Special Topics in American Politics: The Politics of Public Policy in the United States

Spring 2023
Tu/Th 12:30-2pm
Course Description

This class is about how political processes, institutions, and behaviors shape public policy in the
United States. It combines two different approaches to thinking and learning about the ways
politics affects policy.

The first is general and practical. For example, we discuss what kinds of groups are more or
less likely to organize in pursuit of their collective interests as well as strategies for overcoming
the collective action problem. We also discuss what kinds of interest groups one can expect to
encounter in pursuing some policy change, how one might get more people to participate in
politics, and how that might affect policy outcomes. In addition, we discuss how strategic voting
and agenda-setting affect policymaking, how legislators think and what’s important to them, and
what makes government suddenly pay attention to some issues but not others. When a
particular class topic falls more in this first category, we will typically have a case, a small
project, or an assigned short paper—or some combination of the three.

The second approach used in this class is more substance-specific and reflective. There are
many things going on in U.S. government and policymaking that have strong political
underpinnings, and it is productive to spend time discussing them. For example, we ask: How
do identities shape people’s views about policy and government? What’s going on within the
two major political parties in the United States? What is the future of the Democratic Party? The
Republican Party? And how did the political parties come to this point? What caused the rise in
party polarization? How does federalism shape policymaking, in particular on health policy?
What does local politics have to do with housing unaffordability? What do public-sector unions
do in state and local politics, and how should we think about their influence? What are some
possible political contributors to rising economic inequality? When the topic for the day falls in
the second category, class will be mostly discussion of the themes, ideas, lessons, and conflicts
that emerge from the readings.


Subfield: American Politics