Political Basics for NaNoWriMo: Part One – Governments
NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to give some basics on how a government works, in case it’s a plot point that someone wished to include. This isn’t meant to be a grad school dissertation, but at least enough to make your plot more realistic and avoid lots of plot holes.
First off, there are three functions of any government. If you remember your Schoolhouse Rock, they’re: Legislative, Executive and Judicial. Every government fills these three roles and these roles only. But be forewarned, while in the U.S. system these roles are clearly(ish) defined in the three branches of government, other systems can and may have the functions condensed or even spread further. If you keep that in mind, your novel should be more feasible to readers and avoid scenarios that seem implausible.
Legislative. Many consider this function to be the basic role of government, although that’s debatable. “Legislative” duties really are writing the rules that everyone lives under. In the U.S. system this is performed by Congress — they’re the ones who write and pass laws that affect the whole nation. Notwithstanding attempts from other branches to encroach on this function, neither the president nor courts can write laws. Other systems may grant legislative authority to someone other than a Congress or representative branch. For example, in classical medieval monarchies, the King (or Queen) held legislative authority. They’d write the rules, along with other functions. Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes also will mix legislative functions with other branches. However, in more “democratic” systems, the legislative function is performed by an elected “representative” branch of government. An easy rule of thumb is that the further the legislative powers are from the general population, the more dictatorial that government is assumed to be.
Executive. The executive role of government is to implement the rules created by the legislative body. They take the rules written that everyone under said government has established, and makes sure those rules are followed. In the U.S. system this is the President (or Executive Branch). His/her job as president is to make sure the rules passed by Congress are actually implemented. For example, Congress will pass a budget every year saying specific amounts of money are to be spent on a whole host of things. The president then spends that money to do what Congress said it was designated toward. The holder of executive power doesn’t have the ability to write rules or legislation.
A quick aside before moving on; many will say “but the president can write executive orders that overrule Congressional laws.” Not quite. First off, the president can’t do something that was written into law by the Congress (passed by both houses of Congress and not vetoed by the president.) Executive orders are considered further interpretation of the laws, much like regulations. Article II, Section 1, Clause 1 of the Constitution says the president must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” or else get impeached. Executive orders and regulations are written to guide the executive branch in how those laws are going to be implemented. Several Supreme Court decisions have slapped down executive orders, saying they went too far in interpreting laws or created laws on their own. (Like here.)
Judicial. So we have the ability to write the rules and the force to make sure they’re done. The judicial role of government is to make sure that people aren’t breaking these rules. The judicial branch is the only power that can directly decide to punish the population. They also make sure that rules don’t contradict each other and fit into the basic structure established for the government. In the U.S. system, this is “judicial review” held by the Supreme Court. Essentially, the Supreme Court is where decisions are made whether laws fit under our Constitution, but also the courts make sure that laws are being implemented with the intention of the rule-writers in mind.
It’s absolutely no surprise that sometimes laws can be written that are contradictory. The judicial authority would be the one deciding what the intent of the laws are, and which one overrides the other. (And here, “laws” can also be items in the Constitution, which is why laws are thrown out if they’re unconstitutional — that document is the basis of American government, meaning no law can be interpreted to be against that fundamental document.)
So there you have it, the three functions of government. When you’re writing your novel for NaNoWriMo, do you need to have three specific bodies holding one power each? Not at all. Take a total dictatorship; there, the ruler would hold all the powers — writing the laws, enacting the laws, and interpreting the laws. A leader (or group of leaders) could hold one, two or all three functions.
There’s also no set rule that any function needs to be one person or a group of people. You can have one person writing the rules, a team of people implementing them, cross over functionality so one person/group holds more than one power. That’s where you get to shine as a novel-writer!