American Political System

This introductory-level course aims to foster a critical sense for analyzing some of the most pressing issues in contemporary American politics. To that end, we will explore the historical and theoretical foundations of the American system of government as well as its major political institutions. The distinction between procedural versus substantive democracy will serve as an overarching theme for the entire semester, framing our discussions. We will consider the democratic virtues and practical limitations of American politics, its lofty ideals as well as its profound inequality. By assessing the distribution of power in American society, we will attempt to comprehend the myriad forces—including race, gender, and social class—that determine, in part, the material conditions of our existence and frame the range of political action available to us as citizens of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.

Required Text:

  • Ira Katznelson, Mark Kesselman, and Alan Draper, The Politics of Power: A Critical Introduction to American Government, 7th edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

Course Plan

Week I: Introduction

Week 2: Theoretical Foundations

  • The Declaration of Independence (1776)
  • Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Oxford University Press: New York, 2008 [1776]), excerpts.
  • Louis Hartz, “The Concept of a Liberal Society,” in The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (Harcourt Brace & Company: New York, 1980 [1955]), excerpts.
  • Richard Hofstadter, “The Founding Fathers: An Age of Realism,” in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (Vintage: New York, 1978), pp. 3-22.

Week 3: Democracy’s Challenge

  • Katznelson, ch. 1
  • James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2003 [1787]), pp. 40-46.
  • Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Linda Medcalf, “The Dark Side of the Constitution,” in The Case Against the Constitution: From the Anti-Federalists to the Present (M.E. Sharpe: New York, 1987), excerpts.
  • Robert Dahl, “Why Not a More Democratic Constitution?” in How Democratic is the American Constitution? (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2003), pp. 121-139.

Week 4: Capitalism & Democracy

Week 5: American Political Economy

  • Katznelson, ch. 3
  • David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Oxford University Press: New York, 2010), excerpts.

Week 6: Political Parties, Elections & Public Opinion

Week 7: The Mass Media

Week 8: Interest Groups & Social Movements

  • Katznelson, ch. 5
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963)” in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harper Collins: New York, 1991), pp. 289-302.
  • Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” in George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, (Grove Press: New York, 1994), pp. 23-44.
  • Philip A. Klinkner and Rogers Smith, The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 202- 241.
    • Watch: Eyes on the Prize (1987)

Week 9: The Presidency

  • Katznelson, ch. 6
  • Andrew J. Polsky, “The Presidency at War,” in Michael Nelson, ed., The Presidency and the Political System (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2006), pp. 557-75.
  • Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power (Macmillan: New York, 1960), pp. 204-213.

Week 10: Congress

Week 11: The Courts

  • Katznelson, ch. 8
  • Cass R. Sunstein, “Judges and Democracy: The Changing Role of the United States Supreme Court,” in Kermit L. Hall and Kevin T. McGuire, eds., The Judicial Branch (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 32-59.

Week 12: Economic Policy

  • Katznelson, ch. 9
  • David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press: New York, 2007), pp. 1-38.

Week 13: Social Policy

Week 14: Foreign Policy

  • Katznelson, ch. 11
  • TBA