A Brit’s Guide to the American Political System

Apparently, ’tis the season to declare your ambition to become President of the USA at the end of 2016.

I seldom feel my foreignness quite so much as when I turn to things political. On the surface, it seems like our two systems ought to be more similar than different. The US is a democracy. Britain is a democracy. Seriously, how different can they be?

The answer is “quite a lot”, actually.

It often amazes me how little grasp most of us actually have on each other’s political systems, and I thought it would be fun to talk through the differences. My family back in the UK occasionally ask questions about US politics, questions that from an American would be strange things to ask. And I’m often asked odd questions by Americans about how British politics works, too. Answering these questions isn’t always easy when the questions themselves assume a completely different setup. It really is a different world out there, and this post is an exploration of a little bit of how.

Firstly, though, a disclaimer. This is my list. Undoubtedly there will be things that I’ve misunderstood, or got wrong, or exaggerated, or which are Texan rather than American. Equally, there are probably things I’ve misremembered or whitewashed from the UK; I’ve been out of my hime country for almost 15 years now, and distance can warp memory.

This is supposed to be a fairly light-hearted look at a fairly weighty subject; I don’t mean any offence, so please try not to take any if I accidentally do. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, just a sampling of some of the things I find weird, or different, or odd.

Without further ado, then, my personal “guide” (using the word loosely) to the US political system:

  1. Americans vote on everything.

This seems like a “well, duh”. The USA is a democracy, right? Therefore, they vote on who their leaders are.

That’s all well and good, but Americans vote on everything, even down to the local sheriff (like a police chief but a bit different somehow), and probably the dog catchers and primary school crossing guards, too.

I’m only exaggerating a little bit. US ballot forms are a bewildering array of Congresspeople, State government positions, judges, city and county officials, school boards and other positions, with candidates standing for each.

I still struggle to get my head around how a law enforcement officer can have any reasonable authority to enforce the law if people whose friends he might have had to arrest get to vote him out of office. I wonder how the judges that ought in my head to stand to the side of partisan politics and operate law and justice equally to all became holders of an office with visible and expected political partisanship.

It’s weird the offices Americans consider it necessary to have a public vote for. It makes everything seem a lot more party-political, but you could argue that in Britain the partisanship is just disguised. At least in America it does what it says on the tin.

I can’t see that the system works any better than the British system, but it doesn’t work noticeably worse, either. It’s strange to me that you elect your judges rather than appointing them, but then, you don’t have a Head of State who is actually and truly above party politics like ours is. Americans just vote on absolutely everything. It’s the way they are, and it seems to work for them.

This subject leads us neatly on to…

2. The Primaries

The whole primary system is weird to me. Let me get this straight – you’re holding an election to find out who your candidates are going to be in the main election in six months to a year’s time? Right…

You’re only eligible to vote in a maximum of one of these “primary” elections, determined by whether you register to vote as a Democrat or a Republican. If you register to vote as an independent (ie neither party), it may cut down on your junk mail a bit, but you don’t get a vote in who the candidate is going to be.

What party you register as does not affect your ballot in the real election, which leads to the possibility of a kind of tactic analogous to the UK’s practice of “tactical voting” ( This is when the party whose policies you actually favour stands no chance in the local constituency, you might vote for the party who’d be your second choice, in order to minimise the chance of the candidate you really don’t want getting in). In this tactic, people deliberately register as the “wrong” party in order to try to get either the least worst candidate for that party so as to minimise the damage if they get in, or the worst possible candidate in order to maximise your own party’s chances.

The apparent net effect of the primary system is to drive party politics from the extremes. Turnout in primaries is typically lower than in actual elections, even as a percentage of the eligible vote, which means that only the hardcore party faithful tend to vote. Which means that those who want to win have to position themselves to attract their own party’s core and extremists first, providing their eventual opponent in the real election with all sorts of potential ammunition and making themselves look like a nutjob in the eyes of the watching moderates as likely as not.

There may be something of a partial exception to this in Texas, because the state is so much a single-party Republican bulwark that the Democratic party don’t even waste their time and money fielding candidates for many of the positions, leading to the odd situation of a single-party race with the candidate only needing to get a single vote in order to win the election. In these cases, the election is really decided back in the primaries, which means only a tithe of those who have the vote get to pick who the state supreme court judges (for example) are going to be.

In Presidential elections it’s even weirder. Each state has its own primaries, one state after the other, with much the same slate of Presidential candidates. But the issue may well be already decided by the time your state gets around to voting, or your preferred candidate might have already dropped out before you get a chance to vote for them. There seems to be a particular scuffle over the pecking order, and the primaries get pushed earlier and earlier as everyone tries to jump their state to the front of the line.

For the world’s foremost democracy, it all seems a bit unrepresentative. Like using the mechanics of democracy in order to ensure that the least possible amount of people have a real say.

In addition, it contributes to the sense that America is always in election season. Either they’ve just had a primary election, or they’re just preparing for a real one, or they’ve just had a real election, or they’re preparing for another primary. There is no escape.

It’s all very odd. Not to mention frustrating.

3. The President is not a Prime Minister

The inverse of this one sort of scared my wife when we were living in the UK, I think. It’s easy as a Brit to think of the President as more or less like the Prime Minister, with the added benefit of being a Head of State like the Queen as well. He’s talked about as “the most powerful man in the world”, and while there’s some truth in this (he is Head of State for the most powerful single nation on the planet, a nation whose military budget dwarfs that of the next six nations put together), in many ways the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has a lot more direct power than the President of the United States.

Due to the institutionalised mistrust of authority enshrined in the US political system, the power of the President is carefully circumscribed. Whereas the Prime Minister is always the leader of the majority party in Parliament, and thus has the theoretical backing of a majority of its members, the President need not be from the same party as a majority of Congress: either the Senate, the House of Representatives or both may be dominated by the opposing party.

In addition, whereas the Prime Minister is a member of the legislature by virtue of the way our system is set up, in America the legislative (law-writing) function of government is carefully kept out of the President’s ambit. He has the limited ability to write administrative rules (called Executive Orders) and see to the enforcement of the law, but he may not create legislation. At all.

A law has to be created in both the House and the Senate, and passed by both chambers before it can become law. Then, even if both houses pass the bill it has to be signed into effect by the President, who holds a veto that only a two-thirds majority of both chambers can override. And then after that the Supreme Court get their opportunity to scotch the whole thing as potentially contrary to the Constitution.

It appears designed to be dysfunctional. The wonder is that anything ever gets done at all, not that so little is managing to get through the whole morass of a system at present.

I know it scared my wife how much authority we Brits are prepared to invest in a single person, but it scares me sometimes how much dysfunction, ineffectuality and chaos Americans are prepared to accept as their government “working properly”. There it is. I find the possibility of genuine anarchy scarier than the possibility of tyranny.

4. The Electoral College is nothing to do with educating voters

When electing a President in America, you don’t directly elect the President. What you’re actually doing is electing people who promise to vote the way the state tells them to in the actual election for President in Washington DC. These “electors” are proportional in number according to the population of the state, with no state, even basically uninhabited ones like Wyoming, getting fewer than three electors. All of these Electoral College votes from a state go to a single presidential candidate, at least in most states. By state, the Presidential nomination is run on a first-past-the-post basis. What this means in practice is that most states tend to lean one way or the other. We know about this in Britain: a donkey would win the election if it stood as the Conservative candidate in Epsom and Ewell, and the same donkey would win in Glasgow if it stood for the SNP. But what the two-party system means is that if you’re a Democrat in Texas or a Republican in Massachusetts, you almost might as well stay home on polling day, because all of your state’s votes are going to be going to the other candidate.

The Electoral College is a relic of the days before instantaneous communications, where horses and sailing ships were the fastest ways to get around and it could take weeks to get to the capital from where you actually lived and voted.

Back then, there was no logistical way to even know reasonably who the candidates were going to be at a remote local level; you needed some way of transferring the power of the free voting of localities to a central location and election without involving continent-wide upheavals every 4 years.

Ok, so it makes sense for 1799, but this is 2014. We can Skype with people on the other side of the world. We have the technology to relay the choice of the people of Texas as soon as the ballots have been counted. The Electoral College is, on the face of it, a bit silly.

Of course, it’s not like Britain doesn’t do a lot of silly things that make no sense any more, just because we’ve always done it that way. For example, the Lord Chancellor, right up until Tony Blair’s government axed the position, sat on a ceremonial beanbag-like seat called the Wool Sack. And we have less excuse, because we can change our constitutional arrangements just by passing a law, whereas America has to set up a Constitutional Convention and go through massive amounts of hoopla and rigmarole if they want to amend their constitution even a little bit, and once you let that genie out of the bottle, anything is possible. But it’s a weird system nonetheless.

5. There are only two parties

Britain has three main ones (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – who are not related to American liberal Democrats), three or four regional parties like the Scottish National Party in Scotland or Plaid Cymru in Wales, and several smaller ones like UKIP, the Green Party and so on.

By contrast, US politics is remarkably monochrome. Technically there are other parties – the Libertarian Party (who are like the Republicans on steroids) and the Green Party – but they are so tiny that they effectively don’t count. The Libertarians might get as many votes as the Labour Party in the constituency of Epsom and Ewell, and the Greens wish they could do that well.

What this means is that there aren’t a lot of options. If, for example, you don’t favour abortion on demand as a matter of personal convenience, you virtually have to support the Republican candidate if you want that viewpoint upheld, even if you think the rest of the Republicans’ policies are dumb. As a contrasting example, if you don’t favour large government subsidies to big business, you’d better vote for a Democrat if you want that position upheld, even if you think the rest of the Democratic Party’s positions are what’s ruining the country. If you hold a view other than that espoused by either the Democrats or the Republicans, you don’t really have many options. Technically there’s the option of a write-in candidate, in which you ignore the options presented and write in the name of someone else, but for that to be anything other than a protest vote and wasted ballot, you apparently have to follow certain procedures like approaching the write-in candidate beforehand and getting their permission to be a write-in. Apparently the possibility of Wile E. Coyote for President scares enough politicians that they’ve tried to emasculate the write-in option with procedures.

This is not to say you don’t play “least worst option” in British voting, but you generally have more people to choose between.

6. Organisations are people, too

Perhaps most baffling to me is the way organisations, including profit-making companies, religio-political nonprofit organisations such as Focus on the Family (Yes, I know I keep harping on them when it comes to this subject. They make themselves a target), and apparently everyone else as well, get to tell you who to vote for.

It’s called a political endorsement, and modern US politics seems incapable of even limited functionality without it.

Apparently the idea is that the right of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution cannot be limited to individuals. Organisations have freedom of speech as well, including corporations, and part of this, apparently, is the ability to say “this is who we think would make a great President” and to back up that stated endorsement with bucketloads of cash in donations. Or just to make the bucketload-of-cash donations without saying a thing, so that no-one really knows that company X or organisation Y is bankrolling candidate Z.

In Britain this would probably, in the case of a pseudo-charitable organisation like Focus on the Family, result in the loss of tax-exempt charitable status, and in the case of a corporation result in massive and messy public investigations for corruption of the political process. You can say as an individual “I think so-and-so would make a great Prime Minister” and make political donations as an individual, but you’re not supposed to as an organisation.

But here in America, it’s a Constitutionally-guaranteed right. Yay. Corporations, unions and other big monied organisations get to bankroll politicians however they so choose, and tell you that General Motors wants you to vote Republican. Welcome to the Land of the Free, paid for by Monsanto.

In fairness I have to point out that it’s not as though the UK doesn’t have electoral systems and procedures that are manifestly unfair or easy to corrupt. Just not this one that I remember.

7. What Middle Ground?

I touched on this already in talking about the primary system, but it’s one of the main differences in ethos between British and American party politics.

In Britain, the positions of the three main parties on any given issue are comparatively close together and may well overlap in terms of policy. Each party has their own core policies, but in US political terms what you have are three centrist or centre-left political parties.

I think the US political spectrum as a whole is centred further to the right of the British centre, though this could just be an artifact of perception caused by living in what may be the most right-wing state in the nation. But American politics is the politics of extremity. The Republican Party tends towards a rather Ferengi-like economic policy with a very conservative, traditionalist social policy. The Democratic Party tends toward what in Britain would be a left-of-centre economic policy coupled with strongly progressive or liberal social ideas. Apparently, if you’re an out-and-out economic socialist with traditionalist/conservative social views, you’re probably not an American.

8. Political advertising

In Britain, the main parties get a certain number of allotted TV segments in which to communicate their core message to the people. They all get the same number of these “party political broadcasts”, and that’s their TV allotment for this election cycle, apart from if they can contrive to make the TV news in a positive light. They can’t buy advertising space on TV. It’s against the rules. It’s all very even-handed, showcasing the national devotion to the idea of fair play.

In America, apparently even-handedness is an infringement of the freedom of speech, so US political parties have the opportunity to buy as much television advertising space as they can afford. This contributes to driving the political process by how much money a candidate can raise, and tends to make political advertising almost inescapable (unless you live in a virtual single-party state like Texas, where you have exactly the same chance of avoiding it as RMS Titanic had of avoiding icebergs. That is, it’s possible, but it’s probably not going to happen).

US political ads are generally, at least in current practice, an opportunity to try and paint the other guy as dishonest or crooked in some way rather than as an opportunity to talk about what you plan to do. All very disheartening, but it doesn’t have to be that way. People have been turned off from voting for someone by their choice to run negative campaign ads about the other candidate before now, and I think a lot of the current crop could do with being reminded of that. Still, no-one could say they lack opportunities to get their message across. It’s more than a little weird, and in my mind could be better, but there are probably reasons why the British system of allotted broadcasts is unAmerican and would not work. But it offends me the way Americans seem willing to let the power of money be one of the main driving forces of their political process.

9. Polite political interviewers

It often surprises me how comparatively restrained and polite American interviewers are to their politicians.

In some ways this is a good thing. It shows that people by and large still have at least a modicum of respect for political officeholders, and they get to see journalists treating their political leaders relatively respectfully. And in return, the leaders in question tend to actually answer direct questions put to them. The answer may not be all that substantive, but you never hear an American politician saying, “that’s a very interesting question” before going on to ignore it and talk at length about their own (different) talking points.

British political journalists, by comparison, are attack dogs. They need to be, because British politicians are past masters of the art of taking whatever they are asked and ignoring it in favour of talking about whatever they want to. British political interviews are something like a wrestling match in which politician and interviewer vie for control of the conversation through main force. The idea that a politician might actually answer a question is shockingly naïve in the British political sphere.

It’s something of a secret daydream of mine to unleash British political journalists on US politicians, just to watch the feeding frenzy. It would be rather like pushing baby chickens into a barrel full of hungry piranhas.

Having polite interviewers says good things about the honour of the country as a whole, but it’s definitely weird.

10. Red equals Blue

Lastly, something trivial but nonetheless strange.

In America, the colour associated with the conservative Republican Party is red and the colour associated with the liberal Democratic Party is blue.

This is the exact inverse of the UK, where red has always been the colour of the economic left due to its associations with socialism, and blue has always been the colour of conservatism due to its associations of blue-blood traditionalism and true-blue loyalism. The third party, the Liberal Democrats (who are, to reiterate, nothing like American liberal Democrats), use yellow or gold as the third primary pigment, representing a third way beyond the partisan bickering of what were in recent history the two main parties.

In the UK, the colours make some sort of objective sense. In the USA, they’re apparently selected at random.

It still amuses me sometimes, though, to see conservative Republican candidates decorating their political signage with red stars. Stars, of course, have obvious patriotic symbolism, but when they are red, they might have other associations: Part of me is always saying “you forgot the hammer and sickle”.

I have to say, though, that for all this, the system doesn’t necessarily work any worse than the British system. It has its foibles and injustices, but I have no reason to get smug, because so do we. Churchill once characterised representative democracy as “absolutely the worst possible form of government, except for all the other forms of government that have been tried”. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than anything else. And it’s probably not quite as irretrievably corrupt as some of us like to pretend, either.


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