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Suffrage is universal for citizens 18 years of age and older.
The federal entity created by the Constitution is the dominant feature of the American governmental system. But the system itself is in reality a mosaic, composed of thousands of smaller units ? building blocks that together make up the whole. There are 50 state governments plus the government of the District of Columbia, and further down the ladder are still smaller units that govern counties, cities, towns, and villages.
This multiplicity of governmental units is best understood in terms of the evolution of the United States. The federal system, it has been seen, was the last step in an evolutionary process. Prior to the Constitution, there were the governments of the separate colonies (later states) and, prior to those, the governments of counties and smaller units. One of the first tasks accomplished by the early English settlers was the creation of governmental units for the tiny settlements they established along the Atlantic coast. Even before the Pilgrims disembarked from their ship in 1620, they formulated the Mayflower Compact, the first written American constitution. And as the new nation pushed westward, each frontier outpost created its own government to manage its affairs.
The drafters of the U.S. Constitution left this multilayered governmental system untouched. While they made the national structure supreme, they wisely recognized the need for a series of governments more directly in contact with the people and more keenly attuned to their needs. Thus, certain functions ? such as defense, currency regulation, and foreign relations ? could only be managed by a strong centralized government. But others ? such as sanitation, education, and local transportation ? could be better served by local jurisdictions.
Before their independence, colonies were governed separately by the British Crown. In the early years of the republic, prior to the adoption of the Constitution, each state was virtually an autonomous unit. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention sought a stronger, more viable federal union, but they were also intent on safeguarding the rights of the states.
In general, matters that lie entirely within state borders are the exclusive concern of state governments. These include internal communications; regulations relating to property, industry, business, and public utilities; the state criminal code; and working conditions within the state. Within this context, the federal government requires that state governments must be democratic in form and that they adopt no laws that contradict or violate the federal Constitution or the laws and treaties of the United States.
There are, of course, many areas of overlap between state and federal jurisdictions. Particularly in recent years, the federal government has assumed ever broadening responsibility in such matters as health, education, welfare, transportation, and housing and urban development. But where the federal government exercises such responsibility in the states, programs are usually adopted on the basis of cooperation between the two levels of government, rather than as an imposition from above.
Like the national government, state governments have three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial; these are roughly equivalent in function and scope to their national counterparts. The chief executive of a state is the governor, elected by popular vote, typically for a four-year term (although in a few states the term is two years). Except for Nebraska, which has a single legislative body, all states have a bicameral legislature, with the upper house usually called the Senate and the lower house called the House of Representatives, the House of Delegates, or the General Assembly. In most states, senators serve four-year terms, and members of the lower house serve two-year terms.
The constitutions of the various states differ in some details but generally follow a pattern similar to that of the federal Constitution, including a statement of the rights of the people and a plan for organizing the government. On such matters as the operation of businesses, banks, public utilities, and charitable institutions, state constitutions are often more detailed and explicit than the federal one. Each state constitution, however, provides that the final authority belongs to the people, and sets certain standards and principles as the foundation of government.
Once predominantly rural, the United States is today a highly urbanized country, and about 80 percent of its citizens now live in towns, large cities, or suburbs of cities. This statistic makes city governments critically important in the overall pattern of American government. To a greater extent than on the federal or state level, the city directly serves the needs of the people, providing everything from police and fire protection to sanitary codes, health regulations, education, public transportation, and housing.
The business of running America's major cities is enormously complex. In terms of population alone, New York City is larger than 41 of the 50 states. It is often said that, next to the presidency, the most difficult executive position in the country is that of mayor of New York.
City governments are chartered by states, and their charters detail the objectives and powers of the municipal government. But in many respects the cities function independently of the states. For most big cities, however, cooperation with both state and federal organizations is essential to meeting the needs of their residents.
Types of city governments vary widely across the nation. However, almost all have some kind of central council, elected by the voters, and an executive officer, assisted by various department heads, to manage the city's affairs.
There are three general types of city government: the mayor-council, the commission, and the city manager. These are the pure forms; many cities have developed a combination of two or three of them.
Mayor-Council. This is the oldest form of city government in the United States and, until the beginning of the 20th century, was used by nearly all American cities. Its structure is similar to that of the state and national governments, with an elected mayor as chief of the executive branch and an elected council that represents the various neighborhoods forming the legislative branch. The mayor appoints heads of city departments and other officials, sometimes with the approval of the council. He or she has the power of veto over ordinances ? the laws of the city ? and frequently is responsible for preparing the city's budget. The council passes city ordinances, sets the tax rate on property, and apportions money among the various city departments.
The Commission. This combines both the legislative and executive functions in one group of officials, usually three or more in number, elected city-wide. Each commissioner supervises the work of one or more city departments. One is named chairperson of the body and is often called the mayor, although his or her power is equivalent to that of the other commissioners.
The City Manager. The city manager is a response to the increasing complexity of urban problems, which require management expertise not often possessed by elected public officials. The answer has been to entrust most of the executive powers, including law enforcement and provision of services, to a highly trained and experienced professional city manager.
The city manager plan has been adopted by a growing number of cities. Under this plan, a small, elected council makes the city ordinances and sets policy, but hires a paid administrator, also called a city manager, to carry out its decisions. The manager draws up the city budget and supervises most of the departments. Usually, there is no set term; the manager serves as long as the council is satisfied with his or her work.
The county is a subdivision of the state, usually ? but not always ? containing two or more townships and several villages. New York City is so large that it is divided into five separate boroughs, each a county in its own right: the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. On the other hand, Arlington County, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is both an urbanized and suburban area, governed by a unitary county administration.
In most U.S. counties, one town or city is designated as the county seat, and this is where the government offices are located and where the board of commissioners or supervisors meets. In small counties, boards are chosen by the county as a whole; in the larger ones, supervisors represent separate districts or townships. The board levies taxes; borrows and appropriates money; fixes the salaries of county employees; supervises elections; builds and maintains highways and bridges; and administers national, state, and county welfare programs.
Thousands of municipal jurisdictions are too small to qualify as city governments. These are chartered as towns and villages and deal with such strictly local needs as paving and lighting the streets; ensuring a water supply; providing police and fire protection; establishing local health regulations; arranging for garbage, sewage, and other waste disposal; collecting local taxes to support governmental operations; and, in cooperation with the state and county, directly administering the local school system.
The government is usually entrusted to an elected board or council, which may be known by a variety of names: town or village council, board of selectmen, board of supervisors, board of commissioners. The board may have a chairperson or president who functions as chief executive officer, or there may be an elected mayor. Governmental employees may include a clerk, treasurer, police and fire officers, and health and welfare officers.
One unique aspect of local government, found mostly in the New England region of the United States, is the "town meeting." Once a year ? sometimes more often if needed ? the registered voters of the town meet in open session to elect officers, debate local issues, and pass laws for operating the government. As a body, they decide on road construction and repair, construction of public buildings and facilities, tax rates, and the town budget. The town meeting, which has existed for more than two centuries, is often cited as the purest form of direct democracy, in which the governmental power is not delegated, but is exercised directly and regularly by all the people.
The federal, state, and local governments covered here by no means include the whole spectrum of American governmental units. The U.S. Bureau of the Census (part of the Commerce Department) has identified no less than 84,955 local governmental units in the United States, including counties, municipalities, townships, school districts, and special districts.
Americans have come to rely on their governments to perform a wide variety of tasks which, in the early days of the republic, people did for themselves. In colonial days, there were few police officers or firefighters, even in the large cities; governments provided neither street lights nor street cleaners. To a large extent, people protected their own property and saw to their families' needs.
Now, meeting these needs is seen as the responsibility of the whole community, acting through government. Even in small towns, the police, fire, welfare, and health department functions are exercised by governments. Hence, the bewildering array of jurisdictions.
Many of America's Founding Fathers hated the thought of political parties, quarreling factions they were sure would be more interested in contending with each other than in working for the common good. They wanted individual citizens to vote for individual candidates, without the interference of organized groups ? but this was not to be. By the 1790s, different views of the new country's proper course had already developed, and those who held these opposing views tried to win support for their cause by banding together. The followers of Alexander Hamilton called themselves Federalists; they favored a strong central government that would support the interests of commerce and industry. The followers of Thomas Jefferson called themselves Democratic-Republicans; they preferred a decentralized agrarian republic in which the federal government had limited power. By 1828, the Federalists had disappeared as an organization, replaced by the Whigs, brought to life in opposition to the election that year of President Andrew Jackson. The Democratic-Republicans became Democrats, and the two-party system, still in existence today, was born.
In the 1850s, the issue of slavery took center stage, with disagreement in particular over the question of whether or not slavery should be permitted in the country's new territories in the West. The Whig Party straddled the issue and sank to its death; it was replaced in 1854 by the Republican Party, whose primary policy was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. Just six years later, this new party captured the presidency when Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860. By then, parties were well established as the country's dominant political organizations, and party allegiance had become an important part of most people's consciousness. Party loyalty was passed from fathers to sons, and party activities ? including spectacular campaign events, complete with uniformed marching groups and torchlight parades ? were a part of the social life of many communities.
By the 1920s, however, this boisterous folksiness had diminished. Municipal reforms, civil service reform, corrupt practices acts, and presidential primaries to replace the power of politicians at national conventions had all helped to clean up politics ? and make it quite a bit less fun.
Why did this country end up with only two political parties? Most officials in America are elected from single-member districts and win office by beating out their opponents in a system for determining winners called first-past-the-post ? the one who gets the most votes wins, and there is no proportional accounting. This encourages the creation of a duopoly: one party in power, the other out. If those who are "out" band together, they have a better chance of beating those who are "in." Occasionally third parties do come along and receive some share of the votes, for a while at least. The most successful third party in recent years has been H. Ross Perot's Reform Party, which had some success in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996. Jesse Ventura became the first Reform Party candidate to win statewide office when he was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998. Third parties have a hard time surviving, though, because one or both of the major parties often adopt their most popular issues, and thus their voters.
"In America the same political labels ? Democratic and Republican ? cover virtually all public officeholders, and therefore most voters are everywhere mobilized in the name of these two parties," says Nelson W. Polsby, professor of political science, in the book New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution. "Yet Democrats and Republicans are not everywhere the same. Variations ? sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant ? in the 50 political cultures of the states yield considerable differences overall in what it means to be, or to vote, Democratic or Republican. These differences suggest that one may be justified in referring to the American two-party system as masking something more like a hundred-party system."
Private interest groups advocate policies advantageous to their membership. Business organizations will favor low corporate taxes and restrictions of the right to strike, whereas labor unions will support minimum wage legislation and protection for collective bargaining. Other private interest groups ? such as churches and ethnic groups ? are more concerned about broader issues of policy that can affect their organizations or their beliefs.
One type of private interest group that has grown in number and influence in recent years is the political action committee or PAC. These are independent groups, organized around a single issue or set of issues, that contribute money to political campaigns for Congress or the presidency. PACs are limited in the amounts they can contribute directly to candidates in federal elections. There are no restrictions, however, on the amounts PACs can spend independently to advocate a point of view or to urge the election of candidates to office. PACs today number in the thousands.
"The political parties are threatened as the number of interest groups has mushroomed, with more and more of them operating offices in Washington, D.C., and representing themselves directly to Congress and federal agencies," says Michael Schudson in his book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. "Many organizations that keep an eye on Washington seek financial and moral support from ordinary citizens. Since many of them focus on a narrow set of concerns or even on a single issue, and often a single issue of enormous emotional weight, they compete with the parties for citizens' dollars, time, and passion."
The amount of money spent by these special interests continues to grow, as campaigns become more and more expensive. Many Americans have the feeling that these wealthy interests ? whether corporations or unions or PACs organized to promote a particular point of view ? are so powerful that ordinary citizens can do little to counteract their influence.
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