Libertarian, gerrymandering, and 50 other political terms you should know
The polls are in, and most are saying something many people already know: Americans don't know much about their own country. Countless surveys and polls have found that Americans can't pass the citizenship test, don't know when important historical events took place, and know very little about how the government works. Achievement levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam have stagnated since the late 1990s and several states don't require students to take any civics classes in order to graduate from high school.
With Election Day upon us, knowing how various political processes work—especially voting and political campaigning—is more important than ever, and can help motivate Americans to make their voices heard at the polls.
Among developed countries, America has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout. In a way, it makes sense: why would anyone want to participate in the political process if they don't know how the political process works? A third of Americans can't name any branches of government, so electing the head of the executive branch (the president) is probably not at the top of their agenda, (though many still recognize how important the president is).
Luckily, one of the changes wrought by the 2016 election was that more Americans find themselves politically engaged than ever. Thirty-six percent of people thought it was very important for them to be personally involved in politics, according to a poll released March 2018 by Monmouth University. Those looking to get involved in politics for the first time might find a steeper learning curve than they expected. The Founding Fathers created a complex political and electoral system that's only gotten more confusing as the country has become bigger and more diverse in the last two centuries.
Whether you're looking to brush up on your high school civics or are getting your feet wet in politics for the first time, Stacker has your back. We independently researched the most commonly referenced terms in news and politics to bring you this list of 52 essential terms that will help you make sense of the political discourse on your news and social media feed.
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Gerrymandering is a practice that involves redrawing political boundaries on maps that benefit one party over another during elections. It's an old practice dating back to the founding of America and takes its name from Massachusetts governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence Elbridge Gerry; he signed a redistricting bill in 1812. Critics pointed out that one of the districts that favored his political party (the Democratic-Republicans) looked like a salamander...or a “Gerry-mander.” Today, gerrymanders that disadvantage racial minorities have been deemed unconstitutional and voters on both sides of the aisle have taken to the Supreme Court in order to outlaw gerrymanders that favor one political party over the other.
Right wing refers to the more politically conservative groups on the political spectrum; the Republican Party is the more right-wing of the two major parties in the U.S. On the far end of the spectrum are “alt-right” or “ far right” groups, which have become more visible in 2019. These groups tend to have extreme or radical conservative views when compared to those who would be closer to the “center” on a linear political spectrum. Use of “right” and “left” to categorize conservative and liberal political groups stems back to the days after the French Revolution. While writing the 1789 Constitution, those who advocated for less power to the king sat to the left of the presiding officer while those who wanted to adopt a more conservative approach that let the king keep more of his power sat to the right.
(Pictured) Newt Gingrich, Former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
Left wing is the opposite side of the partisan spectrum and refers to more politically liberal groups. The French politicians that sat to the left while writing the country's 1789 Constitution wanted to do away with the traditional monarchy and the king. Likewise, today's left-wing groups or parties tend to favor more radical political reform than their right-wing counterparts. In the United States, the Democratic Party would be considered the more left-wing of the two major parties, with more radical parties like the Democratic Socialists of America falling even further to the left.
For those who are neither left-wing or right-wing might find themselves at home in the center. Centrists, sometimes also called moderates, try to find a compromise between the often conflicting left or right wing stances and downplay ideology to appeal to more voters. Centrists in the U.S. might be registered independent—that is, not affiliated with either political party—and tend to be swing voters during election season.
Though the U.S. only has two major political parties, there are a number of smaller third parties that operate across the country. The Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, is one of the most popular third parties in the country, taking home around 3% of the vote in the 2016 presidential election. Many across the political spectrum have libertarian views even if they don't necessarily identify with the Libertarian Party. These views include support for individual freedom, limiting government involvement in economic policy, foreign policy issues, and letting people make their own decisions on social justice issues.
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Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on policy issues, an issue that's only grown worse as members of Congress and the voters that elect them have become more ideologically extreme. When legislators manage to overcome their political differences and pass laws together, they've “crossed the aisle” to pass bipartisan policy. Polling shows that Americans tend to favor this kind of compromise. Even today's increasingly divided Congress has passed bipartisan legislation reopening the government after the December 2018-January 2019 shutdown, sanctioning Russia for election interference, reforming the criminal justice system, ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and more.
The president of the United States has an incredible power to influence debate and public opinion in the U.S. and around the world. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt understood the power his position held; the 26th president often called journalists to the White House to share his thoughts on issues of the day. After one of these meetings, he remarked that “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” In the early 1900s, “bully” was a slang term for “first-rate” and Roosevelt's aside quickly became a term for the platform the president and later any other influential figure has to speak out on the issues.
Branches of government
When building a new form of government after the U.S. won independence from Britain, the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that power remained with the people and that no single person or group retained too much of it. They avoided this by creating three co-equal branches of government: the executive branch, which includes the president, his or her cabinet, and various bureaucratic agencies; the legislative branch which includes the Senate and the House of Representatives; and the judicial branch, which includes the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Each branch has its own duties that only it can fulfill (called separation of powers). Each branch's ability to check the activity of the other branches and make sure what they're doing is constitutional is called checks and balances.
Caucus actually has two meanings in American political life. State political parties get to determine how candidates are selected to run in the general election. The main two methods they use are primaries, which are similar to the general election, or a caucus. This less formal gathering of people of a certain party to discuss who the best candidate is before electing delegates to represent their preferred candidates at the party convention. There are also congressional caucuses; these are groups of legislators that meet to pursue common goals on the economy, social issues, and more.
Filibusters only exist in the Senate, where any senator can speak on any bill for any length of time in order to delay or block legislative action. Coming from the Dutch word for “pirate,” filibusters became popular in the 1850s. In 1917, the Senate adopted a new rule that allowed them to end the debate with a two-thirds majority vote (called cloture). Filibusters were famously used by Southern senators to block civil rights legislation; the record for longest filibuster speech on the Senate floor was 24 hours and 18 minutes.