Pol 166: American political system


How do we do politics in the United States? This is the question which will animate this course on American government. As an introduction, this course will focus heavily on the federal government, its various branches, and its functions; by the end of the semester you should have a solid understanding of the basics of American governance. Yet this is not just a course on the formal institutions of government, but also on the ways that citizens interact with one another and other levels of government, and how those interactions affect policy at all levels.

To that end, interwoven with the discussion of formal politics will be an exploration of a particular moment in American history: the mid-1960s conflicts over civil rights. While there were many actors in those conflicts (and recognizing that the push for civil rights began long before and has lasted long after the 1960s) we will focus on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), how and why they emerged, how those activists organized themselves, and how they related to others both pushing for and against civil rights.

While we are looking at SNCC for many reasons, the main reason is to consider the power relationship between citizens and those who would rule them. Note, of course, that not all who seek to rule are a part of the government—power in a democracy is widely, if unevenly, distributed— and that, crucially, the government that may be used to oppress may also be used to liberate.

Required readings (available at Lehman bookstore or online):
*WTP: Benjamin Ginsberg, Theodore Lowi, Margaret Weir, Caroline Tolbert, & Robert Spitzer, We the People, 10th ed., ISBN 978 0 393 93705 3
*online Freedom Movement/SNCC readings (links available, below)

Attendance, 30 pts . . . 15%
Quizzes, 60 pts . . . 30%
Midterm Essay, Due March 26, 40 pts . . . 20%
Final Essay, Due May 21, 70 pts . . . 35%
Note: you will be given a separate handout for the essay assignments.
No extra credit will be available.

Attendance is mandatory, and will be taken at the outset of each class. It is expected that you participate in every class session. Lectures will cover both the course readings and additional materials. Try to complete the readings before the Tuesday class, and certainly by the Thursday session: You will be better prepared both to ask questions about the readings and to participate.

The quizzes will be short in-class closed-book fill-in-the-blank tests and cover a chapter or two. Quizzes will always be held at the beginning of the class on Tuesdays; specific dates will be announced in class the prior Thursday. The midterm and final essays, on the other hand, are scaffolded papers designed to get you to think about the connection between citizen actions and government functions.

Regarding tablets/computers: You may use for notes as long as WIFI IS TURNED OFF; please stow cell phones.

Regarding food and drink in the classroom: Something to drink is fine, something to eat is not.


Days 1-2: Introduction: Politics, democracy and political culture
January 29-31: Introduction; WTP chs. 1-3; Declaration of Independence

Days 3-4: Foundations
February 5-7: WTP chs. 1-3; Constitution, Federalist Nos. 10 & 51; begin ch 4

***No Class Tuesday, February 12: Lincoln’s Birthday***

Days 5-7: Political society: Civil liberties & civil rights; Freedom Movement
February 14-21: WTP ch 4; begin ch 12; online:

Days 8-9: Institutions: Judiciary
February 26-28: WTP, finish ch 12

Days 10-11: Political society: Freedom Movt, Public opinion, Media
March 5-7: WTP chs. 5-6; online:

Days 12-13: Political society: Freedom movement, interest groups
March 12-14: WTP, ch 8; online:

Days 14-15: Political society: Freedom movement, interest groups
March 19-21: online:

Days 16-17: Institutions: The presidency, bureaucracy, and foreign policy
Midterm Essay Due
March 26-28: WTP chs 10, 11, & 14

Days 18-19: Institutions: The presidency, cont.
April 2-4: WTP chs 10, 11, & 14

Days 20-21: Political society and institutions: Parties & elections
April 9-11: WTP ch 7; online:

Days 22-23: Institutions: Congress, Domestic policy
April 16-18: WTP, chs. 9, 13

***No Class April 23 & 25: Spring Recess***

Day 24-25: Institutions and political society
April 30-May 2: WTP chs 9, 13; online:

Days 26-27: Claiming a right to be free
May 7-9: online:

Day 28: Democracy, politics, and democratic politics
May 14: Wrap-up and review

Final Essay: May 21