Age-Appropriate Explanations About the United States Political Structure

The United States electorate is incredibly polarized right now — even if you try to shield your kids from some of the vitriol surrounding our politics, they pick up on more than you may realize. One way to help kids wrap their minds around what they are hearing and seeing in the news each day is to help them understand the U.S. political system — which is incredibly complicated and something even many adults struggle to understand. 

US political structure

Introducing kids to politics from an early age can help them think critically about politics — and hopefully inspire them to get involved in issues they care about. Below are some age-appropriate tips to help get you started. We’ve included information on the presidency, the three branches of government, the political spectrum and more. Happy teaching!

Politics in The U.S.

In 1789, after the long fight towards self-determination in the American War of Independence, the U.S. Federal Government was formed. For more than 200 years since then, it’s been operating, developing and innovating in order to become the world power we know it as today. 

Even though politics in the United States takes up a large part of the daily news (as well as our daily lives), it can be a little difficult to understand. There are many different relationships, rules and departments that all relate to each other in very specific ways.

The Three Branches of Government

There are three branches of the U.S. Federal Government:

  • The Executive Branch.
  • The Judicial Branch.
  • The Legislative Branch.

The Executive Branch is made up of the President, Vice President and their cabinet (who are the heads of other federal departments). The President of the United States is the elected head of state, whose term lasts four years. When the four years is up, another election is held and a new president can be chosen. Presidents can run for reelection only once, for a total of eight years. which means if they’re popular, they can stay on for another four years. 

When elected, the president chooses people, usually from their own political party, to manage different departments in the government. These departments cover touch on almost every aspect of our lives and cities — including health care, transportation and housing. 

The Judicial Branch is responsible for interpreting laws in place in the US and is made up of the Supreme Court and federal courts.

The Legislative Branch is the branch that creates the laws. It’s made up of Congress, which itself is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives:

  • The Senate: This is made up of two senators from each state, meaning there are currently 100 senators in the Senate.
  • The House of Representatives: This is the second part of Congress and is made up of people who represent the congressional districts of each state. There are 435 voting members of the House of Representatives.

For a bill to become a law in the United States, it must be first “introduced” into either house of Congress by a member of that body. Once introduced, the bill will be debated in committees made up by smaller groups of legislators. 

If approved in those committees, the bill will eventually make its way to a full vote. The bill must be approved by a majority of legislators in both houses before it makes its way to the President’s desk for his signature. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law.  

The United States has a federal system, meaning each state also has its own governments that operate independently. Sometimes, this can lead neighboring states to have vastly different laws from one another and from those of the federal government. You can use your own path to fatherhood here as an example — the laws governing things like surrogacy, adoption and foster care all change state to state. 

Each branch of government is used as a “check” on the acts of the other branches, to help prevent any one branch from overreaching. For example:

  • The President can ‘veto’ (block) policies made by Congress — which in turn can be overridden by a two-thirds supermajority vote in Congress.
  • Congress can confirm or reject the President’s nominations for his cabinet. In some circumstances, they can even remove the President from power.
  • The President nominates the Justices (like judges) of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and District Courts, who then must be confirmed by the Senate. 
  • The Judicial branch is responsible for interpreting laws passed by Congress and state legislatures — if deemed to be unconstitutional, these laws can be struck down.  

(If you’d like to learn more about what Supreme Court Justices do, read our blog on the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was one of the most famous).

For an example of how all three branches interact with one another, it may be helpful to provide your child with an example — take same-sex marriage, for instance. When LGBTQ people started to demand an equal right to marriage in the 1990s and early 2000s, legislators in some states passed laws defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. 

Legal challenges to these laws eventually made their way to the Supreme Court in 2015 — the Justices overturned these state restrictions on the basis that they violated the U.S. constitution. This, in turn, legalized marriage equality nationwide. 

The Constitution

The US Constitution is the highest law in the United States. All other laws are written by its rules. It’s the most important and respected set of laws in the whole of the country. The first version of the Constitution was written when the US Federal Government formed in 1787. Since then, it can be changed through things known as ‘amendments’.

Unlike in some countries, it’s very difficult to pass an amendment to the U.S. constitution. It first requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress to pass the amendment, which are in turn sent to the states to ratify. At least three-fourths of the states (which equals 38) must also approve of the amendment. 

For this reason, we have only ever passed 27 such amendments to our constitution. The first 10 of these are known as the ‘Bill of Rights’, which guarantee things like freedom of speech, the right to bear arms and trial by jury. 

Others passed since have expanded rights for people in the United States in critically important ways, like the 13th amendment, which finally abolished the practice of slavery in the country and the 19th, which expanded the right to vote to women. 

The Electoral College

If there’s one aspect to the U.S. political system that confuses people more than any other, it’d likely be the electoral college, the system that determines the outcome of presidential elections. There are a total of 538 “electors” in the electoral college — and each state is allocated a different number of electors, based on its population. 

So a populous state, like California, has 55 votes in the electoral college, whereas a smaller state, like Montana, has only 3. Whichever candidate in a presidential race wins the most votes in a given state also wins that state’s electors — a total of at least 270 votes in the Electoral College are needed to win. 

This system is criticized by some for several reasons. First, it creates the potential for a candidate to win the popular vote in an election — meaning they earned the most votes — but lose the electoral college vote, which determines the outcome. 

This happened in the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton won 2.87 million more votes than Donald Trump. But so many of these extra votes were concentrated in Democratic-leaning states, like New York and California, that Trump ultimately prevailed. 

The system is also criticized for making the vote for president more valuable for citizens in some “swing” states, with fairly even populations of Republican and Democratic voters, like Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Candidates tend to focus their time, energy and campaign promises to citizens in these states for this reason. 

Despite these criticisms, the Electoral College is written into our constitution, which is very difficult to amend.

The Political Spectrum

While many people may think there are only two parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, this isn’t true. These are the main two parties and power does get changed from one to the other fairly regularly, but there other parties, such as:

  • The Libertarian Party.
  • The Green Party.
  • The Constitution Party.

All of these parties sit on something called the ‘political spectrum’. This spectrum can be used to identify political parties from countries all over the world.

A simple version of this spectrum goes from the left-wing to the right-wing. In the United States, the Democratic Party is seen as the left-wing, progressive party and the Republican Party is seen as the right-wing, conservative party.

The political spectrum is very complicated, with many different ideas within it. Imagine a ruler — with left-wing politics on the left-hand side and right-wing politics on the right. The far left and far right of the ruler represents the extent to which you believe in a certain style of government. 

On the right-hand side (the right-wing), they believe in a small government, which means fewer regulations and less funding for government departments. They like lower taxes because they believe people should keep most of the money they make and that private businesses help to maintain a functioning economy. 

They also believe private spending can be more efficient than government spending, believing that wealth from very rich business owners will naturally ‘trickle down’ to their employees.

The left-hand side (the left-wing) of the ruler is different. They like bigger government, more rules and regulations and higher taxes to support government programs. They believe in more government involvement in public life, creating more programs and welfare schemes that people can use. 

Many governments, like the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and much of Europe, have governments that sit around the middle of the ruler - maybe a little to the left or a little to the right of center. These are usually known as ‘centrist’ governments.

Let’s recap:

LEFT-WING

RIGHT-WING

Democratic Party

Republican Party

Higher taxes for the rich.

Low taxes for the rich.

Interventionist: This means they’ll step in to help if anything bad is happening with the economy, like a recession.

Laissez-faire: This is French for ‘let it be’ or ‘leave things alone’. It means that during times of hardship they won’t help as much and have fewer rules for businesses in the hope that private investments begin to aid. 

Aims for a completely equal society.

Believes inequality is unavoidable. Also believes that richer people and business owners help poorer people/employees as wealth eventually reaches them. This is known as trickle-down economics.

Tend to adopt a progressive view, meaning they’re usually in favor of things like same-sex marriage.

Tend to adopt a traditional view. This might mean they’re more likely to favor traditionally Christian values.

Increase legal immigration levels.

Stronger border controls.

 

Why Understanding the Spectrum Is Important

There are many reasons why everyone should understand the political spectrum, what it means and where political parties sit on the spectrum:

  • It will help you understand who to vote for when you turn 18. Voting is important as the more people who vote, the more democratic an election will be. This means that everyone gets a say in who rules the country.
  • It can help you understand policies or laws. Laws and policies made by political parties will usually align with where they are on the political spectrum. These policies will impact our society for better or worse (not every political idea is a good one).
  • Sometimes, news and media have a ‘bias’ towards a particular party. This means they’ll prefer them and write news in their favor. Sometimes this means that facts and events can be exaggerated or misinterpreted to benefit a particular political party. Understanding the spectrum means you can see bias better and make better choices about US politics.

It’s also useful to understand that sometimes the spectrum isn’t always accurate, especially if you have two similar parties running for office. In cases like these, it’s sometimes better to look at the specific policies a party has to determine which one you prefer. 

If you’d like to learn how the voting system in the US works, read our blog here, where you’ll find information about how voting is done, what votes mean and also political advice and ideas for children of different ages.

Politics is more polarized than ever, which means children can have a hard time figuring their own politics out without feeling pressured. How have you been broaching the topic of politics to your kids?

Do you have any tips to share with other gay, bi or trans dads interested in educating their kids about the political system in the U.S.? Share the knowledge by getting in touch with us today.

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