The election of public officials and the balance of power between the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) carry out democracy in the United States. This system, which makes each branch accountable to the others, restricts the authority of any one branch of the government.
The legislative branch, or Congress (comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate), writes, amends, and passes bills, which the President, as head of the executive branch, must then sign into law.
The executive branch through the President may veto any bill. If the President does veto a bill, the legislative branch may overturn this action with a two‐thirds majority in both legislative houses.
The judicial branch, or Supreme Court, may overturn any law passed by the legislature and signed by the President.
The people elect the executive and legislative branches, while the executive branch appoints the members of the judicial branch, subject to approval by the legislature.
The most prominent election in the United States is that of President. While many people mistakenly believe that the popular vote or the Congress directly elects the President, the Electoral College (whose vote is dictated by the popular vote) officially elects the President. To maintain a balance of power, states elect the legislature separately. Each state elects two representatives to the Senate for six years; only a portion of the Senate seats come up for election every two years. States have a varying number of congressional seats based on population. Thus, for example, California elects more representatives than other Western states because it has a higher population. Population is constitutionally determined through a 10‐year national census.
The President appoints the U.S. Supreme Court (the nine‐member judicial branch), but both branches of the legislature must approve the President's choices. This appointment is for life to remove the justice system from short‐term political influence.
The two-party system
Two predominant political parties comprise the United States government—Republicans and Democrats:
- Republicans generally espouse more conservative (or “right”) views and support policies to reduce federal regulations, strengthen the military, and boost capitalist endeavors.
- Democrats, on the other hand, generally lean toward more liberal (or “left”) opinions and support policies to strengthen social services, protect the environment, and make businesses accountable to labor.
Although the parties possess different philosophical stances, a continuum exists between them. The United States system is unlike most democracies, which have more than two parties. In multi‐party systems, political groups with specialized agendas (such as labor, business, and environment) represent their interests. With the more generalized American system, the two parties must appeal to a broader range of people to be elected. Therefore, both parties work to appear “centrist”—that is, neither too liberal nor too conservative. In this system, third party candidates face great difficulty getting elected. In fact, third‐party candidates have only found success at the state and local level. The last time voters elected a third‐party president was in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln became President. Yet third‐party candidates have begun to influence present‐day elections and may prompt an eventual restructuring of the two traditional political parties.
Lobbyists and Political Action Committees (PACs)
Without specific representation in multiple political parties, special interest groups must find alternative methods of getting their voices heard in the legislative process. Many companies and other groups hire professional lobbyists to advocate for their causes.
A lobbyist is someone paid to influence government agencies, legislators, and legislation to the best interests of their clients. Lobbyists may even write the legislation that the legislator presents to a committee or the legislature. Lobbyists represent nearly all industries and interests, including insurance, auto manufacturing, tobacco, environment, women, minorities, education, technology, textiles, farming, and many others. Lobbyists, who are usually lawyers, are often former members of the legislature or have held other government positions. Companies and interest groups hire them because of their influence and access from their former jobs. For example, after spending decades as a Senator from Oregon and leaving office in disgrace over misconduct, Bob Packwood returned to Washington, D.C. as a paid lobbyist for business interests in the Pacific Northwest.
Political Action Committees, or PACs, are special interest groups that raise money to support and influence specific candidates or political parties. These groups may take an interest in economic or social issues, and include groups as diverse as the American Medical Association, the Trial Lawyers Association, the National Education Association, and the National Rifle Association. In recent years these groups have proved to be powerful and wealthy forces in elections. They often possess more money than the candidates and can run advertising campaigns that support or oppose the viewpoints or actions of a candidate running for office. They may also heavily influence state or local campaigns for ballot measures. PACs bear much of the responsibility for drastic increases in campaign spending in recent years. Many groups and officials are now calling for restrictions on such spending to limit PAC influence and maintain a balance of power among all interested constituencies.
The Pluralist and Power-Elite Models of politics
Sociologists recognize two main models when analyzing political structures, particularly in the United States:
- The Pluralist Model argues that power is dispersed throughout many competing interest groups and that politics is about negotiation. One gains success in this model through forging alliances, and no one group always gets its own way.
- The Power‐Elite Model argues the reverse, claiming that power rests in the hands of the wealthy—particularly business, government, and the military. These theorists claim that, because power is so heavily concentrated in a few at the top, the average person cannot be heard. In addition, they say that the competitors who are claimed to work as balances simply do not exist.
Experts examining these diverse viewpoints recognize substantial research to support both views.