PS 104 Introduction to American National Government

This course offers an introduction to the major institutions, participants, and processes in American politics. The focus is on how the structure of our political system conditions the practice of politics at the national level -­‐-­‐ the ongoing struggles among competing groups and individuals for influence over government activities and public policy. We will examine the principles underlying the constitutional framework of American government, and analyze the three branches (Congress, the Judiciary, and the Executive) while trying to understand the advantages and problems inherent in a system of “checks and balances.” We will also consider important extra-­‐governmental actors, such as political parties, interest groups, and the media. In the final part of the course, we will look into important issues of public policy, and focus on economic, budget, end social welfare policie.

My goals in this class are (1)   to show you that politics can be interesting – even fascinating – (2) give you the skills to become informed consumers of political information, and (3)introduce you  to the ways that political scientists see the world.

My position is that there is no such thing as a boring time to study politics, and every year presents important controversies and challenges.  We are on the cusp of the 2016 presidential election season (after what seems like 3 years of warm up), with the first primaries and caucuses taking place early next year.  We have 17 Republican candidates (18 if you count Deez Nuts, but since he is a 15 year old kid from Graettinger, IA, and that’s not his real name, it’s hard to see things working out for him), and at least 6 Democrats (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and 4 others few people know are actually running, though that doesn’t include Joe Biden, who is currently in 3rd place ).  The campaign can seem ridiculous, and it doesn’t help that the question most reporters apparently want to ask of both the Democratic and Republican frontrunners is “what’s up with your hair?” 

At the same time, the issues at stake in this campaign are, to put it mildly, significant.  Terrorism, economic growth, nuclear threats, ISIS, climate change, income inequality, Russia, China, health care, taxes, immigration, the future of Social Security, the national debt, and on and on.  Even under “normal” times, these would be challenging.  In a highly polarized climate in which Democrats and Republicans seem to despise each other and “compromise” is a filthy word, it is even harder. 

The particulars of these political disputes appear to be  unique and new, but they are not. Rather,  they reflect deep tensions about the role of government, conflicts over values, the  nature of the social contract,  and the particular distribution of costs and benefits of government action that have shaped American politics since the beginning of the Republic.