10 Things Brits Need to Know About U.S. Politics

Congress packs the house. (Photo via Harpers.org)

Telling a congressman from a caucus is essential if you want to talk affairs of state in America. And right now you might find yourself doing just that: we’re well into convention season and the presidential election is less than three months away.

1. America has a bicameral legislature
This means that Congress – the country’s law making body – has two distinct and independent departments, or houses. Both need to approve a proposed bill for it to become law. The House of Representatives (Congress’s lower half) consists of 435 members while the upper chamber – the Senate – has 100 members: two per state. Don’t make the mistake of comparing the U.S. Senate to the British House of Lords, which is unelected and wields almost no power by comparison.

2. How a Republican differs from a Democrat
Established in 1854, the Republican Party (aka the GOP, or Grand Old Party) was founded in the North. Nowadays, Republicans – led by conservatives who advocate reduced government interference and lower taxation and spending – dominate politics in the southern and central “red” states. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was founded in the 1830s South. Now, it’s home to left-leaners, and its strongholds (“blue states”) are in the Upper Midwest as well as the East and West Coasts. Because of this divide, the biggest electoral battlegrounds are the swing states, like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, that aren’t dominated by any one party.

3. How the Electoral College works
Winning the popular vote doesn’t guarantee that a presidential candidate will need a removal truck to shift their stuff to the White House. Just ask Al Gore, who, despite winning the most votes in the 2000 election, lost to George W. Bush. Al can blame the Electoral College system for his defeat. So how does it work? Well, it’s complicated. Firstly, a U.S. President isn’t chosen directly by ordinary voters, but by the 538 people who make up the Electoral College. When Americans go to polls every four years, they’re actually voting for the members of the college, not their president. States are largely allocated electors based on the size of their population—so a big state like California has 55 electors, versus three for the comparatively tiny District of Columbia. To win the White House, a candidate needs to secure 270 Electoral College votes—half the total plus one. Aside from being insanely complicated, the main problem with the system is that in all but two states, Maine and Nebraska, the College works on a winner-takes-all basis. So in 2000, Bush won Florida by just 537 votes, but was awarded all of the state’s 25 college seats. That haul gave him a total of 271 Electoral College seats compared to 266 for Gore, who actually won the national popular vote by just over half a percentage point.

4. What the Supreme Court does
To prevent one body from reigning supreme, America divides political power between three separate branches: the executive (the president), the legislature (Congress) and the judiciary (the Supreme Court). The latter is made up of nine justices, picked by the president and approved by the Senate. Part of their job is to determine the constitutionality of federal laws.

5. In American politics, money rules
You’ll often hear people refer to America’s two-party system, even though at any one time there are around 50 “official” political parties pressing pamphlets and vying for votes. The catch is that 48 of them have nowhere near enough cash to compete with the Republicans and Democrats. The estimated cost of this coming presidential election is a shuddering $6 billion. Business interests will account for 77 percent of donations, but private individuals also bestow big bucks on their preferred candidate or campaign.

6. The difference between a British PM and an American President
First off, a British prime minister is only the head of government while his U.S. counterpart is head of government and state. Back home, a PM and his or her cabinet draw up legislation and their parliamentary majority (or, as it stands, coalition) make it law without a huge amount of kerfuffle. A U.S. President also decides on a policy, and his supporters in Congress also try to make it law. But this is much harder to do, particularly if the president’s party doesn’t have a majority in both houses of Congress (see Obama). Midway through an administration, the American people get go back to the ballot box and shake up Congress. Elections for all 435 members of the House of Representatives take place every two years, while senators, elected for six year terms, put a third of their number up for re-election in every mid-term.

7. Caucuses, filibusters and other terms that sound like diseases
The language of U.S. politics is as befuddling to Brits as writing the date backwards or calling pizza a pie. I recommend arming yourself with a pocket-size dictionary of political terminology that you can smuggle into the loo at dinner parties. But allow me to at least clarify the zingers in my sub-head. A caucus is a meeting of members and supporters of a political party, usually to nominate their state’s preferred presidential candidate. A filibuster, meanwhile, is when senators yak on and on in an attempt to hold up or prevent a vote on a bill they don’t want to see passed.

8. The difference between a delegate and a super delegate
The first category refers to individuals – often party activists or local political leaders – chosen to represent their state at party conventions and vote for a presidential nominee. The second is the title given to party officials who get to vote for whichever candidate they like. Unlike regular delegates, super delegates don’t need to cast their ballot based on the votes of their district’s citizens.

9. Know your donkeys and elephants
Want to understand a nation’s political landscape? Get to grips with its satirical cartoons. Knowing that Democrats are represented as donkeys and Republicans as elephants will help you decipher newspaper sketches.

10. What the Tea Party’s all about
First off, it’s a movement rather than a political party. Borrowing elements from libertarianism and fiscal conservatism, the Tea Party advocates strict adherence to the U.S. constitution. In recent years it’s racked up millions of members, who are anti-big government, anti-spending and anti-illegal immigration. They’d very much like to see U.S. government cut expenditure, bureaucracy and taxes.

What confuses you about American politics?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Minding Gap

    Nice summary. One key point, though, regarding item #10… Members of the Tea Party are anti-ILLEGAL-immigration, and NOT anti-immigration.

    • anglophenia_moderator

      You are correct! Fixed.

  • gn

    You have omitted the most fundamental difference of all: the dual federal/state system. For Brits, it may sometimes be useful to think of the US as more of a “superstate” like the European Union rather than a unitary state like the UK.

    • Padi Phillips

      Hmmm, this reply represents the situation pre 1999, with Devolution this picture is no longer quite accurate as the UK can no longer really be considered a unitary state. However, the two situations are not directly analogous as devolved governments in the constituent countries of the UK have less power than individual US states. This also goes for the EU, which has influenced Devolution in the UK through the principle of subsiduarity, or relevant government as locally as possible.

      • gn

        And for the large majority of people who live in England, there is no devolved government.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.cecil.5 Robert Cecil

    You’ve done very well here. There is something that might lead to confusion concerning our elections; the Electoral College. Someone might get the idea that this affects all elections. Except for the President, elected officials are determined by direct popular vote of the people s/he will represent. There may be some isolated exceptions to this, but I am not aware of any and you may feel free to correct me if you know of them.

  • Carol Ostrosky Irvin

    this forgets that the present President has changed all and he is using a executive order to bypass and make Congress and the Senate and the Supreme Court little or nothing at the present time..

    • Relax Max

      A personal opinion which maybe isn’t congruent with the purpose of this website: giving an overview of American politics to the UK folks.

  • gn

    In addition to the federal/state system, there is generally much more devolution of power in the US, even within individual states.

    For example, cities typically have some power to determine their own level of taxation. It’s not unusual for a county, or even a city, to conduct a referendum on a local issue (such as increasing property taxes to fund local schools).

    None of this would be possible in England, where virtually everything connected with taxation and finance is dictated from London.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10402051 Nicole Brown

    Hi UK,

    This is a great list however it does not take into account the historical and demographic factors that are affecting this election and folks in the UK (and the rest of the world need to know this). I watched a BBC America town hall tonight and the moderator asked great questions, it was the audience member who spoke last who drove it home: Democracy in America is being undermined by the very REAL truth that Republicans have been writing laws to obstruct voting for the poor and especially people of color. BBC, please talk about this. The US correspondents who are of the majority may not want to highlight the nasty politics in this country but if the world saw, maybe it can hold the Republican party accountable. The Tea Party is not just against big government: they are admittedly racist and believe “true americans” are white. They have been using racist language against our President for the past 4 years. Please recognize this–read through the language of American politics and you will see the vituperative and toxic language of oppression for my people and for others.