The United States government was built by the founders with many, many layers in order to ensure a better union. By having so many checks and balances and separation of powers, anyone who tried to pull a hostile takeover of the government, or turn it into something less democratic, would find an incredible amount of resistance from multiple angles, and would have to take years just to advance in any significant way. While this system has a lot of advantages, it can also be very confusing even to many living in the United States, because of the staggering complexity of the entire system. The United States government and many of its functions or responsibilities are often misunderstood by the average citizen.
10. There Is No “The Government” In The United States
One of the favorite claims you will hear from any conspiracy theorist is that there is something called “the government.” These theorists seem convinced that the United States government is a vast, monolithic entity that is always sharing information and working towards the same goals. In a way, it seems to give them a feeling of security that the government is all powerful and able to watch out for them and protect them, despite their constant fear mongering. However, they are greatly exaggerating the competence and coordination of the United States government.
The government is made up of the legislative, judicial and executive branches, all of which have people within them with radically opposing viewpoints. These people all have their goals to make the world a better place, and like most politicians they have secrets. The USA also has powerful state governments, with similar setups. Dotted throughout the country are police departments that rarely have to answer to much of anyone and cooperate with each other on mostly a good faith basis — then there are all the sheriff’s departments as well, which are elected officials and have different rules and authority than the police.
And then, if that wasn’t enough, there are many spy agencies, and several different military branches with many subgroups within them. Many of these groups, for secrecy reasons, only share information on a strictly need to know basis, so they may share certain surface details to avoid bungling into each other, but it is highly unlikely in most cases that they know exactly what the other agencies or military branches full plans are, and what their eventual goals are. In a way, the United States government is like a centipede with all the legs moving awkwardly in different directions.
9. The Claims Of Military Dominance Are True But Also Somewhat Misleading
One of the proudest boasts of the United States and many of their citizens is that they spend more on military, and have a more powerful and well upgraded military than anyone in the world. Now, we aren’t saying this boast isn’t true — although Russia has a few more nukes — but it does leave out some important details. Diplomacy is a subtle game, and showing off your military dominance is often a great way to get enemies to the negotiating table without you having to lift a finger. However, if this type of diplomacy is done in a less subtle way, your enemy may become even more belligerent, and now you risk either looking weak or being forced to invade.
Now, the United States could probably invade and take out a lot of small nations, but they do not want to be forced to do so. The truth is that much of the military spending actually goes towards maintenance on even some fairly recent equipment, because maintaining the most powerful military in the world is incredibly expensive — and as you can imagine, going to war is going to greatly increase your maintenance bill. However, that is only a small part of the cost of a sustained occupation, which can cause a real hit to the budget of even a world superpower like the United States of America. Despite taking control of Iraq and Afghanistan fairly easily initially with almost no losses, the actual sustained occupation was extremely costly in both money and lives.
8. The Power Of The President Is Still Greatly Exaggerated
Many people have been trying to educate others on this one for some time, but it does not really seem to take hold. While many people will always be angry with whoever is in the presidential office and direct most of their anger toward them, they are allowing others at fault to conveniently avoid any real attention, and keep up their work completely unheeded. The president of the United States of America does have a certain number of powers, but outside of signing or vetoing legislation, actions made by the president can be reversed by the next president to take power — as they are not permanently binding without a full act of congress — and could be fairly easily blocked by congress or the courts.
One of the greatest real powers of the president is simply the amount of attention they get, which they can use to shape the public mindset and act as a leader for their party, or for a specific ideology. However, their power is much more limited than many people realize. The leaders of the House and Senate have great power to bring forth legislation to the president’s desk, and it is extremely rare to see the house or senate minority or majority leader running for president. They already have an extremely powerful position, and they do not have to deal with nearly as much of people’s ire if they dislike a decision — many of them would likely see the presidency as a downgrade. There are also those in the judicial branch, especially the supreme court, who wield tremendous influence and power. A swing vote on the Supreme Court can shape the face of the country, and they have their position until they retire or death claims them.
7. Free Speech Only Applies To The Government Limiting Your Speech
This pops up on message boards, and in public places of business, and just about everywhere else you can imagine. People will be told in some way by someone in authority to be quiet, or tone down the type of thing they are saying, and the person will go on a rant about freedom of speech, and how their first amendment rights are being violated. Or some public figure will lose their job for something they said in an interview, and their fans will claim the first amendment is being stomped on. However, the first amendment is very specific and isn’t really interested in what private citizens or places of business do.
The first amendment states that the government cannot abridge your speech, or the speech of the press, and that people have a reasonable right to public assembly to address their grievances — in a public place. All this means is that the government has to give you a reasonable accommodation if you ask for a public protest, and cannot punish you for what you say and put you in jail for it. However, this does not mean a private place of business, or a private website, has to put up with you, nor does it mean your employer has to give you a platform to express views that are antithetical to them. Free speech protects you from government retaliation, but retaliation from any sort of private entity is another matter.
6. Anti-Discrimination Laws Are On The Books, But That Doesn’t Mean Proving It Is Easy
Sometimes it happens that someone gets kicked out of an established place of business that is open for the public. For whatever reason, the incident gets attention and people argue about whether the people involved were racist or not, when the people kicked out were not white. Now, this is understandable considering the history of the United States, but in all of these cases many people are incensed that no prosecutor or lawyer seems interested in trying to punish someone with a civil rights violation, or prosecute them with a hate crime. While it may seem obvious to some people watching a video from a distance, proving something like intent in a court of law can be a whole lot more difficult.
While civil rights laws now disallow discrimination based on skin color and the like, public businesses can refuse to serve anyone for really any non-illegal reason they want, and as long as they can come up with something remotely reasonable sounding, the police will make you leave and ask you not to come back. In some cases perhaps the person who was asked to leave was a victim of racial discrimination and did nothing wrong, but the trick is proving that this has actually happened. If taken to court, the owner or manager of the establishment could just give some kind of reason like they were making staff uncomfortable, or customers had complained, or something hard to disprove. To win a case like this, you would practically have to have tape of someone calling someone racial slurs or the like, and it is fairly rare for that type of outburst to be caught on film.
5. The Post Office Is A Part Of The Government, But Requires No Tax Revenue
The United States Postal Service is an agency that has confused a lot of people. Some people actually believe it is completely distinct from the United States government — this is not the case — or that it is a private corporation owned by the government, kind of like Amtrak. However, the USPS was actually founded back in the days of Benjamin Franklin, who became the first Postmaster General. He wanted the agency to have a certain level of independence, but he still wanted it to be a part of the United States government.
The Postal Reconstruction Act of 1971 did change the USPS, but it did not remove it from the federal government, or make it a private entity, and USPS employees are still federal employees with all of the related benefits. The confusion likely stems from the fact that since this act, the USPS is expected to take care of all of its operating expenses simply by the costs it charges for its services. It does not exist to make a profit, and it does not take your tax dollars — it takes a fair price for the service provided, and does its constitutionally mandated duty to provide that service to all Americans no matter what.
4. Yes, Puerto Rico Is Indeed Part Of The United States Of America
Recently there was a news story about a Puerto Rican couple being turned away by a clerk at a Motel 6, who told them that he needed an American ID, and that an ID from Puerto Rico did not count as such. Some people thought that the clerk was being malicious, but it is more than likely that he was honestly confused. The truth is that over 40% of Americans are actually completely unaware that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens and that their territory is considered part of America. Now, this is possibly in part due to the fact that Americans get little exposure to the United States territories.
The Hawaiian islands are a very popular tourist destination, but Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands are as isolated from the mainland as Hawaii and are simply not nearly as popular spots. It would do well however, for Americans to get a better knowledge of all US territories, and learn more about the intricacies of all of what makes up America. The only thing a Puerto Rican needs to get into the United States of America and stay as long as they wish is their Puerto Rican ID or passport, since they have already been in America their entire lives to begin with.
3. English Is Not The Official Language Of The United States Of America
Sometimes people will get confused and start talking about how in America, you speak English, and not any other language. They will demand this of others, and suggest people should be forced to assimilate, or they should leave. Now, this misunderstanding stems partly from the fact that English is by far the most spoken language in the country and is used for almost everything written, but that doesn’t mean it is correct. There are roughly 500 languages that are spoken in the United States today, and the federal government of the United States does not recognize any of them as the official language of the country.
It has been proposed before, but it has never succeeded, except on a state level. At this point several states have passed laws stating that their state’s official language is English, but this still does nothing, at least yet, to change any federal laws or statutes. In truth, there is really no point to making anything official — most people speak it, and most people use it for written communication, and there is rarely any confusion — there is also the argument that making an official language would violate the first amendment. Even if it were made the official language, there are still some people who would struggle with it, and keep speaking mostly in their native language, and other citizens would be happy to use their own language skills to help them fit in, as humans like to do.
2. The Jury System Is Not Foolproof, Jury Nullification Can Be Used For Good Or For Ill
The jury system and justice system in general, on its face, seems like a really, really good idea. Everyone has to have a fair and speedy trial, and no cruel or unusual punishment is allowed. Forced interrogations are a thing of the past and people are presumed innocent instead of guilty. In many ways it is a paragon of proper justice, but every system has flaws, and one of the biggest ones in the United States is the ability for juries, if the entire group is in sync, to simply to decide to do what they want and tell the judge to take his instructions, and the law and witnesses to take what they told them, and stuff it. This is something called jury nullification, but it can also be used to ensure someone’s guilt.
Now, it says you will have a jury of your peers, but this is extremely dubious. No precedent has ever been followed to make sure the people judging you are part of your peer group, so you end up with whoever is local to that courthouse. In some cases to prevent abuse a trial is moved to an entirely different geography for jury toxicity reasons, but this is not always possible. In the old south in the United States of America, many people who were obviously guilty of lynching got away with it due to friendly juries, and many black people saw themselves jailed with what was basically nothing more than a cursory examination from the jury. This isn’t to say the system is biased all or much of the time, but perhaps emphasizing the peers part in jury selection would help improve the fairness of the process overall.
1. The Supreme Court May Seem Insanely Powerful, But They Do Not Have The Final Say
Many people get very, very upset when the Supreme Court does something, and people from both parties will accuse them of being activist judges or something similar. It is quite common to suggest that the Justices are actually trying to legislate from the bench, and using their lifelong position to control the country in an entirely inappropriate way. This misconception likely stems from people thinking that the Supreme Court has the final say on everything. The Supreme Court’s job is not to legislate or tell politicians what to do, it is to evaluate laws based on the constitution and decide if the constitution is being properly respected.
However, laws can be changed to narrowly fit requirements and they can be passed again, or a constitutional amendment can be made to override the Supreme Court entirely. If something like this were to occur in response, it’s not like the Supreme Court could just step in. Even if the Justices thought the new constitutional amendment was incompatible with the rest of the constitution without more drastic changes, they could not actually do anything until someone had challenged it in court, and it had properly worked its way up the ladder. Even if they wanted to hear a case as soon as possible, they have to wait for it to reach them. In the end, as much as some people may complain about them, they are just interpreters of the constitution — they are not legislators or executives.