NOTHING IS more distinctive about the United States than its institutions. Parliamentary democracies are a dime a dozen, the British form having been copied sufficiently often that it has given a name to the type of democracy it has inspired, the Westminster model. In contrast, no stable First World democracy is based on the institutions of the United States. The French Fifth Republic is the only other advanced industrialized democracy with a strong presidency. Yet while the French president has in practice usually been more powerful within his political system than the American president is in his, in theory the system retains a strong parliamentary component so that the government of the day needs a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. It is true that aspects of the American system are admired and sometimes emulated. The Canadians' decision to have a judicially enforceable Charter of Rights guaranteeing basic freedoms was inspired in large part by the American example. The reforms of the British House of Commons that created more powerful Select Committees were inspired in part by admiration for the thoroughness with which congressional committees can investigate problems and policies. In general, however, American institutions stand alone among the world's stable democracies.
It is not the purpose of this chapter to provide a detailed description or analysis of the workings of American political institutions; any number of excellent studies already serve that purpose. Instead, the chapter sets out a number of characteristics that American institutions