Saturday, January 31, 2015

1/31 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 will trace its historical development from colonial times to the present. We will focus on the conflict between the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution with the realities of political life in American history.

This course will examine the structure as well as the functions and purposes of the American political system. We will emphasize some of the historical struggles to gain access and the right to participate in the American political system. The challenges are to be able to explain the mechanics of the American political system as well as to understand the changing nature of the functions and purposes and interests it has served throughout history. The changing nature of the American political system cannot be understood without accounting for the inclusion of social groups that had at one point been excluded from participation. We will also focus on what aspects of the American system have remained constant over the years as well.

This is an hybrid course so most of the class lectures will be conducted through the class website or blog. Lectures will be posted along with assignments. Students are responsible for completing all of 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.

The syllabus and the first reading assignments are posted on Blackboard 9. 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 your work on your blog. I will create a list with all of the students blogs once they are completed that will give you access to the rest of the class. You can talk or communicate about any topic so long as it is relevant. There is a minimum requirement that I would like to see each students reply or comment to at least to two students every class. Please read the syllabus in its entirety. The first readings have been posted on Blackboard. I will email the class when the lecture has been posted. Please use your Lehman e-mail accounts 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 a 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." The concept of a city-state can be further divided up.

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 to sleep, so in a literal sense citizenship means belonging to a place where you can rest peacefully.

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

Today the concept of "city-states" are archaic, being a product more 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, usually 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. The word nation is also 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." (The modern Italian nation-state was not created until the late 19th century).

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, also 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 kinship relationships ( i.e. father-child) to the land, but as I said refers to a place where you can rest peacefully. In many cases the place where you are born may be the place where you rest peacefully but it does not necessarily follow. 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 the concept "nation-state" needs to be explained, what is the state?  The organization which controls power in the polis, 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 its power it makes its presence felt. The state reserves the right to use violence to itself, or the right to delegate the use of violence to others. 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 an individual or group. 

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 Hamid Karzai's in Afghanistan is precisely their 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 your ability to overcome resistance to your 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.

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 and obedience to a set of defined 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, laws often times infringe upon a person's liberty and equality, and as we will see in the next readings, often times this 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 come close in the past to identifying 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. 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 as not nation-building, but nation-(re)building. Afghanistan is also composed of multiple ethnic groups: Pashtun and Tajik mainly but several others as well. While a strong Afghan national identity may have once existed, that sense of identity has eroded and other even older forms of ethnic identity have replaced it, since the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s

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, as opposed to citizenship being derived from rational self-interest. 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 kin-ship 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 meant to explain in part the sense of devotion and loyalty American citizens feel towards the state, but also to show the similar structure between religious belief systems 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.

For next class, we will be in class, and pick up this discussion next class. Also, please complete your blogs and e-mail the link to me.  Thank you and I hope you enjoy the class!


  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.