550: Unit 1

History 550: American Politics and Public Policy, Fall 2023

Part I: The American Political Landscape

Intro | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

1. Introduction to the class: Definitions

Politics: 1. the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power; 2. the activities of governments concerning the political relations between countries;. 3. the academic study of government and the state; 4. activities within an organization that are aimed at improving someone's status or position and are typically considered to be devious or divisive. A particular set of political beliefs or principles: "what are his politics?" The assumptions or principles relating to or inherent in a sphere, theory, or thing, especially when concerned with power and status in a society.

Public: 1. of or concerning the people as a whole; 2. done, perceived, or existing in open view.

Policy: a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, party, business, or individual. 

See also the Wikipedia entry on Politics, which includes this section on Political Science: Political science, "the study of politics, examines the acquisition and application of power. Political scientist Harold Lasswell defined politics as 'who gets what, when, and how.' Related areas of study include political philosophy, which seeks a rationale for politics and an ethic of public behavior, as well as examining the preconditions for the formation of political communities; political economy, which attempts to develop understandings of the relationships between politics and the economy and the governance of the two; and public administration, which examines the practices of governance.  The philosopher Charles Blattberg, who has defined politics as "responding to conflict with dialogue," offers an account which distinguishes political philosophies from political ideologies.

Question Focus: The Athenian statesman Pericles said: "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."


2. Democracy, Politics, and the Media.

READ: In 550 Readings packet: pp. 1-29

Question Focus: The Mainstream media has a liberal bias that is unfair to conservatives and the Republican Party and gives credence to Trump's cry of "fake news."  (Reminder: the QF is designed to prod YOU to come up with your own questions about the readings.  Be prepared to be asked in class tomorrow what questions you came up with.)

3. Democracy, Politics and the Media, part 2.

READ: 550 Readings packet, 29-54 and

WATCH: Best of Enemies film trailer

Note on the film from the PBS website: In the summer of 1968, television news changed forever....  Best of Enemies captures the legendary televised debates between ideological opposites Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. Dead last in the ratings, ABC hired Vidal (PEA, '43) and Buckley to debate each other during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Buckley, who founded National Review magazine in 1955, was a leading light of the new conservative movement. Gore Vidal, lifelong Democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, was a leftist, taboo-smashing novelist and polemicist. Both believed each other’s political ideologies were dangerous for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight boxing bout, they pummeled each other with exchanges that devolved into personal attacks. These live and unscripted quarrels riveted viewers, and the television industry took notice. Best of Enemies reveals the moment TV’s political ambition shifted from narrative to spectacle, forever altering the way the media — and Americans — talked about politics.

Question Focus (QF from now on): The journalism ethics we read about in the first reading help conservatives and the Republicans more than it hurts them.  The liberal bias of the MSM backfires.  

4. Our Brains on Politics.

READ: 550 Readings packet, 54-72. Make sure you understand the various types of motivated reasoning. Can you think of a time when you experienced cognitive dissonance? 

QF: Polarization is not an insurmountable political problem.

5.  Education v. Local News

Read: 550 Readings packet, 72-91

QF: More education is the key to ending the epistemic crisis.

Now would be a good time to review key terms from previous readings. The better you know them now the better you'll do on the first assessment. 


6. The American system vs. other democratic governments

READ: 550 Readings packet, 92-109.

QF: The US has the best democratic government in the world. The framers of the Constitution were disinterested statesmen (that is, concerned about the greater good rather than narrow self-interest).

7. Is the Constitution Broken?

READ:  550 Readings packet, 109-128 (Toobin and "How a Bill Becomes Law")

QF: The oldest democratic government in the world needs some updating.

Have you noticed the wide margins in the documents reader?  I did that on purpose, so you could take notes as you read. 

8. Problems with the Presidency

READ: 550 Readings packet, 129-147; and review the two paragraphs on p. 98 by Schweikart and Allen on the executive.  

QF: The presidency was poorly designed. 

9. Our Federal System: National, State, Local Governments

READ:  550 Readings packet, 159-178;  Consult this website to see how the states raise revenue. Look up your state and find the graph that looks like this one:

READ ONLINE: Peruse the Town of Exeter website: http://exeternh.gov/bcc. Pay attention to the various town boards, especially the Board of Selectmen, and the sorts of things they are responsible for.  Also, take a look at this Wikipedia entry just to get a sense of the vast number and variety of  America's regional and local governmental bodies: "Local Government in the United States," Wikipedia. We'll be visiting the Exeter Select Board next week.  Think of questions you would like the board to answer and I will submit them before the meeting. 

QF: Governments closest to the people work best and do the most important things.

10. How do Democracies die? And Problems with the Supreme Court

READ: 550 Readings packet, 147-158; plus these videos from the Kavanaugh hearing, by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican Ben Sasse.

QFs: Norm erosion is killing Democracy. Also, Sasse and Whitehouse can't both be right ... can they?  The Polarization crisis is exaggerated.

11. Assignment #1.   B format is doing the in-class exam Monday, Oct. 2.

Intro | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4