Making Parties and Policy in a Polarized Era


Despite frequent pleas from President Obama for national social and political unity and the rise of groups like “No Labels,” the seemingly never-ending sociopolitical polarization appears to be the new norm in American political life. To many politicians, pundits, and people alike, 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—from the alleged divides between Wall Street and Main Street to those who are secular and those who are religious; and we often see disturbing images from the so-called “Tea Party” rallies and Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. This seminar will explore the puzzle of how to move on from this divided state. While the course will briefly examine the veracity of these recent impressions of the American sociopolitical scene, we will center our course on the question: Is policymaking forever deadlocked, or can real political progress be made? Moreover, what are the social and policy implications of polarization? How does President Obama govern in this political epoch, and are the political parties representing the will of the people? What about the 2014 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 the 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 look 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—all with a focus on policy and moving the country forward. 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 as ideologues. Prior course work in American history and the social sciences is required.