The Pathos of Politics – United States Government

United States Government

Washington DC is 12 square miles bordered by reality. ~ American President Andrew Johnson in 1868

The United States (US) was the earliest presidential democracy. Its electoral liveliness belies political stagnation, caused by voters bifurcated into 2 camps of roughly equal size. That politics in the US is effectively confined to 2 stalemated parties is the root of a nasty weed in American democracy.

Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair. ~ American comedian George Burns

Political Parties

The US Constitution made no mention of political parties. Several of the founding fathers disapproved of “party spirit,” fearing that divisiveness would weaken the new nation.

Despite the misgivings of political sages, the 1st parties surfaced during President George Washington’s 2nd administration. The seeds had already been planted. Delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention disagreed on slavery, public debt, and the power balance between state and federal governments: all issues related to the northern and southern states, which formed loose political blocks based upon their economies.

These disparate positions were reflected in the 1st major parties: the Federalists and the Antifederalists, which were not party organizations so much as groups with shared beliefs about the proper role of government.

American political parties encouraged popular participation in politics from their onset, unlike the early parties in Great Britain.

The US now has 2 dominant political parties: Democrat and Republican. Republicans are reactionary, with conflicted authoritarian and libertarian leanings. Democrats are now moderate conservatives, albeit with some social conscience and sheepish progressive inclinations.

These capitalists generally act harmoniously, and in concert, to fleece the people. ~ Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The Republican party was formed by anti-slavery activists and other liberals in 1854. The last progressive Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt in the 1st decade of the 20th century. From then, the party of Lincoln evolved into a reactionary pro-business cabal.

Republicans have been the part of the corporate elite since the Gilded Age (late 19th century). ~ American political election researcher Robert Mutch

In the 1st decade of the 21st century, Republicans became the antithesis of their moral beginning. The party was temporarily hijacked by a faction who called themselves the “Tea Party,” in reference to the 1773 Boston protest. Their agenda promoted a strong military, gutting the welfare system, mercilessly detaining and deporting illegal aliens, and private gun ownership as sacrosanct. Though not under the Tea Party banner, President Donald Trump carried their water.

I am a compassionate conservative. ~ President Bush Jr. in 2000; Bush was a warmonger whose administration practiced torture as a matter of policy while denying suspects the right to trial.

The fundamentalist Christian fringe of the Tea Party would doubtlessly prefer a theocracy. By contrast, more moderate Republicans still sing corporate exaltation as their main hymn.

With the huge exceptions of law enforcement and allowing women’s control over their own bodies (abortion), Republicans of all stripes today generally agree on minimal government interference in people’s lives, especially regulating business. Despite support for an outsized military, Republicans pimp themselves the small-government party.

The lineage of the Democratic party traces to Jefferson and Madison. From its cradle of classical liberalism, the party matured in the 1930s into a social-liberal creature, with FDR as its godhead.

After the 2nd World War, Democrats embraced social justice and welfarism. Once the small-government party, Democrats now favor a nanny state.

Though both parties effusively nurse at the teat of corporate benefaction, the Democratic party is slightly more circumspect in its support of unfettered big business than its rabid Republican counterpart. Nonetheless, as money is the universal language in the land of ‘free’ enterprise, Democrats are equal to Republicans in currying favor with the financial sector.

Democrats favor a kinder, gentler police state. Their taste for social engineering remains unsated.

Hypocrites to the hilt, Republicans have a thick authoritarian streak while fronting a libertarian mouthpiece. Their disdain for the democratic process has them doing their best to take away the voting rights of minorities, especially blacks, who are rationally repulsed by Republican racism. Partisan jurists, including those on the supreme court, have succored these endeavors. Republicans have migrated to a polar region farthest from the party of Lincoln.

The triumph of Donald Trump in 2016 was a culmination of the conflicting elements within the Republican party. Trump was an ignorant authoritarian in love with the idea of a corporate fascist state but spouting rabble-rousing populism. Party stalwarts were aghast at voters picking this Republican Frankenstein as presidential candidate.

In the finale, Trump pulled off an upset win, thanks to America’s rigged electoral system. Republican party leaders became pliant sycophants, fearful that Trump’s hard-core supporters would abandon them at the polls if they did not do Trump’s bidding.

When Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party. The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty. ~ Republican US Senator Rand Paul

 3rd Parties

The US has had 2 dominant parties through almost all of its history. Fringe parties have come and gone. The dominance of the 2 parties is underlined by these transitory groups invariably being referred to as “3rd parties.”

The 2 largest peripheral parties of present day are the Libertarians and Greens. These parties are essentially discontented offshoots of Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Each has around 300,000 registered members, in a country with a voter base of ~146 million. Neither has any representation at the national level.

Touting individual freedom in the extreme, Libertarians are a meager inch away from anarchism. In proselytizing social equality, nonviolence, and environmental goodness, Greens would save humanity from self-immolation if only they had the power.

The American electoral system is systematically rigged against 3rd parties via single-member districting, campaign financing laws, automatic ballot access for major party candidates, and the electoral college system. 3rd parties rarely make a notable impact longer than a single election cycle, as the issues that propel them are coopted by one or both of the major parties if those issues resonate well in polls.

In the political sphere: scandals, corruption and the general decline in standards have no decisive effects in a split society, where responsibility is no longer part of the game. ~ French political commentator Jean Baudrillard

 Party Organization

American political parties are a cadre type, in contrast to mass-membership parties, such as the Chinese Communist Party. The term cadre refers to the small group of active members who do most of the campaign work.

Though there are permanent national committees for each American party, parties are decentralized on a statewide basis, reflecting the state-based federalist history of the country. The decentralized nature of American political parties results in a lack of connectivity between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Parties do not discipline the votes of legislators to the extent that political parties do in parliamentary democracies, such as Britain.

Government Structure

Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. ~ James Madison in 1788

This is a government of the people by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporation by corporation and for corporation. ~ President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880

The American federal government comprises a bicameral legislature (collectively called Congress), an executive administration headed by a president, and a hierarchical judiciary that interprets and administers the law in a free-wheeling way. The government was constitutionally devised to provide checks and balances among the 3 branches. This is more fiction than fact.

The president has vast power, especially when it comes to foreign policy and civil liberties. Though Congress may mandate spending on a program, a president may thwart congressional intent by not spending the money. Enforcement of the law is entirely within the purview of the executive. Any check that the courts may provide typically takes years to resolve.

Thanks to a power grab at the onset of the 19th century, the judiciary has long exceeded its constitutional grant, and is astonishingly the most powerful branch of government in having the last say on the legality of any policy or governmental activity. Unchecked by the other branches of government, US courts exercise arbitrary power over matters brought before them. Judges practically legislate from the bench – brought to heel only by their brethren on higher courts. Seldom has Congress countermanded the judiciary with a new law, and even more rarely has the executive defied a court ruling, as a president may face impeachment for doing so. The American judiciary’s power is especially surprising because it has no means of enforcing its rulings.

Congress was constitutionally designed as the most powerful branch. It has instead turned into a palace of petty bickering between the 2 parties that jostle for power. When Congress does legislate, the slop it decrees awaits administrative interpretation and judicial clarification.

From a constitutional perspective, the present US government is a paradigm of dysfunctionality. This owes more to flimsy constitutional construction than it does to the partisanship which wracks American politics. Along with other countries throughout the Americas, the United States shows how shoddy constitutional democracy can be. Its relative health owes only to an abundance of natural resources, a large population, and a rude economy propelled by avaricious men, whom the government coddles in an exquisite plutocracy.

The US government systematically favors the rich over the poor, the donor class over the working class, the well-connected over the disconnected. This is deliberate corruption, tilting thousands of decisions away from the public good and toward the desires of those at the top. ~ Elizabeth Warren in 2018


All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives. ~ US Constitution, Article 1, §9

The US Congress is a bicameral legislative body. There are 100 senators: 2 for each state. The lower house has 435 members, divvied up into districts via ersatz proportional representation by state population.

While the lower chamber is the main engine of legislation, the senate’s primary function is executive oversight, as well as approving new laws.

Members of Congress may be reelected indefinitely.

Senators have 6-year terms. Until 1922, senators were elected by state legislatures, not voters.

House members are elected every 2 years, and so are supposedly under constant electoral pressure. But congressional districts are geopolitically rigged such that incumbency is easily assured. Turnover for house members from lost elections is no greater than for senators.

As senate campaigns range statewide, they are more expensive than those for the house. In 2012, the average senate campaign costs over $10 million. A winning run for a seat in the house ran at a median $1.6 million.

If money is free speech, then the wealthiest people in America are those that get to speak the most freely. ~ US Senator John McCain

0.01% of the wealthiest people in the country finance 30% of the cost of the nation’s political campaigns.

When enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. ~ US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer

This dynamic has created a remarkable dichotomy. 90% of congressional members are reelected while public approval of Congress consistently hovers at ~15%. To find the wellspring of congressional stagnation, follow the money.

A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. ~ attributed to US Senator Everett Dirksen (who never said it, but liked it enough not to deny saying it)

Pork barrel spending is the political idiom for wasteful public spending. The process of funneling largesse by a Congressman to his district or state is joyously labeled bringing home the pork. The metaphor originated after the Civil War, but its practice predates the disapprobation, and merrily continues to this day.

US politicians are beholden to the wealthy that finance their campaigns, while reelection votes are insured via pork. Tallying the pork is not easy, but it was in the neighborhood of $29 billion per year in the 1st decade of the 21st century. The president must approve the budget, but its composition is determined by Congress.

Congressional incompetence does not stop with proclivity in wasting taxpayer monies. Since the 1980s, Congress, riven by partisanship, has been unable to properly fund the government by passing budgets on a timely basis. This has necessitated stopgap continuing resolutions to keep the government open.

There’s nothing more basic than the power of the purse, and there’s no more systemic failure than what we’ve had for years: not to exercise that power in an orderly and prescribed way. ~ Congressman David Price in 2018

The power of incumbency is considerable. 1/3rd of the electorate don’t even know who represents them in the house, but nearly 2/3rd approve of their local representative. House members tainted by moral turpitude are reelected if they have brought home the pork.

Throw the bums out. But not my bum. ~ American political reporter Chris Cillizza

Upon its inception in 1787, the lower house was intended to be the most popular and politically dominant entity in the federal system. It became instead the least popular and most politically incompetent branch.

In contrast, the senate was to be a regulatory group, serving as a forum for debate on national policy. The senate today is perhaps the most powerful upper house of any legislature in the world, and senators generally (and unduly) respected.

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy; but that could change. ~ US Vice President Dan Quayle (“I am not part of the problem. I am a Republican.”)

Unlimited terms and operating on a seniority system render the senate a set of cooperative fiefdoms, thereby imposing stability and fostering an effectiveness which the house can never match.

The senate illustrates how undemocratic the American political system is. A bill or nomination for a federal official can pass the senate with support from senators representing only 16.2% of the population. (If both senators of the 25 smallest states and the vice president (who has a vote in the senate) concurred.) Tyranny by an elected minority characterizes the senate’s modus operandi, especially when Republicans rule the roost.

Increasing political polarization has meant compromise is hard to come by. Republicans in the lower house, who practice the democratic process only by lip service, readily act despotically. This behavior is as ancient political philosophers foresaw, from Plato onwards.

So, we’re locked out of everything, if I am understanding the rule correctly? ~ Democrat Representative Jim McGovern to Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in 2016, when Republicans had control.


The US is plagued by the only democratic vice more troubling than the tyranny of the majority: tyranny of the minority. The senate is set up this way. In the lower house, this owes to gerrymandering: creating geographically arbitrary districts that concentrate voter affiliation. Gerrymandering engenders reelection and practically locks a party into power.

(Gerrymandering is universal in the United States. All states have undemocratic discrepancies from gerrymandering. Representative democracy in the US is a joke that few voters are in on, at least enough to revolt rather than just being revolted.)

If you’ve tilted the playing field in the electoral system that it doesn’t allow you to boot parties out of power, then you’ve got a real problem. ~ Francis Fukuyama

Republicans, who make no bones about not holding democratic ideals, have been relentless gerrymanderers. They have repeatedly been found by the lower courts to illicitly delimit voting districts. In North Carolina in 2018, Republicans got 50.4% of the votes (versus 48.3% for Democrats) yet took 10 of the 13 Congressional seats. In the 2012 Wisconsin election, Republicans won 60% of the state legislature seats with only 48.6% of the vote. In Ohio in 2016, Republicans captured 75% of the seats for the federal lower house after winning 58% of the votes. Likewise in Utah, where 100% of lower house seats went to Republicans for garnering 70% of the votes.

The Republican majority in the supreme court defends the evisceration of American democracy via gerrymandering. Republican Supreme Court Justice John Roberts Jr. called the effort to reduce gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook”: an idiotic comment in that the courts’ business is sociological. In 2018, Republican SCOTUS justices okayed racial discrimination in establishing voting districts.

The ability of minority voters in Texas to meaningfully exercise their right to vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will. ~ SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in dissent in Abbott v. Perez (2018), joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan

In 2019, the Republican majority controlling SCOTUS ruled that federal courts could offer no remedy to elections rigged for Republicans.

Partisan gerrymanders deprive citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the right to choose their political representatives. Part of the court’s role is to defend the foundations of democratic governance. None is more important than free and fair elections. This court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation. ~ SCOTUS Justice Elena Kagan, in dissent in Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor

Via gerrymandering, the United States runs an unrepresentative pseudo-democracy. Democrats win their congressional seats with big majorities in fewer districts, while Republicans prevail by narrower margins in a larger number of districts. This is perhaps fitting, in that the political game is rigged in same way as the economic system: for the rich elite and against commoners.

(In 2016, Democrats who beat Republicans did so at an average 67.4%, whereas Republicans defeated Democrats by an average 63.8%. In 2014, Republicans converted a 51% share of the votes into 55% of the seats. In 2012, Republicans won 54% of the house seats despite getting fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. In the senate, Republicans hold 51% of the seats via only 46% of the vote.)

Gerrymandering was built into the American electoral system by the founding fathers, who wanted power to be hard to concentrate. The first 2 presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both specifically warned that a 2-party system would be anathema to the government model they were trying to establish. The result has been ironic: a constitution designed to work with many weak factions instead engendered the concentration of power into a 2-party system which has fended off challenges from nascent splinter movements.

For the drafters of the constitution, proportional representation was a conundrum in a country where slaves were a majority in many states. The arithmetic of compromise required the creation of an electoral college for the presidency, as it divorced the power of a state’s votes from the number of people actually casting them.

The founders required an absolute majority in the college to elect a president: if no candidate received over 50% of electoral votes, the choice fell to the House of Representatives. This incentivized the formation of nationwide parties whose candidates could win the necessary majority, thus fostering a 2-party system.

The constitution does not specify how states must allocate their electors. Conceivably, they could split their votes proportionately. But, to maximize their influence over the final result, all but 2 states decided to cast their electoral power on a winner-takes-all basis. In the interest of concentrating their power, states chose undemocratic election. As a result, smaller parties could not amass any electoral votes at all, thereby locking in a 2-party model.

Geographic distribution distorts voting clout. As of the 2010 census, per resident, the 5 most rural states wielded 50% more electoral votes, and 3 times as many senators, as the 5 most urban states.

The root of the problem stems from favoring geographic distribution over proportional representation, with a constitution politically arranged for an agrarian nation which has become predominantly urban.

As the party of the cities, Democrats find themselves at a disadvantage in any geographically based winner-takes-all electoral system, where getting 99% of the vote is no better than 51%. Gerrymandering adds to the disadvantage.

Republicans run more state governments than Democrats do, in part because of geopolitical distribution and concentration. This gives Republicans more opportunities to game the system, which they gleefully have. In the 2012 redistricting cycle, Republicans delineated the boundaries of 48% of US lower house districts, while Democrats drew just 10%.

Extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem in our democracy. ~ SCOTUS Justice Bret Kavanaugh

Gerrymandering is nothing new. The founders’ ill-conceived rigging was torn asunder within a very few decades. Gerrymandering got its name in 1812.


Gerrymandering would not matter so much if the 2 parties were broad churches, where party unity counted for less than cross-party consensus on issues. That was how it was for much of American history, thanks to racism.

In the early 19th century, both Democrats and Whigs were divided by factions favoring slavery or its abolition. This made bipartisan alliance easier.

After the Civil War, white southerners blamed Lincoln’s Republicans for laying waste to their homeland and refused to vote for that party over the subsequent century. That filled the Democratic congressional delegation with segregationist and conservative southerners, producing 2 parties with considerable ideological overlap. In the mid-20th century, the voting records of 1/3rd of federal legislators were closer to the political center than they were the platforms of their parties.

Then, in the 1960s, responsive to the outcry of oppressed urban blacks, Democrats embraced racial equality. Over the generation which followed, Republicans swept through the south, its success succored by racism.

The realigned parties become more ideologically distinct, both in social policies and the underlying economic driver: corporate power. The voting record of the most liberal Republican is now well to the right of the most conservative Democrat. The number of moderates in Congress can now be counted on one hand.

With a slim party power margin in the legislature, the result has been political gridlock. Congress passed ~40% fewer laws per session in the 2 decades since 1994 than it did in the 2 decades before. The baleful equilibrium is punctuated by spurts of partisan law-making.

The only restraint has been discord within a party. Since 2010, the leaders of the party in power have generally refused to bring legislation to the floor that does not command a majority of their own party.

Intra-party factionalism curbs the excesses of inter-party factionalism. ~ American political scientist William Connelly Jr.

 Judicial Politics

One of the senate’s responsibilities is approving presidential nominations for federal judgeships. In upholding the law and constitution, the judiciary is hypothetically non-political – else the illusion of impartiality is exposed for what it is, and the legitimacy of the judiciary soiled. As elected politicians appoint federal judges, the partisan disease deeply infects the American judiciary.

The Republican-controlled senate refused to confirm judicial appointments by Democratic President Barack Obama for years, leaving the federal judiciary anemic. When a supreme court opening occurred, the Republican senate snubbed Obama’s nominee for nearly a year (2016). Once a Republican (Donald Trump) was installed in the White House, his supreme court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, was briskly approved by the senate by a bare majority.

Up until that time, supreme court nominees needed approval by 60 out of 100 senators. Democrats, smarting from being ignored the year before, and properly concerned about the reactionary political beliefs and corruption of the nominee, refused to play along. So, Republicans – unable to find the supermajority needed – simply changed the rules to a simple majority vote and approved the nomination.

When loyalty to a political party or to an individual trumps loyalty to the Constitution, the rule of law crumbles. ~ American politician Justin Amash

Once ensconced (again), the Republican majority in the supreme court made it plain that theirs was a biased endeavor favoring conservative interests.

The majority has chosen the winners – black-robed rulers overriding citizens’ choices. ~ US Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in 2018, on the tyranny of the court’s Republican majority

In 2018 Trump got to pick another SCOTUS justice. He chose mean-spirited Brett Kavanaugh, who repeatedly lied during his confirmation hearings and espoused partisan rancor, denouncing “left-wing opposition groups.”

The supreme court must never, never be viewed as a partisan institution. ~ Brett Kavanaugh

An unprecedented 2,400+ American law professors signed and sent a petition to the senate, condemning Kavanaugh as unfit to sit on the supreme court. Despite credible accusations of Kavanaugh being a serial sex offender, he was confirmed. (Brett Kavanaugh joined Clarence Thomas as a sexual malefactor on the US Supreme Court. In keeping with their lack of comportment, both of these right-wing men displayed an injudicious ill-temper during their confirmation hearings.) Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were approved by senators who represented less than 1/3rd of the electorate.

With a Republican president and over 100 vacancies on the federal bench, the courts were rapidly packed with illiberal right-wingers as the 2010s closed; a legacy that will last until civilization collapses.

Throughout the republic’s history, the partisanship of Congress has been unchecked. Despite the attempted deception of an independent, impartial judiciary, the courts are rank with ideological division.

How long can the supreme court be expected to maintain the least hold upon the respect and confidence of the country? ~ The New York Times in 1858, reflecting on the politicization of SCOTUS.

 Federal Budget

No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law. ~ US Constitution, Article 1, §9

Every year the President submits a budget request to Congress, which then has its way with it. The President must then approve, or veto, the budget that Congress wrought.

Congress chronically fails miserably in passing an annual budget, which is the most basic responsibility of lawmakers. In lieu of doing their work, Congress has relied upon a series of stopgap measures.

In fiscal year 2015, the federal budget was $3.8 trillion: about $12,000 for every human in the country, which had a median income of $50,000. This expenditure represented 21% of the US GDP. That year, the federal government spent $560 billion more than it took in; a typical deficit in percentage terms (15%).

In 2015, $2.5 trillion of the federal budget went to social-welfare programs. $900 billion was doled out on defense. $230 billion serviced interest on accumulated federal debt.

The federal budget soared to over 40% of GDP during World War 2; an aberration that pulled the country of the Depression, and so did the economy no relative harm.

US federal government spending as a percentage of GDP rose from 3% in 1930 to 20% by 1975; only dipping modestly during Bill Clinton’s presidency (1991–2000).

The federal deficit then rose abruptly, to 24% of GDP, during the profligate reign of George Bush Jr. (2001–2008). It was a reckless stimulus; creating the economic conditions for the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession.

In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump as US President, the Republican Congress granted massive largesse to the largest corporations and richest Americans. (The timing of the Trump tax cuts for those who did not need them was remarkable in that the economy had finally revived from the 2008 recession: the government was kindling fire in the economy when the economy was already ablaze.) The result was a rapid ballooning of the federal government deficit: a remarkable feat considering the economy was positively vibrant, when historically deficits drop because maximal tax revenues flow in.

Despite perpetual vows of fiscal rectitude, Republican administrations since Nixon have repeatedly ran budget deficits, with increasing magnitude into the 21st century. The Trumpian-Republican whoring of the federal budget to the rich marked a milestone in fiscal debauchery.


The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. ~ US Constitution, Article 2, §1

The president is indirectly elected – via an electoral college – every 4 years and may only be reelected once.

◊ ◊ ◊

4 terms, or 16 years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed. ~ American politician Thomas Dewey in sour grapes mode on his failure to defeat FDR in the 1944 presidential campaign

Guiding the country through the Great Depression and into World War 2, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was elected to 4 terms in office as president. Immediately after the war, the opposition Republican party, which controlled Congress, managed to enact the 22nd Amendment to the constitution, limiting a president to 2 terms.

 Electoral College

Founders feared that popular elections for president would lead presidents to have their own policy agendas rather than acting to safeguard the constitution. ~ American political scientist Chris Baylor

In all the world’s other 58 presidential democracies, the winner is the one with the most votes. Due to America’s electoral college, this does not hold true. A candidate who wins narrowly in smaller states can beat one who gets more votes overall. This did not matter much for almost all of the 20th century, but the past 2 Republican presidents have been minority presidents: George W. Bush by a modest 0.5%, Donald Trump by a thumping 2.1%: larger than the leads for the victorious John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The US electoral college has thwarted the popular will 5 times, yielding minority presidents of modest to ill distinction.

In a 4-man presidential contest in 1824, where all the candidates were in the same party (Democratic-Republican), John Quincy Adams was elected over Andrew Jackson, who got 38,149 more popular votes. Owing to the 4-way split in the popular vote, the electoral college did not give Jackson a majority of votes. So, the presidency was decided by the House of Representatives, which was helmed by Henry Clay, the lowest-polling candidate, and thus not under consideration by the house. Clay swung votes for Adams, denying Jackson the prize. For his support, Adams appointed Clay as his secretary of state.

Embittered, Jackson and his supporters created the Democratic Party. In the 1828 rematch, Jackson trounced Adams in a landslide.

Rutherford B. Hayes bested Samuel J. Tilden in 1876, after Tilden came in 264,292 votes ahead.

In 1888, Grover Cleveland beat Benjamin Harrison, despite being nearly 66,000 votes short.

Having lost by over 1/2 million votes, the Republican supreme court elected George W. Bush president over Al Gore in 2000 by squelching a recount of Florida votes where Gore would have won.

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump garnered the electoral votes of 3 swing states (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) by a total margin of 83,000 ballots while losing the nationwide popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million. The margin in Clinton’s favor would have much wider (and Clinton would have won outright) had Republicans not suppressed minority voting and if the vote count otherwise had not been rigged outright.

The electoral college aimed at preventing demagogues and bullies from gaining power. On this the system has failed, as presidents Bush Jr. and Trump exemplified.

The modern electoral college is the worst of all worlds. It does not encourage republican virtues, as the founders planned. Nor does it confer the democratic legitimacy that modern Americans expect. ~ Chris Baylor


The presidency is the apex of federal government administration. Presidents exercise considerable discretion in their selective enforcement of the nation’s laws. For instance, under the administration of President Trump, corporate malfeasance of all sorts was largely ignored. Trump effectively eviscerated environmental and consumer protections so that corporations could pollute and exploit without restraint. In effect, Trump sewed nothing but chaos and extirpation.

The governing principle of the Trump administration is total irresponsibility, a claim of innocence from a position of power, something which happens to be an old fascist trick. ~ American historian Timothy Synder

The greatest leeway granted to the president is in conducting foreign relations. While treaties and acts of war must be approved by the senate, presidents have consistently committed the US to aggression overseas without oversight, and with only belated acquiescence.

As aforementioned, presidents have repeatedly used deception to start wars, or simply have done what they pleased without accountability. Despite the notion of checks and balances, those in government favor state power, regardless of their rhetoric. Indeed, very few political office holders, jurists included, risk damaging the political institutions they hold dear.

The 1972 Watergate scandal over illicit campaign activities at the behest of the White House was whitewashed as best as the politicians involved could, even as the Democratic opposition pressed their advantage.

People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. ~ Richard Nixon regarding the Watergate scandal, legalistically relying upon a slang technicality of not being a crook (thief) as contrasted to being crooked

Nixon resigned rather than further damage the presidency and his legacy any worse than he had already. His hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon for the same reason. Ford forsook his chance for election to the office in doing so.

On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government 4 years, no matter what it does. ~ American entertainer Will Rogers

Several presidents have stretched or exceeded the constitutional limits of presidential power with certain initiatives. But it was not until Donald Trump assumed the office that it became clear an American president has practically imperial power, especially when at least one chamber of Congress is disposed to allow it, and more so if the federal courts have been stacked with enabling partisans (as was the case during Trump’s reign). Trump proved to be a triumph in illustrating how pathetic the US constitution design was in failing to provide for representative government via elections, and how the prized checks-and-balances supposedly built in is a chimera.

One man may as easily destroy as govern. ~ Ursula Le Guin


Federal administration is accomplished by a vast bureaucracy, divided into agencies. The President’s cabinet of 15 are the heads of these executive departments. Cabinet members must be approved by the senate.

In 2014 there were 4.2 million federal personnel, including 1.5 million in the military. Belying their rhetoric about downsizing government, from the 1960s, Republican presidents have consistently engorged federal employment, while Democrats have pruned it.

 Vice President

If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure. ~ US Republican Vice President Dan Quayle

The vice presidency was created by the Constitutional Congress as part of a convoluted scheme to prevent electoral college electors from trying to game the system to favor their own state’s candidate, thereby producing deadlocked elections. Distrust of democracy ran deep in the founding fathers.

(Each electoral college elector has 2 votes. 1 must be cast for a presidential candidate outside the state that the elector resides in. Fearing that electors would throw away their 2nd vote to bolster their favorite son’s chances of winning, Constitutional Convention delegates decided that the runner-up in the voting would become the vice president.)

The vice president is 1st in line to succeed a president if he does not fulfill his term, for whatever reason. This has happened 9 times: 4 assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy), 4 medical deaths (William Harrison, Taylor, Harding, FDR), and 1 resignation (Nixon). (President Harrison died of pneumonia, Taylor of digestive illness, Harding and FDR of a cerebral hemorrhage.)

Historically, beyond sending VPs overseas on diplomatic niceties, the vice presidency has typically been something of a 5th wheel in the administration.

President Clinton was a notable exception in making fulsome use of his like-minded VP, Al Gore. Clinton’s successor went further.

Given the task of finding a VP for Bush Jr., Dick Cheney nominated himself. Cheney had acquitted himself well in Bush Sr.’s administration as Secretary of Defense. In the Bush Jr. administration, Cheney played COO to Bush’s CEO shtick.


The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is preeminently a place of moral leadership. ~ Franklin Roosevelt

Presidential democracies have the clearest segregation of powers, and so, supposedly, superior checks and balances between those powers. The United States demonstrates how such a system can work diligently against societal interests.