The United States is the second largest democracy on the globe and the most powerful nation on earth, politically, economically and militarily, but its political system is in many important respects unlike any other in the world.
To understand any country’s political system, it is helpful to know something of the history of the nation and the background to the creation of the constitution. But this is a fundamental necessity in the case of the American political system. This is because the Constitution of the United States is so different from those of other nations and because that Constitution is, in all material respects, the same document as it was over two centuries ago.
There were four main factors in the minds of the ‘founding fathers’ who drafted the US Constitution:
- The new constitution deliberately spread power between the three arms of government and ensured that each arm was able to limit the exercise of power by the other arms.
- The United States was already a large country with problems of communications and a population of varied background and education. Therefore, it was seen as important to limit the influence of swings in public opinion. So the election of the president was placed in the hands of an Electoral College and the terms of office of the president and the two chambers of the legislature were all set at different lengths.
- The United States was the creation of 13 individual states, each of which valued its traditions and powers, and so the overarching federal government was deliberately limited in its powers compared to the position of the central government in other nations.
- The original 13 states of the USA were of very different size in terms of population and from the beginning there was a determination by the smaller states that political power should not be excessively in the hands of the larger states. Therefore the Constitution is built on a ‘Great Compromise’ between the Virginia plan and the New Jersey plan which resulted in the House of Representatives being constructed on the basis of population and the Senate being composed of an equal number of representatives regardless of population.