The United States is a constitutional democracy, a type of government characterized by limitations on government power spelled out in a written constitution. Written in 1787, the U.S. Constitution is both the oldest and shortest written constitution in the world. It serves as the supreme law of the United States.
The Constitution outlines a federal government with three separate branches: the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the presidency), and the judicial branch (the courts). Over time, however, other key elements of government have developed and become just as important, such as the federal bureaucracy, political parties, interest groups, the media, and electoral campaigns. We will cover these components in detail in upcoming chapters.
Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government and is responsible for creating laws. Congress consists of two chambers, an upper chamber called the Senate and a lower chamber called the House of Representatives. Congress has the sole authority to make laws, levy taxes, declare war, and print money, among other powers. Congress also controls the federal budget.
The presidency is the executive branch of the federal government. The president is elected every four years and is responsible for enforcing the laws that Congress makes. The president is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the power to conduct foreign relations.
The federal courts make up the judicial branch of the federal government, which consists of regional circuit courts, appeals courts, and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the highest legal authority in the country and has assumed the power of judicial review to decide the legality of the laws Congress makes.
The term bureaucracy refers to the various departments and agencies of the executive branch that help the president carry out his or her duties. There are fifteen departments within the executive bureaucratic branch, including the Department of State, the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Education. Each of these departments is also responsible for a number of small government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.
A political party is an alliance of like-minded people who work together to win elections and control of the government. Political parties work to win as many offices in the government as they can so that they can put the party’s policies into effect. Like most presidential democracies, the United States has only two powerful political parties: the Democrats and the Republicans.
An interest group is an organization of people who share a specific common interest and work together to promote that interest through government via lobbying or grassroots activism. Interest groups give voice to the people outside of elections, but can sometimes skew government policy.
The media refers to the private organizations that keep the public informed about politics and current events through newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet. The media also keep the government in check and can even influence the government agenda by deciding what to cover.
Because the United States is a democracy, the president, vice president, members of Congress, state governors, and many state, county, and city office holders must campaign for their positions in an election.