How does the American political system work?

The United States of America has a thoroughly federal system.The 50 states are more or less independent states that have joined forces in a federation of states. There is quite a parallel with the EU: one could say that the EU is more or less in its infancy, as the US was at the time of the first constitution, the so-called Articles of Confederation. [1 It was the failure of this first constitution— the confederation could not levy taxes or establish an army or navy — that led to the present Constitution of 1787-89. [2

In other words, the states are similar in structure, but they have completely separate legal systems and jurisdictions.They are also largely autonomous. The 14th Amendment of the Constitution[3 gives the federal government an overriding role as a last resort, but the states still have broad powers.The 10th Amendment[4 explicitly assigns to the states and the people all powers that are not clearly assigned to the covenant in the Constitution.

This tension between the federal government and the states has repeatedly caused conflicts in US history and was one of the main reasons for the Civil War.Even today, states’ rights (federal rights to the federal government) are an important issue in US politics. [5

Unlike in Germany, the legal system is designed in such a way that the Constitution does not give rights to the people, but that the people confer certain powers on the state.All rights which have not been expressly conferred on the Confederation shall be left to the people and the states (10 May). additional items).


The state at the federal level has three pillars that are strictly separate (separation of powers) and are supposed to keep each other at bay (checksand balances). [6 These are the Executive (President[7 and Vice President, Cabinet, Ministries, Federal Police FBI, Military, etc.), Legislative (Congress,[8 consisting of House of Representatives and Upper House Senate),and Judiciary (Supreme Court Supreme Court,[9 appeals courts, district courts district courts, etc.).

Powers of the President

The US President combines the roles of the German President and the German Chancellor.He is head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the military in one. Unlike the Federal President, he cannot dissolve the Congress, but it is elected by the people at regular intervals.

The President shall appoint the judges of the Supreme Court with the consent of the Senate, provided that a seat becomes vacant.

The president can supplement the law with so-called executive orders, lees.(See lawsbelow .) However, it must not contradict the law or the constitution.

The President elects his Vice-President during the election campaign (“running mate”).So you don’t just elect the president, you elect the vice president in a double pack.

The members of the Cabinet are appointed by the President, with the consent of the Senate.Unlike in a parliamentary democracy such as Germany, the cabinet members do not come from the legislature, but are freely appointed by the president. In American parlance, one does not speak of the “government” as in Germany, but of the “administration” when one speaks of the president and cabinet. This makes it clear that there is a strict and clean separation of the executive and legislative branches in the American system.

However, the Vice-President is an exception.He is chairman of the Senate and has a vote there, which he is allowed to cast in a stalemate.

Election of the President

The President is indirectly elected by the people for a term of four years.He may serve a maximum of two terms. (If, by the death or resignation of the President, someone became the new President less than two years before the end of the term of office, he can circumvent this rule and theoretically be in office for up to 10 years.)

The people elect the so-called electors in the Electoral College,[10 who in turn elect the president.The electors are divided among the states. The number of electors is equal to the total number of state representatives in Congress. These consist of two senators per state and members of the lower house, about one mp per 700,000 inhabitants. So each state has at least three electors. California has by far the most, 55 in the last election of 2016.

Washington, D.C. is a special case because the city is not a state and has no voting representation in Congress.Nevertheless, she gets the minimum of three electors. Residents of U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico have neither a voice nor voting representation in Congress.

(The bizarre thing is that, as an American in Europe, I can vote by postal ballot in my home state, but if I move to Puerto Rico, I can’t stay there as long as I live there.)

The exact procedure for the electors is determined by the states.The vast majority distribute their electors according to the principle winner takes all (“the winner gets everything”).This means that the candidate who gets the most votes gets all the electors from the state – even if he fails to get an absolute majority.A few states distribute their electors proportionally among the leading candidates. The candidate who gets an absolute majority of the votes of the electors wins the election.

Voters may choose a candidate other than they should have done(unfaithful electors).This has happened several times, but it has never affected the outcome.

If no one gets an absolute majority, the House of Commons will choose from the first three candidates.The deputies do not vote individually, but by state.

Election of the House of Commons House of Representatives

The lower house, analogous to the German Bundestag, is supposed to represent the people.

The constituencies for the House of Commons are divided by population, such as one Congressman/-woman (Deputies) per 700,000 inhabitants.However, the exact division of constituencies is carried out by the states, mostly by their legislatures.

Unfortunately, this division can be abused and is one of the major controversies in US politics at the moment.It’s called gerrymandering. [11 This creates constituencies with completely absurd border histories, such as in North Carolina.This video explains the phenomenon quite well:

The parties are trying to maximize their representation in Congress at the expense of the other party.At the moment, Republicans are benefiting a lot from it. However, some states, such as California and Iowa, have implemented reforms to allow their constituencies to be determined by independent bodies.

All members are elected every two years.As with electors, California has by far the largest representation, currently 53 congressional.Unlike the president, congressional terms are not restricted.

Should a member of parliament resign or resign before the end of most of a term, a special election will be held in the constituency.Otherwise, the seat will remain vacant until the next regular election. The details are regulated by the states.

Election of the House of Lords Senate

The Upper House orthe Senate, similar to the German Federal Council, is to represent the states. In contrast to the Federal Council, however, the Senate is equivalent to the Lower House, i.e. all laws must obtain majorities in both chambers, and the members are elected by the people. Every senator represents the state as a whole, so there are no constituencies for them.

Senators have a term of 6 years, but the election of senators is staggered, so that every two years there is an election of one third of the senators.Each state has two senators, which means there are currently 100 senators in total. Unlike the Members of the House of Commons, they do not have constituencies, but represent the entire state.

As noted above, the vice president sits in the Senate and is allowed to cast his vote in the event of a tie.

Should a senator resign or resign, his replacement will be determined by the governor of his state until the next regular election.

Election cycle

Due to the above-e.g. provisions, there is always a federal election every two years.In each election, the entire house of commons and one-third of the Senate are elected. In every second election, the president is elected. Election Day is always on the 1st Tuesday in November.

State-level elections are determined by the states themselves.Most of them are at the same time as the federal elections, but not always.

Supreme Court

The nine Supreme Court justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.They serve for life or until they resign for reasons of age. [12

The exact number of judges in the Supreme Court is not actually regulated in the Constitution or.Congress can determine it. In the course of the 19th century, it has settled down to nine. The last attempt to change the number was by Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to reshape the court in this way because it repeatedly blocked his New Dealsocial policy.He has failed. Since then, nine has been considered the ‘correct’ figure, although this has not actually been specified.


Bills are introduced into Congress and must obtain simple majorities in both chambers before they are sent to the president for signature.It is often the case that the two chambers make their own amendments to the text; then these two amended versions must be harmonized and put to the vote in both chambers. Only when both have adopted this final version will the draft become President continue.

The draft will not enter into force until the President has signed it.Unlike the German President, he does not have to give a more detailed reason for a veto. He can also tacitly refrain from signing (pocket veto).While presidents have repeatedly sought a line-item veto, the possibility of deleting only parts of a law and only then approving it, he or she must legally approve the bill as a whole or not.

The laws are supplemented and enacted by executive orders [13).They are more or less decrees of the President, which are legally binding as a law, but are subordinate to the laws, as the laws are subordinated to the Constitution. However, an executive order can be overturned by a future president with a stroke of a pen.

If the president vetoes or fails to sign a veto, Congress can override the president’s veto by two-thirds majority in both chambers.Thus, the draft will be law despite veto.

The Supreme Court can be appealed if someone believes that a new law is unconstitutional.If the court agrees, it may permanently suspend the law (or parts of the law).

Here is a video to illustrate:

The States

The United States consists of 50 states and some territories.The states have more or less the same system as at the federal level, with a governor instead of the president (i.e. the equivalent of the German prime minister) and a legislature instead of the congress (analogous to the state parliament).The Legislatures also have two equivalent chambers (except those in Nebraska).Each state has its own supreme court, similar to the Supreme Court at the federal level, which has jurisdiction to interpret the laws of the state (not the federal level).

However, the details vary greatly from state to state. For example, in some cases the cabinet is co-elected, in others it is determined by the governor.In some, even the judges of their supreme courts are elected.

In the vast majority of states, the state is divided into counties.(Louisiana is the exception — there are parishes, communities instead.Alaska also has no counties,but censusareas.) In some cases, the counties are divided into townships and municipalities; in some, such as Virginia, cities of a certain size are automatically county-free cities, while in others there are no such cities.

Police and jurisdictions

Each of these levels — federal, state, county, township, city/municipality — has its own jurisdiction with its own laws, even its own police units and courts.Counties usually have a sheriff who is only allowed to operate in the rural areas of his county, while the cities have their own police force. Jurisdictions often conflict, so there are often great rivalries between the various police and court jurisdictions. Normally, a police officer is not allowed to leave his area at all. when reaching a border, the local police must ask for permission to go further or hand over the case to the nearest police. (That’s why so many Hollywood movies are seen as fugitives trying to get to the next frontier.)

At the federal level, too, there are a variety of police departments — the FBI, ATF, Secret Service, DEA, and more, each with its own responsibilities and jurisdictions.They often get in each other’s way.

Each state has its own laws, which are interpreted by its own courts.Each state has its own traditions of jurisprudence, so it’s impossible to be a lawyer in all states — you have to get admission in every state where you want to be a lawyer.

However, if you believe that your rights have been violated by the state under the U.S. Constitution, you can appeal to a federal court.

That is why there can be very large differences between states — some are extremely liberal-libertarian, others are almost like in Europe.

The political “parties”

One point that Europeans like to misunderstand is how the parties work in the US.They are not closed parties along European lines. Rather, they are loose coalitions of interest groups that jump freely between the parties.So in German you wouldn’t have to call them “parties” but rather “camps”.

The two major parties — Democrats and Republicans — dominate the US political system.This is due to the principle of simple majorities in elections — you need a coalition as large as possible to win an election, and you can never settle for only 30% of the vote. Otherwise, you will never come to power. That is why the two major parties are, in fact, the only realistic choice.

However, there are other parties that sometimes succeed at the local level (most rarely also at the state level).The most famous is the Libertarian Party, an ultra-liberal, almost anarchy-friendly party.There are also various other parties, including Green, Socialist, Communist, even National Socialist parties. However, they usually get extremely few votes, so that they have little chance and hardly appear in the statistics.

The Democrats are more or less the “left” party, the Republicans the “right,” but actually they overlap a lot, as they both fight hard for the political center, where elections are won.Moreover, they have changed greatly in the course of US history — the Democrats were once the party of slaveholders and Southern states, the Republicans began as anti-slavery groups — as these groups of interests constantly bounce back and forth from camp to camp. There are quite conservative Democrats (mostly from the southern states) and left-wing Republicans (mostly in the Northeast).

Of course, we can hardly speak of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the European context.The American political spectrum is far more conservative than in Europe. The “left” democrats in Germany would be more comparable to the CDU/CSU, the Republicans would be more like the AfD. Bernie Sanders was something entirely new because he openly called himself a “socialist” — a taboo break in US politics.

The parties do not have fixed members such as European parties or party book or the like. You become a “member” by declaring yourself an election when you register. There is therefore little commitment or cohesive party discipline. That’s why members of Congress mostly vote with their parties, but they don’t always.

That’s why, in the end, politicians in America are all somehow independent.They represent their constituencies, not the parties. There are no second votes and no party lists. So you elect the person, not the party. This leads to a completely different mentality than that of German politicians.

Representation of the people

One result of this is that the members of the Electorate and senators are much more open to their constituents and personally stand up for the concerns of their constituents.A certain servant mentality has long since prevailed (although the reality is unfortunately different). Their offices usually have quite a lot of employees whose job it is to capture and respond to such personal concerns. It is relatively easy to even organise a personal appointment with your own Member. (I’ve met my one before on such a private appointment, then my senator’s chief of staff.) Such thinking is quite foreign in Germany, unfortunately.

Town hall meetings are also popular, where voters get the opportunity to speak in large numbers with his representation in Congress.This, too, is rather foreign in Germany.


[1 Confederate article – Wikipedia

[2 United States Constitution – Wikipedia

[3 14.Amendment to the United States Constitution – Wikipedia

[4 10.Amendment to the United States Constitution – Wikipedia

[5 States’ rights – Wikipedia

[6 Checks and Balances – Wikipedia

[7 President of the United States – Wikipedia

[8 United States Congress – Wikipedia

[9 United States Supreme Court – Wikipedia

[10 Electoral College – Wikipedia

[11 Gerrymandering – Wikipedia

[12 Reply from John Grantham, Esq.Why is Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination so controversial?

[13 Reply by John Grantham, Esq.On How powerful is a decree from the US President?

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