Politics of the United States
|Polity type||Federal presidential constitutional republic|
|Constitution||United States Constitution|
|Formation||March 4, 1789|
|Presiding officer||Kamala Harris, Vice President & President of the Senate|
|Name||House of Representatives|
|Presiding officer||Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives|
|Head of State and Government|
|Name||Cabinet of the United States|
|Current cabinet||Cabinet of Joe Biden|
|Deputy leader||Vice President|
|Name||Federal judiciary of the United States|
|Courts||Courts of the United States|
|Chief judge||John Roberts|
|Seat||Supreme Court Building|
|This article is part of a series on the|
|Politics of the |
The politics of the United States function within a framework of a constitutional federal republic and presidential system, with three distinct branches that share powers. These are: the U.S. Congress which forms the legislative branch, a bicameral legislative body comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate; the executive branch which is headed by the President of the United States, who serves as country's head of state and government; and the Judiciary branch, composed of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, and which exercises judicial power.
Each of the 50 individual state governments have the power to make laws within their jurisdictions that are not granted to the federal government nor denied to the states in the U.S. Constitution. Each state also has a constitution following the pattern of the federal Constitution but differing in details. Each have three branches: an executive branch headed by a Governor, a legislative body, and judicial branch. At the local level, governments are found in (counties or county-equivalents, and beneath them individual municipalities, townships, school districts, and special districts).
Officials are popularly elected at the federal, state and local levels, with the major exception being the President, who is instead elected indirectly by the people through the Electoral College. U.S. politics is dominated by two-parties, which since the American Civil War have been the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, although other parties have run candidates. Since the mid-20th Century, the Democratic Party has generally supported left-of-center policies, while the Republican Party has generally supported right-of-center ones. Though, both parties have no formal central organization at the national level that controls membership, elected officials or political policies, thus each party has traditionally had factions and individuals that deviated from party positions.
Almost all public officials in America are elected from single-member districts and win office by winning a plurality of votes cast (i.e. more than any other candidate, but not necessarily a majority). Suffrage is nearly universal for citizens 18 years of age and older.
Ongoing concerns include lack of representation in the U.S. territories and the District of Columbia; fear that the interests of some are overrepresented, while others are underrepresented; a fear that certain features of the American political system make it less democratic, a fear that a small cultural elite has undermined traditional values, and whether policy and law-making is dominated by a small economic elite molding it to their interests. Greater representation given to small states in the Senate and the Electoral College, "first-past-the-post" voting, gerrymandering, etc.—have in recent years had a more extreme effect and have begun to create a disconnect between what the government does (in legislation and court rulings) and what the majority of Americans want.
The United States is a constitutional federal republic, in which the president (the head of state and head of government), Congress, and judiciary share powers reserved to the national government, and the federal government shares sovereignty with the state governments.
The federal government is divided into three branches, as per the specific terms articulated in the U.S. Constitution:
The federal government's layout is explained in the Constitution. Two political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have dominated American politics since the American Civil War, although other parties have existed.
There are major differences between the political system of the United States and that of many other developed countries, including:
The federal entity created by the U.S. Constitution is the dominant feature of the American governmental system, as citizens are also subject to a state government and various units of local government (such as counties, municipalities, and special districts).
State governments have the power to make laws on all subjects that are not granted to the federal government nor denied to the states in the U.S. Constitution. These include education, family law, contract law, and most crimes. Unlike the federal government, which only has those powers granted to it in the Constitution, a state government has inherent powers allowing it to act unless limited by a provision of the state or national constitution.
Like the federal government, state governments have three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The chief executive of a state is its popularly elected governor, who typically holds office for a four-year term (although in some states the term is two years). Except for Nebraska, which has unicameral legislature, all states have a bicameral legislature, with the upper house usually called the Senate and the lower house called the House of Representatives, the Assembly or something similar. In most states, senators serve four-year terms, and members of the lower house serve two-year terms.
The constitutions of the various states differ in some details but generally follow a pattern similar to that of the federal Constitution, including a statement of the rights of the people and a plan for organizing the government. However, state constitutions are generally more detailed.
At the state and local level, the process of initiatives and referendums allow citizens to place new legislation on a popular ballot, or to place legislation that has recently been passed by a legislature on a ballot for a popular vote. Initiatives and referendums, along with recall elections and popular primary elections, are signature reforms of the Progressive Era; they are written into several state constitutions, particularly in the Western states, but not found at the federal level.
In 2010, there were 89,500 total local governments, including 3,033 counties, 19,492 municipalities, 16,500 townships, 13,000 school districts, and 37,000 other special districts. Local governments directly serve the needs of the people, providing everything from police and fire protection to sanitary codes, health regulations, education, public transportation, and housing. Typically local elections are nonpartisan — local activists suspend their party affiliations when campaigning and governing.
The county is the administrative subdivision of the state, authorized by state constitutions and statutes. The county equivalents in Louisiana are called parishes, while those in Alaska are called boroughs.
The specific governmental powers of counties vary widely between the states. In some states, mainly in New England, they are primarily used as judicial districts. In other states, counties have broad powers in housing, education, transportation and recreation. County government has been eliminated throughout Connecticut, Rhode Island, and in parts of Massachusetts; while the Unorganized Borough area of Alaska (which makes up about a half of the area of the state) does not operated under a county-level government at all. In areas that do not have any county governmental function and are simply a division of land, services are provided either by lower level townships or municipalities, or the state.
Counties may contain a number of cities, towns, villages, or hamlets. Some cities—including Philadelphia, Honolulu, San Francisco, Nashville, and Denver—are consolidated city-counties, where the municipality and the county have been merged into a unified, coterminous jurisdiction—that is to say, these counties consist in their entirety of a single municipality whose city government also operates as the county government. Some counties, such as Arlington County, Virginia, do not have any additional subdivisions. Some states contain independent cities that are not part of any county; although it may still function as if it was a consolidated city-county, an independent city was legally separated from any county. Some municipalities are in multiple counties; New York City is uniquely partitioned into five boroughs that are each coterminous with a county.
In most U.S. counties, one town or city is designated as the county seat, and this is where the county government offices are located and where the board of commissioners or supervisors meets. In small counties, boards are chosen by the county; in the larger ones, supervisors represent separate districts or townships. The board collects taxes for state and local governments; borrows and appropriates money; fixes the salaries of county employees; supervises elections; builds and maintains highways and bridges; and administers national, state, and county welfare programs. In very small counties, the executive and legislative power may lie entirely with a sole commissioner, who is assisted by boards to supervise taxes and elections.
Town or township governments are organized local governments authorized in the state constitutions and statutes of 20 Northeastern and Midwestern states, established as minor civil divisions to provide general government for a geographic subdivision of a county where there is no municipality. In New York, Wisconsin and New England, these county subdivisions are called towns.
In many other states, the term town does not have any specific meaning; it is simply an informal term applied to populated places (both incorporated and unincorporated municipalities). Moreover, in some states, the term town is equivalent to how civil townships are used in other states.
Like counties, the specific responsibilities to townships vary based on each state. Many states grant townships some governmental powers, making them civil townships, either independently or as a part of the county government. In others, survey townships are non-governmental. Towns in the six New England states and townships in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are included in this category by the Census Bureau, despite the fact that they are legally municipal corporations, since their structure has no necessary relation to concentration of population, which is typical of municipalities elsewhere in the United States. In particular, towns in New England have considerably more power than most townships elsewhere and often function as legally equivalent to cities, typically exercising the full range of powers that are divided between counties, townships, and cities in other states.
Township functions are generally overseen by a governing board, whose name also varies from state to state.
Municipal governments are organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes, established to provide general government for a defined area, generally corresponding to a population center rather than one of a set of areas into which a county is divided. The category includes those governments designated as cities, boroughs (except in Alaska), towns (except in Minnesota and Wisconsin), and villages. This concept corresponds roughly to the "incorporated places" that are recognized in by the U.S. Census Bureau, although the Census Bureau excludes New England towns from their statistics for this category, and the count of municipal governments excludes places that are governmentally inactive.
About 28 percent of Americans live in cities of 100,000 or more population.[when?] Types of city governments vary widely across the nation. However, almost all have a central council, elected by the voters, and an executive officer, assisted by various department heads, to manage the city's affairs. Cities in the West and South usually have nonpartisan local politics.
There are three general types of municipal government: the mayor-council, the commission, and the council-manager. These are the pure forms; many cities have developed a combination of two or three of them.
This is the oldest form of city government in the United States and, until the beginning of the 20th century, was used by nearly all American cities. Its structure is like that of the state and national governments, with an elected mayor as chief of the executive branch and an elected council that represents the various neighborhoods forming the legislative branch. The mayor appoints heads of city departments and other officials (sometimes with the approval of the council), has the power of veto over ordinances (the laws of the city), and often is responsible for preparing the city's budget. The council passes city ordinances, sets the tax rate on property, and apportions money among the various city departments. As cities have grown, council seats have usually come to represent more than a single neighborhood.
This combines both the legislative and executive functions in one group of officials, usually three or more in number, elected city-wide. Each commissioner supervises the work of one or more city departments. Commissioners also set policies and rules by which the city is operated. One is named chairperson of the body and is often called the mayor, although their power is equivalent to that of the other commissioners.
The city manager is a response to the increasing complexity of urban problems that need management ability not often possessed by elected public officials. The answer has been to entrust most of the executive powers, including law enforcement and provision of services, to a highly trained and experienced professional city manager.
The council-manager plan has been adopted by a large number of cities. Under this plan, a small, elected council makes the city ordinances and sets policy, but hires a paid administrator, also called a city manager, to carry out its decisions. The manager draws up the city budget and supervises most of the departments. Usually, there is no set term; the manager serves as long as the council is satisfied with their work.
Some states contain unincorporated areas, which are areas of land not governed by any local authorities below that at the county level. Residents of unincorporated areas only need to pay taxes to the county, state and federal governments as opposed to the municipal government as well. A notable example of this is Paradise, Nevada, an unincorporated area where many of the casinos commonly associated with Las Vegas are situated.
In addition to general-purpose government entities legislating at the state, county, and city level, special-purpose areas may exist as well, provide one or more specific services that are not being supplied by other existing governments. School districts are organized local entities providing public elementary and secondary education which, under state law, have sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments.
Special districts are authorized by state law to provide designated functions as established in the district's charter or other founding document, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments; known by a variety of titles, including districts, authorities, boards, commissions, etc., as specified in the enabling state legislation.
The United States possesses a number of unincorporated territories, including 16 island territories across the globe. These are areas of land which are not under the jurisdiction of any state, and do not have a government established by Congress through an organic act. Citizens of these territories can vote for members of their own local governments, and some can also elect representatives to serve in Congress—though they only have observer status. The unincorporated territories of the U.S. include the permanently inhabited territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; as well as minor outlying islands such as Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Navassa Island, Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island, and others. American Samoa is the only territory with a native resident population and is governed by a local authority. Despite the fact that an organic act was not passed in Congress, American Samoa established its own constitution in 1967, and has self governed ever since. Seeking statehood or independence is often debated in US territories, such as in Puerto Rico, but even if referendums on these issues are held, congressional approval is needed for changes in status to take place.
The citizenship status of residents in US unincorporated territories has caused concern for their ability to influence and participate in the politics of the United States. In recent decades, the Supreme Court has established voting as a fundamental right of US citizens, even though residents of territories do not hold full voting rights. Despite this, residents must still abide by federal laws that they cannot equitably influence, as well as register for the national Selective Service System, which has led some scholars to argue that residents of territories are essentially second-class citizens. The legal justifications for these discrepancies stem from the Insular Cases, which were a series of 1901 Supreme Court cases that some consider to be reflective of imperialism and racist views held in the United States. Unequal access to political participation in US territories has also been criticized for affecting US citizens who move to territories, as such an action requires forfeiting the full voting rights that they would have held in the 50 states.
As in the United Kingdom and in other similar parliamentary systems, in the U.S. Americans eligible to vote, vote for an individual candidate (there are sometimes exceptions in local government elections)[note 1] and not a party list. The U.S. government being a federal government, officials are elected at the federal (national), state and local levels. All members of Congress, and the offices at the state and local levels are directly elected, but the president is elected indirectly, by an Electoral College whose electors represent their state and are elected by popular vote. (Before the Seventeenth Amendment was passed, Senators were also elected indirectly, by state legislatures.) These presidential electors were originally expected to exercise their own judgement. In modern practice, though, the electors are chosen by their party and pledged to vote for that party's presidential candidate, (however in rare occurrences they may violate their pledge, becoming what is known as a "faithless elector").
Both federal and state laws regulate elections. The United States Constitution defines (to a basic extent) how federal elections are held, in Article One and Article Two and various amendments. State law regulates most aspects of electoral law, including primaries, the eligibility of voters (beyond the basic constitutional definition), the running of each state's electoral college, and the running of state and local elections.
Who has the right to vote in the United States is regulated by the Constitution and federal and state laws. Suffrage is nearly universal for citizens 18 years of age and older. Voting rights are sometimes restricted as a result of felony conviction, depending on the state.
The District, and other U.S. holdings like Puerto Rico and Guam, do not have the right to choose any political figure outside their respective areas and can only elect a non-voting delegate to serve in the House of Representatives. All states and the District of Columbia contribute to the electoral vote for president.
Successful participation, especially in federal elections, often requires large amounts of money, especially for television advertising. This money can be very difficult to raise by appeals to a mass base, although appeals for small donations over the Internet have been successful. Both parties generally depend on wealthy donors and organizations - traditionally organized labor helping the Democrats and business donations the Republicans.. Since 1984, however, the Democrats' business donations have surpassed those from labor organizations. This dependency on donors and the political influence it can give them is controversial, and has led to laws limiting spending on political campaigns being enacted (see campaign finance reform). Opponents of campaign finance laws allege they interfer with the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Even when laws are upheld, the complication of compliance with the First Amendment requires careful and cautious drafting of legislation, leading to laws that are still fairly limited in scope, especially in comparison to those of other developed democracies such as the United Kingdom, France or Canada.
The United States Constitution never formally addressed the issue of political parties, primarily because the Founding Fathers opposed them; nonetheless, parties — specifically two competing parties or a "two-party system" — has been a fundamental part of American politics since shortly after George Washington's presidency.
In partisan elections, candidates are nominated by a political party or seek public office as an independent. Each state has significant discretion in deciding how candidates are nominated, and thus eligible to appear on the election ballot. Typically, major party candidates are formally chosen in a party primary or convention, whereas candidates from minor parties and Independent candidates are required to complete a petitioning process.
The current (informal) two-party system in the United States is made up of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. These two parties have won every U.S. presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the U.S.Congress since at least 1856. From time to time, a third party has achieved some minor representation at the national and state levels.
Since the Great Depression and the New Deal, and increasingly since the 1960s, Democratic Party has generally positioned itself as center-left in American politics, while the Republican Party has generally positioned itself as center-right, although there are other factions within each.
Unlike in many other countries, the major political parties in America have no strong central organization that determines party positions and policies, rewards loyal members and officials or expels rebels. A party committee or convention may endorse a candidate for office, but the determination of who will be the party's candidate in the general election is usually done in primaries open to voters who register as Democrats or Republicans. Furthermore, elected officials who fail to "toe the party line" because of constituent opposition to it, and "cross the aisle" to vote with the opposition, have (relatively) little to fear from their party.
Parties have state or federal committees that act as hubs for fundraising and campaigning, (See, Democratic National Committee, Republican National Committee) and separate campaign committees which work to elect candidates at a specific level, but do not direct candidates or their campaigns. In presidential elections, the party's candidate serves as the de facto party leader, whose popularity helps or hinders candidates further down the ballot. Midterm election are usually regarded as a referendum on the sitting president's performance.
Some (Lee Drutman, Daniel J. Hopkins writing before 2018) argue that in the 21st century, along with becoming overly partisan, America politics has become overly focused on national issues and "nationalized", (and for Republicans, loyal to Donald Trump), so that even local offices, formerly dealing with local issues now often mention the presidential election.
"Third" political parties have appeared from time to time in American history but seldom lasted more than a decade. They have sometimes been the vehicle of an individual (Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" party, Ross Perot's Reform Party); had considerable strength in particular regions (Socialist Party, the Farmer-Labor Party, Wisconsin Progressive Party, Conservative Party of New York State,[note 2] and the Populist Party); or continued to run candidates for office to publicize some issue despite seldom winning even local elections (Libertarian Party, Natural Law Party, Peace and Freedom Party).
Factors reinforcing the two party system include:
Special interest groups advocate the cause of their specific constituency. Business organizations, for example, will favor low corporate taxes and restrictions on the right to strike, whereas labor unions will support minimum wage legislation and protection for collective bargaining. Other private interest groups, such as churches and ethnic groups, are more concerned about broader issues of policy that can affect their organizations or their beliefs.
One type of private interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee or PAC. These are independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, which contribute money to political campaigns for United States Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. As of 2008, there were 4,292 PACs operating in the US.
The number of interest groups has mushroomed, with more and more of them operating offices in Washington, D.C., and representing themselves directly to Congress and federal agencies. Many organizations that keep an eye on Washington seek financial and moral support from ordinary citizens. Since many of them focus on a narrow set of concerns or even on a single issue, and often a single issue of enormous emotional weight, they compete with the parties for citizens' dollars, time, and passion.
The amount of money spent by these special interests continues to grow, as campaigns become increasingly expensive. Many Americans have the feeling that these wealthy interests, whether corporations, unions or PACs, are so powerful that ordinary citizens can do little to counteract their influences.
A survey of members of the American Economic Association (i.e. the association of professional economists) found the vast majority—regardless of political affiliation—felt the prevalence and influence of special interest groups in the political process led to benefit for the special interest groups and politicians at the expense of society as a whole.
Despite the constitution's First Amendment Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ..."), religious groups (primarily Christian groups for historical reasons) have often become political pressure groups and parts of political coalitions. In recent decades, conservative evangelical Protestants have been particularly active within the broader Republican Party. (However, some scholars have argued that this coalition may be starting to split, as of 2008.) This influence has often translated into the passing of laws related to morality and personal conduct. State alcohol and gambling laws, for example, have been found to be more restrictive in states with a higher percentage of conservative Protestant Christians.
The American political culture is rooted in the colonial experience and the American Revolution. The colonies were unique within the European world for their (relatively) widespread suffrage provided to white male property owners, and the relative power and activity of the elected bodies they could vote for. These dealt with land grants, commercial subsidies, taxation, the oversight of roads, poor relief, taverns, and schools. courts, (private lawsuits were very common) also provided Americans with experience in public affairs and law, and gave interest groups such as merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers, etc. control over matters left to the royal court, aristocratic families and the established church in Great Britain. Finally, Americans were interested in the political values of Republicanism, which celebrated equal rights, civic virtue, and abhorred corruption, luxury, and aristocracy.
Two pivotal political ideas in the establishment of the United States were Republicanism and classical liberalism. Central documents of American thought include: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution (1787), the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers (1787–1790s), the Bill of Rights (1791), and Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (1863).
Among the core tenets were:
At the time of the United States' founding, the economy was predominantly one of agriculture and small private businesses, and state governments left welfare issues to private or local initiative. As in the UK and other industrialized countries, laissez-faire ideology was largely discredited during the Great Depression. Between the 1930s and 1970s, fiscal policy was characterized by the Keynesian consensus. After the "Reagan revolution" in the early 1980s, however, laissez-faire ideology once more became a powerful force in American politics. While the American welfare state expanded more than threefold after WWII, it held at 20% of GDP from the late 1970s to late 1980s. In the 21st century, modern American liberalism, and modern American conservatism are engaged in a continuous political battle, characterized by what The Economist describes as "greater divisiveness [and] close, but bitterly fought elections." Since 2016, the United States has been recognized as a flawed democracy in the Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, partially due to increased political polarization.
In foreign affairs, the United States generally pursued a noninterventionist policy of "avoiding foreign entanglements" before World War II. After the war, when America became a superpower, for many decades the country embraced internationalism, seeking allies to contain Communism and foster economic cooperation.
The United States Constitution never formally addressed the issue of political parties, primarily because the Founding Fathers—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington—opposed them as domestic political factions leading to domestic conflict and stagnation.
Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from Washington's immediate circle of advisers, including Hamilton and Madison. By the 1790s, different views of the new country's proper course had already developed, with those holding the same views banding together. The followers of Alexander Hamilton (the "Federalist") favored a strong central government that would support the interests of commerce and industry. The followers of Thomas Jefferson, ("Democratic-Republicans") preferred a decentralized agrarian republic.
By 1828, the Federalists had disappeared as an organization, replaced first by the National Republican Party and then by the Whigs, while the Democratic Republicans evolved into the Democrats led by Andrew Jackson, and known for celebrating "the common (white) man" and the expansion of suffrage to (most) of them.
In the 1850s, it was the Whigs' turn to disappear, undone by the issue of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into the country's new territories in the West. The Whigs were eventually replaced by the Republican Party which opposed slavery expansion and whose first successful candidate for the presidency was Abraham Lincoln.
In the 150+ years since the Democratic and Republican parties have been America's two major parties, though their policies, base of support and relative strength have evolved considerably.
Some eras in American politics include:
In pre-colonial and post-revolutionary American times, voters went to the polls and publicly stated which candidate they supported, rather than voting secretly, which was considered "cowardly" and "underhanded". Originally, state laws required voters to be property owners, but "by the time Andrew Jackson was elected President, in 1828, nearly all white men could vote".
Later in the 19th century, voting was done by written paper ballot. A broadened franchise where many voters were illiterate or misspelling disqualified a vote, led to the use of printed ballots. Each political party would create its own ballot—preprinted "party tickets"—give them to supporters, and who would publicly put the party's ballot into the voting box, or hand them to election judges through a window. The tickets indicated a vote for all of that party's slate of candidates, preventing "ticket splitting". (As of 1859 "nowhere in the United States ... did election officials provide ballots", i.e. they all came from political parties.) In cities voters often had to make their way through a throng of partisans who would try to prevent supporters of the opposing party from voting, a practice generally allowed unless it "clearly" appeared "that there was such a display of force as ought to have intimidated men of ordinary firmness." The practice was dangerous enough that in "the middle decades of the nineteenth century," several dozen (89) were killed in Election Day riots.
It was not until the late nineteenth century that states began to adopt the Australian Secret Ballot Method (despite fears it "would make any nation a nation of scoundrels"), and it eventually became the national standard. The secret ballot method ensured that the privacy of voters would be protected (hence government jobs could no longer be awarded to loyal voters), and each state would be responsible for creating one official ballot.
Some key events of suffrage expansion are:
In an August 31, 2022, poll by Quinnipiac University, 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans replied yes to the question "Do you think the nation's democracy is in danger of collapse". A 2020 study, "Global Satisfaction with Democracy" by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, found that
for the first time on record, polls show a majority of Americans dissatisfied with their system of government—a system of which they were once famously proud. Such levels of democratic dissatisfaction would not be unusual elsewhere. But for the United States, it marks an "end of exceptionalism"—a profound shift in America's view of itself, and therefore, of its place in the world.
Concerns about the American political system include how well it represents and serves the interests of Americans. They include:
More recently, concerns have included:
Observations of historical trends and current governmental demographics have raised concerns about the equity of political representation in the United States. In particular, scholars have noted that levels of descriptive representation—which refers to when political representatives share demographic backgrounds or characteristics with their constituents—do not match the racial and gender makeup of the US. Descriptive representation is noted to be beneficial because of its symbolic representative benefits as a source of emotional identification with one's representatives. Furthermore, descriptive representation can lead to more substantive and functional representation, as well as greater institutional power, which can result in minority constituents having both representatives with matching policy views and power in the political system. Serving as a congressional committee chair is considered to be a good example of this relationship, as chairs control which issues are addressed by committees, especially through hearings that bring substantial attention to certain issues. Though minorities like African Americans and Latinos have rarely served as committee chairs, studies have shown that their presence has directly led to significantly higher likelihoods of minority issues being addressed. Given that racial and ethnic minorities of all backgrounds have historically been marginalized from participating in the US political system, their political representation and access to policymaking has been limited. Similarly, women lack proportional representation in the United States, bringing into question the extent to which women's issues are adequately addressed. Other minority groups, such as the LGBTQ community, have also been disadvantaged by an absence of equitable representation—especially since scholars have noted their gradual shift from originally being perceived as more of a moral political issue to being considered an actual constituency.
Political representation is also an essential part of making sure that citizens have faith that representatives, political institutions, and democracy take their interests into account. For women and minorities, this issue can occur even in the levels of government that are meant to be closest to constituents, such as among members of Congress in the House of Representatives. Scholars have noted that in positions such as these, even close proximity to constituents does not necessarily translate to an understanding of their needs or experiences and that constituents can still feel unrepresented. In a democracy, a lack of faith in one's representatives can cause them to search for less-democratic alternative forms of representation, like unelected individuals or interest groups. For racial and ethnic minorities, the risk of seeking alternative representation is especially acute, as lived experiences often lead to different political perspectives that can be difficult for white representatives to fully understand or adequately address. Moreover, studies have begun to increasingly show that people of all races and genders tend to prefer having members of Congress who share their race or gender, which can also lead to more engagement between constituents and their representatives, as well as higher likelihoods of contacting or having faith in their congressperson. In addition to making it more likely that constituents will trust their representatives, having descriptive representation can help sustain an individual's positive perceptions of government. When considering women in particular, it has been suggested that broader economic and social equality could result from first working toward ensuring more equitable political representation for women, which would also help promote increased faith between women and their representatives.
Although African Americans have begun to continually win more elected positions and increase their overall political representation, they still lack proportional representation across a variety of different levels of government. Some estimates indicate that most gains for African Americans—and other minorities in general—have not occurred at higher levels of government, but rather at sub-levels in federal and state governments. Additionally, congressional data from 2017 revealed that 35.7% of African Americans nationwide had a congressperson of the same race, while the majority of black Americans were represented by members of Congress of a different race. Scholars have partially explained this discrepancy by focusing on the obstacles that black candidates face. Factors like election type, campaign costs, district demographics, and historical barriers, such as voter suppression, can all hinder the likelihood of a black candidate winning an election or even choosing to enter into an election process. Demographics, in particular, are noted to have a large influence on black candidate success, as research has shown that the ratio of white-to-black voters can have a significant impact on a black candidate's chance of winning an election and that large black populations tend to increase the resources available to African American candidates. Despite the variety of obstacles that have contributed to the lack of proportional representation for African Americans, other factors have been found to increase the likelihood of a black candidate winning an election. Based on data from a study in Louisiana, prior black incumbency, as well as running for an office that other black candidates had pursued in the past, increased the likelihood of African Americans entering into races and winning elections.
As the most populous minority demographic identified in the 2010 US Census, Hispanic and Latino Americans have become an increasingly important constituency that is spread throughout the United States. Despite also constituting 15% of the population in at least a quarter of House districts, Latino representation in Congress has not correspondingly increased. Furthermore, in 2017, Latino members of Congress only represented about one-quarter of the total Latino population in the US. While there are many potential explanations for this disparity, including issues related to voter suppression, surveys of Latino voters have identified trends unique to their demographic—though survey data has still indicated that descriptive representation is important to Hispanic and Latino voters. While descriptive representation may be considered important, an analysis of a 2004 national survey of Latinos revealed that political participation and substantive representation were strongly associated with each other, possibly indicating that voters mobilize more on behalf of candidates whose policy views reflect their own, rather than for those who share their ethnic background. Moreover, a breakdown of the rationale for emphasizing descriptive representation reveals additional factors behind supporting Latino candidates, such as the view that they may have a greater respect and appreciation for Spanish or a belief that Latinos are "linked" together, indicating the significance of shared cultural experiences and values. Although the reasons behind choosing to vote for Latino candidates are not monolithic, the election of Latinos to Congress has been identified as resulting in benefits for minorities overall. While it has been argued that unique district-related issues can take equal or greater precedence than Latino interests for Hispanic and Latino members of Congress, studies have also shown that Latinos are more likely to support African American members of Congress—and vice versa—beyond just what is expected from shared party membership.
Similar to other minority groups, Native Americans often lack representation due to electoral policies. Gerrymandering, in particular, is noted as a method of concentrating Native voters in a limited number of districts to reduce their ability to influence multiple elections. Despite structural efforts to limit their political representation, some states with large Native American populations have higher levels of representation. South Dakota has a Native population of about 9% with multiple federally recognized tribal nations, and it has been used as a case study of representation. A 2017 study that conducted interviews of former state elected officials in South Dakota revealed that even though many felt that they were only able to implement a limited number of significant changes for tribal communities, they still considered it to be "absolutely essential" that Native Americans had at least some descriptive representation to prevent complete exclusion from the political process. Moreover, formerly elected state and local government officials asserted that ensuring that the issues and concerns of tribal nations were addressed and understood depended on politicians with Native backgrounds. Historically-backed suspicion and skepticism of the predominantly white US government was also considered to be an important reason for having representatives that reflect the histories and views of Native Americans.
Relative to other, larger minority demographics in the United States, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) face different challenges related to political representation. Few congressional districts have a population that includes over 50% Asian Americans, which can elevate the likelihood of being represented by someone of a different race or ethnicity. As with other minorities, this can result in people feeling unrepresented by their member of Congress.
Women have made continual socioeconomic progress in many key areas of society, such as in employment and education, and in comparison to men, women have voted at higher rates for over forty years—making their lack of more proportional representation in the political system surprising. Some scholars have partially attributed this discrepancy to the electoral system in the United States, as it does not provide a mechanism for the types of gender quotas seen in other countries. Additionally, even though gerrymandering and concentrated political representation can essentially ensure at least some representation for minority racial and ethnic groups, women—who are relatively evenly spread throughout the United States—do not receive similar benefits from this practice. Among individuals, however, identifying the source of unequal gender representation can be predicted along party and ideological lines. A survey of attitudes toward women candidates revealed that Democrats are more likely to attribute systemic issues to gender inequalities in political representation, while Republicans are less likely to hold this perspective. While identifying an exact source of inequality may ultimately prove unlikely, some recent studies have suggested that the political ambitions of women may be influenced by the wide variety of proposed factors attributed to the underrepresentation of women. In contrast to attributing specific reasons to unequal representation, political party has also been identified as a way of predicting if a woman running for office is more likely to receive support, as women candidates are more likely to receive votes from members of their party and Independents.
Social inequality and sexism have been noted by scholars as influencing the electoral process for women. In a survey of attitudes toward women candidates, women respondents were far more likely to view the process of running for office as "hostile" to women than men, especially when considering public hesitancy to support women candidates, media coverage, and public discrimination. Political fundraising for candidates is also an area of inequality, as men donate at a higher rate than women—which is compounded by gender and racial inequalities related to income and employment. However, recent increases in women-focused fundraising groups have started to alter this imbalance. Given that disproportionate levels of household labor often become the responsibility of women, discrimination within households has also been identified as a major influence on the capability of women to run for office. For women in the LGBTQ community, some scholars have raised concern about the unequal attention paid to the needs of lesbians compared to transgender, bisexual, and queer women, with lesbian civil rights described as receiving more of a focus from politicians.
Social pressures are another influence on women who run for office, often coinciding with sexism and discrimination. Some scholars have argued that views of discrimination have prompted a decrease in the supply of women willing to run for office, though this has been partially countered by those who argue that women are actually just more "strategic" when trying to identify an election with favorable conditions. Other factors, like the overrepresentation of men, have been described as influencing perceptions of men as somehow inherently more effective as politicians or leaders, which some scholars argue could pressure women to stay out of elections. However, others contend that the overrepresentation of men can actually result in "political momentum" for women, such as during the Year of the Woman. Within some racial and ethnic groups, social influences can also shape political engagement. Among Latinos, Latinas are more likely to partake in non-electoral activities, like community organizing, when compared to men. Despite differences in political activity and social pressures, elected women from both political parties have voiced their support for electing more women to Congress to increase the acceptance of their voices and experiences. Furthermore, studies have found that increasing the descriptive representation of women can provide positive social influences for democracy as a whole, such as improved perceptions of an individual's political efficacy and government's responsiveness to the needs of people. When women can vote for a woman candidate of the same party, studies have also found that these influences can be magnified.
Although some scholars have disputed the benefits of descriptive representation, only a small number have argued that this form of representation actually has negative impacts on the group it represents. Studies of bills relating to LGBT rights in state legislatures have provided a more nuanced analysis. Pro-LGBT bills tend to be introduced in higher numbers when more LGBT representatives are elected to state legislatures, which may also indicate an increased likelihood of substantive representation. Increases in openly LGBT state lawmakers have also been hypothesized to inadvertently result in more anti-LGBT legislation, potentially as the result of backlash to their presence. Despite the risk of negative consequences, at least one study has concluded that the LGBT community receives net-benefits from increased openly LGBT representation. On the federal level, the presence of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus has been identified as improving the ability of Congress to address the intersectional issues faced by the LGBT community, as well as provide a source of pressure other than constituency on members of Congress to address LGBT issues. Additionally, non-LGBT members of the caucus have been criticized for not sponsoring enough legislation, emphasizing the value of openly LGBT members of Congress. While descriptive representation has provided benefits overall, scholars have noted that some groups in the community, such as transgender and bisexual people, tend to receive less focus than gays and lesbians.
While American political institutions have had more political representation of older heterosexual well-to-do white men since their founding, complaints about an increase in political polarization and decline in political norms are more recent. At least three "well-regarded" global democracy indexes—Freedom House, Varieties of Democracy, and the Economist Intelligence Unit— "show an erosion of American democracy since 2016".
A disconnect between "the power to set government policy" and political opinions of the general public has been noted by commentators and scholars (such as David Leonhardt). The United States "far and away the most countermajoritarian democracy in the world," according to Steven Levitsky.
Before the 2000 election, only three candidates for president won "while losing the popular vote (John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison), and each served only a single term", while as of 2022 "two of the past four presidents have taken office despite losing the popular vote" - George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.
Leonhardt points out that in one branch of the federal government—the Supreme Court—conservative legal decisions "both sweeping and, according to polls, unpopular" were delivered in 2022, what is likely the beginning of a reshaping of "American politics for years, if not decades" to come by the court's "Republican appointees". This is despite the fact that the president appoints the nominees, and that presidential candidates of the Democratic Party have won the popular vote in seven out of eight last elections (from 1992-2020).
In the 2020 U.S. Senate, "50 Democratic senators effectively represent 186 million Americans, while the 50 Republican senators effectively represent 145 million".
Some views suggest that the political structure of the United States is in many respects an oligarchy, where a small economic elite overwhelmingly dominate policy and law. Some academic researchers suggest a drift toward oligarchy has been occurring by way of the influence of corporations, wealthy, and other special interest groups, leaving individual citizens with less impact than economic elites and organized interest groups in the political process.
A study by political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) released in April 2014, concluded that the U.S. government doesn't represent the interests of the majority of its citizens but instead is "ruled by those of the rich and powerful". The researchers after analyzing nearly 1,800 U.S. policies between 1981 and 2002, stated that government policies tend to favour special interests and lobbying organizations, and that whenever a majority of citizens disagrees with the economic elites, the elites tend to prevail in getting their way. While not characterizing the United States as an "oligarchy" or "plutocracy" outright, Gilens and Page give weight to the idea of a "civil oligarchy" as used by Jeffrey A. Winters, saying, "Winters has posited a comparative theory of 'Oligarchy,' in which the wealthiest citizens—even in a 'civil oligarchy' like the United States—dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection." In their study, Gilens and Page reached these conclusions:
When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it. ... [T]he preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
E. J. Dionne Jr. described what he considers the effects of ideological and oligarchical interests on the judiciary. The journalist, columnist, and scholar interprets recent Supreme Court decisions as ones that allow wealthy elites to use economic power to influence political outcomes in their favor. In speaking about the Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC decisions, Dionne wrote: "Thus has this court conferred on wealthy people the right to give vast sums of money to politicians while undercutting the rights of millions of citizens to cast a ballot."
Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman wrote:
The stark reality is that we have a society in which money is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. This threatens to make us a democracy in name only.
A November 2022 study by Pew Research Center showed that majorities in both the Republican and Democratic parties held increasingly negative views of major financial institutions and large corporations.
Gerrymandering is the practice of shaping the boundaries of electoral districts for partisan advantage—those boundaries being reviewed and usually changed after every United States census, i.e. every ten years. Gerrymandering involves what's commonly called "cracking and packing".
Used almost since the founding of the United States (the term was coined in 1810 after a review of Massachusetts's redistricting maps of 1812 set by Governor Elbridge Gerry noted that one of the districts looked like a salamander), in the 21st century it has "become a much more effective tool". Since 2010, detailed maps and high-speed computing have facilitated gerrymandering by political parties in the redistricting process, in order to gain control of state legislation and congressional representation and potentially to maintain that control over several decades, even against shifting political changes in a state's population. It allows the drawing of districts "with surgical precision". According to Julia Kirschenbaum and Michael Li of the Brennan Center
In 2010, Republicans—in an effort to control the drawing of congressional maps—forged a campaign to win majorities in as many state legislatures as possible. It was wildly successful, giving them control over the drawing of 213 congressional districts. The redrawing of maps that followed produced some of the most extreme gerrymanders in history. In battleground Pennsylvania, for example, the congressional map gave Republicans a virtual lock on 13 of the state's 18 congressional districts, even in elections where Democrats won the majority of the statewide congressional vote.
Attempts to appeal to the Supreme Court to disallow gerrymandering in cases such as Vieth v. Jubelirer in 2004 and its passing up of "numerous opportunities" in 2017 and 2018 "to decide upon the constitutional legality or illegality of gerrymandering" has "emboldened ever more partisan gerrymandering".
In addition to giving one party power beyond its popular support, gerrymandering has been criticized for weakening the political power of minority voters by concentrated them into district(s) (though this process can also help ensure the election of a representative of the same race).
Since the 1970s, the United States has grown more polarized, with rapid increases in polarization during the 2000s onwards. The polarization has been both ideological (differences between the policy positions) and affective (i.e. a dislike and distrust of opposing political groups), than comparable democracies.
Polarization among U.S. legislators is asymmetric, as it has primarily been driven by a substantial rightward shift among congressional Republicans, alongside a much smaller leftward shift among congressional Democrats. New Democrats advocated for neoliberal policies including financial deregulation and free trade, which is seen to have shifted the Democratic Party rightwards on economic issues. However, since the early 2010s, the party has shifted significantly to the left on social, cultural, and religious issues. According to the Pew Research Center, members of both parties who have unfavorable opinions of the opposing party have doubled since 1994, while those who have very unfavorable opinions of the opposing party are at record highs as of 2022.
Many commentators and scholars (such as David Leonhardt) have expressed alarm at the "growing movement inside one of the country's two major parties—the Republican Party—to refuse to accept defeat in an election". In a survey by journalists (of the Washington Post) less than two months before the 2022 congressional election, a "majority of Republicans" in "important battleground" election campaigns, refused "to say they will accept the November election outcome". Six key Senate and gubernatorial Republican party nominees refused to commit to accepting the results of the November election: Blake Masters in Arizona, J.D. Vance in Ohio, Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina, Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska, Tudor Dixon in Michigan and Geoff Diehl in Massachusetts.
While the claim by a losing candidate that they won "despite clear evidence he lost", may have start with Donald Trump after his loss in 2020, during primaries leading up to the November 2022 general election, "candidates across the country have refused to concede—even in races that are not remotely close".
The trend has been manifest in the violent January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol to prevent the certification of Joseph Biden as president, the hundreds of elected Republican officials throughout the United States that the 2020 presidential election was "rigged", some of whom "are running for statewide offices that would oversee future elections, potentially putting them in position to overturn an election in 2024 or beyond". According to Yascha Mounk, "There is the possibility, for the first time in American history, that a legitimately elected president will not be able to take office".
In part the phenomenon is international, democracies are struggling in other parts of the world led by the forces of "digital media, cultural change and economic stagnation in affluent countries". Leonhardt states that "many experts point out that it is still not clear how the country will escape a larger crisis, such as an overturned election, at some point in the coming decade."
In the 2022 elections observers have noted lack of participation in debates between candidates, and in the "retail politicking" that has been a political "cliché ... for generations" in American politics: pressing the flesh at "diners and state fairs ... town-hall-style meetings ... where citizens get to question their elected leaders and those running to replace them". Replacing these are "safer spaces" for candidates, "partisan news outlets, fund-raisers with supporters, friendly local crowds," as the number of competitive House of Representative districts and "swing voters" grows smaller, and candidates concentrate on mobilizing the party loyalists rather than appealing to undecided voters (appeals touching on compromise and bipartisanship angering party hardliners).
Observers see a danger in candidates
Avoiding those tougher interactions cuts down on the opportunities for candidates' characters and limitations to be revealed, and for elected officials to be held accountable to those who elected them. For the politicians, it creates an artificial environment where their positions appear uniformly popular and opposing views are angrily denounced, making compromise seem risky.
Under the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump, observers (such as political scientist Brendan Nyhan) noted some erosion of political norms and ethics
With an implementation of term limits and holding elections for Supreme Court Justices the United States could simply solve the contentious battle for when Supreme Court members unexpectedly die. Packing the Supreme Court proposals would fade away if an election was going to decide the outcome. 33 States already elect their State Supreme Courts. William Watkins Jr. a Constitutional scholar from the Independent Institute on National Public Radio stated his proposal for 8 to 10 year one time term limits, he also said justices are suppose to be like umpires calling balls and strikes in the game but are acting more like coaches tinkering with starting lineups, and calling hit and runs. Local District attorneys and County Sheriffs are elected and so could Supreme Court Justices. The United States Senate use to be appointed by State legislatures before the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913 for them to be elected. A Second Constitutional Convention of the States to Amend the Constitution could be a way for this reform to proceed.   
Term limits for members of Congress was a movement that gained a lot of traction in the early 1990s. 23 State Governments passed legislation that term limited US Congress representatives from each respective state. A Supreme Court decision U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton in 1995 invalidated those 23 States term limits for their US Representatives. Newt Gingrich's Contract with America promised legislation in the first 100 days for a Constitution Amendment for term limits. The Term Limits Constitutional Amendment bill did not pass the 2/3 majority to move the bill forward and only passed with a simple majority of 227-204. It would have limited the House and Senate to 12 years total, six terms in the House, and two terms in the Senate.
In the words of Republican Senator Marco Rubio: "Big Business is not our ally. They are eager culture warriors who use the language of wokeness to cover free-market capitalism." Journalist David Brooks argued that "the information age is transforming the American right. Conservatives have always inveighed against the cultural elite—the media, the universities, Hollywood. But in the Information Age, the purveyors of culture are now corporate titans".
The Republican Party in the Trump era remained a mostly pro-business party in its policies but its constituencies and rhetoric have tilted more working class and populist ... much of corporate America has swung culturally into liberalism's camp. ... accelerated by anti-Trump backlash, the more left-leaning commitments of big business's younger customers and (especially) younger employees, ... As a consequence, today's G.O.P. is most clearly now the party of local capitalism—the small-business gentry, the family firms.... Much of the party elite wish to continue doing business with big business as before. But the party's base regards corporate institutions—especially in Silicon Valley, but extending to more traditional capitalist powers—as cultural enemies ...
Bush and senior adviser Karl Rove tried to replicate that strategy this fall, hoping to keep the election from becoming a referendum on the president's leadership.
Americans shunned the opportunity to turn Tuesday's midterm elections into a referendum on President Bill Clinton's behavior, dashing Republican hopes of gaining seats in the House and Senate.
Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican whip, who is described even by his friends as a bomb thrower, a pit bull, a guerrilla. ... the triumph of a militant style of Republican leadership that the House has not seen for decades.
The Burkeans have been losing ground in the Republican Party for a while now. Too often their old conception of conservatism strikes others in the G.O.P. as a form of surrender or, at the very least, an acceptance of the liberal status quo.
When looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election, it is remarkable that a bedrock principle of democracy — that losing candidates and their supporters accept the results — is not held by nearly two in three Republicans who say they will question the results if their candidate does not win. (pollster Lee Miringoff)
By 1840, only three states retained a property qualification, North Carolina (for some state-wide offices only), Rhode Island, and Virginia. In 1856 North Carolina was the last state to end the practice. Tax-paying qualifications were also gone in all but a few states by the Civil War, but they survived into the 20th century in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."
Social scientists have shown convincingly that since the 1970s, Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left
In recent years, scholarly research has delved into the issue of asymmetric polarization. This is the idea the Republican Party is more uniformly conservative than the Democratic Party is united by liberalism. This is appearing to be true at the mass level and, to a greater degree, among elected officials.
Over the last decade, the Democratic Party has moved significantly to the left on almost every salient political issue... on social, cultural and religious issues, particularly those related to criminal justice, race, abortion and gender identity, the Democrats have taken up ideological stances that many of the college-educated voters who now make up a sizable portion of the party's base cheer...