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UNIT: Foundations of American Politics
The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, 1776
This document formally announces that 13 former British colonies have become the free and independent United States of America. It eloquently identifies certain historic principles on which their claim to independence rests.
The Constitution of the United States, The Constitution of the United States, 1787
The Constitution provides an organizational blueprint for the national government and for the federal relationship between the national government and the states. In addition, the first 10 amendments, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, spell out limits on what the government can do. A commentary preceding the Constitution provides a brief account of the writing of the Constitution and also notes some of its significant features.
Federalist No. 10, James Madison, The Federalist Papers, 1787
James Madison argues in support of the union of the 13 states under the new Constitution. According to Madison, a system of representative democracy governing a large territory and many people will help control the undesirable effects of “faction.”
Federalist No. 51, James Madison, The Federalist Papers, 1787
According to James Madison, both the separation of powers among three branches of government and the division of powers between the states and the central government will help preserve representative democracy under the new Constitution.
The End of American Exceptionalism, Peter Beinart, National Journal, 2014
Peter Beinart examines the concept of American exceptionalism and reports that three key beliefs central to American exceptionalism are in decline.
Take It Down, Allen C. Guelzo, National Review, 2015
In the context of the cold-blooded shooting of a number of African-Americans in their South Carolina church in June 2015 by a young white man who apparently liked the Confederate flag, Allen Guelzo observes that that flag symbolizes not only racial hatred but also treason. He argues that all Americans should view it as such.
Acculturation Without Assimilation, Stanley Kurtz, National Review, 2013
Stanley Kurtz distinguishes assimilation from acculturation and laments that today’s multiculturalism programs work to discourage appropriately patriotic citizenship.
Survival of the Richest, Dave Gilson, Mother Jones, 2014
Dave Gilson presents data showing how the top 1% of Americans have fared economically over time and contrasts them with other Americans.
Are You Racist? Chris Mooney, Mother Jones, 2015
Chris Mooney reports on tests developed by neuro-scientists aimed at determining whether people hold racist attitudes.
Our Revolution Has Just Begun, Gloria Steinem, Ms. Magazine, 2014
Gloria Steinem critiques two myths about the contemporary women's movement and identifies a number of issues and challenges that the movement still must address.
Return to Nixonland, Lisa Graves, In These Times, 2013
Lisa Graves compares controversial surveillance practices of the National Security Agency revealed by Edward Snowden with controversial surveillance tactics used during the Nixon presidency nearly half a century ago.
The Autocrat Next Door, Franklin Foer, The New Republic, 2014
Franklin Foer argues that local governments such as that in Ferguson, Missouri, pose bigger threats to individuals’ rights and liberties than the national government does.
Better Beings, Mark Leibovich, The New York Times Magazine, 2015
Mark Leibovich notes the frequency with which contemporary American politicians claim that their policy views have “evolved,” cites the example of President Obama’s views on same-sex marriage, and analyzes this “evolution” phenomenon.
Get Me Rewrite, Alex Seitz-Wald, National Journal, 2013
Alex Seitz-Wald argues that the U.S. Constitution has outlived its usefulness and needs to be replaced.
Debating Citizens United, Floyd Abrams and Burt Neuborne, The Nation, 2011
Two respected commentators on freedom of speech and of the press, Floyd Abrams and Burt Neuborne, present opposing positions on the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision of 2010.
Bill of (Unwritten) Rights, Richard Morgan, The New Republic, 2013
Richard Morgan addresses 16 proposals for constitutional amendments that have been advanced in the last half century or so, none of which have been enacted.
UNIT: Structures of American Politics
The Founders' Great Mistake, Garrett Epps, The Atlantic, 2009
Garrett Epps argues that the framers of the Constitution created a dysfunctional and dangerous presidency that has caused problems for the United States throughout its history. He offers a number of reforms relating to the office of chief executive and the interaction of the president with the legislative branch.
Do Presidents Matter? Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Atlantic, 2013
The author draws a distinction between transformational and transactional presidents and argues that good leadership requires “a careful understanding of the context of change.” Nye concludes that leaders will need contextual intelligence to understand that it is necessary for the United States to work with other states. The author concludes that President Obama should follow the model of a transactional rather than transformational president.
Think Again: Obama’s New Deal, Michael Grunwald, Foreign Policy, 2012
Michael Grunwald assesses the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted early in President Obama’s first term and often called “the stimulus,” and likens it to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
What Went Wrong: Assessing Obama's Legacy, David Bromwich, Harper’s Magazine, 2015
After having voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, David Bromwich critically assesses the Obama presidency and observes that Obama campaigned better than he has governed and too often took “the path of least resistance.”
Ten Secret Truths about Government Incompetence, Donald F. Kettl, Washington Monthly, 2015
Political scientist Donald Kettl addresses a memo to the individual who will become the next U.S. president in January 2017 and alerts him or her to “ten secret truths” that can be learned from the “management mistakes” of the Obama and Bush administrations.
The Gridlock Clause: You Will Note Its Absence from the Constitution, Josh Blackman, National Review, 2015
Josh Blackman notes the absence of any “gridlock clause” in the U.S. Constitution, and provides examples of President Obama using gridlock as a political and constitutional rationale for what Blackman says are unconstitutional actions that the president has taken.
When Congress Stops Wars: Partisan Politics and Presidential Power, William G. Howell and Jon C. Pevehouse, Foreign Affairs, 2007
The authors explore the various ways that Congress can limit presidential war powers. They also note that the party composition of Congress and the presidency is an important factor in how much influence Congress exerts.
The Case for Corruption, Jonathan Rauch, The Atlantic, 2014
Jonathan Rauch argues that more backroom deals, "honest graft," "earmarks," and the like would improve the functioning of the contemporary Congress.
End of an Era, Ronald Brownstein, National Journal, 2014
Ronald Brownstein chronicles the four-decade congressional career of Henry Waxman, "a great legislator," and explains why there may never be another House member like him.
The Big Lobotomy, Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards, Washington Monthly, 2014
The authors describe how Republicans, over the past 25 years, have undermined the ability of Congress to do its job.
We Need Both Insiders and Outsiders in Congress, Lee Hamilton, Center on Congress at Indiana University, 2015
Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the House of Representatives, distinguishes members of Congress who are “insider players” and those who are “outsider players.” He argues that both kinds of members can make useful contributions to the American political system.
Save the Sequester, Stephen Moore, National Review, 2015
Stephen Moore writes that the so-called sequester is “the most unheralded accomplishment of the Republican Congress” between 2011 and 2015, and explains how the sequester came about and why it is a good thing.
Clones on the Court, Akhil Reed Amar, The Atlantic, 2015
Akhil Reed Amar identifies the very similar backgrounds of all current Supreme Court justices, explains why recent presidents have so consistently chosen nominees with such backgrounds, and laments the consequences for the Court’s functioning.
Angering Conservatives and Liberals, Chief Justice Defends Steady Restraint, Adam Liptak, The New York Times, 2015
Adam Liptak analyzes Chief Justice John Roberts’ votes in two historic Supreme Court decisions issued on successive days in late June, 2015: one on Obamacare and the other on same-sex marriage. Liptak also addresses the often pivotal roles of the Supreme Court and of Chief Justices in the American political system.
Change Is Gonna Come, The Economist, 2015
The argument in this selection is that the U.S. Supreme Court often finds itself taking up controversial and important policy matters that Congress and the president have not addressed. The Court’s June 2015 decisions in cases involving Obamacare and same-sex marriage are cited as examples of this phenomenon.
How the Sausage Is Made, Margot Sanger-Katz, National Journal, 2012
Margot Sanger-Katz describes the process that occurs after the Supreme Court hears oral arguments, a process that leads to one opinion or multiple opinions on the relevant case.
Rare Scrutiny for a Court Used to Secrecy, Peter Wallsten, Carol D. Leonning, and Alice Crites, The Washington Post, 2013
The authors address the origins and operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as well as the enormous power it seems to wield.
Legislation Is Just the Start, Lee Hamilton, Center on Congress at Indiana University, 2010
Lee Hamilton notes that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 leave many matters for government bureaucrats to resolve. He also suggests that the bureaucrats will be subject to considerable pressure from lobbyists whose clients have an interest in how the act is implemented.
Can Government Play Moneyball? Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland, The Atlantic, 2013
The authors, high-ranking officials in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, lament that performance-based evaluation of government programs has lagged well behind what has occurred in other American enterprises, including professional sports.
Do You Want Shrapnel with That Airbag? Terry J. Allen, In These Times, 2015
Terry Allen reports on how and why car manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the government agency responsible for regulating automobile and highway safety, failed to prevent airbag malfunctions that killed and maimed American drivers and their passengers.
UNIT: Process of American Politics
Parallel Universes, David Wasserman, National Journal, 2012
David Wasserman presents the geographical and demographic explanations for Democrats’ advantages in presidential elections and Republicans’ advantages in U.S. House of Representatives elections.
How Politics Breaks Our Brains, and How We Can Put Them Back Together, Brian Resnick, National Journal, 2014
Brian Resnick reports research that suggests that the demonstrated tendency of Americans and other human beings toward partisanship probably results from evolution. The research also points to ways that partisanship might be reduced.
Six Myths about Campaign Money, Eliza Newlin Carney, National Journal, 2010
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Eliza Newlin Carney identifies and discusses what she sees as six myths about campaign financing in the American political system.
Who Wants to Buy a Politician? Binyamin Appelbaum, The New York Times Magazine, 2014
Binyamin Appelbaum notes that the controversial Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United in 2010 has not led to the dramatic increases in campaign spending that were expected. The author also offers explanations for why the worst fears of the critics of the ruling have not been realized.
Identity Politics, Robert David Sullivan, America, 2014
Robert David Sullivan reports that Catholics and Protestants, taken as a whole, no longer vote differently from each other, but that frequency of church attendance strongly correlates with voting behavior.
America Observed, Robert A. Pastor, The American Prospect, 2005
Robert A. Pastor identifies “dysfunctional decentralization” as the central cause of problems in America’s election system and compares various dimensions of the system with those of other countries.
Contemporary American Democracy in Operation: The Electoral Process in 2012, Bruce Stinebrickner, Original Work, 2013
Bruce Stinebrickner identifies four distinctive features of the American electoral process as it functioned in 2012. He writes that each feature was salient and consequential for the American political system and proceeds to explain why.
Modern Pollster, John J. Miller, National Review, 2015
John Miller identifies new challenges that cell phones and other factors raise for public opinion pollsters and explains why accurate predictions of election results have become more difficult.
Who Gave Us Obamacare? Kevin Glass, National Review, 2012
Kevin Glass reports the major roles that interest groups representing medical professionals, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, health insurance companies, and so forth played in formulating what has come to be known as Obamacare. Glass notes that despite President Obama’s declaration that the policy-formulation process would be transparent; the interest groups’ influence was mostly exercised behind closed doors.
The Long Game, Alex Roarty, National Journal, 2014
Alex Roarty reports the long-term goals and strategies of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization to which the Koch brothers have made substantial contributions.
Movements Making Noise, Frances Fox Piven, The Nation, 2013
Frances Fox Piven argues that the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been an era marked by influential and inspiring popular movements and protests both in the United States and abroad.
Balancing Act, Frederick Allen, The Saturday Evening Post, 2013
Frederick Allen addresses news media bias and traces if from the early days of the United States to contemporary times.
Campaign Coverage in the Time of Twitter, Jodi Enda, American Journalism Review, 2011
Jodi Enda reports that coverage of election campaigns has changed markedly in the past decade or so. She notes how social media have affected the news cycle, the traveling habits of both journalists and candidates, and the opportunities for in-depth investigative reporting.
The Varnished Truth: Getting the News from Comedy Central, James T. Keane, America, 2012
James T. Keane reports that many Americans, particularly young Americans, get their political news from TV comedy shows, and gives three reasons for this development.
UNIT: Products of American Politics
America the Undertaxed, Andrea Louise Campbell, Foreign Affairs, 2012
Andrea Louise Campbell puts American fiscal policy, especially tax policy, into cross-national perspective. She reports that the United States has very low taxes, little redistribution of income, and a very complex tax code.
The Great Regression, Sam Pizzigati and Chuck Collins, The Nation, 2013
The authors note that the Sixteenth Amendment, which empowered Congress to impose a national income tax, is a century old and that income tax rates for Americans earning the highest income have declined precipitously since the 1960s. They propose linking the entry threshold for an increased maximum rate to a multiple of the minimum wage.
10 Practical Steps to Reverse Growing Inequality, Robert Reich, The Nation, 2014
Robert Reich laments the widening inequality of income and wealth in the United States and proposes 10 remedial steps.
Global Warming Left Out in the Cold, Amy Harder, National Journal, 2014
Amy Harder reports how the political coalition supporting action to combat global warming that seemed so prominent a few years ago has been undermined by a fossil fuels boom in the United States.
Lethal Responsibility, George B. Wilson, America, 2013
George B. Wilson argues that the dominant gun control issue is public safety, not criminality, and proposes three steps to reduce avoidable gun-related deaths.
The Tyranny of Metaphor, Robert Dallek, Foreign Policy, 2010
Robert Dallek identifies and assesses three historical myths that have undermined prudent American foreign policy and national security decisions for the better part of a century.
Worth Fighting—or Not, Burt Solomon, National Journal, 2009
Burt Solomon considers the major wars in which the United States has participated and notes that both unintended and intended consequences must be taken into account in assessing them.
Back to Normalcy, Paul Kennedy, The New Republic, 2010
Paul Kennedy argues that the United States is changing from an abnormally dominant role in world affairs that has lasted for a half-century or more to the more normal role of being one of a small group of great powers. He also analyzes how the United States is currently faring on three factors on which the country’s status in world affairs is said to rest.
Don't Tread on Me, Dave Gilson, Mother Jones, 2014
Dave Gilson reports on various dimensions of U.S. defense spending, which totals more than the next 10 countries combined.
The Killing Machines, Mark Bowden, The Atlantic, 2013
Mark Bowden explores tactical, moral, and legal dimensions of drone warfare.