The British & The U.S. Electoral Systems

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  • 0:01 Most-Watched Elections
  • 0:58 Political Structures
  • 1:43 Role of Parties
  • 3:48 An Administration or a…
  • 5:15 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.

Ever see images of the American president and British prime minister talking to each other at political summits? While they often look quite similar, the two individuals took entirely different routes to achieve their respective political roles.

Most-Watched Elections

Few exercises in democracy make quite as much of a media hit as an American presidential or British general election. Debates, interviews with a number of people best described as 'an everyman,' countdowns that stretch late into the night when the voting behavior of specific neighborhoods is analyzed and reanalyzed: it just beams with drama. Throw in the fact that in many ways the destiny of the next several years of world affairs hinges on the opinions of 330 million Americans or 60 million Britons, and you've got the sort of stuff that network executives dream of. Except for the politically apathetic, people of every status are glued to the media.

And yet, the two systems couldn't be more different. While only royalty approaches the gravitas of the American president, at the end of the day, he or she is precisely only one-third of the American government. Meanwhile, while the prime minister position has much less soft power and is essentially, a legalized dictatorship.

Political Structures

This is in no small part due to the fact that the Americans and the British have completely different institutions of power. The United States had to focus largely on stability because it was a republic from its earliest days. Therefore, while the office of the president is quite powerful, it is still only one third of the federal government; there are still the affairs of Congress and the Supreme Court to consider.

Meanwhile, Parliament was formed in an inherently stable system and it grew from an advisory council to the monarch to become the government of the United Kingdom. As such, an incredible amount of power is up for grabs when the British hold general elections. The status of the British state is guaranteed by the authority of the monarch, but the course is set by the people.

Role of Parties

Despite these differences, both the Americans and the British use a system of political parties for their elections. In the United States, the dominant parties are the Democrats and the Republicans, while the United Kingdom has the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats. Despite both using parties, their roles are quite different.

In the United States, a would-be candidate for president must first gain the approval of his or her party. To do this, they have to win nomination at a convention, which is largely decided on the result of the person's performance against other aspiring candidates in a series of primary elections. These primary elections are particularly vicious, as the right to run for the highest office of the land is the reward. If they prove electable, they are given the nomination of their party and then run against the candidates from the other parties in a general election, often called a presidential election.

Things in the United Kingdom are a bit different. First, the British have no primary system. Instead, individuals choose to join a political party and climb the ladder to become the party leader. For Labour, true to its name, members and trade unions have a voice in deciding leadership, while the Conservatives decide just amongst members. The trade-off is that the Labour leader has to grant a great deal of power to other Labour dignitaries. Meanwhile, once a Conservative becomes leader, he or she largely can decide policy as they wish.

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