Understanding How the U.S. Government Is Organized
The United States government is best categorized as a constitutional federal republic. This means that the United States is governed primarily by elected representatives and an elected leader, and that power is balanced between the federal government and the governments of the states.
If a government is constitutional, that means that it relies on a constitution that describes the distribution of political power within that government. A constitution can be either a legally binding document or a set of principles that is accepted as law. Constitutional governments typically divide political power between a number of different roles and offices, making it necessary for these different offices to cooperate with each other in order to establish or make changes to laws. In the United States, the Constitution is accepted as the supreme law of the United States, and all elected officials, including the president and Supreme Court Judges, must swear to uphold it.
The United States Constitution, which became effective on March 4, 1789, divides the federal government into three branches: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. It describes the political power that each branch has, as well as the limits, or checks, on each branch’s power. It also establishes the rights of the state governments in relationship to the federal government. The U.S. Constitution also includes a description of how it can be edited or amended in the future. Since the first 10 amendments, called the Bill of Rights, were approved in 1791, the Constitution has been amended 17 times.
As a federal government, the United States divides power between the national (federal) government and the state governments. The Constitution specifies the powers that are specific to the federal government, the states, and the powers that are shared between them. This distribution of powers between the federal government and the state governments is a result of disagreements that occurred at the Constitutional Convention. Federalism represents a compromise between the delegates who feared a national government would be too strong, and those who maintained that giving too many rights to the states would create a weak government.
A republic is a government in which the people elect individuals who have the power to represent them. Elected officials are chosen in both national and state elections, and sit for limited terms. In the United States, federal elected officials include the president and vice president, as well as representatives from each state in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Citizens of each state also vote at the state level for elected officials, such as the state governor and state senators. In some cases, the president being one example, elected officials have the power to appoint people to additional governmental positions.
While the United States government is often also referred to as a democracy, this is only partially true. While both a republic and a democracy have a representational form of government, a republic establishes a list of human rights that are inalienable, meaning that they cannot be removed by the government. In a direct democracy, the will of the majority of the people is the force that drives all law and policy making decisions, and no such human rights protections are in place. The United States, along with many governments today, could be called a democratic republic in the way that it blends the democratic process and the establishment of individual rights as laid out in the Constitution.