Populism and Polarization: Today and in History

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To many politicians, pundits, and people in general, the social and political scene in the United States in the 21st century appears to be one of turmoil, disagreement, division, and instability. We regularly hear about a polarized and deadlocked political class. We read about increasing class and religious differences and the alleged divides between Wall Street and Main Street or between those who are secular and those who are religious. And we see often-disturbing images at so-called “Tea Party” rallies and “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations. This seminar will explore the veracity of these recent impressions of the American sociopolitical scene and examine these current trends and developments in the much needed appropriate historical and long-term context. Via the numerous tools of social science, we will explore the various facets of populism and polarization and ask the questions: Is America actually polarized and deeply divided? What are the social and policy implications of polarization? Is policymaking forever deadlocked, or can real political progress be made? How does all of this play into the 2012 elections? What are we to make of the frequent calls for change and for healing America’s divisions? This seminar seeks to examine these questions and deeper aspects of American political culture today. After reviewing some basics of political economy, we will study American political cultures from a variety of vantage points—and a number of different stories will emerge. We will cover a lot of ground—from America’s founding to today. We will be looking at numerous aspects of American social and political life, from examining the masses, political elites, Congress, and policymaking communities to social movements, the media, and America’s position in a global community. We will be talking about politically charged and often divisive issues, including abortion, immigration, race relations, and homosexuality. This seminar will be an open, nonpartisan forum for discussion and debate. As such, this course will be driven by data, not dogma. We will use modern political economy approaches, based in logic and evidence, to find answers to contemporary public policy problems and questions of polarization. We will treat this material as social scientists, not ideologues. Prior courses in American history and the social sciences are required.