Friday, August 25, 2017

8/25 Introduction

Welcome to POL166, the American Political System. My name is Barry Murdaco, I will be the instructor for this course. This course is designed as a broad survey of American national government and politics. Starting from the historical foundations of the American government, we trace its development from colonial times to the present. Focusing on conflicts between values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, with the realities of political life.

This course will examine the structure, as well as, the functions and purposes of the American political system. We will emphasize historical struggles to gain the right to participate in American "democracy". The challenges are to explain the mechanics of the American political system, and understand the changing nature of the purposes it has served throughout history. The nature of the American political system cannot be understood without accounting for the inclusion of groups that were, or are, excluded from participation. As these groups gain the ability to participate, does the purpose of government change as well? We will also focus on aspects of the system remaining constant over the years.

 Students are responsible for completing the readings, lectures, and assignments every week. There are also features on the blog that allow the students to access news sources as well as links to various educational resources. Please familiarize yourself with these features as they will be in use for completing assignments. You can add features like this when you are designing your blog.

Please read the syllabus completely for a breakdown of the readings and the assignments as well as the objectives of the class and all other relevant information.

The first thing you will need to do for this class is to create your own website where you will post your own work as well as respond to the other students.

To create a Blog
1) Go to
2) Create a Title and an Address for your blog and choose a template which you can change later
3) Once you have created it you will be on your "Dashboard," click the arrow pointing down in the center
4) Click on "Layout" to design you blog
5) Click on "Template" to change the background if you want to
6) Click on "Settings"
7) Go to Posts and Comments and turn "word verification" to NO
8) Go back to the "Dashboard"
9) Email me the link to your website, copy and paste the web address.

After this you will be able to post work on your blog. I will create a list with all student blogs, once they are completed, giving access to the rest of the class. You can talk about any topic. Please read the syllabus in its entirety. The first readings have been posted on Blackboard. Please use your Lehman e-mail account since the link for the lectures will be sent through Blackboard.

Since it is likely many are new to a political science course it is helpful to define a few key terms to understand the political system. 

First of all, what is politics? Politics can be defined as the struggle for control over the distribution of power in a given society or organization. "Politics," "political," or "polity" derive from the Greek word polis, which means "city-state" but its original meaning meant something more like "stronghold."

City comes from the Latin word civitas, as do the related words, "civil" and "civic" and the concept of citizen or citizenship which originally referred to a member of a city-state. The root word civis originally meant to "lie down or sleep", so in a literal sense citizenship means belonging to a place where you can rest peacefully. Many argue the political life of the city, is the only "organic" political life.

The ancient Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta developed over time a unique identity. The word "ethnic" or "ethnicity" comes from the Greek word ethnos and refers to "people" but originally meant "self" or ego, as in self-identity.

Today the concept of "city-states" are archaic (with few exceptions), a product of ancient times, like the ancient Greek city-states, or later the Romans, who were never referred to as "Italians" but always for the city-state or polis where they originated from–Rome. 

The modern concept, replaces "city" with "nation" so you have the nation-state. "Nation" is similar to ethnic and refers to a people with a unique cultural identity. Nation is similar to "native" and comes from the Latin word nativus or natus and means "birth" as in place of birth, and is actually similar to the word "natal" as in "pre-natal care." It is important to remember that a nation is a more abstract, less concrete, idea than a city, but the cultural force of "nationalism" can have a very strong influence over people. Nationalism can also be a force for equality, as it confers equal status upon people.

Concepts like ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship are all similar but there are crucial differences. Ethnic and nation refer to properties and traits that you are born with and cannot change, similar to the Latin word patria, meaning "fatherland" and similar to words like pater, padre, or patriarch, it is also the root of the word "patriotism" or "patriot."

Citizenship however does not directly refer to place of birth or relationship ( i.e. father-child) to the land, but refers to a place where you can rest peacefully or feel at "home". In some cases the place where you are born may be the place where you rest or feel at home, but not necessarily. The idea of security and protection also relates to the concept of the polis as a "stronghold," in other words a place that provides protection.

"City" or "nation" then refer to cultural entities. The other half of  "nation-state" needs to be explained, what is the state?  The organization which has power, or "a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given territory" is referred to as the state. "State" comes from the Latin word status or stare meaning "to stand" or could mean "presence," when the state exerts power it makes its presence felt. The state reserves the authority to use violence, or the right to delegate the use of violence to others, but states come to regulate more than just war and play a role in social life. Politics is a struggle for control over the state. The state is then defined primarily in a legal sense: the legal right to use force over individuals and groups. 

In a modern context, when you hear commentators speak of extending "governance" in Afghanistan or Iraq for example, they are referring to extending the monopoly of the use of violence over a territory (Governance comes from the Greek word kubernáo and means "to steer"). In a very literal sense, the problem of governments like Afghanistan is precisely the inability to steer or control the territory, or to monopolize the use of force. This monopoly is disputed by the Taliban, who besides providing armed fighters maintain a legal system and court structure in competition with the Afghan government and even basic services like sanitation–all aspects of governance.

Power can be defined simply as the ability to influence others to act in accordance with your will, and ability to overcome resistance to goals. Analytically speaking, power is measured by results and outcomes not by the use of coercion or persuasion, either of which can be considered power. Power is closely related to "reason" as it is defined in Western culture, since reason can help calculate the most strategic way of using power.

Most of the most powerful nation-states have a democratic political structure and rule by law. In other words, the struggle for power in the state, proceeds along a set of rules based upon electoral contests. Democracy comes from the Greek words demos meaning people, and kratos meaning strength or rule, so literally rule by people. The authority to use violence is conditioned by acceptance to rules specifying permissible and impermissible conduct. Law means "what has been laid down" and refers to binding rules of conduct that everyone must follow. In a democratic nation-state, laws are designed to maximize liberty or equality, or to impose order upon people without violating these principles as much as possible.

In reality, law often infringes liberty and equality, and often results from ethnic conflict. To speak of American nationality sounds less awkward then referring to American ethnicity, although in many cases nation and ethnicity are identical like France and the French, Germany and Germans, Italy and Italians. 

The American nation is not identical with a single ethnic group although many would argue that the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group has identified itself with the American nation. The evolution of the American political system can only be explained sufficiently by understanding the cultural conflict between different ethnic, racial, and gender groups to gain access to the polis and to citizenship, as well as the economic conflicts of different classes. Cultural conflicts, of course, are inseparable from economic conflict between different classes which historically speaking in the U.S. have tended to fall across the same ethnic, racial, and gender lines. Gaining access to citizenship has then always been associated with economic and social advancement as well.

The concept of "nation-building" although it can be applied to the U.S. as well is usually used to describe nations that have one or more ethnic groups in conflict with each other. The European nation Belgium is surrounded on all sides by nations with extremely strong national identities: France, Germany, and the Netherlands or Holland (Dutch). Although the state tries to create a sense of Belgian national identity, in reality Belgium is composed of distinct ethnic groups that have a history of fighting with each other: mainly Dutch with a large French minority, and a smaller German minority. Given Europe's horrible record of ethnic conflict and its strong desire to escape this past, it is no surprise then that the headquarters of the European Union is located in Belgium's capital, Brussels (the EU itself is an innovation that tries to create a sense of European identity and citizenship, over national identity).

The nation of Afghanistan is almost 100 years older than the nation of Belgium, and leading U.S. officials refer to the war in Afghanistan not as nation-building, but nation-(re)building. Afghanistan is also composed of multiple ethnic groups: Pashtun and Tajik, and several others. While a strong Afghan national identity may have once existed, that sense of identity has eroded

Finally, to understand the relationship between the American citizen and the state, the concept of "civil religion" is useful. Since the late 1960s, the idea that American citizenship is similar to a sense of religious devotion has become popular. The early origins of words like polis and civis show at its core the concern of politics is with safety and self-preservation and is egoistic to that extent, however, many throughout American history have argued that this cannot properly explain the American's reverence for the Declaration of Independence,  the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers. In this regard words like patria, which express a kinship relationship perhaps comes close to sense of devotion one feels towards their homeland.  One could also argue that it shows that religious devotion is itself rooted in egoistic feelings of preservation, put simply, people tend to make sacred over time what contributes to their preservation.

The sociologist Robert Bellah is credited with coining the term civil religion in the late 1960s, but as we will see many other thinkers clearly anticipated this idea. The idea of civil religion is explains the sense of devotion citizens feel towards the state, but also shows the structure of religious belief and the political system. Certain common traits shared by both are: a concept of a divine or divinely inspired leader, prophets, martyrs, devils, sacred rituals, holidays, and Scriptures. The President as the leader of the civil religion has played many different roles, from the "Moses-like" George Washington, to the "prophetic" and "martyred" Abraham Lincoln, and even "devils" like Richard Nixon or George W. Bush. We will examine all these categories more as we go through the class, especially the relationship of the idea of civil religion with the even more celebrated idea of "the separation of church and state." Religious and linguistic differences are itself related to different ethnic groups and form a great part of what makes up the differences between ethnicities.

No assignment for the first class. Please complete your blogs and send me the link.


  1. This reading has been an eye-opening and thought proving venture. I was pleased to learn that the Europeans were of a Belgium decent. And I was also introduce to the concept of "Nation- building". However I was disappointed not to hear of equality as being a prerequisite of this concept , which to me excluded a person of color.

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  3. I can under why these systems where created, and the laws in which the system stands for where created. People institutionalize things because it may work for them in a certain time period. Americas system reflects a variety of different archaic social structures. We are in 2015, and these structures are still governing a predominately modern society. This reading enlightens you to the state of mind of the American power structure as it was initially being formed.

  4. I have always been interested in the integration of religion in our political system. We swore on a bibles before taking an oath, our currency has the words 'In God We Trust' printed on it but what about the whole concept of separation between church and state? Clearly our political system was originally inspired by religious beliefs. I look forward to discussing this in greater detail as I agree with Mr. Elliot the reading is extremely thought provoking.

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    2. I believe the questions you are asking are very good. Why are we as nation trying to change the fundamental values that has brought us to be one of the greatest nation in the world? Maybe as a nation progresses, changes must be made to keep growing or not?

  5. I've always had a hard time understanding politics, the terminology always makes me avoid the topic. Understanding the root meanings was very helpful. I would love to understand more how religion once defined our political system, yet how it is slowing drifting from them.

  6. From the reading, I was captivated by how our modern society uses many of the ancient civilizations ideology. This idea makes me wonder, What if the ancient Greek civilization continued in power for unlimited years. Do you think we would have reached the industrial age sooner? Does the change in power promote progress or not? I am going to have to a lot more research to answer these questions.

  7. This reading was very interesting I never thought of politics in these sense like how religion is still a conflict in the political world. It is very true that however life is today is because of what happened in the past. The past creates the future and I believe that these arguments will forever continue unless there is a strong international peace maker.

  8. This reading helped me get an overall idea of the political system. Now I'm able to understand that it's what it's today because of its history.

  9. After reading "Power & Citizenship in American Politics", I was able to conclude that our American political system was greatly influenced by the Greek culture. Many words that are used today derive from the ancient Greeks words. Some examples are : Politics, Citizenship, Ethnicity, Nation, Nationality, State & Patriotism. In present day these words preserve similar like meanings to the ones that were used by the ancient Greeks. Words like Self identity, Nationalism and Citizenship are essential to the American political system because it shapes who are the people of America, and where they actually come from. The definition of these words help Americans feel secure with a sense of belonging to a "Nation-State" where they seek equality.
    The idea of a Democratic form of government also came from the ancient Greeks who also used this form of governance with their own kind. "Greek words demos meaning people, and kratos meaning strength or rule, so literally rule by people". One of the main reason for a Democratic form of government is to increase the individuals right for "liberty and equality". Therefore, Great leaders use their power to persuade others to act in harmony. The American politial system was greatly shaped by the differences in ethnic, racial, social and different economic groups who tried to gain their own identity in the U.S.

  10. Hello Everyone,
    I have to agree with Breanna Diaz, when it comes to politics, I have a hard time to follow all the terms and vocabulary. After reading this article, I was very glad to learn about how all the words have their own origin and the meaning. Once you put them all together, it starts building a bridge for me to start understanding the meaning of how they all connect and make it more clear for all of us.

  11. Reading this let me further know that all the things that America did and continues to do is a continuation from Greece and Rome.

  12. This reading made me understand the foundations of politics. It comes from colonial times. these concepts like citizen, ethnicity, nationality and more, form an important part of politics. Something that caught my attention was that citizenship is not only a place where you reside if not a place where you feel peace and free to live. Also cultural conflicts is cause because of economy conflicts and the different beliefs that they hold.