last updated: 11/16/2017 11:51 AM

Dr. Swanson

PSCI 3630

3412 Friedmann

Fall 2017

Office Hours: Mon. & Wed. 12:30-1:45, 5-5:30pm & by appt

MW 3:30-4:45pm


Dunbar 2202



American Political Theory


Overview and Objectives:

This course is intended to provide students with an introduction to some of the key themes in the history of American political thought. Although we will not be able to discuss many prominent political writers and politically significant ideas in U.S. history, we will cover several important topics and texts, many of which have had a substantial influence on later political debates and on citizens’ attitudes today. We will also begin to get some sense of the different ways in which theorists, politicians, and political activists have thought about politics in the United States. Moreover, we will learn about some of the major political issues, problems, and dilemmas we have faced as a country, some of which we still confront.  

            There are many different themes in American political thought that could be the focus of such a course, but here we will focus foremost on two: democracy (and its associated values, institutions, and practices) and the U.S. Constitution. We will study, for example, how political thinkers have defined democracy, equality, and liberty sometimes in similar ways and sometimes in different ways. We will also consider how various political writers have answered the following sorts of questions in comparable and contrasting ways: what are the (cultural, religious, political, geographical, economic, etc.) preconditions of democratic government? what exactly does political (or social or economic) equality mean and require, and to whom does it apply? how should power be distributed within the government and within society? Authors’ particular answers to these questions are often strongly influenced by, among other things, the political, cultural, and economic conditions and problems of their time, making it important that we be at least somewhat attentive to these conditions and problems.

            We will consequently see that the history of American political thought is marked by both continuity and variation. We will find, for instance, that some of the values and attitudes found during the earliest days of the republic are familiar to us today, while other political issues are no longer part of contemporary mainstream political debate. In either case, for each text we read, we will consider whether (and how) its ideas are still relevant today or provide an alternative (maybe better, maybe worse, maybe just different) way of viewing American politics. Studying the history of American political thought therefore allows us to see how issues like equality and democratic self-government can be thought about in different ways, and what the strengths and limitations of each of these different ways are. As a consequence, we can begin to think critically about our own views on politics in the United States (as well as elsewhere), the assumptions and consequences of these views, whether alternative ways of thinking about political issues might be worth adopting or at least considering, and why some (well-intentioned and reasonable) fellow citizens (or global neighbors) may hold views very different from our own about some of these issues.

            Although some of the readings are relatively accessible, many of the texts in American political theory can be challenging. But given time, persistence, and patience, they can also be rewarding and help clarify our own thinking about politics, as well as our understanding of the tradition of American political theory. Consequently, this course also seeks to improve students’ skills in carefully reading and systematically analyzing texts. Analyzing texts involves, for example, determining a writer’s assumptions, how she/he defines key political concepts, the logical steps in her/his argument, how her/his different ideas fit together, etc. It is far more than just summarizing the text. These are skills that are useful in countless aspects of academic and non-academic life, and arguably are important skills in being a responsible and active member of a free and democratic society. Because these skills are often further improved by writing and because writing skills are themselves important, this course also aims at expanding students’ analytical writing skills.

            This course is approved as a general education course in Distribution Area III: The United States: Cultures and Issues. According to the WMU General Education Policy, “the United States has always been, and will continue to be, a nation of great cultural and human diversity, its citizens deriving from many different religious, racial, and social groups. As the United States, increasingly multicultural and aware of the claims and rights of its diverse citizenry, strives to include all groups fully into the national life, a multi-cultural perspective needs to be incorporated into a student’s general education. Courses that fulfill this requirement:

          should address the subject within the larger context of United States history and culture;

          should afford students the opportunity for informed reflection upon the cultural and human diversity of the United States. They should develop awareness of the national dimensions of cultural and human diversity and of critical social issues affecting component cultures of our society;…

          may reflect upon issues that cut across constituencies, such as those stemming from age, class, disabilities, gender, race, or the dynamics of discrimination;…

          may focus on the ethical, legal, and institutional aspects of the fact of diversity in United States history and culture.”


Required Texts:

Please purchase the specified edition or versions of these readings, so that everyone in class is using the same edition with the same pagination, which is necessary for class discussion and for your paper citations. It is imperative that you bring the relevant book, chapter, article, or course packet to class. We will often read and analyze passages from the readings in class.


I have deliberately made an effort to keep the costs of the readings affordable. I strongly advise against taking this course and spending thousands of dollars on tuition if you do not plan to purchase and print out ALL of the readings—you need them to learn the material. POINTS WILL BE DEDUCTED FROM QUIZZES AND EXAMS IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A HARD COPY OF THE RELEVANT READINGS WITH YOU IN CLASS. If you find yourself unable to purchase or print a specific reading, I may be willing to forego the point deduction if you provide me with a typed, printed explanation of why you do not have the specific reading and how you plan to do the reading on time (not late).


·         One course packet with readings (referred to as “CP” on the syllabus), printed by and available at their downtown location or through the US Mail.

·         Sanford Levinson. 2008. Our Undemocratic Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press. Make sure you get the PAPERBACK version of this book, NOT the hardback or e-book.

·         TWO 8-1/2” x 11” blue/green books, which can be purchased at the bookstore, for your midterm and final exams.

·         Readings available on the internet or e-reserves through WMU’s Waldo Library (see below). You are REQUIRED to print out a hard copy of these readings to bring to class.


Phones are NOT allowed out during class, meaning that you will NOT be able to access readings via your smart phone during class. Students should have PRINTED, PAPER COPIES OF ALL READINGS and should not count on being able to access them via their computer during class, especially since laptops will be banned from the classroom if their use becomes disruptive or distracting (see below).


Course Requirements: Assignments and Grading

Please notify me if you have a documented disability that requires accommodation (see It’s crucial that you do so during the FIRST WEEK of the semester so that we can make appropriate arrangements.


Please see the university’s religious observance policy at


A complete and updated copy of this syllabus should be consulted online, at the link for this class at Assignments and study guides will be posted on the online syllabus. In addition, you should check your official WMU email account regularly, since I (as well as the political science department and university) will use that email address to email out announcements regarding class, changes to my offices hours, and so forth. Feel free to contact me via email with questions about the readings, assignments, and so forth.


Students are REQUIRED to do the assigned readings for that day BEFORE they come to class and are expected to participate actively in class discussion. You will get more out of class and it will be more interesting for all of us, if you are an active listener (both to me and your classmates) and thoughtful and respectful discussion participant, rather than a passive attendee. You are expected to act civilly and respectfully towards your classmates and me, and to respond to others’ comments in an intellectual and courteous manner and without hostility, even when you disagree (which may often be the case). Regular attendance is REQUIRED, but if you have to miss class, YOU are responsible for finding out from a classmate what you missed and for getting copies of the notes and any class handouts. Please always bring a copy of the syllabus with you to class so that you know which readings we are discussing in class that day. When you do the assigned readings, you should do more than just read the material, you should also REFLECT on it and take a few (or more) notes on the main arguments and concepts/terms employed by the author. Taking your own notes on the readings is particularly important in this class since we are reading several different political thinkers; it will also make doing well on the quizzes, studying for exams, and writing your papers easier, in addition to helping you make sense of what each theorist is up to overall. The study guides for the exams are posted on the online syllabus. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND looking over the relevant portion of the study guide before doing each of the assigned readings, which will help you make sense of the important points in the reading and do well on the quizzes.


Responsibility for leading class discussion:

In order to encourage ALL students, rather than just a handful of students, to participate in class discussion, all students will be assigned to “lead” class discussion 3-5 times during the semester. For each regular class session, approximately 5-7 students will be assigned to make at least 1-2 substantial contributions to class discussion, where substantial means informed and thoughtful (NOT long-winded) and contributions can be in the form of answers to questions or thoughtful questions about the meaning or implications of an author’s arguments. On the days students are assigned to lead discussion, they will be evaluated with a plus, check, or minus, which will factor into their overall class participation grade (after class, they should quickly check in with me to make sure I noted and evaluated their participation); this does NOT relieve these students of their obligation to participate in class discussion regularly on other days. In other words, ALL students should be regularly participating in class discussion, regardless of whether they are assigned to lead class discussion. If you have a last minute emergency or illness on your assigned day, you MUST inform me of the emergency ASAP, and you will be expected to lead class discussion during the next regular class session. A schedule of class sessions and assigned students will be posted on the online syllabus by Wed., Sept. 13.


Your grade for the course will consist of the following:

·         syllabus assignment (no quizzes will be accepted for credit until this is turned in), 2%

·         in-class discussion participation, 8%. Attendance will be taken each class to help me keep track of participation—you can’t participate if you’re not in class.

·         short, unannounced open-book & open-note pop-quizzes at the beginning of class, 18% total. You MUST arrive to class on time in order to take them; missed quizzes will only be excused if you have a documented, excused absence; your lowest quiz grade will be dropped. Points will be deducted if you do not have a hard copy of the relevant reading(s) with you in class (see above).

·         in-class analytical writing exercise, 2%

·         2 analytical papers: 35% total. The analytical papers will be written on assigned topics and will be based on the assigned readings and class discussion; they do not require outside reading or research.

·         mid-semester exam, 17%. The exams will be short-, medium-, and/or long-answer. Points will be deducted if you do not have hard copies of the relevant readings with you.

·         cumulative final exam, 18%


You are to hand in a hard, paper copy of assignments. Unless you have specific permission from me, you are NOT to email me your written assignments; if you receive such permission, it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to make sure I received the assignment (I will send you an email indicating whether or not the file came through successfully); DO NOT assume I have received it just because the email apparently went through. 


You are responsible for making yourself aware of and understanding the University policies and procedures that pertain to Academic Honesty. These policies include cheating, fabrication, falsification and forgery, multiple submission, plagiarism, complicity and computer misuse. (The academic policies addressing Student Rights and Responsibilities can be found in the Undergraduate Catalog at If there is reason to believe you have been involved in academic dishonesty, you will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. You will be given the opportunity to review the charge(s) and if you believe you are not responsible, you will have the opportunity for a hearing. You should consult with me if you are uncertain about an issue of academic honesty prior to the submission of an assignment or test. A finding of responsibility for academic dishonesty on any assignment will result in failure of this course (see the Undergraduate Catalog).


To avoid disrupting class discussion, please turn off and PUT AWAY cell phones, beepers, and other electronic devices before you come into class and refrain from chatting with your neighbor or eating anything in a noisy wrapper. Laptops will be banned from the classroom if their use becomes disruptive or distracting; computers should ONLY be used for taking notes. Students are NOT allowed to text, email, etc. during class.


YOU ARE EXPECTED TO ARRIVE TO CLASS ON TIME. If you need to leave class early because of an important, unavoidable appointment, please let me know before class and minimize the disruption to the class when you leave.


Late assignments and make-up exams:

All papers are due at the beginning of class. You are not encouraged to hand the analytical papers in late, but if you do, points will be deducted accordingly: one grade (5 points) will be taken off if you turn it in within 3 days of the due date; two grades (10 points) will be taken off if you turn it in within 7 days. NO PAPERS will be accepted more than a week after the due date.


Make-up exams will be given for excused absences only; in such cases, you must notify me well in advance of the exam and arrange to take it BEFORE the day of the exam. Only in the most dire or unusual circumstances will you be allowed to make up an exam without penalty if you have not made arrangements for doing so before the day of the exam.


Grading scale:












Course Outline:

Sept. 6

Introduction: Overview of course and its objectives





Sept. 11

Analyzing political theories



Student Debt And Study Habits



James B. Steele and Lance Williams. 2016. “Who Got Rich Off the Student Debt Crisis.” Reveal, June 28. The Center for Investigative Reporting, [PRINT out a hard copy of a pdf of the story to bring to class; number the pages 1-24 as you read.]



Recommended reading: “The Easiest Way To Reduce Your Student Loan Payment,”; “Costing It Out: The Way You Repay Student Loans Really Matters,”






Overview of Different Political Theories/Ideologies


Sept. 13

Terence Ball and Richard Dagger. 1995. Excerpts from “The Democratic Ideal” & “Liberalism.” Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal, 2nd ed., 24-9, 51-63. New York: HarperCollins. Available through WMU library’s e-reserves system, under the listing for this class; PRINT out a hard copy of the pdf to bring to class.



SYLLABUS ASSIGNMENT DUE (link to assignment; no quizzes will be accepted for credit until it is turned in)





Sept. 18

Ball and Dagger, excerpts from “Conservatism,” pp. 93-9. [e-reserves; PRINT out a hard copy of the pdf to bring to class]



Franklin D. Roosevelt. 1932. “Commonwealth Club Address,” paragraphs 15-44. [PRINT out a hard copy to bring to class; number the paragraphs as you read it, starting with the paragraph beginning “I count”]



recommended reading on conservatism: Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630),



recommended reading on major US political parties:

excerpts from 2016 Republican Party platform (link to pdf)

excerpts from 2016 Democratic Party platform (link to pdf)






Liberal Thought


Sept. 20

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2: sec. 4, 6-8; Ch. 3: sec. 16-19 (1689-90) [Click on the yellow square next to the appropriate chapters and PRINT out a hard copy to bring to class]





Sept. 25

Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Ch. 4: sec. 22-23; Ch. 8: sec. 95 [Click on the yellow square next to the appropriate chapters and PRINT out a hard copy to bring to class]



The Declaration of Independence 1776, [PRINT out a hard copy to bring to class; number the paragraphs as you read it]





Sept. 27

IN CLASS ANALYTICAL WRITING EXERCISE ON LOCKE: link to exercise; carefully review Locke paragraphs 4 & 6-8, writing exercise instructions, and topic; take notes and prepare to write on the specific topic; be sure to bring Locke reading and notes to class






Civic Republican Thought During the Founding Period

Oct. 2

Ball and Dagger, excerpt from “Republicanism,” pp. 28-9, 31-5. Available through WMU library’s e-reserves system, under the listing for this class; PRINT out a hard copy of the pdf to bring to class.



Rush, “A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools…” 1786 (CP)



Oct. 4

finish Rush


Storing, “The Small Republic” 1981 (CP)





Democracy and the Constitution

Oct. 9

The Constitution of the United States of America 1787 (in Levinson)



link to worksheet on some of Constitution’s main provisions



recommended resource on the Constitution: National Constitution Center, Philadelphia,





Oct. 11

finish Constitution



United States v. Lopez 1995 (handout)





Oct. 16

Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution, Prelude, Introduction, Ch. 1, 6, 7, Coda, Afterword: section V & VI, pp. 213-6 (2008)



review Article I of Constitution



Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution, Ch. 2: pp. 25-38




Oct. 18

EXAM: bring green book (link to study guide)




Oct. 23

Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution, Ch. 2: pp. 38-77




Oct. 25

Catanese, “Gerrymandered Gridlock” 2014 (CP)








Oct. 30

Robert Richie and Steven Hill. 2001. “The Case for Proportional Representation.” Whose Vote Counts?, 3-32. Boston: Beacon Press. Available through WMU library’s e-reserves system, under the listing for this class; PRINT out a hard copy of the pdf to bring to class.





Nov. 1

review Article II of Constitution



Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution, Ch. 3





Nov. 6

One campaign to reform the Electoral College: [Explore this website & familiarize yourself with the legislation & campaign’s progress; be sure to look at the sections “Explanation,” “Status in States,” and “Answering Myths.” PRINT out a hard copy of a few of the most relevant pages/sections to bring to class]



recommended listening: “Reimagining the Red/Blue Map,” On The Media, Nov. 11, 2016, 

Recommended watching:





Nov. 8

review Article III of Constitution



Levinson, Our Undemocratic Constitution, Ch. 4



Brutus, Essays XI, XV 1787 (CP)








Nov. 13

finish Brutus



Tushnet, “Democracy Versus Judicial Review” 2005 (CP)






Democracy and Economics


Nov. 15

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson. 2011. “The Winner-Take-All Economy” and “How the Winner-Take-All Economy Was Made.” Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, pp. 11-56. New York: Simon & Schuster. Available through WMU library’s e-reserves system, under the listing for this class; PRINT out a hard copy of the pdf to bring to class.





Nov. 20

Hacker and Pierson, “How the Winner-Take-All Economy Was Made,” pp. 56-72 [e-reserves; PRINT out a hard copy of the pdf to bring to class]



Adam Davidson. 2014. “It’s Official: The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave.” New York Times Magazine, 22 June: 22-30, 46. [PRINT out a hard copy to bring to class; number the paragraphs as you read it]; also look at the accompanying 14 photo slide show online, “‘Hi, Mom, I’m Home!,’” at the same link.



recommended reading/watching:








Nov. 22

THANKSGIVING BREAK: no class or office hours





Nov. 27

Lloyd, “Revolution: The Evolution of Socialism” (1894) and “A New Political Economy Predicting a New Wealth” 1897 (CP)





Nov. 29

Wolff, excerpts from Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism 2012 (CP)





African American, Feminist, & Queer Political Thought


Dec. 4

Coates, “The Case for Reparations” 2014 (CP)





Dec. 6



Marable, “Racism, Prisons, and the Future of Black America” 2000-1 (CP)



Harris, “The Next Civil Rights Movement?” 2015 (CP)



Tamara Winfrey Harris. 2013. “All Hail the Queen? What Do Our Perceptions of Beyoncé’s Feminism Say about Us?” Bitch (Summer),, [if the link doesn’t work, just copy & paste the web address; PRINT out a hard copy to bring to class; number the paragraphs as you read it, starting with the paragraph beginning “Who run the world?”] 



Lisa Duggan. 2011-2. “Beyond Marriage: Democracy, Equality, and Kinship for a New Century.” S&F Online, issue 10.1-10.2 (Fall-Spring), [PRINT out a hard copy to bring to class; number the paragraphs as you read it]



recommended reading on Beyoncé: bell hooks. 2016. “Moving Beyond Pain.”



recommended listening on the feminist featured in the Beyoncé video:








Dec. 11

FINAL EXAM (Mon., 12:30-2:30pm): bring green book (link to study guide)