanks to the collapse of the Whig Party and the two-party system, winning state and congressional elections across the country, but they soon splintered and fell apart over the issue of slavery. In 1856, the Know Nothings nominated former president Millard Fillmore as their presidential candidate, but Fillmore only won Maryland and the party's national influence quickly waned. The term "Know Nothing" would go on to be used as a derogatory term for a nativist for decades to come.
- The Constitutional Union Party existed solely for the 1860 presidential election, nominating Tennessee senator John Bell. An ad hoc organization of moderate Democrats, Southern Whigs, and Northern Know Nothings, they tried to offer a compromise between the antislavery Republicans and pro-slavery Democrats on the eve of The American Civil War, asserting that the importance of America's continued union superseded arguments over slavery. Bell put in a respectable showing, winning three upper Southern states (Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky), but came in a distant third in the Electoral College behind Abraham Lincoln and Southern Democrat John Breckinridge (who had been James Buchanan's VP). The Party dissolved with the outbreak of the Civil War.
- The Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 to call for the restriction and prohibition of alcoholic substances. It had its greatest success in 1919, when national alcohol prohibition was enacted, causing it to change its message to calling for stricter enforcement of the ban. However, the growing distaste for prohibition cost them dearly, and the repeal of prohibition in 1933 set the party on a long decline. The party still exists, but in the last election, it only earned 643 votes — a far cry from the days when they could win over a quarter of a million votes. By sheer twist of fate, they were responsible for the election of the first female mayor in American history, and did so completely by accident. For fun, take a look on their Wikipedia page and see where they held their conventions. Going down the list, it's kind of sad.
- The Greenback Party, also the Independent Party and Greenback Labor Party, existed from 1874 to 1889. In response to the Panic of 1873, they initially advocated abolishing the gold standard and basing the economy on greenback paper currency, hence their name. Later incarnations of the party emphasized agrarian issues and labor reform. At their peak in the mid-1870s they elected 21 congressmen and numerous local officeholders; they fielded presidential candidates in 1876, 1880, and 1884 but never seriously contested the presidency. The Greenback Party dissolved in the late 1880s, many of its leaders joining the Populist Party.
- There have been various groups that have been known as the Populist Party over the decades, but the most famous one is the People's Party, which existed from 1884 to 1908.note The Populists were an agrarian movement born out of anger at falling crop prices and rising railroad rates, and called for economic action against the banks, the railroads and the merchants of the cities. A main plank in their platform was bringing an end to the gold standard and replacing it with the free coinage of silver currency, an issue that resonated among struggling farmers (rapid inflation would allow credit to flow more freely in rural areas and make it much easier to pay off debt). The Populists had their greatest success in 1892, when they won over a million votes and four western states. However, the 1896 campaign saw Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan co-opting the Populists' support of free silver; they cross-endorsed him, but it was a stake through the heart for the movement. While the party withered into irrelevance after that, much of their platform, which included an eight-hour work day, civil service reforms, a graduated income tax, and direct election of senators, would be co-opted by the progressive movement in the early 20th century.
- There have been three Progressive Parties, of which the most-well known is the 1912 edition, also known as the Bull Moose Party, a vehicle for former President Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 presidential run.note The Progressive Party was the culmination of the progressive movement, which called for broad-reaching social reforms for America's working classes, including a pension system, income taxes, women's suffrage, farm relief, the right of labor to organize, and expanded access to health care. Despite its short life, the Progressive Party is notable for being the only third party to beat one of the major parties in a presidential election.
- The Socialist Party of America existed from 1901 until 1972, and enjoyed its greatest success in the early 20th century, proving that, no, socialism was not always a four-letter word in the US. In the elections of 1912 and 1920, the Socialists won over 900,000 votes with their candidate Eugene Debs (keeping in mind that, in the latter case, he was in prison for protesting America's involvement in World War I). They had particular success in local government, electing several mayors; Milwaukee in particular elected three Socialist mayors over the course of fifty years, the last one only leaving office in 1960. They endorsed Robert La Follette in 1924 and continued to build support in the 1920s, but their support was undercut by FDR's New Deal during The Great Depression. After the war, anti-Communist fears caused the Socialist Party to fade away, and today, three groups claim the heritage of Debs' party: The Democratic Socialists of America and the Social Democrats USA agreed to focus on supporting the left wing of the Democratic Party rather than running their own candidates, but disagreed on The Vietnam War, while the Socialist Party USA continues to advance Socialist candidates outside of the two-party system.
- The Communist Party USA was a Stalinist political party that was influential from the 1920s through the 1940s. It supported the Soviet Union and sought to bring its economic system to the United States, and sought to unite American leftists during The Great Depression. It was crushed by the second Red Scare in The '50s, and it was left out of the "New Left" of The '60s due to its uncritical support of Leonid Brezhnev and Soviet militarism, which alienated liberals. It remains active to this day as a more democratic socialist third party (as opposed to its past militancy), but it has failed to regain its past influence.
- The States' Rights Democratic Party, or simply the Dixiecrats, were a faction that broke off from the Democratic Party in 1948 in protest of the Democrats' support for civil rights. The Dixiecrats, running on a segregationist platform, nominated then-South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond and managed to win over 1.1 million votes, 39 electoral votes, and four Southern states. The Dixiecrats faded away as a party after 1948, but the split between Northern and Southern Democrats continued to linger, leading to
- The American Independent Party, another segregationist splinter from the Democrats, this time from 1968 and led by Alabama Governor George Wallace. The American Independents won 13.5% of the popular vote, 46 electoral votes and five Southern states. The success of Wallace's candidacy, combined with Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," marked the end of the once-Democratic "Solid South," which felt that the Democrats had betrayed the principles of white supremacy. To date, Wallace is the last third-party candidate to win any electoral votes by winning a plurality of any state's popular vote in a presidential election; however, the party's influence waned when Wallace rejoined the Democrats in 1972. While the AIP still exists, it does so solely as the California affiliate of the Constitution Party. The American Party (full name American Party of the United States) is an offshoot of the American Independent Party; the AIP also nominated Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence in 2016.
- The Reform Party was a populist third party established in the wake of Texas billionaire Ross Perot's 1992 independent presidential run, which won 19% of the popular vote and became the first presidential campaign since 1912 that was seen as having been capable of winning an election. The Reform Party had its greatest success in 1998 when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, but it soon fell prey to infighting between three groups: the "old guard" Perot faction, the libertarian Ventura faction, and a Christian conservative wing led by former Republican candidate, Nixon, Ford and Reagan administration member, and pundit Pat Buchanan. The party collapsed in the wake of the 2000 election, where Buchanan won its nomination, and while there is still a national organization, the party no longer meaningfully exists as a national entity.
Currently, there are only two federal officeholders elected on third-party tickets, both senators. The first and most famous is Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont who identifies himself as a socialist (he's really more a European-style social democrat stuck in the more right-wing U.S.), campaigns as an independent but for all intents and purposes caucuses ("hangs out") with the Democrats.note He officially registered as a Democrat in 2015 to run in their 2016 and 2020 presidential primary. The second is Angus King of Maine, who was twice elected governor of Maine as an independent and subsequently was elected to the Senate in a three-way race in 2012 where he defeated the Republican and Democratic candidates; he also caucuses with the Democrats. Some moderate officeholders like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have run third-party campaigns after losing their primary elections, won their seats, and converted back to their original party. Some recent legislators like Michigan rep Justin Amash have defected from their parties and registered as independent (or, in his case, Libertarian) for the rest of their term, but this is typically the last action of a disillusioned idealist; few have ever run for re-election after doing so.
No third party candidate has ever been elected president. Even when the Republican Party won its first presidential election with Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it was already one of the top two parties going into the election year, having essentially replaced the Whigs. However, there have been several third party candidacies with a sizable impact on the two-party race — which is to say, backlash on the third-party voters' second choice. This is known as the "spoiler" effect, most recently observed when Ross Perot ran as an independent candidate in 1992, received 19% of the popular vote and split conservatives, and in 2000, where Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's showing of 2% was considered one of the factors that tipped the scales in George W. Bush's favor in Florida. Also, Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1901 to 1909 under the Republican Party, became disillusioned with the less progressive political standing of his successor, Taft, who was also from the GOP. Thus, TR formed the Bull Moose Party and ran for re-election in 1912, where he won 88 electoral votes, which was far from a majority but the most a third party has won since the ubiquity of the Democratic and Republican Parties.
While the modern third parties have not been very successful at winning elections on the federal level, they're often very effective at being 'protest' votes: if a usually-Democratic voter feels that their Democratic Party's candidate for, let's say state house, is too conservative on issues such as environmental protection or health care, that voter can vote for the Green Party in protest of that candidate. This weakens the candidate's base and increases the possibility that the Republican opponent can win the seat. The next time around, the Democratic Party or the Democratic candidate are likelier to heed the whims of their constituents and will adjust their stance on those above issues accordingly. It sounds like a roundabout method, but it can be pretty effective if one isn't afraid of the other party taking control for a bit.
America uses a first-past-the-post voting system — in any election, one vote is cast and the candidate/option with the most votes is the winner, even if a majority did not vote for it. Quick example: In an election between A, B, and C, A gets 45%, B gets 35%, and C gets 20%. A wins, even though 55% of the electorate voted against them. If it seems to you that the B and C supporters should have teamed up and pooled their votes rather than splitting them, congratulations — you've just discovered why America has only two major political parties. Using political science, it can be shown that plurality elections tend to lead to two-party systems, which is exactly what happened in America. This has led to calls for the implementation of alternative voting systems, such as the single transferable vote or instant-runoff voting, to break the monopoly of the two major parties.note
One last thing: The Constitution makes no mention of political parties anywhere in the document; indeed, many of the nation's founders denounced "factions" in their writings. However, various laws have been passed (especially during the 20th century) that have given them official powers. Many of them are designed to make it very hard for a third party to acquire any real influence. Political parties are considered "private" organizations who just happen to be given government power in a number of ways. Since they are not "officially" part of the government, they are not required to adhere to the general principles of "the will of the people" or such. Understanding this will help in the next chapter on Primaries.
For example, the Democratic Party had a primary election in 2008 to choose their candidate for president, of whom Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were the last two hopefuls standing. One might think that the party would simply have all members vote for who they want and which ever one gets the most votes would win. This is not how it works. The unelected leaders of the Democratic Party can choose any method they want to decide who their candidate is. The current method involves having the vote of the members choose most of the "delegates" (who themselves are chosen by the party), while the remaining delegates are high-ranking party members ("superdelegates"). Depending on state law and state party rules, the delegates who were voted for might or might not be required to support the candidate they were elected to.note
Just to mention, the Republican Party's rules are roughly the same as far as this goes. The main differences are that they make far less use of caucuses and allocate delegates by winner-takes-all or by congressional district for many states, not proportionally to popular vote, and do not use the "superdelegate" system: all of these factored into Donald Trump being able to run his successful primary campaign. There was once a time when Democrats didn't use superdelegates either, but after George McGovern's disastrous run in 1972 — in which he picked Thomas Eagleton, who proved to have had psychiatric issues in the past (as well as later having been found to have made some controversial remarks about McGovern to the press), as his running mate — and Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, they added this feature as a safeguard.
As a general rule, winning a primary requires Pandering to the Base, while winning a general election requires appealing to centrist "swing voters". Expect accusations of "flip-flopping," particularly from an incumbent opponent who has the luxury of sitting out the primary gauntlet. It's considered an especially bad sign of a politician's career if he or she faces a serious primary challenge as an incumbent, as that means that the party that put them in office is seriously considering kicking them out. However, due to the vagaries of internal party politics, one can be kicked out of the official party nomination and still win, as Lisa Murkowski did in 2010, as long as one has enough popular support from the voter base itself. It's just a great deal more difficult without official party backing (read: money) and is much more likely to happen for an incumbent than a newcomer.