As we turn to the Iowa caucuses, and talking about US politics, there are a few mistakes that it’s easy for Australians to make- and frequently do- when discussing US elections. So here’s my list of seven mistakes Aussies often make when they talk about American politics.

1) They assume American political parties are homogenous

American Political parties truly are big tent- in each party, there are a wide spectrum of beliefs and voting patterns in Congress. Using a conservative-progressive scale, which is oversimplified but has its uses, the most progressive Republicans are more so than the most conservative Democrats. Within parties, there are groups that hold different things to be valuable.  Assuming “Republicans are X” or “Democrats are Y” really underestimates the huge amount of variety in US politics.

And this variety is important because most legislation is bipartisan.  Caucuses arranged around issues are incredibly useful. They allow Congresspeople who represent districts with similar issues to join together.  Rep Sam Farr, for whom I interned in 2010, is the co-chair of the House Ocean Caucus, a bipartisan committee primarily made up of representatives from coastal districts for whom Ocean management issues are important.

Related: Assuming American political parties have party discipline.

2) They don’t realise political philosophy is actually pretty important

Political philosophy plays a far more obvious role in American politics than it does in Australia, yet as Australian observers, it’s easy to focus on policy itself, rather than the philosophical debates that underly it.  Often, the issue for many Republicans isn’t whether something like health care is a good thing, but whether it should be the responsibility of the Federal (rather than State) government.  The boundaries of government, what government exists to do and what it does not, and which government ought to be responsible for things is a far more central and important part of the American political conversation.

By representing the debate as being about whether something is good, rather than whether or not the US Federal Government should be the ones doing it, much of the important nuance in the debate is lost.

3) They assume that foreign policy is important to voters

While as non-Americans, its easy to get caught up in foreign policy issues, the truth is that elections aren’t usually won or lost on the power of foreign policy. The economy matters more. Cultural issues matter more. A small subset of Americans vote on foreign policy, but most don’t. in 2012, it will be the economy that matters most.

4) They overestimate the power of the Presidency

Oh, this is a big one. It’s amazing how often Australians talk about the President as though they operate as the Prime Minister. The role is very different. Separation of powers- which we talk about in the Australian system but don’t really experience in the same way- is key. Congress makes the law- the President does not. Saying “the President will do this” or “Obama should have done that” displays a very naive understanding of what the Presidency actually can and can’t do.

I don’t want to get all primary-source on you, but it’s worth looking at the Constitution at this point. Here are the powers of the Presidency:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

 Compare that to the powers of Congress:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Congress is far more powerful, and the President far less, than many understand.

5) They think Evangelical Christians are very influential

Yes, they’re there. Yes, they vote. Yes, they vote in large numbers. But if you want to look at voting blocks that really influence elections, the age and wealth of voters is far more significant. Conservative Christians do not rule the United States with an iron fist, and there are plenty of people in both parties who identify as Christian yet don’t support traditional “culture war” issues.

6) They assume it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys

This is more of a summary of many of the points above, but given the Democrats’ pretty significant popularity in Australia, often there’s a tendency to treat Republicans as the bad guys. In reality, their policy positions are far more varied and nuanced than once might assume, and the vocal, tea party type is just one of many kinds of Republicans. Portraying all Republicans as hard-right, super conservative Evangelicals is lazy, and it doesn’t at all serve to help us understand the US more comprehensively.  It does, however, feed into anti-American stereotypes which abound.

7) They think the US would be better off with a Parliamentary system

People often talk about the problems in the US Political system as though they are fundamental- it’s either the existence of a powerful extreme conservatism or the lack of a parliamentary system that causes most of the problems.  They’re not. The separation of powers, the incredible diversity of US political parties and the centrality and importance of individual rights is part of what has made the US the great modern democracy. Yes, it is flawed. Yes, it needs some tweaking. But these are not fundamental problems.

Rather, there are some pretty significant structural issues that have caused a lot of the US’s current political problems.  You could significantly reform the US system not through huge, fundamental system change, but a couple of minor adjustments:

  • National popular vote for the President. Get rid of the electoral college
  • Change the Senate representation rule to reduce the massive disparity. Introduce a tiered system where the largest states get 6 Senators, the mid-sized states get 4 and the small states get 2. That way, you preserve the state-based nature of the Senate, but understand the interests of a citizen of Montana should not be weighted at 66x those of a citizen of California.
  • Get rid of the filibuster. Allow the Senate to pass legislation by a simple majority. The supermajority plus the current Senate representation method means that Senators representing just over 14% of the population can prevent something from passing. That’s hardly what the framers of the Constitution could have had in mind. Yes, that tyranny of the majority is a real and important thing to consider, but that’s what the Bill of Rights is for.
  • Eliminate anonymous holds on nominations. They’re just undemocratic.