Is there a connection between the unprecedented presidential campaign of 2016, the dysfunctional government in Washington, D.C., and in the so called “culture wars” in America? The sophisticated social science that has analyzed our election choices and identified our political differences has not been able to explain why the world’s most powerful and wealthy society is so deeply divided on so many issues, and in such personal and polemical ways. Coupled with random mass killings, police involved shootings and the shooting of police, what is behind the violence in our society so different than in other first world democracies. It may be that social science cannot answer that question on its own. It may be that a theoretical analysis of our history and culture can offer insight and context that is beyond mere empirical analysis.
The history of the American political founding generally follows a routine script. The story goes that Americans fought for self-government from an overbearing political authority wielded by the British Crown and established individual freedom to pursue private prosperity and social emancipation. Later, fear of the British Crown morphed into fear of any central political authority in general to the point where today Americans mistrust government. In that script, African slavery and Native American dispossession are viewed as historical exceptions that still require a coherent explanation, but are unrelated to the issues at the core of contemporary American politics.
In this course, the revolution against traditional political authority embodied in Thomas Jefferson's and Thomas Paine's attacks on the British crown, the rise of slavery, and the conflict with Native America will be viewed as co-extensive and coherent elements of our past and our national cultural and social development. In short, I will argue that America possesses a distinct cultural identity that has shaped our politics, policies, the shape of our national government, and remains at the core of our popular culture.
I will place these historical elements in context with the theory of cultural trauma that resulted from the 3rd Estate European poor displaced to North America between the 16th and 19th centuries. I will connect that trauma to our national fear of political authority in America. I will also suggest that this fear is what binds both the progressives who attack the National Security Administration to the conservatives who stand by gun rights. This cultural and social trauma becomes the catalyst of America’s cultural identity, and that cultural identity may be the basis of our existing political structure, the character of contemporary politics, and our approach to much of our public policy.
I will offer a cultural trope; the American Western, that contains all the aspects of a cultural identity built out of trauma and fear. We will see its imprint in many cultural social and political artifacts. I will speak to the significance of the “Western”, its frontier setting and its uber-masculine character. Through this cultural lens, students will be offered a way of understanding contemporary American politics and public policy that was previously unknown to them. Using original materials from the antebellum, including biographies, history, literature, and commentary, as well as contemporary images from American popular culture [such as film clips, news, and documentaries], a connection between the past and present will be presented.
The American Cultures requirement seeks comparisons and contrasts of at least three cultural entities in its format. The requirement will be achieved through contrast and comparison of Native American, European American, and African American cultural identities in the ante and post bellum, and their interplay in the story of American political history. This is a course in political theory that will give context to both culture and politics in America. Your work will be presented in three separate papers (a 6-page take-home midterm, 12-page term paper, and a 6-page take-home final exam), and discussions of course materials in sections. Attendance at both lectures and sections are elements of the course grade. There will be a focus on writing skills and framing expository arguments, as well as discussion and participation in lecture, section and office hours.
Subfield: Either American Politics or Political Theory