Course Correction

Not long ago I criticized an introductory course in American government at North Carolina State University, as it was taught in an online section. The reason for my criticism: It was biased. Most of the non-textbook readings seemed to be leftist or “progressive” policy arguments, with no rebuttals or alternative views.

The professor, somewhat irritated, asked me what improvements I would recommend for his course. So I began to think how one should use current policy issues to make Political Science 201 more meaningful. (The course is a foundational course for the student who wants to major in political science, but it’s also a course for the generalist.) This article is the result of my thinking.

For advice, I spoke to Jenna Ashley Robinson, the Pope Center’s director of outreach. Robinson, an NC State graduate, received her Ph.D. in political science from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 and has taught a similar introduction to American government and politics at UNC-Chapel Hill, The College at Southeastern, and Wake Technical Community College.

“Public policy is great for illustrating concepts,” said Robinson. “But there’s really no need to take sides or even explore the pros and cons of particular policies.” The course should be about how the governmental process works, she explained, not about what policy ought to be.

So, current policy examples ought to help students understand fundamental analytical concepts. Examples may divide along right and left political lines, but the point of bringing them up should not be to debate them but to help explain American government and politics.

The purpose of an introductory course is to cover a few major themes that define the subject. In political science, students should be exposed to three fundamental themes: the structure of the political system (and how and why it got that way); the process by which policies—laws and regulation—develop; and the roles that different parts of the government play in that process. Robinson organizes her class along these lines, and Professor G. David Garson’s class (the one I critiqued) is organized in roughly the same way.

Within those broad themes are concepts that can influence policy decisions and must be taught for students to grasp how our government works. These include, among others, the principal-agent problem in government, the principle of concentrated benefits vs. dispersed costs, and the rational ignorance of most voters.

The natural place to start the course is the structure of government. The discussion is best (and most frequently) introduced with the founding of the nation and the reasons why the government took the shape it did. Thus the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are given center stage. Other important ideas include the differences between a unitary structure and a confederate structure, between a republic and a democracy, and the extent to which federalism characterizes the U. S. government.

Discussion of current policies can be useful in illustrating federalism. Topics such as abortion, gun control, and state laws that allow medical use of marijuana all illustrate the relationship between the states and federal government and the conflicts that can arise. The point should be, again, to illustrate the policy conflicts they raise or the principles they illustrate—not to argue which policy is better.

The conversation about the founding and the U.S. Constitution is also a place to explain civil rights (an individual’s rights as a citizen) and civil liberties (an individual’s rights to form and express his or her own preferences or convictions and to act freely upon his or her preferences or convictions in the private sphere. Gay marriage can illuminate differences between civil liberties and civil rights. Is there a difference, for example, between getting married at a religious institution (a private activity) and getting married at the courthouse (a political entity) in terms of civil rights and civil liberties and thus the role of the government?

The second big section of an introductory course is the operation of the U.S. government. This part deals with Congress, the courts (especially the Supreme Court), the presidency, and the bureaucracy (nominally under the control of the president).

This section should introduce the Iron Triangle, a traditional political science label for long-term relationships among agencies, congressional committees, and interest groups in which each receives benefits, even if the public does not. The Iron Triangle is a subset of the broader principal-agent problem that exists throughout society. The principals or owners  (in government, the citizens) should be in charge, but they have agents—Congress and bureaucrats—who can fail to respect their wishes. Often, those agents make deals with third parties (special interests) largely unbeknownst to the citizens.

Bank bailouts illustrate the principal-agent problem. Government officials are supposed to act in the interest of the taxpayers. However, they have some interests of their own, such as raising large sums of money for election campaigns and finding lucrative landings once they leave office. Rather than serving the public, they can serve themselves by colluding with special private interests, such as banks, who can provide those things to them in exchange for benefits such as subsidies.

This example illustrates another key concept, the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Because troubled banks have an intense interest in a particular outcome (a concentrated benefit), they are willing to spend time and effort to achieve the bailout. The cost of the bailout is borne by the taxpayers, but the impact on each taxpayer is spread over so many people that the individual cost is too small to motivate anyone to stop the process (dispersed costs).

The third broad area of an American politics course that should be addressed is how citizens affect the government. This subject covers elections, political parties, political campaigns, the role of special interests in elections, how media affect the process, and generally how public opinion translates into public policy. 

Future political scientists—and educated people in general—need to learn the many reasons why public opinion does not translate directly into public policy in a republic or constitutional democracy. One reason is constitutional constraints. Consider that a majority of the public is (according to polls) offended at the thought of burning the American flag as a gesture of protest. However, no one will ever be arrested for flag-burning in this country. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that burning a flag is a constitutionally protected expression of free speech. In this case, majority opinion is blocked by constitutional restraint.

But there are other reasons for the difficulty of translating public opinion into public policy. One is the voter’s rational ignorance. Because voters do not directly benefit from their vote (elections are all or nothing, so your vote “doesn’t count” when the opponent wins), they tend to avoid spending the time required to become knowledgeable voters—in some cases, they don’t even vote at all. (More than half of all people of voting age don’t know the name of their congressman.) Thus, voters are easily swayed by superficial political advertising, which is sometimes rampant.

Many other concepts, such as the tragedy of the commons and free-riding, can be illustrated with current public policy examples. But the goal of those current examples should be to elucidate the factors and forces that guide the political process.

With that in mind, a professor should be able to teach without attempting to indoctrinate. The bull sessions can occur outside of class.