Glossary of Political Terms

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Australian Context

ad hominem

Latin for “to the man”. Attacking the presenter of an argument rather than the argument itself. A.k.a.  “playing the man, not the ball”.

agitprop

Less-than-subtle political propaganda disseminated through the media and performing arts. Term derived from the then department of Agitation and Propaganda of the Soviet Union.

absent vote

A vote cast by voters who are out of their division but still within their State or Territory which may be cast at any polling place in that State or Territory.

absolute majority

(50%+1 vote). A term used to compare the least votes a winning candidate may need in a preferential single member voting system compared with that of first- past-the-post systems of other countries where a “majority” may well be less than 50%.  Also a concept used in some parliamentary votes where a simple majority of all members present is not enough.

accord

A diplomatic agreement that does not have the same binding force as a treaty.

adjournment  

Temporary interruption during a parliamentary session.

administrative law

That segment of public law that is used to challenge the decisions of government officials and / or delegated legislation. Excluding policy decisions made by people’s elected representatives, where it is deemed electoral popular support authorises the office holder to be unrestrained in their decision making as long as it is within the law, all civil / public servants, from the Prime Minister down can be challenged in court (as long as the plaintiff has standing) on the “reasonableness” of their administrative actions or even on their failure to act. Over time the authority of A.L. has been extended to so called public bodies: NGOs, Quangos and other organisations which otherwise would have discretionary power over the rights of their members.

adversarial system

The system of law, as exists in the Anglo-American world, where an issue is argued in court by two opposing sides, the prosecutor or plaintiff, and the defence. Opposite to the Inquisitorial system where a judge or panel of judges call evidence and interrogate witnesses, as exists in many European countries. 

affirmative action

Legislative programs which aim to create minority equality in employment, university placements, housing  and other government beneficial situations even though, most of the time, outright discrimination against so called majorities is not ostensibly advocated.

agrarian socialist

Originally applying to non urban, pre-industrial revolution peoples with traditional, conservative attitudes, those who believe in the collective ownership and control of primary industries, and to a lesser extent secondary industries, for the benefit of all, but otherwise not that committed to other socialist beliefs such as progressive/liberal approaches to domestic or international social concerns.

altruism

The devotion to the interests of others above that of the self. The opposite of egoism.

anarchy

A condition of lawlessness and disorder brought about by the absence of any controlling authority.

androcracy

A state or society ruled by men where moral authority and control of property may also be exclusively in the hands of males. a.k.a.  andrarchy or phallocracy.

anti-clericalism

Opposition to the influence of religion in government and legislative affairs.

apparatchik

A member of communist party machine; derogatory term for a political party zealot.

approval voting

First Past the Post’ voting but with the added concept that one can tick (approve of) as many candidates’ names as one wishes. A simpler form of preferential voting eliminating the chances of minority candidates winning when too many mainstream candidates run against each other.

autocracy

A form of government where unlimited power is held by one single individual.

autonomy

A limited form of independence where, for example, a state or colony can control its own domestic affairs but has no say over its foreign affairs.

backbencher

A member of Parliament (government or opposition) who is not in a leadership role in their party but merely sits literally on the back bench.

balance of power

The leverage a small party in the legislature possesses, in being able to give, or hold back, voting support to a large, albeit still minority party, to allow it to have a majority on a vote.

ballot

A method of secret voting, normally in a written form.

ballot paper

A paper handed to each voter on election day to be marked, showing the names of the candidates (and sometimes the parties) who are standing for election.

bellwether

A small entity whose characteristics happen to reflect that of the whole state or nation. The American state of Nevada is a bellwether state for presidential elections in that, with only one exception, it has voted the same as the whole country for a century. The Australian electorate of Eden-Monaro has voted in a government MP at every election since 1972. A bellwether is a ram with a bell attached to indicate to the farmer where the flock is when not in sight.

the Beltway

A term to describe the politically and socially insular community of Washington DC. Derived from Interstate Highway 495 which circumnavigates Washington forming a “belt”. One would be, metaphorical speaking, inside or outside the Beltway. The term is sometimes used in other countries although in Britain the equivalent concept is “the Westminster Bubble”.

bill

The name for proposed legislation entered into the house / houses of parliament to be debated upon for approval. If approved at all stages it then becomes an act and thus law.

bill of attainder

No longer practiced ancient writ or act of Parliament to declare someone guilty of a crime and/or subject to punishment without benefit of trial. Attainder, meaning taintedness, also meant that any party guilty of a capital crime lost all civil rights including property, and if not life, then right to reputation. Still exercised in the 20th century in Australian states where a convicted capital felon, Darcy Dugan, was denied the right to sue for defamation and a dangerous inmate, Gregory Kable, was not released after his full prison term was served due to an act of parliament.

bipartisan

Adjective to describe a situation where the normally opposing political parties come together to agree on an initiative. Technically two parties coming together.

block voting

In multi-member electorates, each voter having the same number of votes as the number of vacant seats (must tick off [say] three names). This has the effect of minimising the chances of minority candidates winning seats.

boondoggle

A wasteful government financed infrastructure developed at a cost much greater than its value, undertaken for local or political gain.

bourgeois

Marxist term now used to describe middle class professionals living a relatively luxurious life style.

by-law

Not a law but a government rule or regulation. see ‘delegated legislation’.

by-election

A local election held to fill a suddenly vacated (single member voting) seat due to death, resignation etc.     see also Casual Vacancy

bicameral / unicameral

Government with either two or one house of legislature. France, Sweden, South Korea and New Zealand all have unicameral governments.

cabinet

The ‘board of directors’ of executive government.  Made up of the President / Prime Minister as chairman and each director as a secretary or minister responsible for the relevant government departments such as defence, environment, trade etc.

capitalism

An economic system based on the recognition of private property rights, where prices are dictated by supply and demand, and where the means of production and distribution of goods and services derive from privately owned resources, or capital, operating within an unregulated market.

candidate

A person who stands for election to Parliament. In Australia candidates can be nominated by political parties or stand as independents.

caretaker government

A type of governance where those in power refrain from significant actions such as undertaking major legislative programs or senior judicial or public service appointments, but only maintain necessary normal administrative duties. The reason for this is that power would be in transition due to an election being due or being called suddenly due to the success of a vote of no confidence, or some other situation where legitimate democratic government has to be restored.

casual vacancy [Aust.]

A suddenly vacated Senate seat filled not by an election but by State government appointment.

casus belli

The alleged justification for acts of war.

caucus

A closed meeting of members of a political party or faction. Also the term for a group of people within an establishment with a common political leaning. In Australia the term is used to describe the parliamentary members of the ALP.

cause célèbre

Fr. for ‘famous case’. A controversy (often a court case) arousing high public interest because of policy issues at stake. Examples would be the Dreyfus affair, the Scopes Monkey Trial and the American Roe v Wade Supreme Court case.

Chartists

Popular British 19th century working class movement advocating electoral reform. Named after their Peoples’ Charter of six demands: universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, secret ballot, no qualifications to enter parliament, pay for MPs and annual elections. Despite at one stage having three million signatures on a petition to Parliament, the movement eventually disbanded without witnessing any reforms.

Chatham House Rules

Rules / undertakings sometimes declared at public meetings where the identity or affiliation of a speaker cannot later be made public when and if mentioning what was said. The alternative to “on the record” discussions.

clear and present danger

A concept in American constitutional law to describe a situation where fundamental constitutional principles can be overlooked in exigent circumstances.

client state

A country that is economically or militarily dependent upon another, but not actually controlled politically by the patron state as in the case of a ‘puppet state’.

closed shop

A place of work where the union has arranged that the employer will only employ those who are its members.

citizens initiated referendum

A democratic vehicle for legislative or constitutional enactment which bypasses Parliament. As exists in Switzerland and some states of the USA, if a petition for a certain proposition can raise a certain number of signatures then the legislature is compelled to put it to the people at a referendum and then to enact it in law if passed.

coattails effect

A popular candidate at an election having the ability to draw votes, not just for himself, but also for his fellow party candidates.

command economy

As compared to the free market, an economy which is mostly under the command of the government.

common law

The law of the land which comes from neither the statute books nor the constitution but from court law reports. Originally that body of law which was common to all parts of England (not customary or local law) and developed over centuries from the English courts to be adopted and further developed in countries using that system. As compared to democratically maintained law, common law is judge maintained and modified law and is valid unless it conflicts with statute law.

communitarianism

The concept of collective, rather than individual, ownership of all the nation’s assets, as well as the duty by those able, to create and / or manage those assets.

comparative advantage

The ability of a party to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal or opportunity cost than another. If country A can produce both apples and oranges cheaper than country B, with apples significantly cheaper, it is more efficient for it to concentrate on growing and exporting only apples while importing oranges, even though the oranges imported would not be as cheap as those if home grown.

confederalism

A form of federalism where the individual regions that make up the sovereign state exercise a larger degree of autonomy. Often the right to secede and the sole right to raise taxes, the funding of the central government coming from the regions. The pre-Civil War slave states of America united to form the Confederated States of America to maintain states’ rights.

conservative

Often taken as synonymous with right wing with a penchant for censorship and state control to protect against ‘immoral’ personal behaviour, but technically an attitude of belief in the established order and suspicious of change.

constituent

A citizen residing in a particular MP’s area or district.

constitution

The set of basic rules by which a country or state is governed. Sometimes includes a Bill of Rights.    The ultimate set of laws to which all other laws made by contemporary governments are subservient to. The strength and integrity of a constitution is often reflected by the difficulty it is to be changed.

constitutional referendum

A proposal to alter the Constitution being put to the public vote. In Australia at a referendum the proposed alteration must be approved by a 'double majority': a national majority of voters in the States and Territories; and a majority of voters in a majority of the States.

consumer price index

A measurement of inflation by comparing, at regular intervals, the price (taking weighting into account) of a set of basic consumer goods and services purchased by households.

consumption tax

A tax levied on goods and services such as sales tax, GST, VAT or an excise tax. A tax on the spending of income rather than the earning of it, so as to include people who might otherwise evade income tax such as those in the black economy or successful with tax avoidance schemes.

coup d’ėtat

Sudden and often violent overthrow of a government.

crossing the floor

An MP crossing the floor of Parliament to vote with his/her opposition. An act rarely forgiven in Commonwealth countries but common in the USA.

cumulative voting

A type of block voting but where the voter can choose, from the list of (for example) ten candidates running for four seats, his preferred four, or just two or even one. In such decisions, the selected candidates would get one quarter of a vote each, or half a vote, or where only one candidate received the vote, the whole vote.

dark horse candidate

An unexpected, somewhat unknown candidate with little public exposure who has potential to win an election against established candidates. Term originated by British politician and author, Benjamin Disraeli.

   deficit /       national debt

The shortfall in any one year of a nation’s income as compared to its expenditure / the total unpaid accumulated debt of the government over time.

deficit spending

Government intentionally spending more money than it takes in.

delegated legislation

a.k.a. enabling legislation. Rules, regulations, by-laws, ordinances etc made by a government official under the authority of a specific act of parliament which sets out the broad purpose of what is desired, but delegates to that official’s office, the authority to create the minutia, the delegated legislation, necessary.  Whereas all parliamentary legislation is final and cannot be challenged in court (apart from constitutional inconsistencies) delegated legislation can be challenged in court if it is shown to violate the purpose of the original act.

demagogue

A leader who gains popularity by appealing to prejudice and basic instincts. Considered manipulative and dangerous.

democracy

From the Greek ‘demos’ for the ordinary, common people and ‘kratos’ for power or strength.

deontology

The concept of moral obligation and binding duty. As compared to consequentialism, where an act is judged by its consequences (the ends justify the means), D. is where goodness or righteousness is judged by the act alone (the means justify the means).

descriptive / normative ethics

Descriptive ethics is the study of what people think is moral; normative, or prescriptive, ethics is the study of what is moral; meta-ethics is the study of what ‘moral’, or any other term, actually means.

devolution

Transfer of powers from the national or central government to state or local government.

direct democracy

Government by the people in fact rather than merely in principle. The citizenry themselves voting on all issues affecting them. Practised in ancient Greece and (to some degree) in some cantons of Switzerland and the New England states of America. Considered by most to be a highly impractical form of government.

dirigisme

Direct government control of a country's economic and social institutions. From the French ‘diriger’ to direct.

disinformation

Information that is false or misleading deliberately disseminated for strategic gain. a.k.a. black propaganda.

division [Aust]

A vote taken in Parliament. Also another name for an electorate.

donkey vote

The excess votes a candidate at the top of the ballot paper will get because of those voters who don’t bother to consider their decision but simply just tick the first box in sight. Otherwise known as the unthinking vote.

doublespeak

Using language to distort or even reverse the meaning of unpalatable information that has to be given. Allegedly the amalgam of two George Orwell’s creations from his novel 1984, Doublethink and Newspeak.

‘Dorothy Dixer’

Questionable practice in Australian parliaments where some of the allocated time in ‘Question Time’ is used for back bench MPs to ask their own leaders prearranged softball questions. Dorothy Dix was an American newspaper advice columnist who prefered questions she made up herself.

Duverger’s Law

Theory attributed to French political scientist Maurice Duverger, which asserts a nexus in the number of political parties in a democratic state with the electoral system used. Proportional Representation nurtures a growth in parties catering to most people’s needs while SMV systems over time, restrict parties to only two.

duumvirate / triumvirate / quadrumvirate

Latin terms to describe a group of two / three / four people joined in authority or office.

dynasty

A sequence of hereditary rulers.

dystopia

Alternative to Utopia. Nightmare vision of society beyond that of even a failed, dysfunctional state, where the system is actually planned by those in power, creating, most often, a totalitarian society.  Fictional examples are Jack London’s The Iron Heel and George Orwell’s 1984.

elector

Technically, a voter who is successful in helping to get his preferred candidate elected. In practice the name often given by governments to voters in normal elections, or to those who have been appointed to a certain level so as to vote their choice to a higher office. Eg. the American Electoral College to choose the President. Term possibly used to disguise the fact that approximately half of all voters in SMV systems end up electing nobody.

electorate

Geographical areas used as a criterion for political representation. Australia is divided into 150 (federal) voting districts or divisions which are known as electorates. One member is elected from each electorate to the House of Representatives. In Parliament the electorate of Batman will be represented by the Member for Batman who will have the Seat of Batman.

émigré

One who leaves their home country for political reasons.

the Enlightenment

a.k.a. the Age of Reason. 18th century epoch of intellectual advancement where “humanity was brought into the light of reason out of the darkness of tradition and prejudice”. Originating in the UK but developing fully in continental countries such as France with thinkers such as Spinoza, Voltaire and Rousseau.

enrolment

The pre-requisite to voting. The voters name must be on the electoral roll before he/she can vote. Australian citizens of at least 18 yrs are allowed (and compelled) to enrol. In the USA voters must repeatedly enrol for every election.

equity law

An auxiliary part of common law where the courts not only have authority to modify existing common law to adapt to modern times, but in fact have the power to create original law, overriding  existing common law, in circumstances where it is deemed that without it, “unconscionable” conduct would occur.  

the Executive

That part of government which executes  the law of the land, as compared to the legislature which creates and maintains the law. The executive comprises public service officials from the Prime Minister/ President down, and is responsible for the daily administration of the state.

exchange rate

The relationship of the values of any two country’s currencies. Any one-off reading is informative when taking into account what each country’s unit of currency will buy in its own domestic market. Also relevant is when the rate changes over time indicating one country’s economy is not doing as well as the other.

ex officio

“by virtue of one’s office”. The power to do something or hold an office by virtue of the fact that one holds an earlier office. The American Vice President is, ex officio, the President of the Senate.

Fabian Society

A movement founded in 1884 by intellectuals Sidney and  Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw who believed the only possible way to introduce socialism would be in an incremental way using education and gradual legislative changes. Named after the Roman general Fabius Cunctator (“the delayer”) who possessed the patience to defeat the Carthaginian Hannibal by engaging in a slow war of attrition and harassment. 

fascism

An authoritarian and nationalist political ideology that embraces strong leadership, singular collective identity and the will to commit violence or wage war to further the interests of the state. Averse to concepts such as individualism, pluralism, multiculturalism or egalitarianism. The name derives from the collective identity, the league connotation of the Italian fascio, or English faggot, for a bound collection of sticks. The symbol originally used by Mussolini was a ‘fascio’ of sticks bound with that connotation of war, an axe.

federalism

A system under which governmental powers are divided between the central government and the states or provinces all within the same geographical territory. Opposite to a unitary system as exists in the UK, New Zealand and Japan.

fellow traveller

Mid-twentieth century term to describe someone who sympathised with communism but would not go so far as to declare themselves a communist or join the party.

fifth columnist

In a military or political environment, a person who surreptitiously undermines a group or entity from within. Term derived from a Nationalist General during the Spanish Civil War who boasted he had four columns of troops attacking Madrid, together with a fifth column of sympathises inside the city. The practice of the F.C. is sometimes described as ‘entryism’. The Alec Guinness character in the film Dr Zhivago was a war-time fifth columnist.

filibuster

A form of legislative obstruction by an MP by continuing a parliamentary speech for the mere sake of preventing a vote. As the clerk of parliament will set an agenda calendar allocating certain bills for certain days, if the business of reading, debating and voting on one bill is not completed on its allotted day it may be a considerable period of time before it again comes before the house.

first-past-the-post

Electoral system where the winning candidate needs only the most votes, even if well below a majority.  a.k.a. pluralist voting.

franchise

The right to vote.

free vote
[cmlth countries]

a.k.a. a conscience vote. The rare instance where an M.P. is not obliged to vote according to his/her party’s call. Examples have been the 1996 Victorian drug law reform or the 1995 Northern Territory’s euthanasia law.

Friday news dump

a.k.a. ‘take out the trash day’. The practice of governments releasing their unpopular news stories just before the weekend as it is believed few people follow the news on a Saturday. Not only the timing is effective for what the government wants to hide but also the act of lumping together as many stories as possible so as to minimise the effect of each one.

fixed term

Concept to describe the set term of office of representatives (eg US House of Reps is a strict two years) as compared to other democracies like the UK where the House of Commons is a maximum of five years but can be shorter at the discretion of the Prime Minister.

fourth estate

The unofficial political institution and authority comprising the press and other forms of the media. Term comes from the first three estates of the French States-General which were the church, the nobility and the townsmen.

free rider

Someone who unintentionally is able to receive the benefits of government policy without incurring the costs.

from each according to his ability...

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Slogan not created, but made popular by Karl Marx in a 1875 publication, to highlight a fundamental aspect of communism. Allegedly a response to the capitalist concept of private property.

general election

Either an election that is not local but is for the state or national governments or an election that is the final arbiter after the preliminary ones have been dispensed with. Can be contrasted to council, primary or by-elections.

Georgism

Nineteenth century philosophy created by American economist Henry George which advocated that things found in nature, such as land, always remains property of the state.  Government revenue is thus raised by rents on land (at an unimproved rate), minerals and fishing licences etc to the degree that hopefully no other taxes might need to be enforced.

gerrymander

How a significant number of equally sized single member electorates become populated with both party voters but to different degrees, to have a partisan and unfair effect on the total vote.

glad-handler

An excessively “friendly” person, typically a politician, who greets another effusively but insincerely in an attempt to gain popularity.

glasnost

A policy that commits government to greater accountability and visibility, such as freedom of information laws. Russian for ‘publicness’.

GNP / GDP

Gross National Product is the total output of goods and services annually produced by a country, whether on or off shore. Gross Domestic Product is the total amount produced on shore, whether by local or foreign entities.

Godwin’s Law

Theory by American journalist Mike Godwin that as an online discussion / argument grows longer the probability of one party comparing the other to Nazis approaches 1.

going negative

A campaigning style where an election candidate will emphasize the negative attributes of the opponent rather than his/ her own positive ones or plans for future governance. Sometimes a legitimate action if the opponent has serious character or competency issues, but otherwise often used to cover up the fact the candidate has little to offer the electorate in experience, vision or concrete plans.

grandfather clause

An exemption to a new law which accommodates already existing entities (metaphoric grandfathers) not having to comply. Eg: existing buildings not needing restructuring to accommodate new building / environmental codes. A law increasing the drinking age from 18 to 21 but exempting those under 21 who were already entitled to consume alcohol. In 2004 Australian PM John Howard, under political pressure, lowered govt. contributions to MPs superannuation from 15% to the standard 9%. However he exempted already serving MPs, allowing them to remain on the higher rate.

grass roots

The ordinary and common people, often agrarian. Term generally refers to movements / political parties created by them rather than by professionals, elitists or established leaders.

grievance debate

Short speeches allowed by any MP on any subject but only granted at a specific time per week for a few hours.

groupthink

An attitude often existing in academia or the media where there is found to be unanimity in approaches to certain issues, either due to laziness in research, or fear of the consequences of going against the prevailing wisdom.

gubernatorial

Adjective of Governor.

habeas corpus

Latin for “you have the body”. A writ, issued by a court upon request, for a government authority to present to court a person it is detaining, and give justification as to why he/she should continue to be detained.

Hansard

The official parliamentary record of whatever is said in Parliament.

Hare-Clark

A S.T.V. electoral system used in Tasmania where Robson Rotation is utilised and candidates are not allowed to hand out how-to-vote cards on polling day.

hegemony

Dominance or leadership of one state or social group over another.

hoi polloi

The common people, as compared to the wealthy, higher educated or elite.

Huey P. Long

Quintessential populist, corrupt, demagogue of modern times who served as governor of the US state of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, then Senator until 1935. Master of political patronage who became the model for the novel and film titled “All the Kings Men”. Eventually assassinated by a relative of one of his victims.

the hustings

Involved in political campaigning, especially making speeches. The husting was originally a place of assembly at which to speak. US equivalent is “on the stump”, derived from speaking when standing upon a tree stump.

hollow men

Conviction free, consensus driven politicians who live by the polls and whose only goal appears to be to achieve and maintain political power. Found in major parties on both sides of the political divide but generally more prevalent with conservative parties. Term derived from the T.S. Eliot poem of that name in reference to the ‘men of straw’ described.

honeymoon period

The first few months of a new government during which the incumbent/s are granted a non-belligerent grace period by their political opposition and the media.

house of representatives

The largest and most influential house of Parliament. Appoints the cabinet and from which the Prime Minister usually comes. Similar to the British House of Commons and known in Australia as the 'People's House' as compared with the Senate being the ‘State’s House’. Each of the 150 members represents approximately 120,000 people or 80,000 voters.

impeachment

The legislative equivalent of a criminal prosecution, where a high government official is subject, by a house of Parliament or Congress, to an investigation, indictment and subsequent trial.

incumbent

The current holder of a seat in the legislature or of an office of authority.

interregnum

An interval of normal government, such as between administrations.

invisible hand

The free market theory of 18th century economist Adam Smith that there is an invisible hand to guarantee, that without government, there will always be a supply to placate demand. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest.”

isolationism

A policy of isolating one’s country from military alliances or other commitments  with all other countries as a best resort to avoiding foreign entanglements. Historically a strong sentiment in the USA. President Woodrow Wilson won a second term in 1916 in promising (falsely) to keep America out of WWI, and the US was conspicuous in not joining the newly formed League of Nations. Prior to WWII aviator Charles Lindberg was prominent in the popular America First Committee which attempted to prevent the US being a participant in that war.

jingoism

A nineteenth and twentieth century term to describe chauvinistic, bellicose expressions of nationalism, especially in warlike pursuits. The term is often associated with US President Teddy Roosevelt.

jobs for the boys

A type of political nepotism where prestigious government jobs are given to those in the party family- often those voted out of office or otherwise unemployed- rather than those deserving due to merit. Ironically the term once had a legitimate meaning in the previous century when it was used to express public gratitude for demobbed soldiers returning home from war. See also ‘nomenklatura’

judicial activism

A judicial philosophy advocating that courts are allowed to take an active role, not supported by existing law, to remedy alleged wrongs in society.

junta

A clique, faction or cabal, often military, taking power after an overthrow of the government. From the latin ‘juncta’ for join.

jus ad bellum

The alleged justification a country will use to go to war.

Keynesianism

Theories of very influential economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes, who advocated government taxing and spending to keep control on the economy. In times of recession he advocated high government spending on public works as well as intervention into the economy wherever it was thought necessary.

kitchen cabinet

An informal name for the chief executive’s closest advisers.

kleptocracy

Cynical term used to describe highly corrupt governments where politicians, bureaucrats and their protected friends engage in sales of government licences, perquisites and other rorts.

block voting
capitalist
j'accuse
constitution
donkey vote
dystopia
fascist symbol
federation
first past the post
fourth estate
"speak softly and carry a big stick"
kleptocracy

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