Technically, it's a Constitutional Republic
(I'm pretty sure that's the right term...) This year's presidential election
has made me see more clearly just how little control
In a direct democracy, the people are in direct control of the government. Athens, in ancient Greece was a direct democracy. The citizens (the adult men, back then) voted on just about everything. Naturally, the politics of the United States are too complicated to have a vote by the general population on every single issue, so we have Congress. We elect people to speak for us. (in theory)
In presidential elections, there is a different system, known as the Electoral College. The winner of a presidential election is not the candidate who gets the most votes, but the one who gets the most electoral votes. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes, and the candidate who gets the most votes in a state (even if they only win by one vote) gets all the electoral votes for that state. This system has two major effects: It makes it possible for a person to have more votes and still lose an election, and it also creates a disadvantage for third-party candidates. For example, in the 1996 election, although Ross Perot received several million votes, he got no electoral votes, because he did not defeat either of the "main party candidates" in any state.
This was one of the main things that disturbed me about this year's election. The two main parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, completely own the election. In the current system, the other parties have virually no chance to win. The main parties also own the debates. This year, Al Gore and George W. Bush were the only candidates to be included in debates. A vote for a third party candidate in this year's election was not only wasted, but doesn't count against the main candidate that you don't want to win. For example, to the Gore supporters, a vote for Ralph Nader as actually a vote for Bush, since it doesn't counter the vote of someone who actually voted for Bush.