"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Not Just For Kids


"No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties, no parties without compromise and moderation." -Clinton Rossiter

Politics may not seem very exciting to you, but for those involved, politics is far from boring. The excitement always peaks on Election Day, the first Tuesday in November. Some cities will choose mayors. Some states will select governors. People will vote for senators and representatives. Every four years, a new president is elected.

Politics includes everything from campaigning for election (your own or someone else's) to working with elected officials to make sure your interests are represented in government-on the local (city or county), state, and national levels.

(Almost) Everybody Loves a Party

Large numbers of people working for a common goal have more power than one person working on his own for the same goal. Thus, people have found that their views on important issues have more influence with other voters and with the government if they organize into political parties.

Political parties nominate a set of candidates for current elections (local, state, and national) who will work for their interests if elected. Their purpose is to win elections and influence government policy. Political parties write down their views and goals in a party platform. They make sure their candidates are well known and encourage voters to support them. Parties also help define issues and make the process of selecting candidates more orderly. Through primary elections, caucuses, and conventions, party members decide which candidates to endorse in the general election, thereby narrowing down the choices for voters.

The United States Constitution does not require any political organizations. In fact, the founding fathers were suspicious of them and discouraged their formation. But political parties have wielded considerable clout in the political process since the 1700's and have since become indispensable. Although some political observers insist that the need for parties is disintegrating, most people in the U.S. have found political parties to be the most effective and best-organized method of seeking control of the government.

There are two main parties in the United States--the Democratic and Republican parties--and there are some major differences between them, although the beliefs of individual party members may vary. Republicans are known to be more conservative. In general, they believe in reduced federal spending and less governmental interference in the economy. They think that people should be able to take care of themselves financially, but they do want to carefully control social matters to help maintain the nation's traditional moral standards. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to be more liberal. They want the government to take care of your business for you and they want to do away with what they consider the inequality of wealth, but they believe that you should be free to do whatever you want in your personal life.

Some smaller, less powerful third parties also exist, such as the Independent, Libertarian, Reform, and Green parties. Third party candidates often enter the political arena with sizeable support; however, few of their candidates end up getting elected. Sometimes a third party will support the candidate of a major party in return for the promised support of some of its goals.

Canada and Great Britain, among other countries, have a two-party system. Other countries, such as France, Italy, and Japan, have several powerful major parties. Some countries, such as China and many countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, have only one party.

Donkeys and Elephants

What do the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey have in common with Santa Claus? Each of these famous caricatures was originally drawn in the late 1800's by cartoonist Thomas Nast (who was a Republican, by the way). Nast specialized in satirizing political figures and groups, depicting most of his subjects as animals. The elephant, symbol of the Republican party, made its cartoon appearance in 1874. The Republican party at that time was the most powerful, but it still had its problems. Thus, Nast depicted it as a large, yet clumsy creature. The donkey was used in the same cartoon as a symbol of stubbornness and stupidity. It was later adopted by the Democratic party in the late 1870's.

The Election Section

Many different kinds of elections are held in the United States each year. Clubs, societies, labor unions, and companies all hold elections. In these elections, members decide who will be in charge of those groups. The people who own stock in companies elect directors to run the companies.

Most officials who run our country are elected. In most cities or towns any adult living there can register to vote for the mayor, councilmen, and other officials who will govern the community. Citizens of your state vote for the governor, members of the state legislature, and other officials who will run the state. U.S. citizens also vote for President of the United States and for the representatives and senators who will represent their state in the United States Congress.

Elections in other countries differ from those held in the United States. In some countries, only men can vote. In other countries, a dictator and his political party are in charge. They choose the candidates they want to run for office, and no other candidates' names appear on the ballot.

A President is Chosen

Many Americans believe the president is elected by popular vote. While it usually works out that way, the choosing is technically done by what is called the Electoral College. This procedure for electing a president was laid out in the U.S. Constitution by the founding fathers, who did not think the president should be chosen by Congress, nor by a mass of voters.

Why shouldn't the people, the ultimate source of all political authority in our democratic republic, vote directly for the president? To answer this question requires a return to the Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays written in defense of the Constitution and described by Thomas Jefferson as "the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written." In particular, Federalist 68 is devoted to a defense of the Electoral College and offers unabashed praise of a presidential selection process that it deems perhaps "not perfect" but nevertheless "at least excellent."

The Electoral College works like this: Every presidential candidate has a slate of electors in each state, whose number equals the number of senators and representatives from that state. These electors are generally chosen at state party conventions. When a candidate gets the most popular votes in a state, it means that his or her electors get to cast the state's electoral votes.

Since electors are expected to reflect their state's voter preferences, the popular vote usually does end up determining our next president. But because some states have more electoral votes than others, and because electors are not always legally bound to vote for a specific candidate, it is possible for a candidate to win fewer popular votes than his opponent and still be elected. Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison were elected in this way. In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the popular vote while George W. Bush won in the Electoral College, thanks to 537 Florida votes.

There is another potential outcome what if the Electoral College were to split evenly? If there should be a tie, according to the Constitution, the next president would be decided by the incoming House of Representatives, with each state delegation receiving one vote. The vice president would be determined by a simple vote in the Senate. This scenario would surely be controversial, but it has never happened as of yet.

Are You Liberal, Conservative, or Confused?

Political labels: left, right, liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, moderate, socialist, fascist, libertarian, communist, capitalist, and more. What do they all mean? What are their economic policies? What are their social policies? An excellent book on this subject for ages 14 and up is Are You Liberal? Conservative? Or Confused? This book was written by Richard Maybury, author of Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? , part of the "Uncle Eric" series. These books are very informative, yet easy to read, and they offer an enjoyable way of learning about economics, law, and government for both young and old alike. Other books in the series include: Uncle Eric Talks About Personal, Career, and Financial Security ; Whatever Happened to Justice? ; Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? ; Evaluating Books: What Would Thomas Jefferson Think About This? ; The Money Mystery ; The Clipper Ship Strategy: For Success in Your Career, Business, and Investments ; and The Thousand Year War in the Mideast: How It Affects You Today.

What's Your Political IQ?

Political IQ Test (PDF) - Print out this quiz for your students... and take the test yourself!

Additional Information

This civics site for kids has an election section with free classroom materials, lessons plans, and more; kids can even play a game in which they get to manage their own presidential campaign.


These pages are a continuous work in progress.
Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
All rights reserved.

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