American Politics: Definition, Conflict & Rules

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  • 0:02 Understanding American…
  • 1:26 Conflicts in American Politics
  • 3:28 Rules of American Politics
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

This lesson seeks to go beyond the mere structure and function of the U.S. government and explain something about the political culture of the United States. From compromise to flying barbs, the political landscape is full of contradictions.

Understanding American Political Culture

Few societies are at the same time so political and so apolitical as the United States. Politicians from school boards to Congress are expected to defend their constituents' interests with the ferocity of a wild boar, all while politics is no less divisive between friends as baseball team preference, and perhaps less in many places. We may know that some politicians toe an ethical line, but in the end we expect them to hold a certain set of shared values. This lesson serves to provide some insight into the inherent conflicts and steadfast rules of the American political landscape.

Of course, much of this tension dates back to the earliest days of the American Republic. The United States government was never meant to be an efficient system. The Founding Fathers had seen efficiency within the tyranny of taxation without representation and resolved that, for a country as diverse as America was even then, a stable system would be much more important.

In the Parliamentary systems of Europe, the prime minister is a de facto dictator as long as she maintains the trust of her own political party. In the United States, however, a president must always be respectful of Congress and the courts. However, the real divisions in American political life are much deeper than that.

Conflicts in American Politics

We expect our politicians to be simply one of us against the mechanisms of the Washington machine. Wanting them to stay true to our values, we want them to remove so much of the perceived corruption of the government. However, it's not that simple. In the end, we get a great amount of political theater. Congressmen fight over the importance of having a new military base to be placed in their district. This is why the United States has naval installations in states with no coastlines.

This sort of seemingly illogical behavior is a result of the vast amount of compromise that goes with being a politician. A senator who promises his constituents a new government-sponsored medical research center but refuses to help his colleagues with their own pet projects will find his research center being sent to a different state. Herein lies one of the biggest conflicts within American politics, and it has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat. We expect our politicians to focus only on our interests, but then we expect them to compromise in order to gain those wins.

In fact, we can see the importance of this idea of compromise when we look at the role of political theater. Politicians often train as lawyers before running for office, and it shows. They can attack each other's ideas viciously, all before helping with another initiative. In fact, some of the most loved politicians in American history had some of the most polarizing views, but due to their ability to find common ground with others, were able to push their own ideas.

This extends especially to personal friendships. For example, the ability of Republican President Ronald Reagan to pass much of his agenda would have been severely limited if not for the fact that he enjoyed a warm friendship with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. The men frequently exchanged barbs about their very different political views, but were each other's favorite golf buddy.

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