POLS 100-3: American Government & Politics

Spring Semester 2010


Instructor: Asst. Professor Michael Clark

Class Time: Mon & Weds 3.30-4.45

Class Location: DuSable 459

Office hours: Mon & Weds 10.00-11.30 and by appointment

Office phone: (815) 753-7058

E-Mail: mclark12@niu.edu


Course Description


The purpose of this class is to provide students with a broad introduction and understanding of American governing institutions, actors, and political processes.  Though this is primarily a Political Science class, it is impossible to discuss American politics without consideration of historical events and developments. The course objectives are for students to learn:

1) The background from which ideas about American government originated, and what these ideas were.

2) How the formal and informal institutions of American government work.

3) How those institutions, along with political actors affect both decision- and policy-making.

4) How recent changes in political leadership may affect the future of the United States.


We will cover a number of different subjects in the course such as American political culture, the creation of the U.S. Constitution and a federal system of government, the main branches of government, the role of political parties and interest groups, political behaviour, political participation, the media, and public opinion.  At the end of the course, students will have a better understanding of how and why American government functions the way it does, and also of some of the current debates in American Politics.  Given that we will be covering current events, it is “highly” recommended that students spend a few minutes each day catching up on what’s going on in the news.  Given the rather mixed coverage offered by American TV news channels, I suggest you read the Washington Post, the New York Times (remembering their liberal bias), or The Economist, visit the BBC’s website (http://www.bbcnews.com/), watch BBC World News (or other news) on PBS, listen to NPR (or visit their website).


Required Readings


1. We The People 7th and Full Edition by Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir (abbreviated to GLW)

2. A quality news source such as The Washington Post, New York Times or The Economist (to keep up on current events)

3. All additional assigned readings (available online or through Blackboard)


Class Attendance:


Attending lecture is not compulsory, but is essential since we cover a lot of material relatively quickly during the semester, and also because lecture will include discussion of material not found in the readings.  Lecture is an opportunity to expand on, and apply ideas from the readings, as well as for students to discuss their thoughts and observations, and to ask any questions.  Attendance will be taken, and used in determining final grades.


Course Requirements:


1.      Students are expected to attend all classes.

2.      Students are required to have read the assigned readings prior to class and to be prepared for class discussion.

3.      There may be surprise quizzes throughout the course of the semester.

4.      Students will be required to submit an 8-10 page paper. More details are provided at the end of the syllabus. 

5.      There will be three exams – two midterms taking place during weeks 6 and 12 respectively, as well as a final exam.  Exams will consist of some combination of multiple-choice, short answer, and essay-style questions. 


Course Grading:


The breakdown of grading for each piece of work will be as follows:

Midterm 1 – 20%

Midterm 2 – 20%

Final Exam – 25%

Paper – 15%

Class Participation (and attendance) – 20%


Course Grades will be distributed as follows:


            Final Overall Percentage                                 Final Letter Grade

            90-100 %                                                         A

            80-89 %                                                           B

            70-79%                                                            C

            60-69%                                                            D

            Below 60%                                                     F


***Extra-credit assignments are a possibility. However, extra credit is earned from becoming involved in class-related activities e.g. working for a political campaign or attending a lecture on a topic related to American politics. Extra credit will not be offered because of poor performance on a course requirement such as a midterm. Please speak to the professor if you want to find out whether something you have done or plan to do during the semester qualifies for extra credit. Proof of some kind will be required!!***


Course Policies (pay close attention!):


1.      Makeup Exams: Makeup exams will only be given in very special circumstances.  If such circumstances arise, please contact the instructor as soon as possible and before the scheduled exam. To keep the process fair for everyone in the course, students will be asked to support requests for makeup exams with appropriate documentation. A missed examination without prior notification and an approved reason will result in a zero.


2.      Late papers: Late papers will not be accepted.  Papers are due in class on the day that the paper is due, and also via Safe Assign submission on BlackBoard. If you fail to turn in the paper and submit it on the appropriate day, you will receive no score for the paper. E-mailed papers will not be accepted, not withstanding absolutely exceptional circumstances.


3.      Handouts: Handouts are a privilege for those students who attend class on a regular basis. No student is entitled to supplemental materials simply because they are registered for the course.


4.      Classroom Etiquette: Attendance at all class sessions is expected, and the instructor will check attendance.  Active and informed participation in class discussion will make for a better class, and can notably boost a student’s final grade since 20% is set aside for class participation and/or pop quizzes.  Participation can also significantly help students in borderline grade situations.  Students are expected to arrive at class on time. Late arrivals disrupt the class and will be treated as class absences.  Too many class absences may result in being dropped from the class.  Students are to remain for the entire session unless excused by the professor beforehand or confronted with a serious personal emergency.  It is not at all acceptable for students to walk in and out of class to answer cell phones, take casual bathroom and smoking breaks, or attend to other personal matters. Please silence your cell phone prior to the start of each lecture and leave it where it will not cause distraction to you or others.  It is absolutely unacceptable to sleep, use an iPod, read a newspaper, use a laptop for anything other than taking class notes, or engage in other behavior that distracts the instructor or other students from class once it has begun. No one should talk while someone else is talking; and this includes comments meant for a classmate rather than the entire group. Overall, classroom dialogue and behavior should always be courteous, respectful of others, and consistent with the expectations set forth by the university.


5.      Note taking: Although PowerPoint will be used for the purposes of presenting class material it is imperative that students take their own detailed notes during lectures.  The PowerPoint slides provide a broad outline of discussion topics but do not cover everything.  If you miss class for whatever reason, be sure to obtain the notes from someone else in class (making a friend in class is always a good idea).

6.      Incomplete Requests: Such petitions will be granted only in extraordinary circumstances. The instructor reserves the right to ask for documentation to verify the problem preventing completion of the course by the normal deadlines. If the student does not present documentation from a university office or official, the matter will be left to the instructor’s discretion.


7.      Academic Dishonesty: Any written work for this class will be checked electronically through on-line databases to assess the originality of the work.  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 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.


8.      Students with Disabilities: Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities. Those students with disabilities that may have some impact on their coursework for which they may require accommodations should notify the University's Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR). CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors. It is important that CAAR and instructors be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


9.      Department of Political Science website: Undergraduates are strongly encouraged to consult the Department of Political Science web site on a regular basis. This up-to-date, central source of information will assist students in contacting faculty and staff, reviewing course requirements and syllabi, exploring graduate study, research career options, tracking department events, and accessing important details related to undergraduate programs and activities.  To reach the site, go to http://polisci.niu.edu



Reading Schedule (additional readings may be added)


Intro Week (January 11th)

            Monday: Introduction (no reading)


            Wednesday: American Values and Beliefs About Government

Read: Chapter 1 in GLW; “The Atlantic Widens” in T.R. Reid’s “The United States of Europe”; “Pursuing Happiness” from The Economist, June 29th 2006; see also http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=95


Week 2 (January 18th)

Monday: MLK Day – No classes held

Read: None assigned


Wednesday: Defining The Rules of the Game and How To Structure A System of Government – The Founding Fathers, The Constitution and The Pros and Cons of Federalism

Read: Chapter 2 in GLW


Week 3 (January 25th)

Monday: The Pros and Cons of Federalism

Read: Chapter 3 in GLW; “The shaming of America” from The Economist September 8th 2005; “When government fails” from The Economist, September 8th 2005; “In Katrina’s Wake” from The Economist, August 29th 2006; “The Long Road Home” from The Economist, March 15th 2007; “The Slow Recovery” from The Economist, August 23rd 2007; “Compensation After Katrina” from The Economist, July 19th 2007; “Medical Marijuana Shops Abound in California” from Associated Press, November 6th, 2009; “Can Marijuana Help Rescue California’s Economy?” from Time, March 13th 2009; “Streetcars in Washington, D.C.: Rolling Stuck” from The Economist, November 12th 2009


Wednesday: Civil Liberties

Read: Chapter 4 in GLW; “No Crib For A Bed” from The Economist, December 3rd 2009


Week 4 (February 1st)

Monday: Civil Rights

Read: Chapter 5 in GLW; “Not So Colour-Blind” from The Economist, December 3rd 2009


Wednesday: Public Opinion

Read: Chapter 6 in GLW;

For a decent discussion of polling, polling interpretation, and some of the problems inherent with polling, you should visit the following website:

 http://www.mysterypollster.com/main/2006/08/the_nyt_readers.html and click on the topics under FAQ. We will talk about some of these issues in class

Week 5 (February 8th)

            Monday: The Role of the Media – Help or Hindrance?

Read: Chapter 7 in GLW; “America’s Struggle Newspapers: Big is Best” from The Economist, October 29th 2009


Wednesday: The Media continued and Summarising

            Read:  Visit http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/btw/watch.html and read the blurb. Watch the videos (or at least the first part entitled “Buying the War”). Be advised that it may take a few minutes for your computer to deal with the large media files.


Week 6 (February 15th)

            Monday: MIDTERM 1 (all material covered so far)

Read: No reading assigned


            Wednesday: Political Participation - Voting

            Read: Chapter 8 in GLW and 377-381; G. Bingham Powell, “American Voter Turnout in Comparative Perspective”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No.1; “Fed Judges: Washington Felony Inmates Should Get Vote”, from Associated Press, January 6th 2010


Week 7 (February 22nd)

Monday: Political Participation – The Idea of Social Capital

Read: Robert Putnam – “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America” to be found online at: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/detoc/assoc/strange.html; “The Glue of Society” from The Economist, July 14th 2006


Wednesday: Political Parties – The Terrible Twosome?

Read: Chapter 9 in GLW (pay special attention to discussion of American third parties); “Republican Governors: A Gang of Reds” from The Economist, November 26th 2009


Week 8 (March 1st)

Monday: Types of Democracy, Electoral Laws, and Their Political Consequences

Read: “Duverger’s Law Revisited” by William Riker in Electoral Laws And Their Political Consequences; Chapter 2 of Democracies by Arend Lijphart


Wednesday: Campaigns and Elections

            Read: Pages 363-404 in Chapter 10 of GLW; “Faith, race and Barack Obama” from The Economist, July 6th 2006


Week 9 (March 7th – March 14th). Spring Break = No classes


Week 10 (March 15th)

            Monday: Campaign Finance

            Read: Pages 405-415 of Chapter 10 in GLW; “Money, politics, and more money” from The Economist, November 18th 2004; “The rise and rise of 527s” from The Economist, September 2nd 2004; “Keeping it clean” from The Economist, June 15th 2006


Wednesday: Political Interest Groups

            Read: Chapter 11 in GLW; Chapters 1 and 2 from The Sound of Money by Darrell West and Sidney Loomis; “Obama and the Unions: Love of Labour” from The Economist, October 29th 2009


Week 11 (March 22nd)

            Monday: Congress

Read: Pages 454-476 of Chapter 12 in GLW; “Lexington: Harry Reid’s Dilemma” from The Economist, October 22nd 2009


Wednesday: Congress continued

Read: Pages 476-501 of Chapter 12 in GLW; “A Weakened Branch” from The Economist, July 13th 2006; “Health Care Reform: The Beginning of the End” from The Economist, November 26th 2009


Week 12 (March 29th)

Monday: MIDTERM 2 (all material since the first midterm)

Read: No reading assigned


Wednesday: The Presidency

            Read: Chapter 13 in GLW


Week 13 (April 5th)

            Monday: The Presidency continued

            Read: “George Bush’s Legacy: The Frat Boy Ships Out” from The Economist, January 15th 2009; “The 44th President: Renewing America” from The Economist, January 15th 2009; “Lexington: One Year of the One” from The Economist, October 29th 2009


Wednesday: The Vice Presidency

            Read: Ch.16 from The American Presidency: Origins and Development 5th edition eds.  http://blog.washingtonpost.com/cheney (look at first chapter in series if nothing else)


Week 14 (April 12th)

            Monday: The Courts and the Legal System

            Read: Chapter 15 in GLW; “How to lose the culture wars” from The Economist, June 1st 2006; “Rehnquist’s Legacy” from The Economist, June 30th 2005


            Wednesday: The Courts and the Legal System continued

            Read: “The Battle Begins” from The Economist, September 8th 2005; “The Supreme Court: Empathy v Law” from The Economist, July 16th 2009; “America’s Supreme Court: Justice Not For All” from The Economist, May 26th 2009


Week 15 (April 19th)

            Monday: The Economy

            Read: Chapter 16 in GLW; “Special Report: Inequality in America” from The Economist, June 17th 2006


            Wednesday: The Economy continued

Read: “The Deficit Problem: Dealing With America’s Fiscal Hole” from The Economist, November 19th 2009; “The Jobs Summit: Any Ideas?” from The Economist, December 3rd 2009; “Banks and Small Businesses: For Want of a Loan” from The Economist, December 10th 2009; “Mortgage Repayments: Time to Fold” from The Economist, December 3rd 2009


Week 16 (April 26th)

            Monday: Foreign Policy

            Read: Chapter 18 in GLW


            Wednesday: Foreign Policy continued and Finishing Up

            Read: “The Making of the President’s Foreign Policy: The Decider” from The Economist, November 26th 2009; “Lexington: Obama, The Worried Warrior” from The Economist, December 3rd 2009




The final exam for this class will be held on Monday May 3rd, 4.00 – 5.50pm.

Final exams will NOT be given earlier than the scheduled time under any circumstances, so make summer break/travel plans accordingly.


The paper assignment


For the paper, you are required to write an original paper of 8-10 pages.  The paper should address the following points, all of which will be considered when determining the paper’s grade:

Thesis – Does the paper start with a clear thesis statement outlining the author’s argument?

Argumentation – Does the paper present balanced argumentation recognising at least two sides of the debate? (for/against, pro/con etc)

Evidence – Does the paper make use of relevant/appropriate evidence from class lectures, and readings in particular?

Conclusion – Does the paper reach a clear and logical conclusion given the author’s thesis, and the arguments and evidence presented?

Implications – Does the paper make a compelling case for the larger implications of the topic they address and the argument they make? Are there other topics, themes, or concepts from class to which this topic relates?  If so, how?

Clarity – Is the paper well written and organised?

Presentation – Has the paper been spell-checked? Are there grammatical mistakes? Have citations been used? Have citations been used properly? If paper writing is not your strong suit, don’t be lazy and go and visit the writing centre on campus for assistance.


Please choose one of the following paper topics below to write on. If you would rather write on another subject related to the class material covered this semester then please check with the professor first to ensure the topic is suitable. Alternatively, students may formulate their own specific question to address and can check with the professor if they want to be sure their question is appropriate. 


·         The pros and cons of a federal system of government in the United States

·         Changes in presidential power/authority over time

·         Political participation in America (e.g. voting in elections)

·         The role of the Supreme Court in the political system

·         Relevance and role of third parties in American politics

·         The role of the media

·         The changing nature of political campaigns


Given the relative shortness of the paper, part of the challenge here is to write clearly and concisely. Get to the point.  Additionally, your argument should make use of relevant readings from class.  If there are not any relevant readings from class you can draw upon to answer your question you may do outside research.  DO NOT use online encyclopedias such as “Wikipedia” as information sources – they are of dubious quality and their sources are often not checked. Where appropriate, readings should be cited/footnoted (i.e. after mentioning comments made in a class reading on which you are drawing), and a bibliography should also be included as the last page. This page will not count towards the total page count.  Any papers over 10 pages will be penalised, as will late papers at one third of a grade per day.  Papers are to be turned in no later than the last day of class - Wednesday April 28th – but students are encouraged to turn in their papers sooner.  Students are personally responsible for getting a hard copy of their paper to the professor.  This means either turning it into the professor in person, or leaving a copy in the professor’s mailbox in the political science department in Zulauf Hall. If a paper is left there it should be time-stamped to show it was turned in on time. A copy of the paper should also be submitted via SafeAssign on Blackboard by class time on the 28th.  Papers will not be considered to have been submitted unless the professor has both a hard copy and a SafeAssign version of the paper. Technical difficulties are not an acceptable reason for a late SafeAssign submission.