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PSC 201: American Government

Lecture & Discussion Notes

Since all my classes are conducted live, here's a helping hand with your notes
revised by Jeremy Lewis, 26 Sep. 2013

Introduction | Majority v. Pluralism | US Constitution: fixed or elastic? | Public Opinion & Media |
Opinion Polling | Elections & Campaigns (2009) | Congress (2009) | Congress (2011)

Introductory discussion, week 1 (Fall 2011)
American Political Ideas

Week 2 (2008)
How do we make democracy work: by majority vote or via interest group pluralism?
Majoritarian democracy - government decisions by the majority of individual, informed voters
  • presidential elections only?
  • do we as citizens have enough information?
  • can we collectively make a rational choice?
  • Why govern by representatives, not directly by referenda?
  • Pluralism
  • Lobbyists: give information, support, money
  • interest groups in competition for political benefits
  • do they establish an equilibrium?
  • in the pluralist heaven, does the choir sing with an upper class accent?
  • do potential groups fill gaps by becoming actual groups?

  • The US Constitution: fixed or elastic? (Fall 2011) [Quotes of key clauses]

    The Tea party movement calls for a return to the C18th ideals of small government and minimal taxes, enshrined in the original US Constitution.
    Some US Supreme Court justices (eg Clarence Thomas) and leading law scholars (e.g. Richard Bork) call for original interpretation

    Fixed elements: Elastic elements: Invitation to struggle
  • money bills, shared power
  • treaties made by President and Senate
  • Appointments made by President and Senate
  • Veto and pocket veto awarded to President (but not line-item veto)
  • slavery not mentioned, but is implied in dirty 3/5 compromise
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    Week 5: Public Opinion, Socialization and the Media
    Notes from Lecture, 26 Sep. 2013
    Opinion Polling: to obtain a good microcosm of voters that predicts their vote
    random sample, every seventh number or person on street
    structured sample (by ethnicity, income, location), e.g., sampling urban, suburban and rural precincts
    Be careful to match the sample to the specific population you need to predict
    Example from our class poll in Iowa for a TV station
    no dichotomies -- unless indexed?
    one/two tailed wording
    no skewing questions or push-polling
    answer categories
    Likert scale of 4/5 answers -- with or without neutral in center
    Strongly Disagree - Disagree - Neutral - Agree - Strongly Agree
    Example of our freshmen seminar poll where we replaced events and readings annually by student and faculty polling.
    Distribution of responses: skewed to left or right, or bimodal (with few in center)
    Recently, issue of whether US is divided into blue and red -- or whether most of US is actually "purple"
    Media are closely connected to public opinion
    Concern now about under 30s who obtain news merely from comedy shows on TV plus social media
    How will they behave as voters when over 30?
    Will they have enough civic knowledge to act as citizens?
    Notes from Fall 2011
    In response to a couple of points from a student, I argued: Accuracy of opinion polling
    Lecture, Tues week 7, 4 Oct. 2011
    A coda or postscript to last week's discussion: The Media as gateway to public discussion
    Journalists and editors make framing choices of what issues to discuss
    Example of Christian Coalition's rise in Iowa 1996 via 'stealth campaign' -- not selected until later, after the event.
    Opinion Polling
    sample size 150-400-700-1,200 = N
    with likely voters (difficult to predict)
    margin of sampling error (sample matches universe) +/- 3% pts
    formula is based on a square root, inversely related to size of sample
    random sample, every seventh number or person on street
    structured sample (by ethnicity, income, location)
    don't predict voting just by questioning shoppers in mall (consumers, not voters)
    no dichotomies -- unless indexed?
    one/two tailed wording
    no skewing questions or push polling (to spread Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt)
    answer categories
    Likert scale of 4/5 answers -- with or without neutral in center
    dont knows
    Desired characteristics to predict a universe of voters at 95% confidence level (15/20 times)
    strategy: telephone v in-person polling, RDD
    Accuracy of early polling in 1940s:
    Gallup in US or mass observation in UK? Postwar shock of Labour defeating Churchill

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    Week 9, Nominations, Elections and Campaigns (Fall 2009)
    Monday's lecture, a wide-ranging survey [notes by student] Wednesday, some nuts and bolts of US Friday, Discussion questions:
  • Should we limit campaign fundraising and spending?
  • Should we publicly fund US campaigns?
  • Should we eliminate independent (527) organization spending?
  • Should we eliminate primaries -- and let parties choose their own nominees?
  • Is American politics too polarized?
  • Do we need a new, center party in the US?
  • Will the Republican party dominate the South for the next generation?
  • Will the Democratic party dominate Congress for the next generation?
  • Will Hispanics determine the future of US politics for the next generation?
  • Notes from Class, by K. Alexis Johnson, Fall 2009
  • Notes from discussion, Monday October 19, 2009

  • A. Primary elections in America choose candidate for a particular party that will run for the general election. [This doubles the number of elections]

    B. Citizens register themselves to vote
     - Help American Voters Act, or the “Motor-Voter Act,” was designed to aid Americans in the
       process of registering to vote.  [This triples the effective number of elections]

    C. America has the second lowest voter turnout.
     -Presidential elections- 50-52%
     -Off years, like Congress- 40%
     -Local elections- 20%
     -SGA at state colleges- 8%

    D. United States, exceptional
     -Americans vote based more on the individual, rather than the party
     -[+ candidate-centered campaigns]
     -Published opinion polls
     -Almost unlimited television ads
     -Campaigns are run state-by-state, creating separate politics
     -Peoples' votes [float] between political parties
     -[Parties only come together nationally every four years; in between, only RNC/DNC]

    E. Circumstances affect voters
     -A Methodist in Alabama would be conservative, but a Methodist in Wales would be Socialist.
     -People who live in rural areas in both places would tend to be conservative.
     -[Episcopalians in US liberal -- but in Bournemouth, southern England, Conservative]

    F. Americans won’t tolerate a strong leadership
     -Newt Gingrich wrote up [Contract with America] in 1994 [and Republicans won historic majority in HR]
     -his leadership [as Speaker] only lasted only two years [before he was deposed by his own party]
     -In the United States, party leadership is weaker than places like Great Britain

    G. Americans have several reasons for voting for an individual, [other than party]
     -May vote for personal relationship
     -May vote for a candidates ability to get school buildings or roads in their town [localism]
     -May vote based on “hatch, match, or dispatch” letters

    H. Should the money spent on campaigns be limited? If so, Why?
     -Uneven spending causes uneven publicity.
     -Just because a candidate isn’t as rich, doesn’t mean his ideas aren’t better.

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    Notes from discussion, Monday 2 Nov.  2009
    by K. Alexis Johnson, Fall 2009.
    Added to by Jeremy Lewis, Nov. 2011
      -a bicameral system, which has geographical representatives
     -Who to put in the house?
      -Could do it by classes or estates, as in old France
      -The U.S, standard is by districts, because it was already operating under this model
     -How many votes should each state receive?
       -Virginia Plan-favored large states
      -New Jersey plan- favored small states
      -Great Compromise
       -Number of House representative is decided by population.
       -Number of Senate members is always the same, 2 for every state
      -In the European Union, there is a [qualified] majority vote of states and votes, apportioned
        to the population. Since there is no Senate, there is [less development of] a political class [Siedentop, following de Tocqueville].
      -Population Shifts
       -Every “2 year” of the decade, the national census is taken, and districts are redrawn. Currently, the trend is more districts moving to the South.
     -Divisions of Duties
      -Ratification power of foreign treaties belongs to the Senate.
      -Revenue, money, tax, or spending bills have to originate in the House.
       -This custom came from the House of Commons in England, who were the property owners, and thus decided taxes.
      -Power to declare war belongs to Congress as a whole.
      -Raising an army and navy belongs to both, and was originally opposed by the Jeffersonians, because they resented the redcoats.
       -Eventually, after the War of 1812 people saw the benefits
        -Barbary Pirates attacked the spice and silk trading ships, and held hostages for ransom.
      -Power of Impeachment is possessed by the House, and trial by the Senate.
       -Equivalent to an indictment in court of an official, claiming what they have done wrong
       -The Supreme Court Chief justice presides over the trial, with case for removal made by the House committee.
       - Andrew Johnson was acquitted only with the vote of his VP
       - Clinton was acquitted and the public sided with him, against the Republican accusers. [Nixon resigned rather than face conviction for campaign corruption]
      -The Senate also has the power to confirm Supreme Court judges.
       -almost all are approved, and we hear about the controversial cases only.
    increasing tendency to "Bork" the high profile nominees, though (Clarence Thomas)
      -The power to confirm treaties with foreign powers belongs to the Senate.
       -Although Woodrow Wilson campaigned for the League of Nations, a brilliant idea, the Senate lacked 2 votes to approve the U.S. joining.
       -Jimmy Carter proposed the Panama Canal Treaty, which was unpopular.
        -There was rioting in Panama, caused by stress of American Colonization. The Treaty gave the canal to Panama, but included a clause for the right for the military to return. They did, under Bush (41), to depose Gen Noriega.
    Electing Congress
     -Incumbency Effect
      -Advantage lies in name recognition [and delivering benefits to district]
      -The Party deficiencies in American make it harder for Congressional leaders to get their name out there.
       -Color coding in England makes it easy to identify with a party-- but no coding in US.
       -Candidate-centered electoral order: Americans vote for individuals.
       -Sophomore surge desired -- but a scandal without a quick response makes the incumbent easier to defeat.
      -Incumbents receive seven times more money than challenging candidates.
       -Republicans usually receive more than Democrats. Corporate and professional associations give generously. Non-partisan movements frequently occur (in 2011, AmericansElect.org)
    Minor parties can attract new voters who join a major party 2-4 years later (Perotistas 1992, Tea Party 2010).
      -Different in the U.S. -- no neutral boundary commissions, but is done every decade
       -Not bipartisan, which creates a more normal rectangular shape,    -gerrymandering is done to eliminate challengers.
        -Is not unconstitutional, except if based on race, to achieve
    • removal of black representation (Tuskegee, 1960s)
    • "majority minority" districts (the NC interstate district, 2002)
  • Governing
  • HR larger, more fractious, and more rule bound, time bound
  • Very little debate is actually confrontational: serial speeches to empty chamber are normal
  • Senate smaller, loose rules, loose calendars, 98% of business by UC agreements
  • HR much more partisan since 1995, and Senate only moderately so
  • formerly 50-50-50 rule in HR 1945-1995
  • Gingrich revolution: British style opposition and manifesto ("contract")
  • Traditionally HR guardian of taxpayers, Senate more the policy visionary body
  • Tax bills begin in HR, owing to Commons tradition
  • Exceptionally large staffs, exceptional percentage of lawyers
  • Senate also is plutocracy
  • Bills derived from lobbyists in W. Bush admin, also from non-profits in Obama admin.
  • Bills considered for twenty years in Congress before opportunity taken to legislate.
  • Typical bill becomes law diagram is misleading.
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    Lecture on the Congress, 10 Nov. 2011: a brief summary
    Provisions of Article II, focussed on Hamilton's issues of taxation; coinage, and war power.
    Elastic clause and interstate commerce clause.
    How a bill becomes law (or rather, typically doesn't)
    Differences in folkways between HR and Senate.
    Differences in rules of debate between HR and Senate.
    Time for debate and rule committee (HR) versus filibustering & UC agreements, holds (Senate)
    Thousands of bills introduced but die in committees, only about 400 emerging per year on floor, and many co-sponsor the succeeding bill, especially in Senate.
    Wide distribution of subcommittee chairs and staff, since LBJ in the 1950s in Senate, and 1970 in HR.
    Changes since 1995 in party struggle, from cooperation to confrontation.
    Speaker Gingrich attempted role of British PM -- successfully but only in short term.
    Contract (like UK manifesto) and partisan voting, majoritarian style
    but Congress most of the time is pluralistic, and earmarks are a sign of interest group pluralism
    American voters not interested in straight party ticket, and color coded parties, unlike European voters

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