NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
DEPARTMENT OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
POLS 150, Section 1 Fall 2004
Instructor: Megan Kerr Course Title: Democracy in America
Office: ZU 420 Course Meeting Place: DU 252
Office hours: M/W 1:00-2:00 p.m. Course Meeting Time: MWF 10-10:50
and by appointment
Phone: 753-7057 (office)
What This Course Is.
POLS 150 Democracy in America studies American political and social institutions primarily through the political thought, writings, and speeches of three categories of people: 1.) the nation’s founders and the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution whose work structures the political controversies reappearing through subsequent generations; 2.) office holders who bore responsibility for dealing with these controversies and who both changed and preserved constitutional institutions and democratic thought and practice; and 3.) the influential non-office holders whose thought helped shape public opinion, social change, and law, and whose thought provided insight into both the goodness and badness of American democracy. Among the latter, Tocqueville’s commentary, is still (160 years after its publication) commonly regarded as the best ever written in this regard and is also what gives this course its name and its spirit.
Why a Constitutional and Democratic Focus?
Emphasis is placed on the US Constitution because, as the central legitimating symbol of American political life, citizens need to understand how it frames political controversy and how it influences political and social change. To that end, we will study important debates concerning both democratic institutions and the meaning of liberty and equality from the Founding until now. Such debates include whether we needed a national government and how the framers thought it could be kept from being oppressive; disputes about what political/economic conditions make American democracy possible; successive waves of controversies about whether the suffrage (voting rights) should be expanded; whether the Founders’ Constitution was democratic; whether it was a slave or a free Constitution; whether it recognized the humanity of the Negro, as African-Americans were then called; whether the national government should regulate the economy and provide welfare; disputes about what democratic representation is; whether separation of powers prevents democracy or makes it possible; whether religion is an indispensable political institution or a persistent political problem; what makes one a citizen; what law-abidingness means and whether it is or is not a duty; and the relation of women to democratic government and society.
The persistent and over-arching theme of this class will be the disputed question “What is democracy?” In keeping with its disputed nature, we will study a range of opposing answers. Considerable attention will be given to the perennial dispute on whether democracy, in the most humanly and ennobling sense, is possible primarily through local institutions (as maintained in the American political tradition by the anti-Federalists and Tocqueville); or whether it is possible primarily through national institutions (as maintained by the Progressives, the New Deal, and the Great Society). This dispute turns on whether democracy is understood to involve (or be) primarily “self-government” in that oneself and one’s neighbors are primarily responsible for solving the day-to-day problems of living together (as the Jeffersonian tradition down to the Republican contract with America maintains); or whether democracy is understood to involve (or be) a greater degree of national-level government to regulate the nation’s economy in order to promote “economic democracy” and secure rights (as the Hamiltonian tradition down to modern “civil liberties” and “civil rights” maintains).
Both these over-arching themes and the nature of the readings present a distinctive approach to American democracy and government. The approach is historical, cultural, and philosophic, particularly emphasizing the mutual interdependence of governmental and social institutions. It is further distinguished by its purpose that (unlike POLS 100) is not necessarily to introduce students to the sub-field of American politics, or even to the political science major/minor (although it does that). It is aimed at all students whether or not they enter the course intending further study of political science. Its aim is deepening citizen’s understanding and awareness of persistent issues, arguments, and themes of American democracy’s development.