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POSC 201: Politics: Participation and Power

Posted on April 4, 2013

Joseph White, Fall 2013
(Preliminary Outline as of March 21, 2013)
Note: This course is being piloted for possible addition to the regular rotation of our political science courses. I will be working to refine the syllabus further over the following months. The course will follow the sequence of topics below, with the types of assignments described below, and with many of the readings described below. But there will be fewer readings, and probably some different ones.

Course Description

This course presents an overview of the core aspects of politics: participation and power. The first question of politics is who is acting on or with whom; the second is what they are able to do to each other, how. Government is distinctive, if effective, for the power it can exercise through coercing individuals, and the power it can exercise to pursue social tasks ranging from building pyramids to saving the lives of babies. Systems of government are defined by who participates on what terms. In this course we will study politics as an aspect of human society from the time of the Bible and ancient Greece to modern times, reading classic and contemporary texts that provide perspectives on this most human (if sometimes inhumane) endeavor.

Rough Outline of Course:

This course will proceed with a series of topics. There will be 3 response essay assignments (5-7 pages) based on themes in the reading, and a final essay exam. Students will be expected to come to class prepared for discussion. The outline here does not address how topics would precisely be divided up in the context of a Fall semester in which 14 weeks of classes are spread over 15 calendar weeks.

Weeks 1 & 2: Political Life
To some, politics is an inferior, foul form of human activity. The word itself can be an accusation: “that’s just politics.” But others have viewed politics as the highest of human activities. So we begin by considering these two views, and their bases. Potential readings include:

Aristotle, The Politics, Book 1.
Excerpts from John Hibbing and Elizabeth and Theiss-Morse, Congress as Public Enemy.
Something by Mark Twain, P.J. O’Rourke, or Will Rogers
Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte (sections)
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural address

Weeks 3 & 4: Origins of the State
Politics may be viewed as good, evil, or perhaps simply necessary – a necessary evil. However it is viewed, humans have tended to create systems of authority to, at a minimum, settle disputes. Put most broadly this is “the state,” and there are many different views as to how such organizations came to be. Potential readings include:

The Bible, Book of Judges, Chapters 17-21
Excerpts from John Locke, Two Treatises on Government
Excerpts from Rousseau, The Social Contract
Excerpts from John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Marc Bloch. “Disorder and the Efforts to Combat It” and “Reconstruction of States.” Chapters 30-31 in Feudal Society, pp. 408-437.
Gordon Tullock, “Social Cost and Government Action,” American Economic Review, 1969.
Mao Zedong, “On Coalition Government” (1945)

Monday of fifth week: First Essay Assignment due, some sort of reaction to/evaluation of the first four weeks of reading.

Weeks 5 & 6: Power and Authority
Politics in successful societies depends on authority, or perhaps (the term may seem redundant) legitimate authority. The fact that we have two words, power and authority, itself raises key questions. What is the difference, if any? Is authority just one type of power, or one aspect of power? But the term power itself has key ambiguities. In physics, it is the ability to do work. In social life, it may mean the ability to dominate others – which is not quite the same thing. The term “authority” has led scholars and practitioners to ask other questions: how does one get authority, or what are its sources, and in what sense does it come from above or below? Potential readings include:

Max Weber on the three types of legitimate authority (traditional, charismatic, and rational/legal). Excerpts from Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber.
James G. March. 1966. The Power of “Power.” In David Easton ed. Varieties of Political Theory, pp. 39-70.
Herbert Simon. 1997. The Role of Authority. In Simon, Administrative Behavior 4th ed. Chapter 7, pp. 177 -207. (May need a bit more from earlier in the book)
Excerpts from Machiavelli, The Prince (on fear and love).

Week 7: War
The most dramatic form of politics occurs when people organize, line up in sides, and then try to conquer and/or kill each other. In short, politics can occur and be bad enough within communities, when it is across communities it can take horrible forms. This course cannot begin to address all dimensions of political violence; nor will it attempt to introduce the major themes of international relations. But an introduction to power and participation must include some review of war that puts it in context as an aspect of politics and society. Potential readings include:

Karl von Clausewitz, “What Is War?” and “Ends and Means in War”. Chapters 1 and 2 in Clausewitz, On War
Sun Tzu. The Art of War
Excerpts from George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Orationbe

We will likely also, at this point, schedule a class viewing of a movie. The movie may not be so much about international war as about civil war, or maybe a war that is both. One logical possibility is The Battle of Algiers. Part of the goal is to remind students that war is not just about killing “the enemy” – but about the state or leaders of “the cause” telling people they should become killers, and those people going along.

Monday of eighth week: second essay due. Something about war and the individual

Weeks 8 & 9: Organizing Interests
Politics involves collective action to obtain some goals. But who acts, and why? The answers in any situation will depend on answers to other questions. What might people consider when deciding whether to participate in the political system in which they live? What kinds of efforts will be made by some political actors to either mobilize or demobilize other potential political actors? How will people even decide what their interests are, and whether they would be served by political action? What kinds of factors keep political conflict within bounds that do not threaten society – and what lead to deep violence? How do forms of participation feedback upon themselves, or blowback on their participants or society? This is a huge topic, but some classic works provide perspectives that could be useful in any later investigations of the political world. Potential readings include:

Excerpts from E.E. Schattschneider, The Semi-Sovereign People
Excerpts from Albert O. Hirschmann, The Passions and the Interests
Excerpts from Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings
Robert Michels, “Democracy and the Iron Law of Oligarchy,”
Excerpts from Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar.

Weeks 10 & 11: The Economics of Politics
Much of the study of politics down through the ages seemed to presume that whether people participated in politics was, in essence, a question of opportunity: if one could exercise power over other people, and so gain, one would. If one could not, one would hide or lay low. Alternatively, some people (e.g. nobles) were inherently part of the political world; others (e.g. peasants) were more victims than actors (aside from the occasional riot or uprising). In exceptional circumstances, like ancient Greek city states, participation in politics was more widespread but it might have been seen as a duty. Over the past century, however, it has become more common to see political participation as a choice. In a modern (so-called) liberal democracy, there will be significant inequalities in ability to participate, or to be effective if one does participate; but individuals will calculate for themselves whether it makes sense for them to participate. The study of politics, then, has been heavily influenced by what are essentially economic theories that view participation as an investment or exchange, determined by calculations of cost and benefits. This view even if overstated poses challenges to understanding that have forced alternative explanations, in a process of thesis, antithesis, and (perhaps) synthesis. Potential readings include:

Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action excerpts.
Albert O. Hirschmann, Exit Voice and Loyalty excerpts.
Robert H. Salisbury, “An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups (Midwest Journal of Political Science 13(1): 1969
Excerpts from James Q. Wilson, Political Organizations.
Anthony Downs, “Why the Government Budget is Too Small in a Democracy” World Politics (1962)
Excerpts from Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel

Monday of Tenth Week: Third Essay due, on some topic related to why people participate in politics

Weeks 12 & 13: Forms of Government
The classic study of politics began with arguments about the merits of different ways of structuring political authority. At this point in the course it should be obvious that formal structures of authority are only one aspect of politics. But we also may have perspective with which to go back and look at the standard claims – whether about government by one, a few, or many; or whether the structures of government matter as much as the structures of the economy. Potential readings include:

Excerpts from Aristotle, The Politics
Excerpts from Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
Excerpts from The Federalist Papers (Democracy vs. a Republic)
A. H. M. Jones, 1957. The Athenian Democracy and Its Critics.
Chapter 3 in Athenian Democracy, pp. 41-74.
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards” (Commentary, 1979)
Excerpts from Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. (And perhaps Shlomo Avineri’s review, at
Excerpts from Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

Week 14: Can Politics Have Standards? And What Would They Be?
This course has provided a brief introduction to politics as an activity determined by participation and power. We have not said much about ethics, or about how people should behave if they are participating in the use of power. Some might think that the pursuit of power inherently corrupts, and makes any standard unrealistic. But the same could be said of the pursuit of money. Some (not many, but at one time more commonly) might think that power should be and sometimes is pursued in a search for honor and acclaim from others, so that it inherently calls for behavior that does not risk that honor. And others may say that the rest of us should at least have expectations of how political actors should behave, and try to hold them to those expectations. So we conclude by asking what it might be reasonable to expect of people who participate in politics by, fundamentally, trying to exercise power over others. Potential readings include:

Max Weber, “ Politics as a Vocation” from Gerth and Mills
Michael Walzer: “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”
Something by Dennis Thompson, Amy Gutmann, Ronald Dworkin?
Shakespeare, Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar.

Final Exam: Take-Home Essay, 10-12 pages

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