5 things you may not know about American politics

By Isabelle Walker

As the gears begin to turn on the next Presidential Race, we thought we would go in depth into some common misconceptions, uncertainties, or complications associated with the beast that is US politics. 



1. The President has less power than you might think

This was the way the Framers of the Constitution knew they could set themselves apart from the British system. The Framers did not want the President to have so much power that he (or she) could become tyrannical, like a Monarch. The Congress was to make laws, and the President was to exert his power only at times of crisis or war with an Executive Order. All other times, the President is seen as a figurehead, leading and informing the national psyche. 

The President, however, is responsible for appointing Ambassadors, Chief Justices, and the White House Cabinet (think: Secretary of State, Secretary of Homeland Security, Treasury Secretary, etc.)

2. The Electoral College

The Electoral College is the institution that officially elects the President. There are 538 electors in all, doled out to different states based on population. Each elector corresponds to: 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and three electors from Washington D.C. The candidate who receives an absolute majority (270) from the Electoral College is named President. 

If a Candidate receives the majority of the electoral votes in one state, they receive all the votes of that state. For example, if Obama was to receive 13 of a possible 25 electoral votes in one state, and Romney 12, Obama would have taken all 25 votes.*** 

This makes large swing states vital in the Presidential race. 
It also means a candidate can secure a minority of the national primary vote but still win the keys to the Oval Office. 

***Maine and Nebraska employ a “Congressional District Method”. This means the States give their district votes to the winner of the popular vote in that district. The two Senate votes go to the winner of the state-wide vote.  

3. The Congress is: the House of Representatives and the Senate

A ‘congressman’ in American can refer to either a representative or a senator. The Congress is both houses of government, charged with making the laws of the land. You may have also heard of ‘committees’? These act as panels of review for every facet of law making, from appropriations, to defence, to education, and to ways and means. 

A Bill must pass through the House, the Senate, and survive the Committee process. By the time a Bill has passed all these hurdles, it is normally hugely different to what it looked like when it was first introduced to Congress. Even then, after all this rigmarole, the President can veto the Bill. 

4. You can’t get fired from the Supreme Court

Once someone is made a US Chief Justice, they have that entitlement for life. They are more than able to step down from the position if they would like to, but Chief Justice is a tenured position. This is the reason why Presidents are eager to appoint Chief Justices if they have the opportunity – once their term is over, their interests are represented in the Supreme Court for years to come. 

This contrasts with Australian High and Federal Court justices, who must retire when they reach 70 years of age. This is set out in the constitution.

5. The Donkey and the Elephant

The Donkey and the Elephant are two enduring symbols of US politics, representing the Democrats and the Republicans respectively. But where do they find their origins in US History?

The Donkey became a symbol around the time of the Presidential election between John Quincy Adams (R) and Andrew Jackson (D). Adams’ campaign named Jackson a ‘jackass’, comparing him to a ‘stubborn, dumb donkey.’[1] Jackson, not to be perturbed by the slur, turned the derogatory comment into political gold. He pointed out the ‘jackass’ had the virtues of: “persistence, loyalty, and the ability to carry a heavy load”. Thus the Democratic symbol was born and has endured. 

The Elephant symbol for the Republican Party first appeared as a rally cry for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. ‘Seeing the Elephant’ was a popular phrase that meant to engage in battle. The two symbols endured through the work of political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who used the animals to personify the parties in his satire and political comment.