The combination of federal, state, and local laws, bodies, and agencies that is responsible for carrying out the operations of the United States. The federal government of the United States is centered in Washington, D.C.
The institutions of all governments emerge from basic principles. In the United States the one basic principle is representative democracy, which defines a system in which the people govern themselves by electing their own leaders. The American government functions to secure this principle and to further the common interests of the people.
Democracy in America is based on six essential ideals: (1) People must accept the principle of majority rule. (2) The political rights of minorities must be protected. (3) Citizens must agree to a system of rule by law. (4) The free exchange of opinions and ideas must not be restricted. (5) All citizens must be equal before the law. (6) Government exists to serve the people, because it derives its power from the people. These ideals form the basis of the democratic system in the United States, which seeks to create a union of diverse peoples, places, and interests.
To implement its essential democratic ideals, the United States has built its government on four elements: (1) popular sovereignty, meaning that the people are the ultimate source of the government’s authority; (2) representative government; (3) checks and balances; and (4) federalism, an arrangement where powers are shared by different levels of government.
Every government has a source of its sovereignty or authority, and most of the political structures of the U.S. government apply the doctrine of popular sovereignty. In previous centuries the source of sovereignty in some countries was the monarchy-the divine right of kings to rule. Americans place the source of authority in the people who, in a democratic society, reign. In this idea the citizens collectively represent the nation’s authority. They then express that authority individually by voting to elect leaders to represent them in government. “I know no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1820, “and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.” This was an experimental idea at the time, but today Americans take it for granted.
The second principle of U.S. democracy is representative government. In a representative government, the people delegate their powers to elected officials. In the United States, candidates compete for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, as well as for many state and local positions. In turn these elected officials represent the will of the people and ensure that the government is accountable to its citizens. In a democracy, the people exercise power through elections, which allow adult citizens of the United States the chance to have their voices heard and to influence government. With their vote, they can remove officials who ignore their intentions or who betray their trust. Political leaders are accountable as agents of the people; this accountability is an important feature of the American system of representative government.
In order to truly work, however, representative government must represent all people. Originally, the only people allowed to vote, and thus to be represented, were white men who owned property—a small percentage of the population. Gradually, voting rights were broadened to include white men without property, blacks, Native Americans, naturalized immigrants, and women.
The third principle of American democracy is the system of checks and balances. The three branches of government—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial—restrain and stabilize one another through their separated functions. The legislative branch, represented by Congress, must pass bills before they can become law. The executive branch—namely, the president—can veto bills passed by Congress, thus preventing them from becoming law. In turn, by a two-thirds vote, Congress can override the president’s veto. The Supreme Court may invalidate acts of Congress by declaring them contrary to the Constitution of the United States, but Congress can change the Constitution through the amendment process.
The fourth principle of democracy in the United States is federalism. In the American federal system, the states and the national government divide authority. This division of power helps curb abuses by either the national or the state governments.