United States Government, 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
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