While federal government receives most of the attention of media, the US political system has 50 more state governments and thousands of local governmental units. All of them offer bigger diversity and public participation at the local level. State governments appeared yet before the national government for some American cities were founded as early as the 17th century. Before the Revolution, 13 states had been political entities with their governments and constitutions. Today state governments actively influence the US politics. They partially ease the pressure laid on the federal government issuing their own legislation and providing for their territories.
State political structures include constitutions, governors, state legislatures, judicial systems, and bureaucracy. State constitutions may strongly differ from each other; on the other hand, they are easy to amend. States continually reform their constitutions adjusting them to the specifics of state government. Governors are at the helm of the state accountable for its daily operation. State legislators are responsible for representation, legislation, and control over the executive branch.
Among the local governments, we differentiate county governments and municipal governments. There are more than 3,000 county governments out of total 88,000 local units in the US. Functions of county governments vary from state to state; in some states, they deliver vital services, such as education or welfare. Counties are strong in rural areas that do not belong to any city of town. All public goods and services in the area may be arranged by county governments. As for municipal governments, they are much more numerous (about 20,000). They may take different forms, such as the mayor-council or the council-manager one. Municipal governments deliver all kinds of services to their towns taking into account that they are much larger than counties.
The role of parties in the American political process shall not be underestimated. They directly influence elections, governing, and stabilizing political system on the whole. First US political parties emerged soon after the Republic had been established. By the end of the 19th century, party-like organizations called political machines greatly influenced voting. In the 20th century, political parties evolved together with the emerging welfare state.
The present two-party system was established in 1950 when the American Committee on Political Parties released the report on productivity and convenience of the approach. Only two strongest parties could dominate in elections; third parties participated as well but they would hardly win. The system was accepted, and today the two parties perform a range of functions. Besides pushing acts in the Congress, parties recruit political candidates and encourage voters to participate in political processes.
Structurally, political parties are divided into three parts – the party in government, the party in the electorate, and the party organization. The first definition refers to all the officials identified within the party. Party members at different levels are expected to coordinate to enact party’s proposals and gain the support of the electorate. Party in the electorate are the voters from within the party who can promote their candidates for legislative office. It allows voters to develop psychological attachment to a party. The party organization consists of structures that help it function day to day.
Today the party system continues to develop further. Many candidates employ their own organizations and parties seem to gradually weaken. However, the national committees are now service organizations, and their work can help parties gain more importance. The two-party system has proven to be resilient over the years, and any changes in this respect are unlikely.
Bureaucracy is the administrative apparatus that controls the accomplishment of government policies. It is essential to implement executive orders into life to make sure that the state works properly. Max Weber gave more precise definition to bureaucracy describing it as an organization with several distinct features. It has jurisdictions and positions with a responsible authority. Clear hierarchy with supervision and subordination is required. In bureaucratic institutions, officials are accountable for their actions. Like any other administrative institutions, they have a written statute and competent experienced workforce who actually comply with the rules. Weber’s bureaucracy is a perfect type of organization. Bureaucratic organizations that function today are often less idealistic and messier in their practices.
The federal government has bureaucratic agencies at all levels. It consists of cabinet departments (the Department of Education, the Department of Justice etc.) that report directly to the president. The agencies within often have conflicting responsibilities that hamper implementation of executive orders. Many similar departments perform bureaucratic functions on the state level. Some state departments are constitutional bodies with separately elected officials that do not report to the governor. On the local level, bureaucracy is different; it depends on the type of state government and the size of the area. Local bureaucrats report to the state government but they solve entirely different problems than those at the federal or state level.
Though it assures a proper functioning of government, bureaucracy is routinely criticized. Bureaucrats are usually viewed as public officers with a low performance and high self-interest. Those in control institutions are often misunderstood because their activities are not as transparent as that of officials in service. Nevertheless, some scholars like Charles Goodsell or Richard Stillman attempt to debunk myths about bureaucracy in their writings.
We often doubt that decisions of judges are driven exceptionally by law. No person can be completely devoid of a bias and subjective preferences even in their professional life. Judges are not an exception. Exploring the motives that drive judges in decision-making is the goal of judicial politics. The study also investigates the interaction between the court and other parts of the political system.
Judicial politics dates back to the early 20th century when legal realists argued that judges create laws based on their personal preferences. By now, we have three major theories explaining judicial decision-making – attitudinal, strategic, and institutional. The attitudinal model was defined by Jeffrey Segal and Harold Spaeth who argued that judges made the law instead of following it. Whether conservatives or liberals, judges are likely to vote according to their old beliefs and personality traits. The attitudinal model satisfactory predicted votes of Supreme Court judges so that it was a popular point of judicial politics in the 1990s until it was challenged by the strategic model.
The strategic model of judicial behavior states that judges cannot always vote out of their personal preferences without taking into account the context of the case. Besides, they cannot achieve their goals without a cooperation of their colleagues. A court decision is not a collection of personal opinions but the cooperation of people who want that decision to be implemented. In the strategic model, judges take into account plenty of external factors and predict the consequences of their decisions instead of acting on a whim within the attitudinal model.
In both models, individual goals of judges are important. The third model of historic institutionalism expands goals to the level of the Court. As an institution, the Court has its own rules. It interacts with other political institutions, and Court practices often determine which decision is acceptable and which one shall not pass.
Mass media are a powerful regulator of social life, especially in the pre-election time or during a significant social change. The media become an information center and a place for discussion that assures democracy in the society. At the same time, media make room for speculation, harassment, and fraud that happen so often when the society is submerged in a heated debate. Though the impact of media on citizens is often controversial, it remains the major means of communication between politicians and the electorate. The public gets nearly all of political information from the media.
There are different types of media ownership – purely public, purely commercial, and mixed. Media that are not purely public are almost always controlled by political parties, which involves bias and threatens the democracy. Parties try to influence what people know, believe, and do politically, mainly through the propaganda. It is the hypodermic model of media effects common to post-totalitarian countries and weak new democracies.
The minimal media effect model presents an alternative view to the radical point of the hypodermic model. It implies that people’s loyalty to some parties remains steadfast irrespective of what media say about them. Besides, people are not persuaded as easily by the media as they are by their fellows of opinion leaders. The minimal effect of media is also questioned because there is little empirical evidence to support it. Instead, scholars favor the subtle effect model that is more comprehensive than previous two models.
The model of subtle effects implies that media does not dictate people what to think but rather determines their sphere of interest. It is no less important to create a shared focus of attention for millions of people if the media want to manipulate public opinion. The exposure of media influences people indirectly, which does not diminish its effect in any way.
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