10 Basic Things Every American Should Know About How Your Country Works

Hey y’all. Let’s have a little talk about this election.

Every four years, we suddenly project upon the Presidential election every errant hope, fear, anxiety and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ we each feel about our lives. All the basic civics you learned (or were supposed to have learned) in school goes right out the window.

So here’s a quick refresher that will make you a better, more informed voter, no matter whose politics you happen to prefer.


1 — The President’s powers are really pretty limited.

In the American system of government, the President simply does not, and cannot, do the vast majority of what every candidate says they will.

The President’s powers are described in Article Two of the U.S. Constitution. Read it — it’s good stuff! In it, you’ll see that American Presidents do not have the vast majority of powers that most Presidential candidates claim. The President, for example, does not set tax rates. The President does not spend money. The President does not pass laws or declare wars, whether against a foreign state or Christmas.

The President is mainly called upon to “faithfully execute” the laws that Congress passes (importantly, except those which s/he chooses to veto) and to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. S/He does a bunch of other things too, but these are key because they entail a great deal of interpretable leeway, and actually make the President a pretty powerful executive (at least as compared with many other democracies). Even so, pretty much every President gripes about feeling powerless at some point in their term in office. Arguably the greatest power the American President has is the bully pulpit — not actual policymaking ability.

The Presidency matters a lot. But if you really want to make things happen, Congress is where the action is.

2. Congress is where stuff really happens.

The U.S. Congress is made up of the House of Representatives, whose representation is determined by population, and the Senate, in which every state has two representatives. Its powers are enumerated in Article One of the U.S. Constitution.

Not nearly as nice inside.

The House of Representatives is the only government body permitted to raise revenue. That is, all bills seeking to become law that would raise revenue (say, through taxes) must originate in the House. Likewise, any legislation to permit spending public money must also originate in Congress.

This is one reason, by the way, why the perennial “debt ceiling” debate is extremely silly. Congress sets a “debt ceiling” (a completely artificial construct) for itself, authorizes itself to spend more than that amount, and then threatens a shutdown if it does exactly as it has authorized itself to do. If that sounds too stupid to be true, well — lots of people agree! Yet them’s the breaks.

The Senate is also incredibly important, because it must advise and consent to (emphasis on the latter) many of the President’s appointments. Justices of the Supreme Court must be confirmed by the Senate, as must cabinet members, most heads of most federal government agencies and ambassadors. The Senate must also ratify treaties.

This is the logjam we find ourselves currently in about the Supreme Court. The President can nominate justices, but they must get Senate confirmation. So if the Senate simply chooses to sit on its hands… no new Supreme Court justices. Everyone can act according to their prerogative, but nothing will get done. Democracy!

The Congress is the only government body that can declare war. In practice, they almost never do so. Congress has not formally declared a war since World War II. Congress has authorized many other military engagements — like, say, the Vietnam War and the first and second Iraq wars — and chosen to fund other military actions as well (like airstrikes in Libya). There’s lots of disagreement about the fundamental tension between the President’s role as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and Congress’s explicit Constitutional authority to authorize wars, and too much to go into here.

Most members of Congress are incumbents, and incumbents have around a 90% re-election rate. Everyone talks about how much they hate Congress (the institution itself has about a 14% approval rating), but most voters assume it’s other representatives that are the problem, not “their guy.”

3. The Supreme Court sort of plays cleanup in our legislative process.

Even a well-crafted piece of legislation must inevitably be interpreted for a particular situation, and many, many pieces of legislation are not well-crafted at all. In fact, Congress often prefers not to clarify details in its legislation, particularly on thorny or controversial issues, and let the Supreme Court work it out instead. (After all, Justices have lifetime appointments, but members of Congress have elections to win!)

Article Three of the U.S. Constitution leaves out most of the details of how our court system works — how many justices, or federal courts, etc. Most of these are set by statute, and can be changed. FDR once famously tried to get Congress to pass a law raising the number of SCOTUS justices, whom he could then appoint in order to get the Court to stop finding his New Deal legislation unconstitutional. It did not work.

The Court is increasingly required to make difficult public policy decisions that the legislative branch cannot, or will not, decide upon. (Because, again, the legislative branch is made up of risk-averse career politicians who must face elections.) Should abortion be legal? Should same-sex marriage be the law of the land? Should individuals be required to have health insurance? There are, of course, constitutional questions at play in each one, but they require significant re-interpretation of an ancient (227 years old now) document to apply it to modern circumstances. (James Madison did not hold any strong opinions on net neutrality.)

The Supreme Court is not, and has never been, a truly “non-political” body. Its members are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, so no one should really expect it to be. Nor do its justices even technically need legal training, though all to date have had some. (Chief Justice Taft even served as President before being nominated to the Court.)

There is no purely apolitical interpretation of anything in the Constitution or the public policy matters the Court is faced with. Anyone who says differently is pushing an agenda.

4. Some things the Constitution does, and does not, say.

There is a terrific Onion article that pretty much sums up most public discussion of the Constitution: “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines the Constitution To Be”. In it, the fabled Area Man simply ascribes whatever political preferences he has to the Constitution while being glaringly ignorant of what the document actually says.

As it so often is, The Onion is hilarious because it perfectly captures reality.

Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, for example, will you find anything like references to Christianity, prayer or even god, or guarantees of privacy, individuals’ rights to firearms or legal treatment of non-citizens.

There are, of course, boatloads of statutes and case law that clarify the details, almost all of which can be overriden immediately with a new law saying something different. But not the Constitution. And the framers deliberately made it really difficult to amend the Constitution, going so far as to require supermajorities in either Congress and/or the states to ratify them.

5. The federal government spends the large majority of its money on these three things, no matter who’s in power.

Social Security, Medicare, and the military account for ~76% of all money the federal government spends, and that amount has remained pretty much unchanged, no matter whose party is in power.

https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/

This is so important that it bears repeating: no matter who wins the election, most of the money the government spends goes to mandatory entitlements like Social Security and Medicare and to the military. Everything else is peanuts.

Ask around. The vast majority of Americans have no idea where their tax dollars go, and have some vague idea that they’re spent on expensive public works projects, given away, or frittered away through corruption.

But not really!

Most of your money goes back to other Americans in the form of entitlements like grandma’s Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits and more. Another 20% goes to fund the military. And a very small amount — literally a couple of percentage points — goes to pay for everything else the government does. (Here is an excellent infographic that dives into the weeds if you want to really get into a rat hole about it.)

There are big problems with this model. Entitlement costs are rising faster than tax income, for one, leading many to insist that some kind of entitlements reform is needed before that system becomes insolvent. The military is also incredibly expensive, and geared towards fighting a massive, conventional threat — like the Soviet Union, or World War III — that many see as less relevant today.

Yet no one talks about any of this, preferring instead to score political points about who’s to blame for our national debt or budget deficits. Pretty much all of that misses the point that the discretionary budget (that other 16–18%) has almost nothing to do with why we have such a national debt to begin with, or what’s really driving it.

6. The U.S. economy is massive, growing, and impossibly complex.

The U.S. economy is a little over $17 trillion dollars, and by last count, growing at about 2% per year. Growing an economy that size at that speed is a major accomplishment. While no other country’s economy is truly comparable, it’s worth noting that most of the large European economies (with the exception of Germany) are not growing at all. Japan is stagnant and Brazil is shrinking. China continues to grow at a fast pace.

No one completely understands the U.S. economy. No one. Not the government, not the big banks, not Warren Buffett, no one. It’s just too big, too complex and too fast-moving. If anyone tells you they truly understand the entire economy, let alone can precisely predict it, stop listening to that person.

The American economy has mostly pivoted away from manufacturing and towards services. Losing low-skill manufacturing jobs to lower-cost countries is inevitable, and those jobs are not coming back. As it always has, the economy constantly changes, requiring more skills, different skills, and flourishing in some regions more than others. This will continue no matter what the government does.

7. Everyone calls themselves “middle-class,” but that definition is now stretched beyond all meaning.

In 2014, the latest year for which data is available, median household income in the United States was about $53,000. It was a bit higher for white households, significantly lower for black ones, and significantly higher for Asian ones.

There are lots of ways to visualize income distribution in the United States, but suffice to say it is more unequal here than in other wealthy countries. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans greatly underestimate just how unequal it is, and how much mobility really exists between income levels.

More U.S. households earn < $50k/yr than own dogs. Fewer earn > $250k/yr than own reptiles.

Many politicians frame their policy proposals, particularly tax plans, as being aimed at the “middle class.” Framing it that way encourages as many voters as possible to support what they say, because — by design — it is impossible to know who exactly they mean.

It has become routine to hear politicians talk about “the middle class” as somehow encompassing both the family of five making $60,000 per year with poor job security, no healthcare and irregular, unpredictable hours, and the family of three making $230,000 per year with bankers’ hours, employer-provided childcare, healthcare and crepe station at the company cafe.

Voters feel these stresses acutely, but little is said about them.

8. Politics has always been a pretty dirty business.

You think politics is a corrupt mud-slinging match today, huh?

It was very common practice for more than a century after our country’s founding for candidates for office to provide lots of free liquor to supporters on Election Day. George Washington himself actually lost his first election for Virginia’s House of Burgesses because he didn’t pay for enough! Before running for the seat again three years later, Washington bought his farm at Mount Vernon, started growing rye, hired a man to distill it, and during his election in 1758, passed out free whiskey of his own manufacture. He won.

For much of our country’s history, “vote early and often” was not a joke — it was each team’s marching orders.

American political history throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries is literally one story of politicians enriching themselves after another. Land grabbing speculation, open collusion with banking and industry, war profiteering, human trafficking in slaves, selling off public resources and massive fraud and graft was simply the rule, not the exception.

Not only were most politicians “corrupt” in the meaning of the term today, but they and the press that covered them was also viciously unfair. The notion that the media has some journalistic ethic of neutrality to uphold is a fairly modern invention. Open accusations of theft, murder, infidelity, out-of-wedlock births, miscegenation, religious impropriety, name-calling and more were completely standard features of how the late 18th, 19th and early 20th century press covered elections. (And they weren’t all lies, either.)

In the modern era, our standard for politicians’ behavior is dramatically higher than it has ever been before. There are probably two reasons for this: for one, social mores have simply changed, leading us to want a higher standard of leader; the other is that media scrutiny today is more harsh, unrelenting and unfair. The media is ravenous for scandal, and when you give a lot of ambitious politicians a set of important powers over the world’s biggest government budget and economy, corruption is just going to happen.

We rely on the media, supported by the First Amendment, to investigate this; but it’s up to voters to punish them for it.

9. Our political system is designed to make massive, fundamental change extremely difficult.

On both the left and the right, and for many, many years running, the language of sparking big “revolutionary” change is a common refrain on the campaign trail. We’ve seen this for decades this on the right, often in terms of moral or religious reawakening (“taking our country back”, etc.), and recently and explicitly on the left, with the Sanders campaign’s calls for a democratic-socialist “revolution.” True believers in both camps often dream of enacting deep, fundamental changes in how our country and society works according to their preferences.

But that story of change is completely at odds with the record of how America has always actually worked. Far-reaching change is very difficult to achieve in the American political system (by design), and close to impossible in our free and open society. It took a civil war to abolish slavery, and nearly another century to even reluctantly and unevenly codify actual civil rights for non-whites (and we’re still not anywhere close to done). Decades of campaigning and raucous debate preceded extending the franchise to women. The Temperance movement, unusually, managed to very effectively organize and campaign for Prohibition into law in a little over a decade; but of course, that experiment ended in disaster and repeal.

Rather, the history of change and progress in America is one of nudges. The world’s largest economy and oldest constitutional democracy is an aircraft carrier of 320 million people, not a speedboat that can withstand major, sudden course changes — even if it could execute them in the first place.

Those nudges are important, difficult and endlessly controversial — but they happen. Some of them come from government leadership. Many, however, don’t. No one passed a “Move Away From A Manufacturing Economy” law or “Increase Non-Religious Proportion of the Population” resolution. In fact, social and cultural changes lead to a lot more government policy changes than the other way around.

10. Things are getting better.

No, really. It’s true.

The media, politicians and interest group entrepreneurs from every angle constantly work to convince Americans that everything is terrible. This is because there is good money to be made in peddling outrage and fear. The media makes money by attracting eyeballs and clicks to their content in order to sell ads, and the fearmongers sell books and build their personal media brands.

Yet the reality around us is quite different. By almost any measure, America is a much safer, cleaner and better place to live than it has ever been. Per-capita GDP has never been higher. High school and college enrollments are at all-time highs. Teen pregnancy has fallen by half since 1996. Violent crime is down by 51% since 1990, property crime down 43%, sexual assault down 81%. Air and water quality are dramatically better than they were when Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 and Clean Water Act in 1972. Our cars and highways are safer than they have ever been in the modern era. The unemployment level is under 5%, the economy is steadily creating a quarter of a million jobs every three months, wages have begun to rise and a broad swath of economic indicators are green. And there has also been tons of improvements in quality of life that these statistics can’t even capture: mobile phones! Mapping! Ecommerce! Better communications than ever before! GPS!

Of course, not everything is roses and puppies. For the 13th year running, American troops are still caught in a quagmire of conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan. There’s a refugee crisis, ISIS, a revanchist Russia and a more confrontational China. Most Americans’ real incomes have been stagnant for twenty years, the health care system is still mostly a mess, there’s mass incarceration, uneven economic gains and a deeply unequal educational system. And that’s just the short list.

The truth is, there’s no perfect state out there to be had. The world, and America, will forever be a work in progress. But even as we must be clear about our faults, let’s maintain some perspective about the country we’ve left behind us.


Anyway, this is just some stuff that every American should really learn in school, but which most either don’t or just forgets about. What else would you add?

I’m on the twitterwebs.

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