”If your American Chief (President) be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute: The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him; and it will be the subject of long mediation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design; and, Sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens? I would rather infinitely, and I am sure most of this Convention are of the same opinion, have a King, Lords, and Commons, than a Government so replete with such insupportable evils.”

Thus Patrick ‘give me liberty or give me death’ Henry, founding father and one of the key anti-Federalists, the group of revolutionaries who fought a desperate battle against the ratification of the Constitution in the wake of the War of Independence. Henry and his fellow anti-federalists believed that the nascent country was departing from its initial vision as a union of free states, and becoming the very thing it had sought to escape – an infant imperial power ruled by an (elected) despot.

The most conservative of the American revolutionaries had believed that the routing of the English would be followed by the creation of an American king – and even John Adams had suggested that the official form of address to the new President be ‘his royal highness’. Anti-federalists believed that that the only way to prevent the US drifting from liberty was to give the states veto power over national legislation they did not like, thus making it practically impossible for the Federal government to project power either internally or abroad. The Presidency would be a sort of co-ordinating body, managing international diplomatic relations, and waging war – but only when authorised to do so by Congress.

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The anti-federalists lost that debate. Were they to come back today they would doubtless believe themselves vindicated. Two hundred years after the debate between Federalists and anti-Federalists, the Presidency may well be divvied up between two families over the course of a quarter-century – if Hillary Clinton were to win two terms, by 2016 one third of all Americans will have lived their entire lives under either a Bush or a Clinton – and the powers of the Presidency have grown formally and otherwise, to the point where the President, by the use of ‘signing statements’, statements of intent regarding Congressional laws, can effectively ignore much of what is set out by the other branches of power.

Is this the tyranny that Henry and others feared? Or simply a recognition that a trillion dollar economy with a nuclear arsenal cannot be run along the lines developed by an eighteenth century agrarian republic? What, in the twenty first century, is the US Presidency?

The Presidency:

With the development of representative political systems as the standard model, it is easy to forget that the American system was at its inception, a bold experiment – the application of the doctrine of the seperation of powers – legislative, executive, judicial — as developed by John Locke and Montesquieu. The Westminster system de facto combines legislative and executive functions – the prime minister and Cabinet are drawn from parliament, and wield day-to-day executive power via the figurehead of the governor-general, except when the latter is instructed by the CIA to go it alone.

Aside from exercising domestic executive power, the President is established as the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces by the constitution, appoints ambassadors and federal judges, including those on the Supreme Court – with the consent and confirmation of the Senate.

The American system quarantines legislative and executive powers absolutely, the President being elected seperately, and drawing her/his Cabinet from the general population. First President George Washington was elected unanimously by the electoral college (of which more below) – an expression of the hope that the office would rise above sectarian politics. But he was the first and last President to be the clear and unanimous choice and the 1796 election was a bitter stoush between Federalists and anti-Federalists (grouped under the Democratic-Republican party). Although there were a dozen serious candidates, the Presidential campaign was taking on its modern form as a contest between major parties.

One of the reasons for this was that the Presidency had quickly taken on additional de facto powers in the last decade of the eighteenth century, as it was found necessary to quash revolts by smallholders, in order to preserve the unity of the republic, or keep the rabble in their place, depending of your view of things. The quashing of the 1790s ‘whiskey rebellions’ – protests over excise taxes — established the power of the president over internal affairs of states, but it was Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana territory – an act he had no power to do – that established the ability of the Presidency to shape its own power where not specifically barred from doing so.

James Monroe’s 1823 declaration of the principle that any European colonisation attempt in North or South America would be deemed an attack on the United States, effectively focused the US outward as an aggressive power, rather than a purely defensive one. Andrew Jackson established the principle of forming a partisan Cabinet in 1829, and Abraham Lincoln pretty much wiped his bottom on the Bill of Rights in prosecuting the Civil War.

In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated with the Supreme Court’s striking down of much of his ‘New Deal’ legislation, proposed the idea of a stack – expanding the bench by appointing an additional seven judges to rig a working majority. The formation of the CIA and other national security agencies in the 1940s and 50s created a body of agencies with budgets independent of Congressional scrutiny, thus giving the President his own army – exactly the sort of thing that the anti-Federalists had worried about, and leading both to the escalation of the Vietnam conflict as an unscrutinised war in the 1960s, Watergate and the secret wars from the 70s to the 90s (El Salvador, Iran-contra, mujahadeen and others). In the last eight years, Republican control of both Congress and the White House has led to the greatest concentration of power in Presidential hands in the nation’s history, with the implication of key Supreme Court decisions evaded via the use of singing statements.

The selection process:

The all-encompassing Primary system – whereby voters registered as belonging to one or other party vote to select delegates to the convention to select the party’s candidate — was only developed in the twentieth century. Prior to that, members of Congress selected their candidates, until the 1830s, at which point unelected conventions did the job.

The Primary system has now blossomed into a rich fauna of primaries, caucuses (in which people case public votes in multiple rounds) and mixed convention/primary/caucuses such as Texas’s incomprehensible system. Primaries are either closed (party members only), semi-closed (people registered as independents can vote in either primary), open (anyone can vote in any primary) and ‘blanket’ – where any candidate from either party can be nominated in either primary (a process since struck down by the Supreme Court).

Prior to 1952 delegates voted up to attend the Convention were unpledged, ie representing no official candidate. Now, delegates voted up are pledged, with each state having a number of delegates proportional to their population. In the Republican party, it’s winner take all – the leading candidate gets all the state’s delegates. For the Democrats, it’s as a proportion of their total vote, further complicated in the case of some caucus systems by a weighting of the votes – thus Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama 51% to 45% in Nevada, but Obama came out with 13 delegates to Clinton’s 12.

The Democrats field a total of 4,049 delegates comprised of 3,253 delegates pledged to a particular candidate, and 796 ‘superdelegates’ (delegates by virtue of being party office holders), who are unpledged to any candidate, and may well come to be of supreme importance this year, if there is a reasonably even split between Obama and Clinton. The Republicans have an easier process. They elect only 2488 delegates, and it’s a winner take all on a state-by-state basis, with a weighting benefitting states that voted Republican in the previous election.

Before the primary system really took off the party conventions would decide a candidate. The last such ‘floor fight’ occurred in 1952 when Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was taken to three ballots, though George McGovern’s 1972 candidacy was only achieved by a series of complex backroom maneouvres. Candidates for the President must be 35 years or older, a natural born citizen of the US, and have resided there for at least fourteen years.

The Presidential Vote:

Famously, voters in the US are not actually voting for a Presidential candidate on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, they are voting for members of an electoral college – a group of citizens who will then cast a ballot for President. The system was allegedly devised in a pre-literate, broadcast age to deal with the fact that many people might never get to hear about who was actually running for President, but it’s just faintly possible that the revolutionary elite were scared of the mob.

Indeed until the 1820s a fair few states’ electors were selected by state legislatures rather than voters directly, a possibility still on the books – in 2000 Florida’s state assembly was getting prepared to do so, if the recount had delayed a result past the deadline for electors to be appointed (first Monday after the second Wednesday in December). Currently, the names of the electoral collegians (a team is selected by each party) don’t appear on the ballot, and the collegians are pledged – and in 24 states constrained by law – to vote for the candidate they’re attached to.

The number of electors for each state is calculated by adding the number of senators (two) and Congressional districts, a weighted process benefitting the smallest states. Thus Wyoming has a million people and three electoral college votes, while Arizona has six million people and ten votes, thus giving Wyoming twice the clout. Forty eight states use a winner takes all electors basis. Maine and Nebraska give two votes to the overall winner and award the rest on a congressional district by district basis. Stop slouching. This will be on the exam.

However it will come as no surprise that they don’t always. So-called ‘faithless electors’ have cast ballots on 158 occasions. This occurs either because the candidate on the ballot has died prior to the college meeting, some of them have been clear accidents, and others have been isolated protests. In 1960, fifteen Republican electors in three states voted for pro-segregationist Robert Byrd, even though he wasn’t even on the ballot. In 1836, Virginia electors pledged to Robert Johnston refused to vote for him, after it became public that he had a Black mistress, leaving no VP candidate with an electoral majority, leaving the Senate to select the VP (if there is no majority in the College, the House of Representatives selects the President from the three most popular candidates, the Senate the VP).

The problem for the US is not that there have been these near misses of a total schemozzle, but that there hasn’t been one. Thus this ramshackle system has persisted with the faint but ever-real possibility that a mass outbreak of faithless voting could seat a President not chosen by a majority of voters – and not just a very close stolen election like 2000, but a real gap of millions of votes. Suppose for example that the US was at war – a real one not the Iraq farce – and the Democrats were split between hawks and doves. Would it be possible that the Democrats could win 26 states, the Republicans 24, and that hawkish Democrat electors in two sizeable states would switch their vote? Yes, even in states where the laws punish such behaviour (because the law does not actually change the vote, it merely punishes the faithless elector). And there’s nothing anyone could do about it.


A sitting President can be impeached – that is indicted — for ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ by the House of Representatives and then put on trial in the Senate. Note that impeachment is not the actual sacking of a President, but the vote to put the President up for trial in the Senate. Two Presidents – Andrew Jackson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999 – have been impeached, both on highly partisan and largely spurious grounds. Both were acquitted. Had either been found guilty they would have been replaced by…

The Vice-President:

‘Not worth a bucket of warm piss’ is how FDR’s first VP John Garner Nance described the second highest office in the land, an office that, until the descent of dark angel Dick Cheney, was little more than a sack of spare parts for a President, and a waiting room for the next candidacy. The initial supposition that the Presidency would be a non-party political office led to the initial system whereby the runner-up in the election would become VP – a situation more conducive to sitcom than statesmanship. That system was changed to a seperate vote in 1804, in reaction to the 1796 election in which elected President John Adams’ rival Thomas Jefferson became VP and spent the next four years systematically undermining him.

Essentially the role of VP is utterly unnecessary, as there is a complete order of succession for a dead, impeached or resigned President (VP – Speaker of the House of Representatives – President pro tempore of Senate – Secretary of State and on through the Cabinet) which could simply skip the VP altogether. If the VP’s office becomes vacant, a replacement is nominated and confirmed by Congress. This anomaly of the position led to the US being ruled by someone never directly elected by the people – Gerald Ford, appointed to replace Spiro Agnew in 1973 – before that happened with George W Bush in 2000.

The Parties:

The current two party system only stabilised in the 1850s, when Lincoln and others left the Whig party and formed the Republicans. The early decades of the US had been dominated by Federalist and anti-Federalist groupings, until the question was decided in favour of the former. The anti-federalists were known as the Democratic-Republicans, and numbered Jefferson and Madison among their members. They eventually evolved into the Democratic party. Following the Civil War, and the readmission of southern states to the Union in 1868, the South was dominated by the Democrats as a virtual one-party state from the 1880s to the 1960s – in many cases, state legislative seats, governorships and other offices were uncontested elections, there being no organised Republican party in the state, and the real contest being the Democratic primaries.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the Democrats and Republicans were coalitions of interests with no one unifying principle – the former comprising business interests with a laissez-faire approach, Catholic workers and white southerners, the Republicans based on protectionist industries, Protestants, and Southern blacks. The current realignment as more or less left-right parties came in the early part of the twentieth century as the pro-business and nationalist factions of the Republican party tore asunder – with Theodore Roosevelt taking the nationalist progressives (pro-tarriff, pro-social welfare) out of the party in 1912 to run the only third party campaign to beat one of the major parties into third place – Republican president Taft gaining only two states and eight electoral college votes.

However, the Progressive party faded away over the next years, and its members then joined the Democrats rather than the Republicans. The split formalised the Democrats connection with trade unions and the Republicans with business bodies, in the North, but the Democrats retained a total hold on the South, which limited their capacity to develop social liberal policies. When northern Democrats put a desegregationist plank in the 1948 party platform, South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond ran a seperate ‘Dixiecrat’ campaign and the party was only unified by putting civil rights on the backburner until the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson pushed through the civil rights acts, ‘losing’ as he said ‘the South for a generation’ – and essentially cementing the left/liberal/Democrat – right/conservative/Republican split.

Third parties:

With the exception of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive tilt, third parties have never been serious contenders for the Presidency. Thurmond’s Dixiecrats took four southern states in 48, but Truman still prevailed. Segregationist George Wallace ran for the American Independent Party in 1968 and took ten states in a Dixiecrat reprise, but the most successful – in raw vote terms – was Ross Perot’s 1992 run on a whacky mix of protectionism, pro-choice, anti-drugs, etc populism which won 19% of the vote, but no states, owing to the lack of a regional base. Ralph Nader’s 2000 run for the Green Party gained 2.7% and looked like a novelty – in fact it was a resumption of the basic 3% vote that the Socialist Party gained between 1900 and the 1930s. Perhaps the most stalwart national third party are the Libertarians, who have only ever gained 1 (faithless) electoral college vote since formation in 1971, but who have managed to get several hundred positions on city council state assemblies and mayoralties across the nation, despite being freaking nuts.

Ballot Access:

One of the main difficulties for third party candidates is the torturous process of getting on the ballot for President – a state-by-state process involving various combinations of petitions with X,000 signatures, prior votes (for parties), etc. The process runs the gamut from scrupulously fair – in Lutheran places like Minnesota – to New Jersey, where both major parties have been investigated under anti-racketeering laws for keeping parties and candidates off ballots.

Campaign Finance:

But of course in the end it all comes down to money. Grover Cleveland’s advisor Mark Hanna, one of the inventors of modern campaigning, once remarked that ‘two things are necessary for success in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the other one is’. Prior to 2004, candidates subsisted on an equal mix of ‘hard’ money – direct contributions to candidates, capped at around $2000 per individual – and ‘soft’ money, given through ‘political action committees’, not to a candidate but to a particular cause associated with a candidate. The trick was that such ‘soft’ money could be rolled into various ancillary parts of a candidate’s campaign, such as office costs and voter registration drives.

The bi-partisan ‘McCain-Feingold’ act limited the capacity for soft money to bleed into campaigns, but it doubled the amount that can come from individuals. The result has been a phenomenon known as ‘bundling’ in which high-profile fundraisers gather people together – like for example their employees – all willing to donate the maximum amount to the candidate. Are these people being (illegally) reimbursed for their contributions as a way of funnelling money to the candidate from the super-rich? Perish the thought. Candidates who hit above a certain level get matching funds from the government, a process which has led to some truly whacky campaigns, such as the 2000 alliance between ultra-rightist Pat Buchanan and ultra-leftist (and alleged member of the Communist party (marxist-leninist) USA Lenora Fulani, which did not, amazingly, last long.

One thing there’s no limit on is candidates funding their own campaign. With the rise of a large class of super-rich over the last decade, there’s an increasing number of candidates simply wildly outspending anything their opponents – even those with a substantial base – can come up with. Ross Perot was perhaps the first to spend eight figures making a showing. More recently billionaire Mike Bloomberg managed to become a Republican mayor of solidly Democratic New York with a spending blitz, and an increasing number of Congressional races are being filled by people with few existing party affiliations who decide to buy their way into politics. This would suggest that US government is acquiring a nakedly plutocratic, rather than merely financially corrupted, dimension.

And finally….fun Presidential facts:

The longest serving President was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, clocking up three full terms and a year and bit of the fourth, after which the twenty-second amendment was passed, limiting Presidents to two full terms preceded by two years of a term served by replacing a President as part of the order of succession.

Shortest term was served by William Henry Harrison in 1841, who insisted on giving a ninety minute inauguration speech in the rain, and died of pneumonia a month later.

Members of the Labor Right have formed the Chester A Arthur society named after one of the most obscure Presidents. The society’s stated aim of interest in American history, especially the Civil War, has acted as a useful cover by which the members could make trips to Virginia to get orders from their CIA paymasters.

Walter Mondale’s 1984 running mate Geraldine Ferraro was the first major female candidate in the elections, but not the first to receive an electoral college vote. That honour went to 1972 libertarian candidate Toni Nathan, who received one vote from a faithless elector.

During the President’s State of the Union address to the nation, one member of Cabinet in the line of succession remains absent in a secret location in case the entire government is obliterated, possibly by someone they’d trained in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The articles which saw the incorporation of Texas into the US (it was an independent republic between 1836-1845) specify that the state can split into four additional states should it so choose.

Quite a few of the Presidents were big fatty boombahs. Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, FDR and above all William Taft all looked like serious pituitary cases. FDR had the wheelchair thing going, but the others were probably victims of the late Victorian-Edwardian diet.

The office of ‘first lady’ didn’t become established until the nineteenth century. The daughter of widower President Thomas Jefferson deputised, as did ‘bachelor’ James Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane, the nation not ready for a first Thai ladyboy. John Tyler had three first ladies (first wife, niece, second wife), though there’s no report of him storing a cigar in any of them.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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