Grace Couch | @GCouch99
This is pretty much the wildest US election ever- but one thing that is still the same (for now) are some of the differences between how the US political system compared to ours.
Here’s a breakdown of those differences, so you can get brushed up on the US political system.
- The US Constitution
The US Constitution is a concrete set of rules explaining how the country is run. The Constitution has only been amended 27 times in the last couple of hundred of years as this requires support from two thirds of elected representatives and of states.
The UK does have a constitution, however it is ‘unwritten’ – literally no one has ever written it down in one place, but refers to the collection of laws and rules that shape the system we have today. For example: US Presidents are limited by the constitution to two 4-year terms only. In the UK, the constitution states that elections will be held every five years, however we have had a crazy three elections since 2015. Although this is legal, the main point is that things are a lot less flexible in the US, making the 2020 election that bit more important for Americans.
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- Separation of Powers
Another massive difference set out in the US constitution is ‘separation of powers’. In the UK, MPs are elected to represent their local area and the head of the party with the most MP’s becomes the Prime Minister (fusion of powers). In the US however, the President is elected completely separately from the local representatives – this means that you could have a Democratic President running the government while all the law makers are from the opposing party, the Republicans. This happened to Obama in his last two years making it incredibly hard for any of his big laws to be passed.
Some have said that Boris Johnson was effectively in the same position at the in the summer of 2019 when he had such a slim majority in the Commons, which is why he called the December 2019 snap election that restored a big enough majority to be able to ‘get on with Brexit’.
- Separate Elections
The main consequence of separation of powers is Americans having more people to vote for on election day. They will be voting for a Presidential candidate to run the country (deciding where money is spent, controlling the military and other important powers), some of them will be voting for Senators (two per state) and some will be voting for Representatives (the number per state depending on the size and population).
To reiterate, how many Senators and Representatives are elected for each party has no effect on who becomes President, but will impact how much they can get done once in office. In the UK, we don’t ever actually directly elect our Prime Minister!
- The Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court is much more political than in the UK. Supreme Court judges are nominated by Congress, so how traditional or liberal they are is effectively decided by voters, rather than nominated by an impartial commission as in the UK. With the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (known affectionately by young people in America as the “notorious RBG”), there is a position up for grabs that could change the future of America.
- Vice Presidents
In the same way that a Presidential candidate can be anyone that can get nominated by their party, they also have their free pickings of a side-kick to take into the election. Once elected, the VP takes the top spot if the President is ever incapacitated (e.g. having an operation, in case of emergency). In the UK, having a Deputy Prime Minister is up to the PM (the last person to hold this post was Nick Clegg in 2015).
Cabinets refer to those elected individuals appointed to help the President or Prime Minister in running the government with different policy portfolios- not a piece of furniture (although they are often filled with old relics). In the same way the Prime Minister is an MP, so are their cabinet members. In some respects, the unelected nature of Cabinet members in the US can result in experts helpfully being appointed to positions such as energy, education or agriculture. However, the discretion of the President to appoint cabinet members results in politically motivated decisions; in 2017 Rick Perry was confirmed as Energy Secretary while having close ties to the oil industry, raising worries about his bias towards climate policy. Ironically, British politics has been described as becoming ‘more American’ with unelected advisor Dominic Cummings playing a massive role in Johnson’s politics.
- Possibility of Impeachment
Prime Ministers rely on support from their majority in the House of Commons to get things done, and if they lose this they may be removed with a ‘vote of no confidence’. However, it is harder for the opposition to force a President out as an impeachment trial requires a two thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress. With only two Presidents having been impeached, and Trump being only the third to have faced trial, you would think this would have cast a black mark against the candidates name. However, his acquittal saw many Republicans riled up against his accusers, fuelling the deep partisan splits that have come to characterise American politics in recent years.
- Head of State
The Queen is the head of state in the UK, giving her control over the military. This is mainly a ceremonial position (Queenie isn’t going to say no any time soon to her government), but the recent precedent has been for Parliament to vote on foreign affairs, e.g. whether to use air strikes in Syria in 2015. In the US, the President is essentially in control of ‘the big red button’, with Trump’s advisors hesitating to give him military options fearing he might accidentally take the US to war.
- Getting Involved
Despite the differences in systems, both the UK and US are democratic states with ways for voters to get involved. With elected local representatives, there is someone representing your part of the country and is obliged to respond to your issues. Understanding and learning about the systems and their access points is important to knowing how to influence the decisions at the top. For example, you can even write to the US embassy to apply pressure on transatlantic issues such as BLM, just in case you were wondering…
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