10 things you need to know about American politics if you’re a Brit in the U.S.

25.10.16
5 minute read
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Adapting to a new country is no easy thing.

You’ve got to find a new home, learn a new culture, even find a new bank and avoid getting stung by expensive exchange rates when you send your money back to the UK (of course, TransferWise customers already know how to beat the bank and save money when they send their money back home).

To make settling in harder, however, the politics of a new country can often seem like a total mystery - especially in the U.S. during election season.

So here’s a quick guide to five of the key things you should know about American politics as an expat to steer you through the confusion - and five of the strangest quirks its political system has to offer.


1. President vs PM / stalemate vs checkmate

checkmate

In the U.S. the elected Head of State and Head of Government, the President, is in charge of executing and enforcing the laws passed by Congress.

He depends on his supporters in Congress to pass policy into law, which can lead to stalemate if there’s an opposition majority.

The British Prime Minister and her chosen cabinet members lead a parliamentary majority, so they have a relatively smooth time pushing policy through (seriously, compared to the U.S., it’s plain sailing).


2. ‘Commander-in-Chief’

whitehouse

You’ll hear the role Commander-in-Chief being bandied about a lot too during these elections. That’s because the President is also in supreme charge of military activity during war.

Although war can only be declared through Congressional approval, the President shapes much of the country’s military and foreign policy.

In the UK, this title is held by the Queen, although it’s of course largely symbolic.


3. Congress, Senate, House of Representatives

captiol

Congress is the U.S.’ law-marking body. It’s made up of two separate houses - the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The House of Representatives consists of 435 members allocated to states in proportion to their populations (the higher the state population, the more members). Members are elected every two years. The Senate, also know as the Upper House, has 100 members (two per state) who are elected every six years.

Congress is part of the U.S.’ system of ‘checks and balances’ - which prevents too much power building up in any one branch of government.

However, it’s not quite the same as the two chambers in the UK, where the House of Lords is unelected and much less able to influence law-making than the Upper House in the U.S.


4. Democrats vs Republicans = Donkeys vs Elephants

donkeys

The U.S. is essentially a two-party democracy, with third parties only attracting a small minority of voters. Today, Republicans are typically socially conservative and believe in lower taxes and occupy much of rural America; Democrats tend to favour higher taxes on corporations and high-earners are are clustered in urban and coastal regions.

Also, if you’ve heard anyone talking about donkeys or elephants during the debate, don’t worry, they haven’t gone mad. These are the logos for the Democrats and Republicans, the legacy of mischievous 19th century cartoonists.

Despite the many differences, if you were to draw comparisons with UK politics, Republicans are typically more aligned with Conservative economic policy, Democrats with Labour’s more left-of-centre stance.


5. What is the Electoral College?

voting

Here’s the really confusing bit: the U.S. President isn’t actually chosen directly by ordinary voters. The 538 people (or electors) that make up the Electoral College are the ones who select him/her. When voters go to the polls, they're voting for their electors.

States are allocated electors based on the population of the state (from 55 in California to only three in D.C.). Even in tightly contested states, the winning Presidential candidate takes all the electoral votes (apart from Maine and Nebraska, where it’s divided according to district voting results).

The winning Presidential candidate needs over 270 electoral college votes. It’s similar to the UK’s first-past-the-post voting, but while several British parties have a shot at winning seats, states in the U.S. almost always declare Republican or Democrat.

The last third-party candidate to win electoral college votes was George Wallace in 1968 (Wallace was a segregationist famous for trying to stop black students enrolling at the University of Alabama).


You’ve got some of the terminology under your belt. Now here are 5 facts about American politics to impress your American friends:

1. From cheerleading to UFOs, Presidents are an eccentric lot

ufo

Past presidential quirks include:
1. Obama has a comic collection (including Spiderman and Conan the Barbarian)
2. George W. Bush was a cheerleader at high school
3. Lyndon B Johnson insisted he sit in a helicopter chair in the Presidential Oval Office because he loved riding in helicopters so much.

However, the prize for peculiarity goes to former President Jimmy Carter, who claims that he saw a UFO in 1973. He pledged to make public all information held in Government on UFOs if he was elected. Disappointingly he never made good on that promise, citing national security concerns.


2. Obama’s the 44th president...out of 43

obama

Grover Cleveland was elected twice in non-consecutive terms, so he’s counted as the 22nd and 24th president.


3. In seven states, atheists can’t run for public office… even though they can

statemap

The constitutions of seven ‘Bible Belt’ states prohibit atheists from running for or holding public office: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

However, the U.S. Constitution bans any tests on religious beliefs, so the laws are unenforceable.


4. The U.S. Constitution is the shortest in the world

constitution

Despite being one of the most revered documents in the history of democracy, the U.S. Constitution is a surprisingly punchy read.

At only 4,400 words (7,591 including signatures and amendments) it’s both the shortest and oldest constitution of any major world government.


5. The voting system can throw up real curveballs

bush

One of the biggest curveballs in electoral history happened in 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote nationally but lost the election.

George W. Bush sneaked Florida by the tiniest margin - only 537 votes - winning him all 27 electoral votes from the state to tip him over the magic 270 mark.


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