К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №3 - 2005
Автор: Нагулин Д.Ю.
The United States is a democracy. But what do Americans mean when they
use that word?
Lincoln, one of the best-loved and most respected of America's presidents, said that the United States had a
government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." He
called the United States "a nation conceived in liberty and
dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." No one has
formulated a better way of describing the principles of the American political
system as Americans understand it. The Constitution, laws and traditions of the
United States give the people the right to determine who
will be the leader of their nation, who will make the laws and what the laws
will be. The people have the power to change the system. The Constitution
guarantees individual freedom to all.
that the citizens of a nation should elect their officials or have a voice in
making laws was not a new one when the United States came into being. Athens
and other city-states of ancient Greece had forms of democracy.
as a form of government disappeared from ancient Greece
and, over the centuries, the translation of the principles and ideals of
democracy into practice has been very rare throughout the world. Most people
have been ruled by kings, queens, emperors or small elite groups and, except
for certain members of the nobility, the people have had no voice in their
government. That was the situation in Europe in 1492 when
an Italian named Christopher Columbus, in ships provided by the king and queen
of Spain, sailed westward, seeking Asia, and landed in the "New World."
The New World consisted of what are now the continents of North and
South America. Most Europeans did not know until after Columbus had made his great voyage that these land masses
existed. Within a few years, the more powerful nations of Europe were claiming great areas of each continent and
establishing colonies to support their claims.
1700s, England had established 13 colonies in the eastern
part of what is now the United States. Most of the
colonists were English or from other parts of the British Isles,
such as Scotland, Ireland and Wales. There were also, however, many Germans in
Pennsylvania, Swedes in Delaware and Dutch in New York, which was originally
the Dutch colony of New Netherland but was captured by Britain in 1664.
the early British colonists had come to the New World in hopes of enriching
themselves; others came because Britain forced them to leave—they were troublemakers or
people who could not pay their debts. Some came because of the opportunity,
which did not exist for them in Europe, to own land or practice a trade. But
there were other reasons, and those other reasons had great influence on the
eventual shaping of the political system of the United States.
course of its long history as a nation, Great Britain had taken several steps toward democracy. England (including Wales) had a
parliament which made laws, and most people enjoyed a degree of individual
freedom. England, however, had an official state religion,
the Church of England, and those who did not accept that religion as their own
were often persecuted. Many, such as the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts, left for the colonies in order to be able to
practice their religion and not suffer for it. Though the Puritans themselves
did not tolerate religious dissent in Massachusetts, early
settlers often welcomed groups fleeing religious persecution in their homelands.
Maryland was established as a haven for Catholics.
William Penn, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), was
granted a large tract of land in the New World by King
James II. There he founded the colony of Pennsylvania, where he set up laws protecting freedom of religion
and speech. Those laws also enabled the Pennsylvania colonists to have a voice in their local government.
Others fleeing persecution in Europe, including many Germans, eagerly settled
in the colony. People such as William Penn set an example which helped spread
democratic ideals and practice throughout the colonies.
the colonies also helped strengthen democratic ideas. The colonists were far
from their old homelands and in a sparsely inhabited new land of forest and
wilderness. They had to work together to build shelter, provide food, clear the
land for farms and in general to make their new homeland livable for them. This
need for cooperation and sharing, combined with a belief in individualism,
strengthened the idea that in the New World people were
equal; that no one should have special rights and privileges.
Each colony had its own government. In the
northern colonies (New England), for example, the colonists met in town
meetings to enact the laws by which they would be governed. Other colonies were
ruled by representatives of the British king, but always with some consultation
with the colonists.
WAR AND INDEPENDENCE
passed, the colonist began to resent the governing power
that Britain exercised over them. The British government required
them to pay taxes to help pay for colonial expenses, but gave them no voice in
passing the tax laws. British troops were stationed in the colonies and some
people were forced to house the troops in their homes. The British motherland
determined what the colonists could produce and with whom they could trade.
In 1774, a
group of leaders from the colonies met and formed the "Continental
Congress," which informed the king of the colonists' belief that, as free
Englishmen, they should have a voice in determining laws that affected them.
The king and the conservative government in London
paid no heed to the concerns of the colonists, and many colonists felt that
this was an injustice which gave them reason to demand independence from Britain.
In 1775, fighting broke out between New England militia and British soldiers.
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress issued a Declaration of
Independence, primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, a farmer and lawyer from
the colony of Virginia. This document listed many grievances
against the king and declared that from that time the "United
Colonies" were no longer colonies of England. The Declaration described them as "free and independent
states" and officially named them the United States of America.
declaring the colonies to be a new nation, the Declaration of independence set
forth some of the principles of American democracy. The document says that all
people are created equal, that all have the right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," and that
governments obtain their powers from "the consent of the governed.'' The
Declaration, and the Constitution after it, combined America's colonial experience with reflection upon the thought of political
philosophers such as John Locke to produce the new concept of a democracy
governed by the people's representatives for the purpose of protecting the
rights of individuals.
from France, England's old enemy, and from other Europeans, the
American armies, led by George Washington, a surveyor and gentleman farmer from
Virginia won the War of Independence. The peace
treaty, signed in 1783, set the western boundary of the new nation at the Mississippi River. The United
States covered most of the
eastern third of North America.
ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION>
came, the United States was not one unified nation as it is today.
Each new state had its own government and was organized very much like an
independent nation. Each made its own laws and handled all of its internal
affairs. During the war, the states had agreed to work together by sending
representatives to a national congress patterned after the "Congress of
Delegates'' that conducted the war with England. After the war was won, the
Congress would handle only problems and needs that the individual states could
not handle alone. It would raise money to pay off debts of the war, establish a
money system and deal with foreign nations in making treaties. The agreement
that set up this plan of cooperation was called the Articles of Confederation.
Articles of Confederation failed because the states did not cooperate with the
Congress needed or with each other. When, the Congress money to pay the
national army or to pay debts owed to France and other
nations, some states refused to contribute. The Congress had been given no
authority to force any state to do anything. It could not tax any citizen. Only
the state in which a citizen lived could do that.
Americans worried about the future. How could they win the respect of other
nations if the states did not pay their debts? How could they improve the
country by building roads or canals if the states would not work together? They
believed that the Congress needed more power.
Congress asked each state to send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia,
the city where the Declaration of Independence had
been signed, to discuss the changes which would be necessary to strengthen the
Articles of Confederation.
smallest state, Rhode Island, refused, but delegates from the other 12
states participated. The meeting, later known as the Constitutional Convention,
began in May of 1787. George Washington, the military hero of the War of
Independence, was the presiding officer. Fifty-four other men were present.
Some wanted a strong, new government. Some did not.
course of the Convention, the delegates designed a new form of government for
the United States. The plan for the government was written
in very simple language in a document called the Constitution of the
United States. The Constitution set up a federal system with a
strong central government. A federal system is one in which power is shared
between a central authority and its constituent parts, with some rights
reserved to each. The Constitution also called for the election of a national
leader, or president. It provided that federal laws would be made only by a
Congress made up of representatives elected by the people. It also provided for
a national court system headed by a Supreme Court.
the Constitution, the delegates had to deal with two main fears shared by most
was that one person or group, including the majority, might become too powerful
or be able to seize control of the country and create a tyranny. To guard
against this possibility, the delegates set up a government consisting of three
parts, or branches, the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Each
branch has powers that the others do not have and each branch has a way of
counteracting and limiting any wrongful action by another branch.
fear was that the new central government might weaken or take away the power of
the state governments to run their own affairs. To deal with this the
Constitution specified exactly what power the central government had and which
power was reserved for the states, the states were allowed to run their own
governments as they wished, provided that their governments were democratic.
emphasize its democratic intent, the Constitution opens with a statement, called
a Preamble, which makes it clear that the government is set up by "We, the
People" and its purpose is to "promote the general welfare and secure
the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" (descendants).
Before the new government could
become a reality, a majority of the citizens in nine of the 13 states would
have to approve it. Those in favor of the adoption of the Constitution argued
long and hard in speeches and writing. They finally prevailed, but the states
made it clear that one more change would have to be made as soon as the new
government was established.
of various stales noted that the Constitution did not have any words
guaranteeing the freedoms or the basic rights and privileges of citizens.
Though the Convention delegates did not think it necessary to include such
explicit guarantees, many people felt that they needed further written
protection against tyranny. So, a "Bill of Rights" was added to the
the world has changed greatly in the past 200 years, it has proved possible for
the Constitution to be viewed as a living document, one that could be
interpreted by scholars and judges who have been called upon to apply its
provisions to circumstances unforeseen at the time it was written.
legislative branch is made up of elected representatives from all of the states
and is the only branch that can make federal laws, levy federal taxes, declare
war or put foreign treaties into effect. It consists of a Congress that is divided
into two groups, called houses:
of Representatives comprises lawmakers who serve two-year terms. Each House
member represents a district in his or her home state. The number of districts
in a state is determined by a count of the population taken every 10 years. The
most heavily populated have more districts and, therefore, more representatives
than the smaller states, some of which have only one. In the 1980s, there are
435 representatives in the United States House of Representatives.
comprises lawmakers who serve six-year terms. Each state, regardless of
population, has two senators. That assures that the small states have an equal
voice in one of the houses of Congress. The Terms of the senators are
staggered, so that only one-third of the Senate is elected every two years.
That assures that there are some experienced senators in Congress after each
The main duty of the Congress is to make
laws, including those which levy taxes that pay for the work of the federal government.
A law begins as a proposal called a "bill." It is read, studied in
committees, commented on and amended in the Senate or House chamber in which it
was introduced. It is then voted upon.
passes, it is sent to the other house where a similar procedure occurs. Members
of both houses work together in "conference committees" if the
chambers have passed different versions of the same bill. Groups who try to
persuade congressmen to vote for or against a bill are known as "lobbies."
When both houses of Congress pass a bill on which they agree, it is sent to the
president for his signature. Only after it is signed does the bill become a
executive of the United States is the president, who, together with the
vice president, is elected to a four-year term. Under a Constitutional
Amendment passed in 1951, a president can be elected to only two terms. Except
for the right of succession to the presidency, the vice president's only
Constitutional duties are to serve as the presiding officer of the Senate; the
vice president may vote in the Senate only in the event of a tie.
of the presidency are formidable, but not without limitations. The president,
as the chief formulator of public policy, often proposes legislation to
Congress. The president can also veto (forbid) any bill passed by Congress. The
veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of
Representatives. As head of his political party, with ready access to the news
media, the president can easily influence public opinion regarding issues and
legislation that he deems vital.
president has the authority to appoint federal judges as vacancies occur,
including members of the Supreme Court. All such court appointments are subject
to confirmation by the Senate.
executive branch, the president has broad powers to issue regulations and
directives regarding the work of the federal government's many departments and
agencies. He also is commander in chief of the armed forces.
president appoints the heads and senior officials of the executive branch
agencies; the large majority of federal workers, however, are selected through
a non-political civil service system. The major departments of the government
are headed by appointed secretaries who collectively make up the president’s
cabinet. Each appointment must be confirmed by a vote of the Senate. Today
these 13 departments are: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior,
Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban
Development, Transportation, Energy and Education.
Constitution, the president is primarily responsible for foreign relations with
other nations. The president appoints ambassadors and other officials, subject
to Senate approval, and, with the secretary of state, formulates and manages
the nation's foreign policy. The president often represents the United
States abroad in consultations with other heads of state,
and, through his officials, he negotiates treaties with other countries. Such
treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Presidents also
negotiate with other nations less formal "executive agreements" that
are not subject to Senate approval.
judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Court, which is the only court
specifically created by the Constitution. In addition, the Congress has
established 11 federal courts of appeal and, below them, 91 federal district
courts. Federal judges are appointed for life or voluntary retirement, and can
only be removed from office through the process of impeachment and trial in the
courts have jurisdiction over cases arising out of the Constitution; laws and
treaties of the United States; maritime cases; issues involving foreign citizens
or governments; and cases in which the federal government itself is a party.
Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear cases arising out of the laws of
Supreme Court today consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices.
With minor exceptions, all its cases reach the Court on appeal from lower
federal or state courts. Most of these cases involve disputes over the
interpretation of laws and legislation. In this capacity, the Court's most
important function consists of determining whether congressional legislation or
executive action violates the Constitution. This power of judicial review is
not specifically provided for by the Constitution; rather, it is the Court's
interpretation of its Constitutional role as established in the landmark Marbury
v. Madison case of 1803.
Americans talk about their three-part national government, they often refer to
what they call its system of "checks and balances." This system works
in many ways to keep serious mistakes from being made by one branch or another.
Here are a few examples of checks and balances:
Congress proposes a law that the president thinks is unwise, the president can
veto it. That means the proposal does not become law. Congress, can enact the
law despite the president's views only if two-thirds of the members of both
houses vote in favor of it.
Congress passes a law which is then challenged in the courts as unconstitutional,
the Supreme Court has the power to declare the law unconstitutional and
therefore no longer in effect.
president has the power to make treaties with other nations and to make all
appointments to federal positions, including the position of Supreme Court
justice. The Senate, however, must approve all treaties and confirm all
appointments before they become official. In this way the Congress can prevent
the president from making unwise appointments.
Americans, another basic foundation of their representative democracy is the
Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791. This consists of 10 very short paragraphs
which guarantee freedom and individual rights and forbid interference with the
lives of individuals by the government. Each paragraph is an Amendment to the
Bill of Rights, Americans are guaranteed freedom of religion, of speech and of
the press. They have the right to assemble in public places, to protest
government actions and to demand change. They have the right to own weapons if
they wish. Because of the Bill of Rights, neither police nor soldiers can stop
and search a person without good reason. They also cannot search a person's
home without legal permission from a court to do so.
of Rights guarantees Americans the right to a speedy trial if accused of a
crime. The trial must be by a jury and the accused person must be allowed
representation by a lawyer and must be able to call in witnesses to speak for
him or her. Cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden.
16 other amendments to the Constitution as of 1991. That is not many changes
considering that the Constitution was written in 1787. Only a few need to be
mentioned here. One forbids slavery and three others guarantee citizenship and
full rights of citizenship to all people regardless of race. Another gives
women the right to vote and another lowered the national voting age to 18
one more very important part of the American political scene which is not part
of any formal written document: the political party system.
Political parties are organized
groups of people who share a set of ideas about how the United States should be
governed and who work together to have members of their group elected in order
to influence the governing of the country. When members of a political party
form a majority in Congress, they have great powers to decide what kinds of
laws will be passed. With exceptions, presidents tend to appoint members of
their party or supporters of the views of their party to executive branch
positions, including those of secretaries (heads of federal executive agencies)
within the presidential cabinet.
writers of the Constitution feared that parties representing narrow interests
rather than the general interest of all the people could take over the
government. They hoped the government would be run by qualified people who did
not have a second loyalty— a loyalty to a party. They believed their government
would work well without parties. Despite this, parties began to form shortly
after the Constitution went into effect; parties proved to be an effective way
within a system of checks and balances for people with similar views to band
together to achieve national goals.
United States has two major political parties. One is
the Democratic Party, which evolved out of Thomas Jefferson's party, formed
before 1800. The other is the Republican Party, which was formed in the 1850,
by people in the states of the North and West, such as Abraham Lincoln, who
wanted the government to prevent the expansion of slavery into new states then
being admitted to the union.
Most Americans today consider the
Democratic Party the more liberal party. By that they mean that Democrats
believe the federal government and the state governments should be active in
providing social and economic programs for those who need them, such as the
poor, the unemployed or students who need money to go to college. The Democrats
earned that reputation in the 1930s when there was a worldwide economic
depression. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" plan,
Democrats set up government programs that provided paid employment for people
building dams and roads and public buildings. The government under the
Democratic party established many other programs, including Social Security,
which ensures that those who are retired or disabled receive monthly payments
from the government. Labor unions also received active government, and
Democratic Party, support in the New Deal era.
are not necessarily opposed to such programs. They believe, however, that many
social programs are too costly to the taxpayers and that when taxes are raised
to pay for such programs, everyone is hurt. They place more emphasis on private
enterprise and often accuse the Democrats of making the government too expensive
and of creating too many laws that harm individual initiative. For that reason,
Americans tend to think of the Republican Party as more conservative.
parties have supporters among a wide variety of Americans and embrace a wide
range of political viewpoints.
so much variety in both major parties that not all members of Congress or other
elected officials who belong to same party agree with each other on everything.
There are conservative Democrats who tend to agree with many Republican ideas
and liberal Republicans who often agree with Democratic ideas. These
differences often show up in the way members of Congress note on certain laws.
Very frequently, there are both Democrats and Republicans who do not vote the
way their party leaders suggest. They put their own views or the views of the
people they represent ahead of the views of their party leaders.
do not have to join a political party in order to vote or to be a candidate for
a public office. However, running for office without the money and campaign
workers a party can provide is difficult. Many voters become members of a party
because they feel strongly about the party goals or want a voice in selecting
its candidates. Whether or not they belong to a party, voters may cast ballots
for any candidate they wish. Everyone votes in secret, and no one can know how another
vote or force another person to vote for any particular program or candidate.
other, smaller parties in the United
States besides the two major
parties. None of these smaller parties has enough popular support to win a
presidential election, but some are very strong in certain cities and states
and can have their own state or city candidates elected or can determine which
major party wins by supporting one or the other.
people from other nations are surprised to learn that among the political
parties in the United States are a Communist party and other Marxist
Socialist parties. They are surprised because the United
States is seen by many as the leader of the nations opposed
to communism. Most Americans do not like the ideas represented by the Communist
party and distrust communism in general. The fact that the party exists, seeks
to attract supporters and participates freely in elections, however, is
considered evidence that there are no exceptions to the freedoms and rights
guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
concern many Americans have about their political system is the high cost of
campaigning for public office. These costs have risen sharply in recent years,
in part because most candidates, in order to reach a large number of voters,
buy advertising time on television. People worry that the high cost of getting
elected may force candidates to spend more time raising money than dealing with
important issues and may discourage many qualified people from running for
public office. They are also concerned because much of the money to fund
political campaigns comes from organized interest groups rather than
individuals. Many Americans question whether, after election, these officials
will feel more beholden to the groups which gave them money than to the people
concerns of the public—and of elected office-holders themselves—have started a
movement to change the financing of elections. Some people advocate voluntary
spending limits. Others want the government to set limits. It's uncertain
exactly what changes will be made, but public concern is so great that reforms
in political campaign spending are bound to come soon.
on freedom, rights and equality has created in citizens of
the United States strong feelings of independence, self-worth and even
resistance to discipline, as well as a belief that people should be able to do
what they want without interference so long as they don't interfere
with the rights of others. These feelings and beliefs have brought about many
social and political changes in the United States.
the changes may not seem significant, but they tell something about the
democratic American character. One example: In the early 1800s, President
Thomas Jefferson began shaking hands with people he met, no matter who they
were. He did this because he believed the old European custom of bowing was
undemocratic. Americans have been shaking hands as a way of greeting ever
since. There have been many highly important changes brought about in citizens'
lives because of Americans' demands for a better life. For example, in the
1930s, Congress passed laws that increased pay, decreased working hours and improved
working conditions for workers in factories, in mines and on railroads. These
laws recognized the rights of workers to form and be represented by independent
unions. The laws resulted from protests by workers against what they considered
unjust treatment by employers and the system of courts.
Americans, for most of the time, life is peaceful. They do their jobs and enjoy
their homes and families, though they remain interested in public issues. They
keep up with news of what the president or Congress is doing. Some may at times
write letters to congressmen or to newspapers expressing their views. They
might discuss taxes or government activities with friends and family; others
will become actively involved in local political debates or in supporting
candidates for political office. Unless something unusual is taking place,
however, they do no more than that. They quietly let their democratic system
work, confident that their freedoms are protected.
Brochure “About the United States” The American Political System by Richard Pawelek
К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №3 - 2005