POLS 100, Sections 1, 2, 3 and 5

Intro to American Government and Politics

MWF 10-10:50 a.m.

Professor Mikel Wyckoff

Office:  Zulauf 403

Hours:  Wednesday 2:00 – 5:00 and by Appointment

753-7056   mwyckoff@niu.edu



Teaching Assistants:

Section D001    Du Sable 459      Mr. Cook           z147234@students.niu.edu

Section D002    Du Sable 461      Mr. Gross          z104126@students.niu.edu

Section D003    Du Sable 276      Ms. McLean      z1553042@students.niu.edu

Section D005    Du Sable 252      Ms. Stone         z1553188@students.niu.edu





This course provides a college level introduction to the American political system.  Three general topics will be covered during the semester: (1) politics and the democratic process in the United States; (2) basic principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights; and (3) the national policy making institutions of the United States.  In addition to the standard textbook topics, of course, we will also try to keep an eye on newly elected President Barack Obama as he tries to persuade the Congress to adopt his policy proposals and as he struggles to lead the country through difficult times at home and abroad. 





Plenty of used copies of the following textbook should be available at either of the campus bookstores:


            Janda, Berry, Goldman and Hula, The Challenge of Democracy, Brief 6th edition, 2006.


Also, please note that several additional required readings must be located online.  Consult the outline below for specific assignments.  Links are provided to help get you where you need to go. 





Cell Phones & Class Decorum.  Please silence and refrain from using your cell phone and other electronic devises during class.  Also please be civil, use common sense, and respect the needs of your fellow students, not to mention the needs of the grouchy old professor who is trying to offer you a decent lecture each day.  


General Advice.  Your best strategy for success is to attend class regularly, take good notes, keep up with the assigned readings, and then study (!) for the exams.  Study guides are available on Blackboard, but anyone who attends lecture regularly should have a pretty good notion of what to expect on the exams.  If you must miss a lecture (not a good idea in any course) it would be wise to borrow notes from someone else in the class.  Finally, if the material presented in the lecture doesn’t make sense to you, ask questions during your Friday morning discussion section or come to office hours and get a better explanation from me or from your TA.


Exams.  Three hourly exams will be given.  All will be multiple choice in format and each will contribute 22.5% to your final grade.  Even though it is not a comprehensive final, Exam III will be administered during finals week.  Barring extraordinary circumstances everyone must take Exam III at that time.


Makeup exams and grades of incomplete will be provided cheerfully when needed, but only for reasons of significant illness, family tragedy, being away on university business, or other extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, evidence of the extraordinary circumstance normally must be documented by the student.  Should makeup exams be necessary, I reserve the right to switch to an essay format if I deem it necessary.


Written Assignments (22.5% of your final grade).  About every other week you will prepare a brief essay (1-2 pages of text, typed and double-spaced) reacting to one of the lecture topics for that week.  The course outline (below) will tell you exactly when papers are due.  Papers not submitted in person during your Friday morning discussion session will normally receive a grade reduction of at least one letter.  Exceptions will be made for persons experiencing extraordinary circumstances as defined below under “makeup exams.”  These papers represent a serious part of the course, so spelling, grammar, and sentence structure will be taken into account when assigning grades.


Participation in Discussion Sections.  Students who take the course seriously will want to attend their Friday morning discussion sections because: (1) participation in these meetings will contribute 10% to your final course grade; (2) your discussion leaders are the ones who will be grading your written assignments (worth 22.5% of your course grade); (3) this is a great chance to discuss course issues in a small group setting.


Computing Course Grades.  At the end of the semester I will compute your final grade using the following formula which incorporates the weights noted above:


            Course Avg. =  .675(avg. grade on three exams) + .225(avg. grade on six short papers) + .100(attendance/participation score)


To estimate your current grade at just about any time during the semester simply:  (1) compute your current average scores for the exams and for the papers; (2) insert those two numbers (along with a reasonable estimate for attendance/participation in discussion section) into the equation; and (3) do the math.    


Academic Integrity and Plagiarism:  Plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are serious offenses that can and do result in serious penalties.  Regarding plagiarism, the NIU Undergraduate Catalog states: "Students are guilty of plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources (including the Internet) without identifying and acknowledging them. Students guilty of, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university." The above statement encompasses a paper written in whole or in part by another; a paper copied word-for-word or with only minor changes from another source; a paper copied in part from one or more sources without proper identification and acknowledgment of the sources; a paper that is merely a paraphrase of one or more sources, using ideas and/or logic without credit even though the actual words may be changed; and a paper that quotes, summarizes or paraphrases, or cuts and pastes words, phrases, or images from an Internet source without identification and the address of the web site.


If you need more information about plagiarism, please consult the “Statement on Plagiarism,” prepared by NIU’s English Department, that I have posted on Blackboard.  It may also be informative to do the online tutorial available on NIU’s Academic Integrity webpage at http://www.ai.niu.edu/ai/.  It is your responsibility to educate yourself with regard to these issues.  Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse for breaking the rules.


Use of Blackboard and SafeAssign.  Students must submit an electronic copy of all written assignments on Blackboard where the paper will be processed by Safe-Assign, a computer program that checks documents for instances of plagiarism.  Therefore, please do your own work and write in your own voice.  Students who choose to purchase or “borrow” a paper from someone else, or who steal text from various online sources stand a very good chance of being caught by Safe-Assign.  Blatant instances of cheating will typically result in an F for the course.  Milder examples will result in an F for the paper involved, and multiples instances of this nature will translate to an F in the course.  Once you have written your paper, please do not lend it to anyone else “just so they can read it,” or leave it on your roommate’s hard drive, or take any other action that would allow it to be copied.  If I receive duplicate papers, or papers that display substantially overlapping text, chances are quite good that both writers will be penalized equally. 


Extra credit.  Sorry, none is available.  No exceptions.  If you find you’re having trouble, please seek help early in the semester.  My TAs and I will do our best to help you devise strategies for improving your performance on required exams and assignments.  We can’t help you, though, if you don’t seek our assistance.


Students with Disabilities. NIU abides by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which mandates reasonable accommodations for qualified students with disabilities.  If you have a disability and require some type of instructional accommodation, please contact the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR), located in the University Health Services building (753-1303).






A.  Organizational Issues and Basics of Government and Politics  (Week of January 12)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 1, pp. 1-12.

                        John Locke, Chapter 9 from The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690);

                           locate at:  http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/l/locke/john/l81s/chapter9.html

                        W. Saletan, "What Reagan Got Wrong," locate at www.slate.com/id/2101835

                        Silva, James, Hook, “Obama Begins Campaign to Boost His Economic Recovery Plan”

                           Available on Blackboard.       


B.  Thinking about Democracy  (January 21)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 1, pp. 17-end and p. 163 (“The Model of Responsible Party Government”).

                        Paul Krugman, "Can it Happen Here?"  nytimes.com/2008/08/11/opinion/11krugman.html

                        Michael Kranish, “McCain Camp Working Out Health Care Details,”


                        Federalist Paper #10; locate at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/fed.asp


                        In Federalist 10, founding father James Madison is worried about self-interested groups

                        (factions) and how to design a democratic system to protect the nation from them.  Where do

                        factions come from?  When trying to control factions does he favor: (1) direct or indirect

                        democracy? (2) majority rule or pluralistic democracy? (3) a large nation or a small nation?

                        (These questions are for you to think about as you read Fed. 10.  No paper is assigned.)  


C.  Public Opinion and Ideology in America  (Week of January 26)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 1, pp. 12-17; Ch. 4, especially pp. 91-102 & 109-end. 

                        Read the following brief essays for their main ideas.  As you read them, ask yourself whether the

                          the writer seems to be liberal or conservative in outlook, or perhaps something else entirely. 

                        Paul Krugman, “Fighting Off Depression.” nytimes.com/2009/01/05/opinion/05krugman.html?em

                        Steve Chapman, “False Cures for the Recession.” http://www.reason.com/news/show/130398.html

                        Thomas Friedman, “Flush with Energy” nytimes.com/2008/08/10/opinion/10friedman1.html

                        Steve Chapman, “Oil Prices and Economic Reality” www.reason.com/news/show/126728.html

                        Steve Chapman, “Flunking a Religious Test” www.reason.com/news/show/123825.html

                        Steve Chapman, “The Case for Gay Adoption” http://www.reason.com/news/show/130325.html


            Write:  First, run IDEALOG at www.uspolitics.org (do the readings and the survey you find there).

                        Then write a 1-2 page essay briefly discussing the value preferences and policy views of each

                        ideological type (liberal, conservative, libertarian, communitarian).  Which category best

                        applies to Barack Obama?  To John McCain?  To columnist Steve Chapman?  Due 1/30/09.


D.  Political Parties  (Week of February 2)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 6.

                        V.O. Key, “A Theory of Critical Elections,” Journal of Politics (1955), pp. 3-8 only.  Locate

                        at the POLS 100 Blackboard website under Course Documents.


            Write:   In this article, Key proposes the concept of a “critical election.”  What are the essential

                        characteristics of a critical election?  In his examination of Massachusetts, why did Key

                        choose the particular communities that appear in his analysis (Figure A)?  What do the trends

                        for those two communities reveal?   Explain in a 1-2 page paper due Friday, February 6. 


E.  Interest Group Politics  (Week of February 9)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 7 and review Ch. 1, pp. 22-24 (pluralistic democracy).                         


EXAM I:  Friday, February 13 (administered in your discussion section room)





A.  Origins and Development  (Week of February 16)


            Read:  JBGH, Ch. 2, pp. 31-47, 55-60

                        Federalist Paper #51; locate at:  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/fed.asp


            Write:   Worried about the need to prevent government from becoming too powerful, in Federalist 51

                        Madison hopes to use the very structure and organization of government to create a system of

                        checks and balances.  How is this system designed to work?  One requirement is that every

                        branch must have “a will of its own.”  Another is that the separated branches must have

                        partially overlapping powers.  Finally, one must adjust for the fact that some branches are

                        naturally weak while some are strong.  Discuss in a 1-2 page paper (due February 20).


B.  The Presidency, Part I:  Presidential elections; organizing and staffing the modern presidency  (Week of February 23)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 6, pp. 165-170 and Ch. 9, pp. 235-238 and Ch. 10, pp. 254-265.

                        Federalist Paper #6; locate at:  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/fed.asp

            Jack Rakove, “The Accidental Electors,.” NY Times (12/19/00).  Find on Blackboard.


                        Writing in Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton argues that the Electoral College is a set of

                        procedures carefully designed by the great thinkers at the Constitutional Convention who

                        thought only of selecting the best possible president.  Based on his reading of the debates

                        that actually occurred at the convention, scholar Jack Rakove has a different analysis. 

                        These are just questions to help you think about the assignments.  No paper is assigned.


C.  The Presidency, Part II:  Constitutional powers; successful presidential leadership  (Week of March 2)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 9, pp. 229-234, 238-end and Article II, pp. A7‑A9.

                        Additional article, TBA.


SPRING BREAK:  Week of March 9



D.  The U.S. Congress, Part I:  Constitutional powers; getting elected and getting a committee assignment  (Week of March 16)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 8, pp. 205-210 and Article I of the Constitution, pp. A3-A6, especially sections 2, 3, 8 & 9.


            Write:   Go to thomas.loc.gov.  Click on “House of Representatives,” then on “Committees” (see

                        left column, both pages).  Investigate several of these standing committees.  Then write a

                        paper explaining which committee you would like to work on if you were a new member of

                        the House.  Among the questions you should consider: (a) What kinds of bills would you be

                        dealing with? (b) How would this committee help you represent the district from which you

                        were elected?  (1-2 page paper due Friday, February 27)


E.  The U.S. Congress, Part II:  The legislative process; party leadership and organization  (Week of March 23)


            Read:    JBGH, remainder of Ch. 8.

                        Additional article, TBA.


EXAM II:  Friday, March 27 (administered in your discussion section room)





A.  Constitutional Origins:  The founding fathers and limited government; American federalism  (Week of March 30)


            Read:   JBGH, Ch. 2 (some of this you only need to review); Ch. 3, pp. 62-72, 81-end

                        Declaration of Independence, in JBGH, pp. A1-A3. 

                        John Roche, “The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action,” American Political Science

                        Review (1961), Intro and Parts 2-4, pp. 799-800 and 803-811.  Locate under Course Documents at

                        the POLS 100 Blackboard website.


                        What is the most useful way to think about the founding fathers?  Were they simply, “Great Men?”

                        Were they greedy, devious elites trying to protect their wealth?  Or were they experienced politicians

                        acting like state representatives, not unlike contemporary members of the U.S. Congress?  These

                        are questions for you to think about as you read the assignment.  No paper is assigned this week.               


B.  The Supreme Court and Judicial Review  (Week of  April 6 )


             Read:  JBGH, Ch. 11 and Article III, pp. A9-A10.

                        C. Krauthammer, "From Thomas, Original Views," locate at:


                        Olmstead v. U.S. (1928); locate at www.oyez.org.  Read only Justice Brandeis’ Dissent (scroll

                        down the page to find it).  Once at Oyez, type the title of the case into the search box in the upper

                        right corner of the page and click on “Go.”  When results appear (in a few seconds), click on the

                        case you need.  When the title page for that case comes up, click on “Written Opinion” under

                        “Case Media.”  For many cases it is also possible to actually hear the oral arguments in the case,

                        but doing so is not part of the assignment.   


                        Given Clarence Thomas’ approach to interpreting the Constitution, how do you think he might

                        have voted in the Olmstead case?  How would you have voted and why?  These questions

                        are for you to think about as you do the reading this week.  No paper is assigned.


C.  Civil Rights  (Week of April 13)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 5, pp. 127-130 and Ch. 13.

                        Loving v. Virginia (1967); locate at www.oyez.org.  Before gay marriage became an issue,

                           some argued that it was also unnatural for certain other people to marry.       

                        "The Heterosexual Revolution," at:  www.stephaniecoontz.com/articles/article21.htm.


            Write:   Gay weddings challenge our traditional notions of what marriage is all about, but less than

                        fifty years ago many people argued that inter-racial marriages were also “unnatural,” and

                        they used many of the same arguments that opponents of gay marriage use today.  If the

                        decision in Loving v. Virginia is correct, shouldn’t those principles be extended to protect

                        the rights of gay men and women who wish to marry?  (1-2 page paper due Friday, April 17)


D.  Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights I:  Selective Incorporation; First Amendment  (Week of April 20)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 12, pp. 298-314, 321-322 and Amendments 1-3 & 14, p. A12-A15.

                        Engel v. Vitale (1962); locate at www.oyez.org. 


            Write:  Read Justice Black’s opinion of the Court in Engel v. Vitale and Justice Stewart’s dissenting

                        opinion.  Compare and contrast these two conflicting interpretations of the establishment

                        clause.  Which is most convincing to you?  Why?  (1-2 page paper due Friday, April 25)


E.  Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights II:  Criminal Procedure; Right to Privacy  (Week of April 27)


            Read:    JBGH, Ch. 12, pp. 314- and Amendments 4-10 & 14, p. A12-A15.


EXAM III:  10:00 a.m., Monday, May 4, Location TBA (but probably in your discussion section rooms

                     if those rooms are available)