Here’s my introduction guide to informative travel in the United States. You can find site specific travel guides below as well.
Politics and Government
The United States is an indirect democracy. This means that during presidential elections, the people vote for a candidate, but ultimately it is a group of unelected delegates that choose who the electoral votes of a given state will go to in the Electoral College. If you are unfamiliar with U.S. politics, the Electoral College is a constitutionally established institution that was intended to equate the strength of votes across the U.S. states (though this is a controversial system today). This aspect of the U.S. Constitution is why the popular vote in the U.S. is almost meaningless in practice.
The Electoral College, coupled with plurality voting, explains why the country has a two party system represented by Republicans (conservatives) and Democrats (liberals). It is also the reason it is inaccurate to call the United States a direct democracy. Thirty-three states have laws that require electors to vote as pledged, but not all are enforceable. This means the majority of delegates have the power to cast votes with their own discretion. While this is possible and there have been over 100 “faithless electors” in U.S. history, their change in vote have generally not been impactful enough to sway a presidential election.
Beyond the structure of democratic elections, the United States is regarded generally as a country with robust protections of freedom. These freedoms are theoretically applicable to all living in the country, but in reality there are stark contrasts in experiences. While there are protections for the freedom of speech, assembly, press, and more guaranteed to Americans, there are limitations and disparities to these freedoms. For example, freedom of religion is an important tenet of American history, yet norms and values of Christianity permeate U.S. policy in many ways including women’s healthcare and family law.
While the U.S. is democratic and free, it does not succeed in being the greatest protector of liberty and justice for all. The applicability of many laws disproportionately impact those of lower socio-economic status.
While theoretically the law applies to all, those with more financial resources have greater ability to avoid penalty. This is not a uniquely American dilemma, but the fact that the United States has the greatest incarceration rate in the world makes this important to mention when discussing freedom in the country. Law, law enforcement, and the prison system contribute to myriad of issues that limit the constitutional freedoms of not only those directly persecuted, but also their family and community.
There have also been concerns of democratic backsliding in recent years as partisan manipulation of numerous institutions has reduced checks and balances. Presidential power continues to grow, as it has done explosively since the constitution’s original establishment of the presidency. This trend has also coincided at a time where fractionalization within both political parties has increased. It is especially concerning to those that value democratic freedom because the country, like many around the world, has seen a growth in right-wing populism with a tendency for authoritarian and fascist rhetoric.
Like in many parts of the world, raising economic inequality stands to threaten the legitimacy of the government. Income inequality in the United States is the highest of all G7 nations (UK, Italy, Japan, Canada, Germany, France). It is not only the G7 countries though with more equal opportunity than the United States. More than half of the countries in the world have lower income inequality. While cost of living has steadily increased, wages among the most vulnerable have not kept pace. This means that the ability to save or invest has become practically impossible for a significant subset of the country. For example, 1/10 Americans live in poverty. It is not just those in poverty though that have been hurting. Even the middle class has seen reduction in the value of their income as they have also struggled to keep up with rising costs.
Though income is just one metric of inequality, it is an important one because it is influential to many other aspects of life such as housing, education, and healthcare. Inequality in these areas are widespread. These inequalities are also compounded by other aspects such as region, immigration status, race/ethnicity, and more.
Imperialism and Territories
During the mid-20th century, the United States prided itself on being an ally to colonized countries. This was especially true for countries considered to be in the “sphere of influence” of the United States. This generally meant Latin and South America. It should be noted that the majority of these countries had their own independence movements, but many were supported either militarily or financially by the United States in effort to sway them to be persuaded by the perceived merits of capitalism (as opposed to communism) during the Cold War. While the subjugation of colonialism ended for many countries, most transitioned to imperialism in which the United States played a dominant role in influencing the newly independent country’s politics and economies, going so far as to overthrow democratically elected leaders. The United States’ supposed moral high ground over colonizers such the British and Spanish erodes during this period due to its interventions in a geopolitical effort to curb the expansion of the Soviet Union.
While not every country that has experienced imperialism is a territory of the United States, those that are territories face an unusual, vulnerable status. There are several U.S. territories today, all of which are under federal law. Their residents are also American citizens. However, none of the territories hold the same status and political enfranchisement as the 50 states. These territories are American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those in the Pacific generally came under American control during the Cold War in an effort to militarily prevent the spread of communism. Puerto Rico on the other hand was ceded to the United States (for a price… so perhaps also described as sold) after the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898, in which the U.S. aided Cuba in its fight against Spain. While not a full territory, Cuba had a brief period of American military occupation before independence. The U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased from the Danish in 1917 in an effort to establish an advantageous position to protect the Panama Canal.
Yellowstone was the first habitat to be designated a National Park in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. Later, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service in 1916 to consolidate the federal parklands under one agency.
Transcendalism and Manifest Destiny of the late 1800s are two major factors that pressured Congress to act in the first place though. The portrayal of transcendalism in literature and art inspired and persuaded many to preserve beautiful landscapes. In addition, the moral mission of Manifest Destiny brought the remarkable beauty of land to the attention of many explorers, who in turn advocated for their protection. This culminated in 1864 when President Lincoln passed the Yosemite Grant Act, setting the precedent to establish the first national park at Yellowstone eight years later.
While national parks were established to preserve natural habitats and create opportunities for white Americans to enjoy outdoor recreation, they were also established by forcefully removing the indigenous residents of the land. The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act describes “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” but explicitly outlines that people cannot live on the land. This gave Americans the authority to remove Native Americans from their home. So while today the national park system is a treasured jewel of the United States, the parks were originally only accessible to a small subset of people. Furthermore, it was established without the consultation of the inhabitants of the land and resulted in the destruction of their home and livelihoods.
There are now a total of 62 National Parks. As of 2019, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited park. This was followed by Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Utah’s Zion National Park is the nation’s fourth most visited and can be explored with this Two Day Zion National Park Guide.