US government and politics

Topic 1: Electoral process and direct democracy.

Q.1. Explain the significance of a ‘balanced ticket’ in US presidential elections.

Answer: In US presidential election, a balanced ticket is described as a condition when the candidate chose a ‘running mate’ usually of the same party with the aim of acquiring more widespread appeal to the campaign. It is a condition when a candidate has won his or her party's presidential nomination and then he or she is obliged to pick a "running-mate", who will become vice-president if the pair win. The two candidates are then referred to as "the ticket". In other words, to ‘balance the Ticket’ means for the president to pick the VP candidate in order to strengthen their chance of getting elected. There are several ways to do this such as picking someone of a different race, gender, or political view. The more different the candidate is from the president, the more votes that president will get from different groups of people. The presidential candidate must select his Vice-Presidential nominee and present them at the national nominating convention which is usually held between July and September of the election year. The nominee will be selected among those candidates as someone who will balance the ticket considering their political ideology, demographic distribution and affiliations such as liberal, moderate or conservative, age, religion, etc. This is done so as to maximise the candidate’s potential vote and to act as an appeal to a wider range of voters as possible in the November elections. Balancing the ticket is seen as an important part of the election process and getting the combination right can make or break campaigns chances of success.

There are several ways through which the ticket may be balanced. To illustrate, someone from a different region than the candidate may be chosen as a running mate to provide geographical balance to the ticket. Otherwise, if the candidate is associated with a specific faction of the party, a running mate from a competing faction may be chosen so as to unify the party. Similarly, running mates may be chosen as to provide ideological, age, or demographic balance.

Presidential candidates who have successfully ‘balanced the ticket’ in the past include former President J.F Kennedy in 1960 when he picked Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. This step proved to be a masterstroke; Johnson was older and experienced with 24 years in the senate. In addition to that, Johnson was a Protestant from Texas while Kennedy was a young Catholic from Massachusetts with only thirteen years of combined experience in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many southerners were won over to the ticket with Johnson as his running mate and thus Kennedy went on to win the 1960 election. In the past 2008 elections, John McCain had nominated Sarah Palin to be his running mate as against Obama and Joe Biden. This seemed to be an excellent choice for McCain at first, McCain being an older man from Arizona with moderate views which did not appeal to all Republican votes, however, when balanced with Palin, a younger female from Alaska with very conservative views and idolised by the influential tea party movement almost all Republicans were in favour. But the resultant factor was not in favour and McCain lost the election to Obama.

Q.2. Evaluate the use of recalls, referendums and initiatives as forms of direct democracy in the USA.

Answer: The initiative, referendum, and recall are three power elements which are reserved to permit and empower the voters, by petition, to propose or repeal legislation or to remove an elected official from office. In other words, these are the three forms of direct democracy used in the United States.

The initiative is a process that enables citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed statutes and, in some states, constitutional amendments on the ballot. The first state to adopt the process of the initiative was South Dakota in 1898. Since then, 23 states have included this process in their constitutions, the most recent being Mississippi in 1992.

It is the most common form of direct democracy, which is also known as a proposition. Initiatives completely go beyond the legislatures and governor, but they are the subject of review by the state courts to determine their consistency with the state or federal constitution. The process of passing an initiative is cumbersome and varies from state to state. Basically, there are two types of initiatives: direct and indirect. In the direct initiative process, proposals that qualify go directly on the ballot. In the indirect process, they are submitted to the legislature and may act on the proposal. In other words, depending on the state, the initiative proposal goes on the ballot and if the legislature rejects it, it submits a different proposal or takes no action. In some states with the indirect process, the legislature may submit a competing measure that appears on the ballot along with the original proposal.

It is seen that no two states have exactly the same requirements to qualify initiatives to be placed on the ballot. Generally, the process includes these steps:

  • Preliminary step of filling up proposed petition with a designated state official;
  • review of the petition for consistency with statutory requirements and, in several states, a review of the language;
  • preparation of a ballot title and the summary;
  • circulation of the petition to obtain the required number of signatures of registered voters, usually a percentage of the votes cast for a state-wide office in the preceding general election; and
  • submission of the petitions to the state elections official, who verifies the number of signatures.

If enough valid signatures are obtained, the proposal is sent to the ballot or, in states with the indirect process, is sent to the legislature. Once an initiative is on the ballot, the general requirement for passage is a majority vote.

A referendum is also a form of direct democracy whereby it asks citizens to confirm or repeal a decision made by the government. A legislative referendum occurs when the voters are required to verify their answer to a legislative law or a series of constitutional amendments. A judicial appointment to a state supreme court may require voters to confirm whether the judge should remain on the bench. Popular referendums are another form where a citizen can petition to place a referendum on a ballot to repeal legislation enacted by their state government. The third form of a referendum, the advisory referendum, is rarely used. In this process, the Legislature or the governor may place a question on the ballot to evaluate voter opinion. The results of the election on this question are not binding. This form of direct democracy gives people a profound amount of power, however, it does not allow them to halt policy or abstain the government.

The recall is another procedure of direct democracy which allows citizens to remove and/or replace a public official before the end of an office term. Recall differs from impeachment which is another method for removing officials from office. The recall is a political device while impeachment is a legal process. Impeachment requires the House to bring specific charges and the Senate to act as a jury. In most of the recall states, specific grounds are not required, and the recall of a state official is exercised by an election. 18 states permit the recall of state officials. A recent example of the recall process was the recall of California Governor Gray Davis and his replacement with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. The recall of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003 and his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger is perhaps one of the famous recalls in the US.

Summarizing, initiatives are laws or constitutional amendments on the ballot. Referendums ask voters to approve a decision by the government. The process for measuring ballot requires the steps of a collection of signatures from voters, approval of the measure by the state government, and a ballot election. Recalls allow citizens to remove politicians from office. Therefore, these three process of direct democracy allows the voters in a state to edit laws, amend constitutions, remove politicians from office, and approve decisions made by the government.

Topic 2. Political parties

Q.3. Consider the significance of ‘social conservatives’ in US politics.

Answer: In US politics, social conservatives are a political ideology which is focused on the preservation of traditional values and beliefs, and they advocate going back to values which are believed to be present at the time American founding. Social conservatives are concerned with many social issues such as abortion, sex education, gun control, the equal rights amendment, school prayer, same-sex marriage, and many others. They oppose many of the cultural changes brought on by the culture wars and the sexual revolution. This branch of conservatism is primarily concerned with moral and social issues within the United States and uses tradition, strict morals, and religion as solutions for these problems.

Social conservatism was ushered into American politics with the so-called Reagan Revolution in 1981, and renewed its strength in 1994, with the Republican takeover of US Congress. The movement slowly grew in prominence and political power until hitting a plateau and stagnating in the first decade of the twenty-first century under President George W. Bush.

The phrase “political conservative” is mostly associated with the ideologies of social conservatism. Indeed, most of the today’s conservatives see themselves as social conservatives, although there are other types. The following list contains common beliefs with which most social conservatives identify.

They include:

  • Belief in pro-life and consider anti-abortion stances on unwanted or unplanned pregnancies;
  • Advocating for belief in pro-family and legislation of ban on gay marriage;
  • Terminating federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and advocate finding alternative methods of research;
  • Protecting the Second Amendment right to bear arms;
  • Maintaining a strong national security and defence;
  • Protecting economic interests of the US against foreign threats and eliminating the need for trade unions;
  • Against illegal immigration;
  • Limiting spending on welfare schemes by creating economic opportunities for America’s needy;
  • Lifting the ban on school prayer;
  • Sanctioning high tariffs on countries that do not uphold human rights.

Social conservatives may believe in everyone of the above tenets or just a few. But the “typical” social conservative strongly supports them all.

In US politics, the Republican Party is the political party which has incorporated some socially conservative ideals into its platform. In other words, social conservatives predominantly support the Republican Party, although there are also socially conservative Democrats who break ranks with the party platform. However, there have been few instances where the Republican Party's nominee has been considered too socially progressive by social conservatives. This has led to the support of third-party candidates from parties such as the Constitution Party, whose philosophies stand more closely parallel to that of social conservatism. While many social conservatives see third parties as a viable option in such a situation, some high-profile social conservatives see the excessive support of them as dangerous. This fear arises from the possibility of vote splitting. Social conservatives, like any other interest-group, usually must find a balance between pragmatic electability and ideological principles when supporting candidates.

The American Tea Party movement, despite being mostly made up of stringent social conservatives, is economically conservative but generally, avoids social conservative issues. The Tea Party Patriots are officially neutral on social conservatism. While social conservatism emphasizes faith and family as core values, the Tea Party Patriots identify its "Core Values" as "Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, Free Markets."] Some branches are opposed to social conservatism. However, independent polls have repeatedly shown that Tea Party supporters are nearly indistinguishable in their views from traditional Republican social conservatives, despite their choice to emphasize economic issues. While not allying itself exclusively with the Christian conservative movement, members of the Tea Party movement identify with the Christian conservative movement more strongly than the general American populace (44% compared to 34% of the population), yet some social conservative leaders have denounced it for its "libertarian" and "irreligious" views. Nearly 80% of those in the Tea Party movement are members of the Republican party.

Q.4. ‘In spite of the diversity of the USA, third parties and independent candidates have failed to break the electoral domination of the Democrat and Republican parties.’ Discuss.

Answer: American politics operate as a two-party system, however, third or minor parties play a major role in the political process even though they rarely win major elections. In modern US elections, the two major parties are the Democratic and Republican parties. They are associated with liberal and conservative views respectively. The term ‘Third party’ basically refers to the third largest party in a two-party system, but in America, it generally means any party running in an election other than the major two. Nevertheless, many third parties have gained some force throughout American history. For example, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt managed to lead a group of dissidents out of the Republican Party to form the splinter Progressive Party and at one point, the Socialist Party was successfully held 600 mayor offices. But today, the largest three "third parties" as measured by the number of registered voters affiliated with them are the Green Party, Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party, although none of them hold a substantial number of public offices.

The third parties although do not win any election, they have a major impact on US political process in the form of:

  • Introduce new ideas;
  • Put issues on agenda;
  • Keep the major parties honest;
  • Spoil the election.

Third parties usually organize and mobilize around a single issue or position, putting pressure on candidates from major political parties to address these issues. There have been numerous reasons the third parties have not been more successful in the U.S.

They include:

The country's election structure:

US elections are structured as "winner-take-all" votes, in other words, regardless of the victory margin, the candidate that wins the popular vote gains the office while the runner-up does not get any representation. This system is different as compared to proportional representation systems, whereby parties are allocated representation in the election process based on the proportion of the popular vote they receive.

Ballot rules:

Regarding ballot access, candidates for national elections, such as presidential elections, must meet the criteria determined by the state in order to be included on election ballots. Ballot access laws and rules often mandate that candidates have to pay large fees or collect a large number of signatures to be listed, which is often not possible and thus it restricts the ability of third party candidates to be put on the ballot.

Debate rules:

Since the airing of presidential debates in the 1960s on national television, third party candidates have been nominally barred from participation. This policy limits their ability to publicize their views and gain a following among the electorate.

While many electoral policies in the U.S. do not favour third party success, but perhaps the greatest barrier to third-party candidates is the vast amount of resources the major parties own. The two major parties have shifted names, platforms, and constituencies over time, but they have always served as lenders of financial and human resources. However, both major parties are at risk of losing votes if third party campaigns gain feasible support, so they both act in ways that promote the two-party system.

Topic 3. Voting Behavior

Q.5. Consider the importance of race and ethnicity as factors influencing US voting behaviour.

Answer: Voter turnout is the total percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. "Eligible voters" are defined differently in different countries, and it should not be confused with the total adult population. In the US, Black and Hispanic people make up the country’s two largest minority voting blocs and, as such, are especially important in close races. As a general rule, for the past half-century, African Americans have been loyal Democrats than any other group. Latinos as a whole have a tendency to vote Democratic, but the relationship is not as strong as it is for blacks. But, the various Latino groups have very different voting patterns. For example, Cuban Americans overall are strongly inclined to vote for Republican, and Mexican Americans have an equally strong tendency to vote Democratic. Some studies also indicate that Asian Americans have an inclination to vote conservative, but there is still a lack of concrete evidence to prove this. In a study by Indiana University on Candidates or Districts? Reevaluating the Role of Race in Voter Turnout, it was found out that voting turnout is greater for minority voters when they live in a congressional district where their racial or ethnic group represents the majority of the citizen voting-age population.

In the absence of a black candidate in the ballot, black voters’ turnout is approx. 40 percent in a district where black people make up 10% of the voting-age population. The turnout is considerably higher (49.3%) in a district where black people are 50% of the voting-age population.

In the absence of a Latino candidate, the general-election turnout for Hispanic voters is 6.4 percentage points higher in a voting district where Hispanic people make up 40 percent of the voting-age population compared to a district where they comprise 10 percent of the voting-age population.

African-American voting:

Participation and voting differ among members of racial and ethnic groups. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, discriminatory practices had kept voting turnout rate low for African Americans. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation had kept black voting turnout low from the polls. Eventually, black civil rights protests and litigation removed the obstacles and paved way for a black voting turnout. Today, black citizens come to vote at least as often as white citizens who are of the same socioeconomic status. In general sense, it is seen that African Americans are more involved in the American political process than any other minority groups in the United States. They represented the highest level of voter registration and participation in elections in 2004. In 2008 general election, 65% of black voters turned out when compared with 66 percent of white voters.

Latino Voters:

The Latino population in the United States has grown to almost over 47 million people who are comprised of people from diverse countries of origin. In 2008 general election, only 49 percent of eligible Latino voters vote even though they comprise a significant amount of group. One of the reasons for this is the language issue. Most of the Hispanic are Spanish speaking and do not clearly understand English. Potential political candidates recognize that Hispanics constitute a large and growing voting bloc and have already begun campaigning in Spanish. For example, during the 2000 presidential election campaign, candidate George W. Bush ran as many ads in Spanish as in English. The 2008 presidential candidates' websites, as well as the 2010 congressional candidates, featured extensive Spanish-language content.

Asians Americans and Pacific Islanders:

According to the U.S. Census, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are one of the fastest-growing and most diverse ethnic group. However, their turnout rates of participation are lower than any other groups. In 2008, only 48 percent of the Asian Americans turned out to vote. There are few arguments that there is a notion of cultural factors, such as a strong tie to their ethnic culture which contribute to the lower levels of Asian American and Pacific Islander voting.

Q.6. Discuss the reasons for the high abstention levels at US elections.

Answer: In a country with the largest democracy in the world, it is an irony that the voter turnout is very low which leads to high level of abstention in the election. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) ranks America as 93rd in its international league tables for a turnout of registered voters.

Bill Vaughan, a writer of political issues once said, ‘a citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, but won't cross the street to vote in a national election’. To understand further, we need to examine the trend of the past 20 years.

Year Turnout percentage of eligible voters
1996 49
2000 54.2
2004 60.4
2008 62.3
2012 57.5
2016 59.7
Source: Bipartisan Policy Centre

Most of the scholars identify three reasons why the voter turnout is very low. They are:

Voter registration:

Groups that are not eligible to vote, such as non-citizens and unregistered voters, are not included. Turnout as a proportion of the voting age population is far lower, as many citizens do not register to vote. One of the compelling reason why turnout is very low in American elections is the voter registration process. There is no obligation for American citizens to register to vote (unlike in Australia), and a substantial amount of citizen simply choose not to register. There have been attempts in the past to improve voter registration, such as the Motor Voter Laws 1993 which empowered the citizens to register to vote when renewing their driving licences. Registration laws are unclear sometimes which may prove to be arduous to the citizen and may vary greatly from state to state. In some cases, the officials deliberately try to make voting difficult, particularly for demographic groups that do not tend to support the party/policies of those officials.

Types of election:

In the US, there are several types of election which are a cumbersome task. Turnout in such cases is higher in general elections than in primaries and tends to be far higher in years when the President is being chosen than in off-year elections.

Political apathy. Many Americans are apathetic about politics. Research has shown that most Americans are unaware and have no knowledge of how the government works and the candidates and issues of the day. Additionally, many Americans complain that they don’t like either party/candidate or don’t like politics.

Other immediate reasons include unavailability of voters on the date of the election. After the 2012 election, when the US Census Board interviewed thousands of Americans regarding their voting behaviour, most of them argued that they were not available on the day of the election. These people were mainly comprised of the wealthiest and the poor who indicated that they could not get to the poll. The wealthy claimed that they were out of town on the Election Day and the poor explained that they were unable to get to the poll due to some illness or disability. Another reason was that the people complained of not being able to leave office just to vote.

A key issue in low voter turnout is the issue of ‘differential abstention’. It means that elections turnout will differ between states, regions, and social groups. Differential Abstention is used to describe the difference in turnout between social groups. Some groups are more likely to regularly vote than others. For example, older Americans are more likely to vote than those in the 18-29-year-old range. People with higher incomes are more likely to vote, along with those who have more education. People who have high levels of political socialization and awareness and who are more interested in politics are also more likely to vote. Income and race play a key role in defining differential voting. Income can be a good comparison for turnouts. A study found that if a voter earned over $75,000, 86% would vote in a presidential election and if a voter earns less than $15,000 the figure was most likely to be 52%. It is clear that the first has an abstention rate of 14%, whereas the lower income group has a 48% abstention rate.

In the case of race as a factor, African-American turnout in the history have been low due to restrictive voting practices adopted by some states in the early half of the twentieth century. In addition to this, many states propose a restriction on convicted from voting which indefinitely affects African-Americans. Hispanic voters to face the same issue. However, despite these problems, in the 2012 election, the US Census Bureau have ardently said that African-American turnout beat the white turnout.

Topic 4. Pressure Groups

Q.7. Explain the importance of Political Action Committees in US politics.

Answer: Political Action Committees or PACs are the philanthropic fundraising arm of a political organisation or pressure group. Potential candidates rely upon them for their campaign in order to get help for their travelling, advertising and living expenses. For example, the National Auto Dealers Association raised about $2m between 2011 and 2012. In other words, PACs are a private political organization which is used to raise and spends money in order to elect or defeat particular candidates. PACs collect contributions from individuals. The contributions are then donated to candidates, political parties and other PACs. They can also spend the contributions on advertising or other political efforts meant to support or oppose political candidates. According to the Federal Election Commission, there are more than 6,000 political action committees. The first PAC was created by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1944, which sought to raise funds to assist the re-election of President Roosevelt. Until the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, PACs were a subsidiary part of US political campaigns.

Political action committees that spend money on federal campaigns are regulated and controlled by the Federal Election Commission. PACs that function at the state level are regulated by the states and PACs the operate at the local level are regulated by county election officials in most states.

One of the important function of the PACs is to file regular reports explaining the source and expenditure of funds. The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act had allowed corporations and other commissions to establish PACs and also to revise financial disclosure requirements for everyone. Therefore, candidates, PACs, and party committee’s active in federal elections had to file quarterly reports. Disclosure in the form of name, occupation, address and business of each contributor or spender was required for all donations of $100 or more and in 1979, this amount was increased to $200. There is another class of PAC known as the nonconnected political committee. This group often comprises of a kind of leadership PAC, where politicians raise money to help fund other candidate campaigns, among many other things.

A PAC is allowed to contribute up to $5,000 to a candidate per election and up to $15,000 annually to a national political party. PACs may receive up to $5,000 each from individuals, other PACs and party committees per year. Some states have limits on how much a PAC can give to a state or local candidate.

PACs play a key role and are very significant in the American political process because they allow people supporting candidates to spend unlimited amounts of funds in the media to help get their candidate elected. PACs have also increased the cost of US elections dramatically because of recent Supreme Court decisions.

Q.8. Analyse the reasons why some pressure groups are more successful than others within the US political system.

Answer: A pressure group is a group of like-minded people with common shared interest that seek to influence government policy without seeking election for themselves. A study shows that as many as seven in ten Americans belong to pressure groups. There are numerous factors explaining why some pressure groups are more successful than others, such as their status, human resources, the extent of lobbying and use of revolving door. Pressure groups perform several functions within US political process which includes representation, scrutiny, participation and agenda building.

Few reasons:

Iron triangle theory: An Iron Triangle describes the close and strong relationship between a government agency, congressional committee and pressure group. An example of this is the “military-industrial complex” which is made up of the weapons manufacturer, defence committee and the Pentagon staff which all work together to mutually benefit themselves. It is argued that Iron Triangles will lead to decisions being made at the expense of the public in favour of special interests. This will help a pressure group achieve their objectives more easily because of the close and strong relationship they have with decision makers. This is a factor as to why some US pressure groups are more successful than others in achieving their aims and objectives because if part of an Iron Triangle, their interests may be put ahead of the public, giving them a great chance of becoming successful in their goals.

Lobbying activities: Another factor for pressure groups being successful lies in the extent of their lobbying activities. Lobbying act as a winning edge and gives the pressure group direct access to a decision-maker and allows them to be influenced by them. As illustrated, The Farmer Assurance Provision was an amendment to the Senate Appropriations Committee bill. It was later known that the amendment was initiated by Monsanto’s lawyers and approved by Senator Roy Blunt and that some Democrat Senators were unaware about it when voting. Through lobbying, Monsanto’s was able to achieve one of their aims by directly influencing legislation.

Human resource: The level of human resources is also another factor which can influence an elected official into supporting the group. This is normally because the officials may be reluctant and afraid to upset a substantial portion of the electorate. The more people a pressure group has, the more the group can argue about the vast public support it gathers. As such, 400,000 people took part in the People’s Climate Change March in September 2014, calling on world leaders to take action on climate change. Ultimately, two months later, the US announced a deal with China to address climate change.

Revolving door factor: This describes the movement of ex-public officials taking up new jobs in private companies or vice versa. These are professional lobbyist comprising of the former Congress members who exploit their knowledge and contacts within the Congress in order to further the interest of their clients in the government executive agendas. For example, Jim Coon, former head of the Aviation Subcommittee in the House of Representatives, now works as the Senior Vice President for Government Relations at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Status: Insiders tend to have more financial resources than the outside pressure and can use this opportunity to lobby decision makers. Furthermore, they know the inner workings of government because of their status and know where and when exactly to apply pressure. Insiders are, therefore, more successful than outsiders.

Pressure groups can influence the government policies by protesting and going on marches, a demonstration to raise the profile of the group and the issues they are concerned with. This is to influence the government indirectly by showing public support for a particular issue. Few direct actions include strikes, blockades, boycotts and protests. Copyright © 2016 AQA and its licensors. All rights reserved