Saturday, 9 April 2011

Wisconsin - Learning about US politics

In my preliminary research into Wisconsin, I read somewhere that the first meeting of the US Republican party took place in the state, therefore I decided this would be a good enough excuse to introduce myself to US politics and learn about a political system which has such an effect on global affairs. Regular readers of my blog will know how fond I am of the Oxford University Press series A Very Short Introduction, so it should come as no surprise that I found myself turning to L Sandy Maisel's short introduction to American Political Parties and Elections (OUP 2007).

The ability of the writers of this Oxford series never fails to impress me. Tackling difficult subjects in a limited amount of space (usually less than 200 pages, which is about all I have time to read!), writers such as Maisel manage to concisely outline the most important areas in their given subject area, to give the reader a feel for the subject, without getting you bogged down in detail! I would definitely recommend this book and others in the series.

The key features of US democracy

Early on in the book, Maisel describes the two key features of democracy in the US, which are:

- the separation of powers

- federalism

The separation of powers is a model of democracy that was first developed in Ancient Greece and is common throughout the modern world. It separates power into three different branches:

- the Executive
- the Legislature
- the Judiciary

In the UK this translates into:

- the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet (the Executive)
- the elected and non-elected Houses of Parliament (the Legislature)
- the Law/Courts (the Judiciary)

In the United States, the Executive is the US President, the Legislature is the two houses of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) and the Judiciary is the Law/Courts etc. One of the main differences between the US and the UK is that the US President holds far more power and is basically deemed to be the Executive (although I'm sure all of their advisers have a role to play!).

Also the electoral processes for the US Executive (ie. the US Presidential elections) is completely separate from the Legislature elections. Whilst in the UK, the leader of the winning party (or biggest party, in a coalition government) becomes the Prime Minister, in the US, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections have nothing to do with who holds power on Capitol Hill (where the Congress sits).


The Congress consists of two parts. The House of Representatives (sometimes just called 'the House') is (very roughly) equivalent to the House of Commons and is made up of representatives elected within states from a variety of congressional districts (which are like UK constituencies - again, kind of). The Senate has no real equivalent in UK politics and it is a body which represents each of the 50 states, with two representatives per state, regardless of the state's population size. As far as understand it, the election of senators is as close as you can get, on state level, to the Presidential elections and seems to carry a lot of significance, as the two main parties battle for control of the upper house of Congress.

Democracy in Wisconsin, 2011

Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin currently has eight congressional districts represented in the current (112th) House of Representatives. Five of them are Republicans and three are Democrats. Not surprisingly, the three Democrat districts represent the state capital Madison (the 2nd district), which is famed for its political radicalism, Milwaukee with its high percentage of black voters (the 3rd district) and the bit beside Iowa, which is more of a Democratic heartland (the 4th district). Typically for this 'swing' state, Wisconsin has one Republican senator and one Democrat, although from 1993 until earlier this year, there were two Democrats representing Wisconsin in the US Senate.


I think it's hard for anyone who doesn't come from a Federal system of government to understand the impact that this has had on the development of US democracy. Not only does each state have its own democratic institutions and local government, but the approach that each state takes to the way that elections are run varies enormously. Whether it's the way primaries are organised to choose Republican and Democratic candidates for the Presidential elections, the way a state's Senators are chosen or the way the Republican and Democrat parties organise their regional campaigns, the vast differences between one state and another lead to an increasingly complex system of democracy that has added 21st century realities to a system and constitution that was designed for 18th-century life.

The 2000 US Presidential campaign

The 2000 US Presidential campaign, which saw George W Bush become President, brought the realities of US politics onto the TV screens of people all over the world. Many Europeans were baffled as to how Bush could win the Presidential election, despite not having won the popular or even the 'pluralistic' votes. It was the first time that many of us became aware of the existence of Electoral colleges. We also watched in wonder at the controversy surrounding the votes counted in Florida. Something that many Americans had know for a long time, became apparent to the rest of us in 2000, ie. that US democracy no longer works! There have been many attempts to 'fix' the US democratic system, important ones, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which, amongst other things, tried to redress the political imbalances of race.

Some other key words and ideas

 I realise that I haven't yet got beyond the introduction to Maisel's book on American politics, but there is so much in it, which I'll try to tease out in future blogs about the United States. In the meantime, I'm going to leave you with some of the other ideas and conclusions that Maisel touched on:

- the long ballot means that many Americans have a long list of candidates to vote for, at local, state and national level, on election day.

- Americans are called to the polls far more often, on average, than voters in other modern democracies

- most US elections are dominated by the two main political parties. There are no coalitions and elections are 'fixed term', which means that no-one can be forced to leave office until the next election comes round.

- Black slaves used to count as 3/5 of a person, when they were first given voting rights in the 19th century!

- Most southern states voted Democrat until the 1960's.

- there were no political parties when the union was first formed.

- George Washington stepped down after three terms in office. He was so popular that even today, US presidents are strongly 'discouraged' from serving more than two terms (eight years). The only exception was Franklin D Roosevelt, who served four consecutive terms (including the years of the Second World War).

- the Republican and Democrat parties have controlled Congress since the 1860's.

- starting in the 1930's the two main parties did complete U-turns in terms of their policies and the type of voters they represented. Whereas previously the Republicans had represented the urban poor and the Democrats had represented southern farmers, today it's the other way round.

- Each party has 'Hill committees' which raise funds at a national level.

- Women were given the right to vote at national level in 1920.

- In some US cities, party bosses had a lot of political power throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, eg. Tammany Hall in New York, which was a real 'political machine' with bosses like Charles Francis Murphy, galvanising immigrant Irish votes for the Democratic party.

Union march in Wisconsin 2011

- Americans don't really join political parties. How someone is deemed to be the 'member' of a political party varies from one state to another.

- the National Election studies is the most comprehensive survey of Americans' political identity.

- nearly two-thirds of all Democrats are women, less than half of Republicans are. Thirty per cent of Democrats are black against only one per cent of Republicans.

- one third of Americans support independent candidates, yet only two of the one hundred US senators are independent (Joe Liebermann of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont). None of the delegates to the US House of Representatives is an independent, which backs up Maisel's theory that the elections for the House are much less competitive than those for the Senate. Reading between the lines, it looks like at least one third of the US voting population has no real representation in government.

- New Hampshire and Iowa have an unfair influence on the nominations of Presidential candidates, because they traditionally hold their primaries before any other states.

- despite all kinds of legislation to make elections fairer, the reality is that you won't be able to run for an elected position, unless you have the appropriate funds to back up your campaign.

- George Bush broke the previous restrictions on campaign spending when he spent $70 million in private funds, before the first primary vote had even been cast!

- the Instant Run-off campaign promotes a ranked voting system which is based on proportional representation.

- 90% of senators who stand for re-election are successful.

- 70% of all incumbents running for re-election to the House of Representatives, in recent years, have been successful.

- The US has one of the lowest election turnout rates of any Western democracy.

- with the high re-election rates of incumbents, a lot of campaigning focuses on 'negative campaigning' eg. trying to prove that the incumbent is morally or politically unsuitable for their office.

- the way that the US presidential elections work means that many states never see campaigners, as they tend to focus on 'swing states' like Wisconsin.

Image credits:
The image of the Wisconsin State Capitol was taken by flickruser afagen aka Adam Fagen, who is originally from Nashville, but now lives in Arlington, Virginia.  You can see more of Adam's photos at his photostream
The photograph of the union rally during this year's elections in Wisconsin was taken by flickuser markonf1re aka Mark Reichers, who is a freelance writer currently based in Madison, WI.  You can check out more images and text by Mark on his blog.
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