ABC OF AMERICAN POLITICS

  • Bill of Rights

    The Bill of Rights sets out certain rights held by citizens of the United States. It consists of the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. For example, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression, religion and the press, and the Second, the right to bear arms.

  • Cabinet

    All the members of the executive committee. Cabinet members are nominated by the President, but must be confirmed by the Senate. Their job is to advise the President on issues related to their area of expertise. The Cabinet comprises the Vice President, the Attorney General, the secretaries heading the 15 executive departments, and various presidential advisers.

  • Capitol Hill

    The government legislature, located in Washington D.C., where the two chambers of Congress sit.

  • Caucus (or party committee)

    One of the two types of votes held by parties to nominate candidates for an election. In States that have chosen to hold a caucus, party members and supporters on a voters list select delegates to county, district and State conventions, delegates who will choose one of the candidates at their party's national convention.

  • Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

    A decision handed down by the Supreme Court in January 2010 that allows corporations and unions to spend as much money as they want to campaign for or against a candidate. The two parties to the case were the Federal Election Commission (see FEC) and the conservative organization Citizens United, which produced a documentary titled Hillary: The Movie, shown in 2008, in the middle of the election cycle.

  • Constitution

    Adopted in 1787, the Constitution came into effect in 1789 and laid the political and legal foundation of the United States. The Constitution establishes the distribution of powers between the federal and State governments. It also describes the country's main political and legal institutions and how they function.

  • Congress

    The legislative branch of government made up of elected representatives from each of the States. It consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each of the two political parties has a leader who does not impose a party line. Committees and subcommittees play a crucial role in Congress.

  • Delegate

    Nominated through a primary election or caucus, delegates participate in a party?s national convention. Some represent their district while others represent their State (also see Superdelegates).

  • Democratic (Party)

    One of the country’s main two political parties. The Democratic Party is more left-leaning than its Republican rival. Founded around 1800, the party originally advocated making the States independent of the federal government. It moved towards the left in the nineteenth century, and particularly during the 1960s, before returning to the centre in the latter part of the twentieth century. Democratic presidents include Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945), John F. Kennedy (1961–1963), Jimmy Carter (1977–1981), Bill Clinton (1993–2001) and Barack Obama (since 2009). The party’s symbol is a donkey.

  • Electoral College

    Voters do not cast their ballot directly for the President but rather vote for presidential electors, who comprise the Electoral College, and whose sole purpose, under the Constitution, is to elect the head of state. The number of presidential electors in each state corresponds to the number of elected officials it has in Congress. There are also three electors allocated to the District of Columbia, for a grand total of 538.

  • FEC

    Federal Election Commission, the agency in charge of regulating the financing of election campaigns

  • GOP

    A nickname for the Republican Party (Grand Old Party)

  • Governor

    The chief executive of each State. This position is the equivalent of provincial premier in our political system.

  • House of Representatives

    One of the two chambers of Congress that form the legislative branch of government. The House of Representatives consists of 435 elected members from all the States in the country. One of its responsibilities is to vote on the budget.

  • Indirect universal suffrage

    A system allowing American citizens of voting age to exercise their right to vote during a presidential campaign. Citizens do not vote directly for the President but rather for intermediaries (electors) who will elect the President and Vice President.

  • Lobby groups

    Groups that exert pressure on political decision-makers in order to advance their economic or social interests. Lobby groups have a decisive influence on government policy. Examples include the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

  • Midterm elections

    Every four years, elections are held in the middle of the President's term in office to re-elect all members of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. Some governors' seats are also at stake.

  • National convention

    Meeting of State delegates from each of the two major parties, held each summer before the presidential elections. The purpose of the convention is to select the nominees for President and Vice President, and to adopt the party's platform.

  • PACs

    Companies, unions, professional associations and citizen groups can form political action committees (PACs) that raise funds on behalf of a specific candidate. The Microsoft Political Action Committee, for example, can solicit contributions from employees, shareholders and their families, but the company cannot directly contribute funds. PACs must be registered with the FEC, must respect certain financing limits and must disclose the identity of donors before an election. They can also give money to the committees of candidates and parties (see Super PACs).

  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

    The official name of the health care reform law which was enacted in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court two years later, dubbed “Obamacare” by its critics.

  • Pentagon

    The headquarters of the United States Army and Department of Defense, located in Washington D.C. The term also refers to the Department of Defense itself.

  • President

    Head of the executive branch, the President is inaugurated on January 20 of the year following his or her election. The President can serve for only two terms, each lasting four years. A presidential candidate must be a natural born citizen of the United States, must be at least 35 years old and must have resided in the US for at least 14 years.

  • Presidential election

    The presidential election is held every four years, on a set date: the first Tuesday following the first Monday of the month of November.

  • Primary

    One of the two types of elections held by parties during the nomination race. In States where primaries are held, people vote directly.

  • Representative

    At the federal level, an elected official who represents one of the districts of a State. Representatives serve for two-year renewable terms. The number of representatives varies according to a State's population. In total, the House of Representatives has a membership of 435.

  • Republican (Party)

    One of the two main political parties, the Republican Party is today more conservative than its Democratic rival. Born out of opposition to a law authorizing slavery in the Southern States, the party was founded in 1854 by Northern dissidents from the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. It rose to power six years later with Abraham Lincoln. Past Republican presidents include Dwight Eisenhower (1953–1961), Richard Nixon (1969–1974), Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), George Bush Sr. (1989–1993) and George W. Bush (2001–2009). The party's symbol is an elephant.

  • Roe v. Wade

    UA landmark decision handed down in 1973 by the United States Supreme Court that recognized women's constitutional right to abortion and prohibited its banning by States during the first three months of pregnancy. This has been a key issue in American politics.

  • Senate

    One of the two chambers of Congress that form the legislative arm of government. The Senate is made up of 100 elected officials. A third of the Senate (or the upper house) is re-elected every two years. The Senate votes on laws, ratifies trade agreements and other international treaties, and approves the President's appointments.

  • Senator

    Elected official who represents his or her State at the federal level. Senators serve six-year renewable terms. Each State has two senators, for a total of 100.

  • SpeechNow v. FEC

    A unanimous decision handed down in March 2010 by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which ruled that limits on contributions to independent political committees were unconstitutional. Groups such as SpeechNow cannot, however, directly donate money to candidates and must not coordinate their campaign with them.

  • Superdelegate

    In the Democratic Party, a delegate who participates in the national convention by virtue of his or her status within the party (e.g., State governor, former President or Vice President, or member of a national committee). Unlike ordinary delegates, superdelegates do not have to say which candidate they will vote for. Republicans do not have superdelegates but rather delegates who do not have to disclose which candidate they endorse (i.e., unpledged delegates). The basic principle is the same.

  • Super PAC

    An independent political committee that can receive unlimited contributions provided it does not coordinate directly with a candidate or his or her political party. The money can come from wealthy donors, interest groups, companies or unions. A super PAC is not required to disclose its list of donors before an election is held, or even after the vote, in certain cases. Super PACs, which emerged following two 2010 court rulings (see Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow v. FEC), have completely changed the way election campaigns are financed, starting with the 2010 midterm elections.

  • Super Tuesday

    The Tuesday of a presidential year, traditionally in February or March, on which the greatest number of primaries and caucuses are held in a single day.

  • Supreme Court

    The highest court in the land, made up of nine justices who are appointed for life, but may resign at any time. The Supreme Court ensures the constitutionality of laws. The Court currently consists of five justices appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democratic presidents. Although several major decisions in recent years have been rendered along partisan lines (Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC), the Court upheld President Obama's health care reform law in June 2012.

  • Tea Party

    A right-wing social and political movement that emerged after the election of Barack Obama, in the wake of his economic recovery plan and health care reform program. The Tea Party is in favour of low taxes, a reduced presence of the federal government in the lives of citizens, and respect for the Constitution. Its name refers to the Boston Tea Party revolt against London in 1773, when a group of colonists dressed up as Mohawk Indians boarded British naval ships and threw cargoes of tea overboard. Tea Party supporters present themselves as a citizens' movement, but their critics maintain they are controlled or even manipulated by wealthy, right-wing interest groups.

  • Ticket

    A pair of candidates for President and Vice President who are elected on a single ballot question following a political party's national convention.

  • Two-party system

    A political system dominated by two major parties—in the case of the United States, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Other parties, for example, the Green party and the Libertarian Party, field candidates, but are disadvantaged by the country's electoral system.

  • Vice President

    Second-in-command to the President, the Vice President is the only member of Cabinet who is elected by the people for a four-year term of office. The Vice President succeeds the President in case of the latter's death, resignation or impeachment. The Vice President presides over the Senate in an almost entirely ceremonial role: he or she is not included in the discussions, but is allowed to vote to break a tie.

  • White House

    The President's official residence, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington D.C. The immense mansion has 132 rooms (and 35 bathrooms). The West Wing is where the President and his team work. The White House also refers to the President's administration.