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Department of Politics

262. American Politics
Special "Super Committee Failure" Edition

December 2011

Craig W. Allin, Instructor
Paul Waelchli, Consulting Librarian
Shawn Doyle & Laura Farmer, Writing Consultants
Jessica Johanningmeier, Quantitative Consultant

Cody Hopewell, Undergraduate Teaching Assistant


NOVEMBER 28, 2011

The following Supplements to this Course Description can be found on the Web:

Calendar & Assignments Intellectual Integrity Cole Library
Rules & Regulations Accommodating Disabilities How to Write an Abstract
Grades Documenting Sources Internet Research Links
Photo Class Roster Index to Paper Comments Good Advice


Web Syllabus: Hypertext seems the ideal medium for course syllabi. With a click, you can be at a site to which a paper syllabus could only refer. Short of a power failure, you can't lose it. You can use it all on line and print whatever you want. Portions of this syllabus or its attachments make use of the portable document format (PDF). To read PDF files on your personal computer you need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download. This software is already loaded on most college-owned computers. Please report broken or malfunctioning links to me.

Feedback: In addition to the standardized end-of-course evaluation, I am interested in your comments and suggestions for improving the course, the readings, the assignments and this course description. Feel free to send comments as you think of them. E-mail:

Instructor: Craig W. Allin, Room 307, South Hall.
Telephone: Office, (895-) 4278; Cell, 431-1100.

Office Hours: If I'm not in class with you, you can probably find me in my office. Feel free to make an appointment or just show up. You can also schedule time with me through Ms. Cheryl Dake, Administrative Assistant to the Politics Department, at extension 4283. To help you find me, the most current version of my schedule is available for your electronic inspection over the campus network if you are using Microsoft Outlook [not Outlook Express or Outlook Web Access].

  1. On the File menu, point to Open, and then click Other User's Folder.

  2. In the Open Other User's Folder box, click Name and select Craig Allin from the list.

  3. In the Folder box, select Calendar from the pull-down menu.

Classroom: South 302.

Schedule: You should reserve the hours from 9-11 and 1-3, Monday through Friday, for class meetings. Class meets every morning and many afternoons. See Course Calendar & Assignments. On days when something is scheduled for the afternoon, you can be sure we will meet. On other afternoons we might meet depending on need.

Books: The following are available for purchase in the bookstore. You'll need both immediately.

  • Core Text: Thomas E. Patterson, We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics, 9th edition (McGraw-Hill, 2011) ISBN: 978-0-07-337906-7 [The 9th edition contains new readings and general updates throughout the text. Using the 7th or 8th edition is a practical alternative if you have access to one. The the general updates have to do mostly with the results of the 2008 elections.]

  • Readings: Robert E. DiClerico & Allan S. Hammock, Points of View: Readings in American Government and Politics, 11th edition (McGraw-Hill, 2009) ISBN: 978-0-07-340390-8 [The 11th edition contains fourteen new readings, which obviously makes using the 10th edition more problematic.]

Articles: In addition to the books above, you will have occasional assigned reading in the form of articles. I will send them to you by e-mail, so be sure to check your Cornell e-mail regularly this term.

Internet Resources: The Politics Department Web Site contains a wealth of valuable information including programs and requirements of the Department of Politics; information about Politics Courses including course syllabi like this one; information about graduate schools and careers, and research links for politics, government, and law.

Synopsis: This course offers a survey of the theory and practice of contemporary government and politics in the United States. It is one of several relatively specialized introductory courses offered within the Department of Politics. The others are: Politics, Foundations of the First Amendment, Ethics & Public Policy, Comparative Politics, International Politics, and Public Policy. This course is a prerequisite for most advanced courses in American Politics including: Campaigns & Elections; Congress & the Presidency; Environmental Politics; Wilderness Politics; Urban Politics; Race, Sex & the Constitution; Current Cases before the Supreme Court and Constitutional Law.

This course emphasizes the practical consequences of established institutions and procedures for policy outcomes. Who wins, and who loses? To whom is the American government responsive? Its objective is to provide each student with a reasonably sophisticated understanding of why the system produces the kinds of policies that it does without getting bogged down in minutia.

A variety of materials will be used to achieve this general objective.

  • Our core text emphasizes the political culture, fragmentation of authority, competing interests, individual rights, and separation of economic and political spheres that characterize American government. It also contains some readings.
  • Our reader is based on the debate model, pairing essays representing different points of view on important issues of American politics today.
  • American mass media provide a third important source of information for this course. Each student should make daily contact with the world of American politics. Most Americans get most of their political information from television, but--with the obvious exceptions of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report--TV is the least efficient way to get the news. National Public Radio (locally 90.9 FM and 910 AM) is superior to any of the 24-hour TV news channels, both for objectivity and for depth of coverage. Reading remains the most efficient way to learn. Reading on line combines your most sophisticated data processing capacity with the world's most sophisticated communications technology. Why not use the best tools available? You can read hundreds of newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post. There are countless web aggregators of news and opinion. For a list of some prominent sites: conservative, liberal, and nonpartisan, go here.

Each of these information sources should provide a foundation for discussion and debate. Reading materials will be supplemented by occasional videos. Taken together, these materials will provide a variety of ways to learn as well as competing viewpoints regarding what should be learned in an introductory American politics course.

How This Course Is Related to Politics 282: Public Policy: This course emphasizes the role of law, political culture, political organizations and governmental institutions in national governance. The focus of POL 282 is more interdisciplinary and possibly a bit more quantitative, emphasizing the interrelationship of politics and economics, the processes by which public policy is made, and the methods by which it can be evaluated. It gives relatively greater emphasis to exploring specific areas of substantive policy. There is limited overlap, and students may profitably take both courses. Like this course, POL 282 fulfills the prerequisite for many advanced courses in American Politics and Public Policy.

What Former Students Liked -- And What They Didn't: Based on course evaluations, students generally like the reading. They find me knowledgeable and accessible. They say that I provide frightening amounts of feedback on their papers and that they learn a lot. They complain that I go off on tangents and that classroom discussions don't recapitulate the readings. They complain that classroom discussions often lag behind the readings.

I plead guilty on all counts.

  • I believe in answering the questions you raise, whether based on assigned readings or events of the day, even when that may seem like a tangent to others. I believe in trying to connect the news of the day to the themes of the course, even if that seems like a tangent to you.
  • I believe that doing the reading and attending the class are not alternative ways to learn the same thing. The time to master the reading assignments is when you are reading those assignments. Class discussion should proceed on the assumption that we have all read the assignments. Rather than recapitulating the reading, we should be attempting to build on it, to look at it from a different perspective, or even to refute it.
  • I believe that required reading should cover more information than we could possibly discuss in the time available to us and that classroom discussions should reinforce and advance themes identified as important or interesting by students as well as by the teacher. It follows that you will be on your own to master much of what you read. Most of it will not become the subject of classroom discussion unless you put it on the agenda.
  • I believe that required reading should be divided into assignments of relatively equal length for your convenience. It follows that a classroom discussion that emphasizes what students and instructor identify as particularly interesting or important will often lag behind the pace of the reading. If you cannot intelligently discuss something your read two days ago, you should seek assistance to develop your reading and note taking skills.
  • I believe that we are all engaged in a search for truth, which is often elusive, and that we must be ever vigilant lest we be misled by our biases and assumptions.
  • I believe that facts are important. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts."
  • Broadly speaking, I believe that higher education should be more about strengthening higher-order intellectual skills--like critical reading, analytical thinking, articulate speaking and cogent writing--than about filling your memory banks. In the social sciences facts change all the time, but learning how to think, speak and write more clearly lasts for a lifetime.

See Course Calendar & Assignments for daily topics.


  • ATTENDANCE: "Eighty percent of success is showing up." -- Woody Allen. Class attendance is not 80% of your grade, but it is important. I appreciate your letting me know in advance by e-mail if there is some reason you cannot be in class.
  • READING ASSIGNMENTS: Read the formal assignments in advance of the class periods for which they are scheduled. Read critically. Argue with the authors. Mark your text or take notes. The more you do to interact with the text, the better you will understand and remember it. For some of these readings, you will have an informal writing assignment. In addition to the formal assignments, please be on the lookout for news articles pertinent to the day's assigned readings. I encourage you to share them with the class.
  • WRITING ABOUT READING: There will be regular opportunities to sharpen your thinking by writing about what you have read. These assignments – which evolve over the course of the term – I described in detail under the heading Writing about Reading below.
  • CLASS PARTICIPATION: In addition to showing up, reading your assignments, writing thoughtfully about some of them, I expect you to take an active and constructive role in class discussion.
  • EXAMINATIONS & QUIZZES: There will be no final examination. There will be four quizzes designed to test your mastery of the assigned reading and classroom learning. Consult the Course Calendar & Assignments for quiz dates.
  • POLICY PAPER: The research and long-form writing component of Politics 262 is a policy paper described in excruciating detail under the heading Public Policy Paper Assignment below.

Writing about Reading


Classroom Contribution
Four Quizzes
Policy Paper
Policy Paper Rewrite
Extra Credit [see below]

Extra Credit Opportunity #1: Of course, this is a class devoted to politics, but it is also a class devoted to critical reading, cogent writing, and analytical thinking -- invaluable skills for living and for working in every field of endeavor. One way to improve your writing as you read is to become more conscious of the writing of others. With that in mind, I will provide you the opportunity to earn extra credit in my continuing contest for students enrolled in POL 262:
In Search of Bad Writing
Click the flaming text for full details.

Extra Credit Opportunity #2: To encourage thoughtful participation in the polity, 25 extra-credit points will be awarded for each "letter to the editor" written by you about a question of public policy and "published" this term in an off-campus newspaper or magazine. For the purposes of this extra credit opportunity, "published" means appearing in the print edition; an on-line response to an article or blog post does not qualify. Submit appropriate evidence.

The maximum number of extra-credit points that may be applied to your course grade is 50. The deadline for submission of applications for extra credit is noon on the penultimate day of the course. All submissions must be in writing.


OBJECTIVES: This assignment is designed to encourage close reading and serious thinking about what constitutes a good argument. Desirable side effects might be more thoughtful contributions to classroom discussion and increased capacity to think clearly and write cogently.

ASSIGNMENT: A part of your assigned reading comes from Points of View, an anthology edited by DiClerico and Hammock (D&H on the course calendar) and designed to examine important topics in American politics from competing perspectives. You have nine (9) short, informal writing assignments related to these readings. For the purposes of this assignment, short means not less than 200 nor more than 300 words.  Informal means paste your text into an e-mail. You will need a title so that I know what you are writing about, but you will not need citations, bibliography, etc. For the purposes of grading, I will treat these nine, one-page essays the same way that I treat class participation. I will keep a running tally of the quality and quantity of your submissions resulting in a single grade at the end of the course.  Hopefully there will be some cross fertilization between this writing about reading and your classroom participation. More careful reading may encourage you to contribute to classroom conversations. Indeed, if you write something particularly intriguing about one of the day’s essays, I might very well ask you about it in class.

Each of these assignments begins with a particular day's reading in DiClerico and Hammock. Read first; write second. Paste your text into an e-mail and send it to me no later than 3 hours prior to the beginning of the class for which the related reading was assigned. (For these assignments, please do NOT use e-mail attachments.)

These short, informal writing assignments are designed to be conceptually simple during week one and to increase in complexity in subsequent weeks. 

During the first week of the class, your assignment is to select any one of the day’s assigned readings (one essay, not one chapter) from DiClerico and Hammock and write a summary. You must complete this assignment on two separate days during the first week. In a summary, you are attempting to communicate the essential message of the text. To do so you will need to communicate clearly both the author's conclusions and the author’s premises/reasons for reaching those conclusions. You will want to do all of this in your own words. This assignment is all about reading carefully and understanding what you have read. It does not ask you to evaluate the author’s claims.  You will do that in week two.

During the second week of the class, your assignment is to select any one of the day’s assigned readings (one essay, not one chapter) from DiClerico and Hammock and analyze the argument. You must complete this assignment on three separate days during the second week.  This differs from the previous assignment because it requires you to exercise judgment. Briefly summarize the author's conclusions and premises/reasons. Then discuss the quality of the argument. In doing so, focus on what you believe is most important. What makes this argument persuasive or unpersuasive? [Note that an author's conclusion might be correct even if the argument is weak: "Chicago is the most populous city in Illinois because it has the tallest building." The conclusion is correct, but the reasoning is faulty. Whereas a good argument (true premises and logical organization) gives you strong reason to accept the conclusion, a weak argument does not refute the conclusion but merely leaves it unsupported.]

The questions that follow are designed to help you think about analyzing an argument. They are not meant to be used as a checklist of things that should be commented upon in every case.

  • Are important terms used appropriately and consistently? and defined when necessary?
  • Are the premises true (well supported by empirical evidence) or conjecture?
  • Is the argument logically coherent?
  • Are the premises and the logical structure sufficient to justify the conclusion?
  • Does the author use emotional language, create a false dichotomy, set up a straw man, confuse correlation with causation, fail to distinguish between is and ought, appeal to unqualified authority, or engage in ad hominem attacks?

I recognize that some of this terminology may be new to some of you, so allow me to define terms.

  • Emotional language refers to efforts to incite the reader’s passions rather than to engage the reader’s reason. 
  • A false dichotomy is when an author suggests that we must choose between two alternatives when there are really more than two alternatives. "Repeal health care reform or face death panels," is an example of a false dichotomy.  There are a lot of other possibilities.
  • To set up a straw man is to caricature or misrepresent an opponent’s argument in order to make it easy to refute.  A common example is to characterize "affirmative action" as "racial quotas."  Most forms of affirmative action do not involve racial quotas, but describing affirmative action that way makes it easier to argue against it. 
  • To confuse correlation with causation is to argue for (or assume) a cause-and-effect relationship where no such relationship exists. I often feel hungry about the time the sun is going down, so there is a correlation between my hunger and the sunset. It should be apparent, however, that my getting hungry is not causing the sun to set.
  • Failure to distinguish is from ought refers to a conflation of facts and values, often in the form of suggesting that because something is the case, it ought to be the case.  A common modern example is the claim that because climate change exists in nature, it's "natural" and therefore good.
  • An appeal to unqualified authority means being deferential to sources that have no apparent claim to appropriate expertise. A former student of mine once told me that she planned to transfer to Pepperdine University so that it would be easier to be admitted to Pepperdine Law School. When I inquired why that would be a good idea, she told me that it was the recommendation of her dentist. Fortunately this true story has a happy ending. The student in question did not transfer to Pepperdine University. She graduated from Cornell College, earned her law degree from Georgetown University, was selected to be attorney to the governor of the state of Minnesota, and eventually became the youngest judge ever appointed in that state.
  • An ad hominem (literally, "to the man") argument is one that attacks the source rather than attacking the argument.  You might say, "according to Sarah Palin…" And I might respond "I can see Russia from my house." Rather than responding to her argument, I'm just defaming Palin — in this case by repeating a quotation which she never uttered. (The quotation is from Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.)

During the third and fourth weeks of the class, your assignment is comparative analysis. You must complete this assignment on two separate days during the third week and two separate days during the fourth week. You will be using summary and analysis skills that you have practiced during weeks one and two. Select any competing pair of assigned readings from the day’s reading in DiClerico and Hammock. Determine which of the two readings makes the more persuasive argument and explain your conclusion.  Here I am asking you to make an argument. That is to say that I am asking you to state a conclusion--specifically, that one of the arguments is better than the other--and to give persuasive reasons for the conclusion you have reached.


"He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that."
--John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), chapter 2

"As far as I'm conceived, this correction of short writty is the most wonderfoul larf I've ever ready."
--John Lennon, In My Own Write (1964), p. 84 ("About the Awful")
[Note: this is an accurate quotation and does not qualify for In Search of Bad Writing.]

OBJECTIVES: This assignment has three major objectives. The first is to increase your familiarity with an issue of public policy importance and the arguments that surround that issue. The second is to increase your familiarity with relevant sources of information like professional journals and government documents. The third is to help you improve an important intellectual skill: writing a clear and convincing argument supported by reliable evidence. This is a complex and difficult assignment, and I would like each of you to do it well. To that end, I have broken the assignment down into pieces and provided explicit instructions about how you can maximize your success. Please read all the information that follows, and do your best to master this task one step at a time. I have tried to answer the most obvious questions here in writing, but obviously I have not answered all the possible questions. Please feel free to ask me for help along the way.

ASSIGNMENT: Your job is to write a public policy paper of 1,500 to 2,000 words exclusive of title page, abstract, illustrations, notes, bibliography, appendices, etc. Your paper must deal with a matter of public policy within the Constitutional power of some officer, agency or institution of the United States (national) government. If in doubt, ask me.

PUBLIC POLICY & POLICY PAPERS: A "policy" is a clear course of action. (E.g., it is the policy of Cornell College to issue grades each term.) A "public policy" is a policy adopted by a government. (E.g., it is the policy of the United States to intervene militarily wherever America's national interests are threatened.) A "public policy paper" is a written document that (1) recommends a public policy and (2) argues for the adoption of that policy. Your public policy paper will be developed through four stages. Consult the Course Calendar & Assignments for deadlines associated with this project.

E-Mail Attachments: Unless directed otherwise, please deliver each component of this project by e-mail attachment. Please save your papers and other submissions in Word® (*.doc or *.docx). If you cannot save to Word®, please save to Rich Text (*.rtf) format. Make sure your file does not exceed the 10MB limit for the Cornell e-mail server. Attach your file to an e-mail addressed to For more detailed information about e-mail attachments, click here.

Stage I -- RESEARCH QUESTION & BIBLIOGRAPHY: Send an e-mail attachment [with a copy to Paul Waelchli, Consulting Librarian] stating your research question and providing a properly documented working bibliography for the investigation of that question.

  • Selecting a research question requires that you identify a topic appropriate for inquiry and susceptible to a public policy recommendation.
  • So what's a good topic?
    • One that is consistent with assignment: “Your paper must deal with a matter of public policy within the Constitutional power of some officer, agency or institution of the United States (national) government.”
    • One that is interesting to you.
    • One where you have no preconceived bias to blind you.
    • One that is narrow enough to allow relatively thorough research.
    • Exactly how narrow is more art than science.
      • If your topic is too broad, your research will be unfocused and superficial.
      • If your topic is too narrow, you won’t find the information you need to proceed.
      • You need to strike a balance based on preliminary exploration of your topic.
      • In this wired world, it is far easier to be too broad than too narrow.
    • Here are some topics that are too broad:
      • Endangered species
      • Environmental protection
      • National park policy
      • Yellowstone National Park
      • Federal wolf management
      • Ranchers' rights
      • Threats to livestock
    • And here's one that has something to do with all of the topics above but is appropriately narrow:
      • Whether the Yellowstone wolves should be protected when they leave the park.
    • Notice that the formulation above is more than just a topic: it is a research question. Should they be protected or shouldn't they? Let's go examine the evidence and reach a conclusion. Doing the hard work of answering your policy question will result in the policy recommendation required in Stage II.
    • Before submitting your research question, make sure that it begins with the word whether and includes the word should with respect to some specific issue.
  • Your bibliography will continue to evolve throughout your research and writing, but the working bibliography you submit at this time should demonstrate that you have located and have access to high-quality information relevant to your research question. In most cases your working bibliography should include some mix of scholarly books, articles in scholarly journals, and primary sources such as laws, court cases, census data or polling results. If the sources you can locate are primarily secondary and non-scholarly, i.e., journalistic, seek help in finding better sources or choose a new research question.
  • Choose one of the approved style sheets and label your working bibliography to indicate which one you have chosen.
  • This assignment is not graded, but failure to complete it in a timely fashion will negatively affect your class participation grade.

Stage II -- POLICY RECOMMENDATION & CONTENTIONS: Prepare and print a document (2 copies) stating your policy recommendation and setting forth an outline of the contentions you intend to make for it. Bring it to your individual paper conference.

  • The policy recommendation is the paper's thesis. The outline of contentions lays out the complete structure of your argument.
  • Please note that articulating a good policy recommendation requires that you have done the research required to answer your research question with some specificity. For example: "The wolves that have been introduced to Yellowstone National Park should have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act as they spread beyond the park's boundaries."
  • Remember your policy recommendation must be within the legal power of some officer, agency or institution of the United States national government.
  • Taking the step from "research question" to "policy proposal and outline of contentions" is where trouble most often arises, so before you submit your policy recommendation and contentions, examine them carefully using the criteria set forth in Getting from Research Question & Bibliography to Policy Proposal & Contentions.
  • Before you organize your contentions into an outline, consult A Good Argument Is a Hierarchy of Contentions.
  • This assignment is not graded, but failure to complete it in a timely fashion will negatively affect your class participation grade.

Stage III -- POLICY PAPER: Send an e-mail attachment presenting your recommendation and supporting arguments in a formal paper with appropriate manuscript format, proper citations, etc. [Note: All the components of a formal paper--cover, abstract, body, reference list, etc.--must be merged into one e-document in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format..] Remember, you are being asked to take a position and make a case for it. A good policy paper consists of a clear policy recommendation supported by strong arguments supported by unimpeachable evidence. A good policy paper will be:

  • Persuasive: You must state a conclusion and back that conclusion with reasoned argument. Your mission is to persuade the reader, and the better the argument, the higher the probability of success.
  • Well Researched: Your arguments must be firmly rooted in careful research. You must have a command of the relevant facts. You must understand your own position, the positions of those with whom you disagree, and the relationship of the facts to each.
  • Concise: A good policy paper is not always brief, but it must be concise. That means no padding and no B.S. The typical audience for a policy paper is a judge, a corporate executive, or a high government official. If your policy paper does not get to the point quickly and move the argument forward relentlessly, you are unlikely to get and hold the attention of your target audience. If you want to persuade a busy person, do not waste her time. The assigned length of your paper is short in part to force you to be concise. If you don't have to struggle some to reduce your arguments and evidence to 2,000 words, you probably have not done the research you should have done.
  • Hierarchically Organized: It will organize the arguments to be made into the strongest possible hierarchy of contentions. Refer again to A Good Argument Is a Hierarchy of Contentions.
  • Appropriately Documented: Documentation is important for both ethical and practical reasons. Ethically, documentation gives credit where credit is due. Practically, documentation enhances the credibility of your work by demonstrating its reliance on and relationship with credible sources of information. I expect you to use one of the approved styles of documentation, to tell me which one you are using, and to follow it with care throughout your paper.
  • Well Written: I will be looking for a good introduction that sets forth your policy recommendation and previews the case you will make for it; clear organization of the ideas and arguments; effective use of paragraphs (and subheadings, if you like) to orient the reader; good transitions from one part of the text to the next; a conclusion that is both substantive and relevant; and sound grammar, punctuation, spelling and usage.
  • Professionally Presented: I will also be looking for a paper that has all its component parts appropriately formatted, in proper order, and in the form of a single e-mail attachment.

Consult POLICY PAPERS: How to Succeed for more detailed instructions.

For an annotated example of an excellent policy paper written by a former student in this class, click on the PDF icon below.

sample paper

Stage IV -- REWRITE: After receiving a written critique of your policy paper, you will rewrite and resubmit the paper as an e-mail attachment making as many improvements in substance and presentation as you can manage.

  • The rewrite should be better than the original paper. After all, you will have had the benefit of expert editorial advice.
  • As a practical matter, a conscientious effort to address the technical problems that have been identified in your paper will preserve your grade. More substantive improvements will enhance your grade.

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