Teaching American Political Thought to Students of American Government
19 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2010
Date Written: February 5, 2010
Since the behavioral revolution, political scientists have characteristically distinguished between American political thought on the one hand and the scientific study of American politics on the other. Although courses in American government – at least at the introductory level – typically start with the Constitution, most of the analysis proceeds without engaging the political thinking of political actors on its own terms. Political speech is seen to be immediately practical and inevitably partisan; the political scientist avoids such traps by examining interests and ambitions from a distance, determining identity by objective characteristics rather than expressed opinion, and treating opinion itself as data to be counted, not as emergent truth. But if politics is more than the aggregation of preferences and their strategic competition, as in practice everyone except the most cynical campaign operative assumes it is, then, however useful analysis of data might be in unmasking hidden intentions and discovering unintended consequences, political analysis is incomplete unless political thought is considered on its own terms. I propose a three-fold framework to analyze American political thought, distinguishing (a) arguments about constitutional rights and forms, (b) arguments about first principles, and (c) arguments that aim to build or advance party coalitions. Using this framework and applying it to one or two significant debates in American political history, I aim to show how such analysis extends (or perhaps calls into question) common findings of political science on some standard topic – for example, parties and interest groups, or federalism and public policy. Finally, I will consider the pedagogical implications through analysis of the corresponding chapter or chapters from a basic introductory textbook. Are citizens being well-formed by contemporary political analysis, or would they be better served by being introduced to American politics through the leading debates in the history of American political thought? Is there a way to integrate the two?
Keywords: American Political Thought, Teaching Political Science
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