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The region today
The region today
Government and Politics
When the delegates gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to organize the government of their young country, there were varying ideas as to how it should be set up. Influenced by the theories of 18C philosophers, they believed that government should exist to protect the rights of the people, and that the will of the people—rather than that of a monarch—should prevail. Delegates also distrusted placing too much power in popular hands, worrying that it could lead to mob rule. Similarly, they saw the need for a strong leader, but not one so powerful as to become a tyrant. What they came up with was a federal structure with divided powers and a system of checks and balances whereby no one branch of government could wield total power.
Three levels of government operate in the US: federal, state and local. The structure of most state governments closely resembles that of the federal government, with a governor as chief executive, a two-house legislature (except for Nebraska, which has only one house) and a system of trial and appellate courts. Local governments also function along the lines of a three-pronged system, but with more variations. All states in the eastern US have county government units, with the exception of Rhode Island and Connecticut. Counties levy and collect taxes, provide services, enact ordinances applicable to county residents and enforce state and local laws under some form of commission/executive government—whereby an elected three-to-five-member commission sets policy and an elected or appointed executive administers those policies.
Further down the line are the municipal governments, which perform many of the same functions as county governments. Traditionally, municipal governments in large cities have operated with an elected mayor as executive and an elected council as the legislative arm.
The US Constitution divides the government into three separate branches with varying responsibilities. Although the Constitution leaves all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government to the states and municipalities, there is overlap in certain areas.
The executive branch consists of a president and vice president—both elected together to a maximum of two four-year terms of office. In addition, 14 cabinet departments, whose heads are appointed by the president, and 80 separate agencies help carry out executive-branch functions and advise the president frequently on issues of state. Cabinet departments include: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Energy, and Veterans Affairs. The Executive Office also includes a number of independent agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The main function of the executive branch is to carry out and enforce laws and regulations. Both the president and vice president must be at least 35 years old, be native US citizens, and have lived in the US for at least 14 years prior to taking office. Although their candidacies are submitted to popular vote, both the president and vice president are actually elected by an elaborate system called the electoral college. Under this system, voters casting their ballots for a certain candidate actually vote for a slate of electors committed to that candidate. Electors cast their pro forma votes several weeks after the popular election at the electoral college meeting.
The Constitution designates the president as head of state, chief treaty maker, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has wide-ranging appointive powers, including that of ambassadors, Supreme Court justices and lower court judges, and heads of federal departments “with the advice and consent of the Senate.”
As a check on the Congress, the president has the power to veto legislation; but that veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress.
Although not specifically granted him by the Constitution, the president’s responsibilities have expanded over the years to include drafting domestic legislation and devising and implementing foreign policy.
The vice president presides over the Senate; otherwise, that office has no specific duties except to step into the breach if the president dies or becomes so disabled that his is unable to perform his duties.
Most of the administrative work of the various executive departments and agencies is performed by nonpartisan civilian employees. Numbering approximately 2.5 million, this civilian cadre works primarily in Washington, DC, and other major US cities. A significant majority (70 percent) are employed by just four federal agencies: the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Treasury and Justice.
The legislative, or lawmaking, branch is made up of two sections—a House of Representatives and a smaller Senate, collectively known as the Congress. The House, where states are represented according to population, at present numbers 435 members. The Senate, in contrast, contains two members from each of the 50 states no matter how large or small the state.
Senate candidates run for six-year terms in staggered years—thus about one-third of the Senate faces re-election every two years. To run for office, Senate candidates must be at least 30 years old. Representatives, who run for office every two years, must be at least 25 years old. Unlike the presidency or vice presidency, neither senators nor representatives are required to be native-born. Senators must have lived in the US for nine years, representatives for seven.
By far the largest part of contemporary congressional business is taken up with drafting and passing laws. Other powers granted to the Congress include declaring war, levying taxes, regulating interstate commerce, and impeaching and trying other government officials, including presidents and judges. As a check on the president, the Senate must confirm all presidential appointees and ratify all treaties made with other governments by the executive branch. Responsibility for originating tax and appropriations bills rests with the House of Representatives.
Smallest of the three branches of government, the judiciary interprets the law of the land. It consists of the US Supreme Court (the country’s highest tribunal), some 94 courts of original federal jurisdiction called district courts, and 13 appellate courts. There are also a number of special courts, among them US Claims Court, US Tax Court and the US Court of Military Appeals.
The Supreme Court considers constitutional questions arising from both the lower federal courts and the state court system. This power gives it a check on the Congress by allowing review of laws passed by that body.
Its nine justices—one chief justice and eight associates—are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and have lifetime tenure. The last provision gives judges a large measure of independence, helping to ensure that political pressures do not unduly influence judicial opinions. District and appeals-court judges are likewise appointed to lifetime terms.
Beginning its term the first Monday in October and lasting through June, the court usually hears about 150 cases per year.
Approximately $1 trillion is collected each year to operate the US government, the lion’s share from personal income taxes. Other revenue sources include corporate income taxes; excise taxes on items such as gasoline, cigarettes and liquor; energy and timber sales; Social Security taxes; customs duties; and estate taxes.
The US maintains military bases around the world and forces numbering some 1.4 million in the form of a full-time army, navy, marine corps and air force. Additional forces are available from reserves, which may be called upon in times of war. Military service has been voluntary since 1973, when conscription ended.
As in the federal system, the chief executive and legislators in each state are elected. While most state judges previously were elected, that practice has begun to change, with many now being appointed by the governor.
The US Constitution stipulates that each state operates under its own constitution. Thus, state governments have a number of responsibilities, including maintaining state roads and facilities, regulating businesses and professions, regulating driver and motor-vehicle licensing, setting standards for educational institutions, regulating the sale of liquor and tobacco products, and passing and enforcing laws.
State laws and regulations can vary widely. Some allow civilians to carry a concealed firearm as long as they have a valid permit; in other states, this practice is strictly forbidden. Liquor laws and motor-vehicle speed limits also vary considerably from state to state.
Frequently, state and local responsibilities overlap with federal regulations. The operation of public schools, for example, is the responsibility of local school boards, even though public schools must also meet various federal requirements.
Since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln (1861-65), two major political parties—the generally liberal Democrats and the relatively conservative Republicans—have dominated US politics. While third parties, such as the Reform and Libertarian parties, often field candidates, it’s difficult for them to gain enough followers to win an election because most voters choose to remain within the mainstream rather than vote for a candidate who has little chance of winning. Although most Americans over the age of 18 are eligible to vote, only about 50 percent of registered voters participate in national elections.
More than 200 years after its founding, the democratic and economic mythology of the United States remains immensely appealing. According to the American ideal, any enterprising person, regardless of race, creed or social class, should have equal opportunity to work hard, earn money by any legal means, and improve his or her lot. As the rags-to-riches lives of countless immigrants, celebrities and CEOs attest, the “American Dream” has come true for millions. On average, US citizens enjoy a higher per capita income and a higher standard of living than any other people on earth.
The US economy thrives on its unique historical system of free enterprise—a laissez-faire capitalism whereby individuals can create, own and control the production of virtually any marketable good or commodity they can conceive, without undue government interference, except in matters of consumer protection.
A federal income tax on earnings helps support state and federal government activities, including national defense, space exploration, the public school system, and major public works projects such as airports and interstate highways. In addition, most Americans contribute a small percentage of their annual income to the federal Social Security system, which provides retirement benefits and medical care for older citizens.
Like other industrialized nations, the US has transformed itself over the last few generations from an agriculturally based economy to one based on service industries and manufacturing. Today the nation’s $8 trillion gross national product (GNP)—the combined value of all goods and services—is the largest in the world.
Rich farming areas, manufacturing and trade centers, and large metropolitan areas of the eastern US account for almost 70 percent of this output. However, the economies of individual states vary widely according to their natural resources, labor pools, transportation networks and geography.
For example, many residents in the urban Northeast (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania) work in high-end professional services such as banking, finance and law, earning per capita personal incomes among the highest in the nation. In the New York City financial district, dubbed “Wall Street,” investors buy and sell millions of shares of corporate stock through the three major US stock exchanges—the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the American Stock Exchange (AMEX) and NASDAQ (an electronic network regulated by the National Association of Securities Dealers).
To the west, by contrast, the five Great Lakes anchor a region characterized by its fertile farmland, abundant natural resources and navigable inland waterways, which support prosperous agri-businesses, heavy industry and the shipping trade.
Few economies are as abundantly supplied with natural resources as the eastern US. In addition to fertile soils, a favorable climate and adequate water supplies for agriculture and hydroelectric power, this varied terrain contains a wealth of fossil fuels, minerals, stone, timber and freshwater and ocean fish. Throughout the East, extractive industries harvest coal, natural gas, kaolin, crushed stone and sand, marble and granite, iron ore, gems and even gold. Altogether, mining accounts for some $120 billion of the US GNP.
In general, the most flagrant and careless examples of environmental damage from strip mining and agricultural practices have been regulated out of existence in the eastern US in recent decades. However, as the nation burns an ever-growing tonnage of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) for electricity, manufacturing and transportation, air and water quality have suffered. Many eastern cities from Atlanta to Boston suffer visibly high levels of air pollution (haze and smog).
In the 21C, US agriculture coexists uneasily with global markets and expanding urbanization. Today California and Texas lead the nation in overall agricultural production, but picturesque vistas of American farm life still dominate large swaths of the Midwest and the South. Iowa, the nation’s third most productive agricultural state, is a cornerstone of the Corn Belt, a broad warm-summer region nestled between the Ohio and the lower Missouri rivers. To the north, cooler summers yield crops of clover, hay and small grains, supporting an elongated Dairy Belt from Wisconsin (famous for its cheeses) eastward along the Great Lakes into New England. With its upstate agricultural areas, New York ranks second to Vermont in the production of maple syrup.
Among the southern states, North Carolina, the top tobacco-grower, ranks highest—seventh nationally—in cash receipts from total agricultural production. Florida, the nation’s leading grower of oranges and other citrus fruits, ranks ninth agriculturally; and Georgia, the largest state east of the Mississippi, ranks tenth in total agricultural output and leads the nation in the production of peanuts.
Even in states where agriculture and manufacturing are major parts of local economies, service industries are a prominent and fast-growing segment—23 percent of earnings in Alabama, 33 percent in Florida, 28 percent in Illinois, 27 percent in New Hampshire. A broad collective category, service industries vary from low-paying retail or food-service businesses to high-level executive consulting. The largest non-government, private-sector service industry in the US is health services, which accounted for $460 billion of the total US GNP in 1997.
Tourism and travel-related services (lodging, transportation, meals, entertainment) also account for an increasing proportion of US employment, goods and services, and tax revenues—as much as $515 billion per year. With five million international visitors each year, New York City ranks as a top US city. But Florida, home to sunny beaches, Walt Disney World and multicultural Miami, is an even more popular destination, attracting 25 percent of the 46 million international visitors to the US each year.
While many US businesses desire a national or global focus for their marketing and product lines, production for specific industries continues to decentralize. Leading telecommunications or pharmaceutical companies may have signature buildings in New York and other cities, while production and research facilities are scattered from West Virginia to Florida. The high-tech industry, birthed in upstate New York in the 1950s by International Business Machines (IBM), now occupies a prominent role not only in California’s Silicon Valley, but also in the Washington, DC area; the Research Triangle in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia, and many points in between.
The US space industry, officially based in Washington, DC (home to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), also concentrates thousands of high-tech employees in Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. Similarly, the big three US automobile manufacturers (General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler) are headquartered in Michigan but have large plants in other states.
The US continues to lead world production in many categories of manufacturing, including the making of aluminum, numerous chemicals and plastics, forest products, and paper and paperboard.
People and Society
From the time the Puritans established their colonies here in the 17C, America has had a reputation as a land of hope, a place to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Its population today is largely made up of immigrants and descendants of immigrants, people who fled economic hardship, religious intolerance or political persecution in their homelands in the hopes of living the “American Dream” of equal opportunity for all. This steady influx has resulted in a heady mix of cultural traditions, influences and customs that is commonly described as a “melting pot.” Multiculturalism pervades American society, and diversity is perhaps its chief characteristic—in the 1990 census, just 5 percent of the country’s residents claimed to be of “American” ancestry.
New York City, the major port of entry into the New World, nurtures an exceptional number of strong, closely-knit immigrant communities, as do Chicago, Miami, Milwaukee and Washington, DC. The state of New York claims more Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans than any other state, and the Northeast boasts the highest concentrations of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Syria, Jamaica and Haiti. More than half of the nation’s persons of Scandinavian and Slavic origin are clustered in the Midwest—Minnesota has more Norwegian-descended residents than any other state. Close to half of Americans claiming Scotch-Irish ancestry live in the South, and large numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America have settled in Florida, giving that state one of the largest Hispanic populations in the nation.
Most African Americans in the US are descended from slaves who were brought here in the 18C-19C to work on massive plantations south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that served as a symbolic border between slave and free states. After the Civil War, industry boomed in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia and other cities in the North and Midwest, attracting newly freed slaves and contributing to a black diaspora that carried the African-American culture to those regions. Today some 3.2 million African Americans live in New York State, the highest concentration in the nation.
Descended from hard-working, frugal Puritans, New Englanders are characterized by their manner of self-reliance and reserve. The region’s academic tinge comes from the presence of many of the nation’s top-ranked colleges and universities—some of them referred to as the “Ivy League” in reference to their long histories. With low crime levels and high home-ownership rates, the New England states rank among the nation’s top places to raise children.
The Mid-Atlantic region is the nation’s most populous, and an urban lifestyle prevails in cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Seat of the nation’s government, Washington is characterized by its political power brokers. Sharing a reputation for brusqueness, residents of the financial and cultural capital of New York City include high-rolling Wall Street types as well as many of the movers and shakers of the performing- and visual-arts scene.
Known for its conservative traditional values and friendly people, the Midwest contrasts the brawny industrialized cities of Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis with pastoral farm communities. Every four years, presidential hopefuls, looking to confirm their viability as candidates, hold a “straw poll” in Iowa—indicating a belief that the pulse of mainstream America beats in the Heartland.
In a country in which everything seems to be on the move, Southerners tend to live life at a slower pace. They are known for their open manner toward strangers—thus the term “Southern hospitality.” With the rise to prominence of dynamic cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans and Miami, the region has lately shrugged off its undeserved reputation as a cultural backwater, and a new influx of foreign investment in the Carolinas and Georgia makes for a distinctly cosmopolitan atmosphere in some areas.
Regardless of where they live, Americans are known to be ardent defenders of the individual rights and freedoms defined in their Constitution—to exercise free speech, to assemble, to keep and bear arms, and to enjoy privacy and freedom of religion, among others. Such liberties come at a price, however, as recent debates over gun control and abortion attest.
The people of the United States—a country still in the process of defining itself—defy most attempts at classification. Social scientists, demographers and the media are quick to tag segments of society with labels such as “Baby Boomers” (the generation born after World War II) and “Gen-Xers” (persons born in the late 1960s-70s). Yet exceptions contradict every rule, keeping alive the challenge to create a definitive description of mainstream America
Food and Drink
Blessed with an impressive variety of locally produced ingredients and myriad foodways imported by immigrant populations, the eastern US serves up a bounty of culinary specialties, which differ from region to region.
Casual clam shacks and rural dinner halls invite seafood lovers to sample the abundance of fish and shellfish drawn from the cold Atlantic waters off New England. Crab, clams, blue mussels, oysters and bay scallops are served steamed, boiled, fried or simmered in thick, milk-based chowders. Maine lobster wins the day here—whether you order it boiled whole with butter in an elegant restaurant presentation, or eat the succulent meat lightly tossed with mayonnaise and stuffed into bread on a lobster roll at a waterside fish joint. Regional menus also feature swordfish, striped bass, Atlantic salmon, bluefish, tuna, cod and haddock. Held on the beach, a traditional New England clambake includes lobsters, shellfish, onions, new potatoes and ears of corn packed in wet seaweed and steamed atop charcoal-heated stones in a pit dug into the sand.
Orchards and bogs yield ingredients for apple cider, Concord grape jam, and cranberry juice. In Vermont, sap from sugar-maple trees is boiled down into thick maple syrup and eaten on pancakes, drizzled over ice cream and baked into pies, cookies and puddings. Don’t miss a chance to try tart Maine blueberries (in pies, pancakes or muffins), Vermont Cheddar cheese, or Boston baked beans and brown bread.
Mid-Atlantic Melting Pot
A mustard-laced hotdog from a street vendor; lox and bagels or a slice of creamy cheesecake in a Jewish deli; dim sum in a family-owned Chinatown eatery; trendsetting cuisine in a world-class restaurant—all qualify as a typical culinary experience in New York City. Travel to the wine-growing region around the upstate Finger Lakes to taste fine vintages from European varietals.
Crab is king along the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, where mouth-watering crabcakes are a signature dish. Salty slices of Smithfield ham tucked inside velvety homemade biscuits is another Virginia treat.
In the Pennsylvania Dutch region of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, German culinary traditions inspire hearty dishes, served family-style in many area restaurants: snitz and knepp (boiled cured ham with dried apples and dumplings), sauerkraut served with pork and mashed potatoes, chowchow (a pickled relish made with beans, peppers and corn) and sweet shoofly pie, a crumb-topped confection made with molasses and brown sugar.
Midwestern cooking takes advantage of the abundant products of lake, garden, field and forest—wild rice from Minnesota, pecans and walnuts from Missouri, sour cherries from Michigan, fish from the Great Lakes, and beef, pork and lamb from the farms of Illinois. The northwest corner of Wisconsin ranks as the most productive dairy land in the nation, annually churning out two billion pounds of cheese.
In larger cities, search out steakhouses for thick cuts of corn-fed, aged Midwestern beef. Small towns often hold all-you-can-eat Friday-night fish fries, proffering piles of sizzling whitefish with tartar sauce on the side. Immigrants who settled here in the late 19C originated such regional fare as Scandinavian fruit soups, Polish pierogi, German bratwurst, and the famed deep-dish pizza of Chicago. Distinctive Cincinnati chili (served over spaghetti and topped with cheese) was created in Greek-owned chili parlors, and many of Milwaukee’s famed breweries were founded by German immigrant families.
Barbecue is a high art in the South: experts rub pork with a mix of dry spices, smoke the meat slowly over a hickory fire, and dress it with tangy vinegar and red pepper or a tomato-based sauce (sauce preferences vary regionally). Traditional barbecue is served with a side of “slaw”—a creamy salad of shredded cabbage, carrots, mayonnaise and vinegar. For a typical southern lunch, collard greens, black-eyed peas or green beans are seasoned with bacon or fatback, simmered for hours and served alongside crispy fried chicken, catfish or ham. In Georgia, look for sweet Vidalia onions and fried green tomatoes. The South Carolina Lowcountry is the place to order shrimp; try shrimp and grits or Frogmore stew, a heady boil of shrimp, sausage and corn. Fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood—Apalachicola Bay oysters, amberjack, grouper, pompano, red snapper and stone crab—headline menus in Florida and along the southern Gulf Coast. End a meal here with a slice of tart Key lime pie. International influences are evident in Miami in the paring of grilled fish with tropical-fruit salsa, and Cuban fare including black beans with rice, and arroz con pollo (chicken with yellow rice). Visitors go to New Orleans expressly to indulge in spicy Cajun and Creole specialties such as crawfish etouffée, jambalaya, seafood gumbo and red beans and rice.