PS 184 Honors Introduction to American Politics

This Honors “Introduction to American Government” will concentrate on three goals, and it is the combination of these three, rather than the load in any one, that should distinguish the class:

The first is, of course, to acquire the basics for understanding and interpreting American politics. Here, there is a set of topics—the separation of powers, nomination by primary election, and so forth—that any knowledgeable person would have to master. We shall master them, too. Accordingly, the most formal part of our sessions will be directed to this goal, through lectures on key topics. So, in part, will the readings, though you will probably have other uses for them as well. A major examination will test achievement of this goal. This is the institutional backdrop to American politics. An understanding of it ought to stay with you for a long time.

The second goal is to attain some familiarity with the evolution of American politics during ‘our time’, which will mean, for this class, the end of the Second
World War through December of 2016. This goal is based on the belief that interpretation of modern American politics is almost impossible without understanding where it came from, that is, the sequence and context of its development. There will be readings focused on this as well, and later lectures—video-supported—will address it explicitly. There will be a minor examination testing this goal directly. There will also be a serious term paper that will help to integrate both halves of the class.

And the third goal is to apply the understandings gained from class lectures and research projects to the events of politics as they unfold during our time together. In other words, if we get the first part of the class right—if the things we are addressing through lectures and readings really are essential to understanding American politics—then it ought to be possible to observe them ‘in action’ as we go about our business.  At the same time, serious students of current affairs ought to move from being a glorified cheering section (hurrah for my heroes, boo for yours) to being informed observers, who begin to understand why political actors do what they do. Daily reading of a national newspaper will be the major tool here, followed by discussion during most class periods.