2014-2015 Politics Courses
First-Year Studies: Democracy, Diversity, and (In)equality
From ancient times through the major modern democratic revolutions, democracy’s advocates—as well as its critics—believed that it requires and tends to bring about political equality. Often, democratic equality has been understood to entail important limits on social inequality. It has also been long presupposed and sometimes argued that democracy only works in fairly homogeneous societies. Only in such societies, it has long been maintained, can a people be sufficiently similar and equal to form shared political understandings and projects. Absent considerable commonality—religious, linguistic, ethnic, racial, and cultural—as well as political and perhaps social equality, it is feared that democracy deteriorates into the tyranny of the majority or a war of all against all or a shallow contest of competing interests. At the outset of the 21st century, however, we are witness to two dramatic shifts in the character of society that increasingly seem to challenge the viability of democracy, at least if these long-held views about its necessary social presuppositions are correct. On the one hand, democratic societies have become increasingly unequal over the last 30 years as a result of globalization, changes in the nature and remuneration of work, new policies, and new political conditions. On the other hand, democratic societies are increasingly diverse and their citizens less willing to “forget” their many differences to melt into a dominant national culture. These developments raise some basic questions. Can the character of democracy be reconceived so that it is suited to and/or better able to modify these new social conditions? If not, is democracy doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of deep diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? This course will explore these questions in a number of ways. We will study exemplary historical statements of the ideal of democracy, drawing on traditional works in political philosophy. We will also draw upon contemporary work in sociology, anthropology, cultural and legal studies, and political science to examine the nature of social and cultural diversity, including religion, class, gender, sexuality, and race. We will draw upon a similar range of disciplines to seek to comprehend the causes and consequence of the widening inequality characteristic of almost all economically-advanced democratic societies. Finally, we will explore works that bring these themes together by examining current scholars’ efforts to (re)articulate the ideal and practice of democracy in light of increased diversity and inequality. By the end of the course, students will have been introduced to a variety of different disciplines in the social sciences, with a special focus on contemporary political philosophy, and will have surveyed a number of different proposals for deepening democracy in 21st-century social conditions. Educational objectives include acquiring, developing, and perfecting the skills necessary to: read demanding texts with care and rigor; participate in focused analytic discussion of these texts; write, edit, and revise interpretive and argumentative academic essays; and conduct original, independent research projects.
Politics of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Post-Soviet States
About Eastern Europe, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote: “We shall at once be lost in a forest of historical complexity—an endlessly intriguing forest to be sure, a territory where peoples, cultures, languages are fantastically intertwined, where every place has several names and men change their citizenship as often as their shoes, an enchanted wood full of wizards and witches, but one which bears over its entrance the words: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, of ever again seeing the wood for the trees.’” This quote, though a bundle of mixed metaphors, captures perfectly the nature of the unresolved tensions and unexpected conflicts that have come to characterize Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states since the late 1980s. Though it has been more than 20 years since the breakup of the USSR, the consequences of that traumatic series of events continue to influence and shape the economic and political fortunes of these countries. From the civil war in Georgia to the recent conflicts between Eastern and Western Ukraine (as well as renewed tensions between Russia and the West), the region is haunted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socioeconomic and political transitions that followed. Looking closely at the complex and often contentious relationships between the many different economically and politically diverse actors involved, this class will attempt to make sense of the present political moment by understanding its relationship to its communist past.
Refugees: The Politics of Displacement
Throughout the world, millions of individuals have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution and armed conflict. The majority of these people are women and children. In fact, nearly half of the world’s refugees are children under 18 years of age. Despite the existence of international guidelines such as the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and a framework for responding to refugee emergencies, numerous challenges remain, including: how to determine who is a “bona fide” refugee; the need for burden-sharing arrangements between countries of the Global North and the Global South (which host the vast majority of refugee populations); how to safeguard and better provide for the most vulnerable groups, such as orphans and unaccompanied children, during forced migrations; and the need for global partnerships to combat smugglers and human traffickers. This yearlong service-learning course will explore the causes and consequences of forced displacement. We will also examine the assumptions and actions of governments, the donor community, the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that typically intervene on behalf of refugees. Complex ethical, legal, and policy issues will be considered, including: (1) ethical dilemmas in the provision of protection and care; (2) contrasting models of care: camp settings vs. urban refugees; (3) legal status and distinctions among refugees, asylees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and other migrants; (4) decisions about “durable solutions”—repatriation, local integration, and third-country resettlement; (5) states’ responsibilities and increasing restrictions on access to asylum; and (6) challenges that refugee migrations pose to state-centric concepts of citizenship. Students will explore the link between global refugee movements and the status of refugees and other immigrants in America through participation in individual service-learning projects in their local community.
Congress: 2014 Edition
With 2014 midterm elections around the corner and questions about how Americans will respond to the Obama presidency, this course will examine the current American political scene framed around the 2014 congressional elections. The class will examine the current political climate as it relates to the 2014 elections but will also involve a broad survey of the legislative branch and an examination of issues of representation and elections broadly, party leadership, interbranch relations, as well as committee power, rules, and procedures. The intention here is to help us collectively generate a deeper and more realistic understanding of the complexities of congressional politics beyond the superficial coverage that its members receive in the media and in popular culture (e.g., House of Cards) and how they apply to modern American politics today. As the US Congress is the most open and accessible branch and among the most studied political institution in political science, a framework for its study and the above topics is warranted. This course, therefore, will ask two interrelated questions: 1) What does Congress do and why? (2) What are the various ways of studying congressional behavior? To answer these questions, our readings and discussion will focus on the basic social, empirical, and historical facts about Congress: what it takes to get elected, how Congress works internally, and how the relationships between Congress and the rest of the federal government are organized. We will read classic work from scholars such as Mayhew, Fenno, Shepsle, Kreihbel, and McCubbins, along with more modern work by scholars such as Shickler, Wawro, Mettler, and Kroger. Among the topics that we will cover relating to elections is incumbency advantage, the basic facts of re-election rates, the amount of money spent by incumbents and challengers, and the nature of congressional districts. Additionally, we will examine the existing theories and evidence about the behavior of voters that maintains so many incumbents in office, including the impact of issues, the impact of campaign spending, and whether voters have become more polarized. We will also look at the extent to which congressional elections are decided by national forces versus conditions peculiar to the individual race (i.e., 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2012). For conference, students will be asked to focus on the 2014 congressional election and will be tasked to analyze the outcomes of this important election in a particular district in light of the research on elections that we will cover in the course. Comfort with data and statistics is expected.
The Philosophy and Politics of (In)Equality
Visiting America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed a deep, historically unprecedented form of social equality, one in which every person assumed that they could occupy any station or position of privilege. Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed a movement in the opposite direction: a phenomenal reversal of the “great compression” of income inequality produced by the New Deal political economy and, in its place, a rapid and profound growth in social inequality in America and other “up or out” societies, accompanied by striking declines in social mobility. One aim of this course is to examine the social and political forces that have produced this remarkable and accelerating growth in disparities in social fate. The focus, however, will not be on proximate factors responsible for recent trends but, rather, on the social theory of inequality; i.e., attempts to understand how deeply stratified forms of social order work and what forces and practices stabilize and legitimate the transmission of deep inequalities over time. Topics to be covered include class, race, status, gender, and professional stratification, while methodological perspectives will vary from sociology, anthropology, and economics to history, psychology, and public health. A further striking feature of the political present is the near total absence of effective political or social movements dedicated to redressing extreme concentrations of wealth, shrinking opportunities for social mobility, and the increasing economic vulnerability of large portions of humanity in this society and elsewhere. In exploring this issue, we will shift attention to political philosophy—and, specifically, the subject of distributive justice. We will search for standards of critique of contemporary inequality, standards that might serve social movements or political parties that aim for a return to a less unequal social world.
Many of the most bloody and brutal scenes of violence since the end of the Cold War have been ethnic in character, a fact that seems to belie the possibility of a slow and steady march toward global political stability. The proliferation of such violence over the last 30 years has caused scholars and policy makers to more critically examine the sources and potential solutions to the problem of ethnic conflict. Despite much evidence to the contrary, commentators still frequently attribute the sources of such strife to ethnic diversity and the history of animosity between various ethnic communities. In this course, we will challenge these commonly held assumptions about the cause of ethnic violence and explore some possible solutions for preventing further conflicts or resolving existing ones. Looking at this problem from a more holistic perspective—which engages with the economic, cultural, and political motivations underlying ethnic violence—we will ask questions such as: What are some of the main sources behind political conflicts deemed “ethnic”? What is the role of the international community in managing ethnic conflicts? What is the effect of democratization on territorial integrity of the state and political conflict between ethnically divided communities? And what constitutional designs, state structures, and electoral systems are most compatible with ethnically divided societies? We will attempt to answer these questions by studying both theories of ethnic conflict and conflict management and case studies, including Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Russia, Georgia, Spain, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, and Ethiopia.
Modern Political Theory
Political theory presents a tradition of thinking about the nature of political power; the conditions for its just and unjust use; the rights of individuals, minorities, and majorities; and the nature and bounds of political community. Rather than tackling pressing political problems one at a time, political theorists seek systematic solutions in overall visions of just societies or comprehensive diagnoses of the roots of oppression and domination in existent political orders. In this course, we focus on modern writers who shaped the Western political imagination; that is, the conscious and unconscious ideas about rights, power, class, democracy, community, and the like that we use to make sense of our political lives. Thinkers to be considered include Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. In studying their work, we will seek answers to the following questions. What is the nature of political power? What is the content of social justice? Does democracy threaten basic individual rights? Is it more important to respect the individual or the community when the interests of the two conflict? Is a market economy required by or incompatible with democracy? What aspects of human potential and social worlds do different grand theories of political life illuminate and occlude? Finally, this course will pose the issue of the worth and legitimacy of European modernity; that is, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the ideas that jostle for prominence within this tradition are worth defending? Which should be rejected? Or should we reject them all and instead embrace a new, postmodern political epoch? In answering these questions, we will be forced to test both the internal coherence and the continuing relevance of the political visions that shape modern politics.
Politics and Geography
While the formal study of politics has been around for well over a century, a nontrivial amount of scholarship sees individuals as “atoms” that are, in the words of Kenneth Shepsle, “unconnected to the social structure in which he or she is embedded” and the related theoretical work “worr[ies] hardly at all about the sources of preferences and beliefs.” Moreover, Shepsle observes that institutional details are often repressed and reject the “time and location-bound” qualities of institutions and communities, as they are frequently seen as barriers to general theory. This is a problem, for “politics and people” are embedded in particular spaces and places; and networks are highly conditioned based on specific locational qualities, histories, and features. This course rejects the idea that individuals are atoms and explicitly brings geography into the picture in our study of American politics at the start of the 21st century. After examining theory and methodology, the course tackles a number of big issues that are hotly debated in academic, political, and policy circles. One example is the ever-growing literature on geographic differences and regionalism in the United States as an underlying cause of American division and fractionalization. These geographic fissures do not fall along easy‐to‐map state lines but along a variety of regions in the United States that have been described and mapped by scholars in a number of social science disciplines. We will examine and review a number of literatures and large amounts of localized data that will enable us to look more precisely into the numerous claims that there are nontrivial regional differences in terms of political beliefs, behaviors, and distinct regional political cultures. While American regions display varied histories and cultures, the question that we will attempt to answer is whether these histories and cultures have an impact on contemporary political attitudes, behaviors, and social values. We will take on similar empirical topics throughout the year, using all the available tools from the social sciences—from GIS to historical election and economic data—to examine issues of welfare, mobility and “hollowing out the middle,” employment, innovation, gerrymandering and issues of representation, and competition over natural resources. Many of these topics will be familiar, but the tools through which we examine them will be via a geospatial lens. And the way in which we understand the surrounding politics will, hopefully, be more complete when compared to the traditional lenses in political science. Background in modern American history and politics is required. Comfort with data and statistics is expected.
Remaking American Politics: Political Transformation From the 1930s to the Present
Roughly a year after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson remarked in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result. To this end, equal opportunity is essential but not enough.” Almost 50 years after landmark advances in civil rights during the Johnson Administration, many in the United States are critically examining Johnson’s legacy; and the perception of LBJ being a failure due to Vietnam is shifting to a view that civil rights would not have progressed or the Great Society would not have happened without the tenacity and will of LBJ himself. This course explicitly examines three critical moments in modern American history and the various personalities and events that shaped the nation that exists today. More explicitly, this course maintains the view that every few generations, the United States has a painful and important dialogue about freedom, rights, and the role of government in society. And the outcome of this dialogue results in a critical political transformation of government and society. LBJ and the Great Society is certainly one of those moments in time. This class will also examine the monumental sociopolitical changes and shifts in American attitudes and ideology made during the Great Society but also during the FDR and Obama administrations. The discussion of Obama will be incomplete, of course, but will focus on the role of government and health care, the reactions to enlarging the government, and therefore will include discussion of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The course will examine the historical record during each administration and draw on political, historical, and journalistic accounts to make sense of the administration at the time. We will also critically assess, in an interdisciplinary manner, the impact and legacy of the various sociopolitical changes during each transformational moment to determine if general trends and findings can emerge about political transformations or if these were sui generis events. The tools that we will use to study and assess these three moments will draw on all of the social sciences, as well as history and various tools from visual and material culture. Background in modern American history and culture is required.