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Unit information: Democracy and US Government in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Democracy and US Government
Unit code POLI21226
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Van Veeren
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


This unit examines the cultures, institutions, and controversies that mark contemporary US American politics. In particular, the unit develops an understanding of US politics as the product of a set of historically-produced cultural forces in US politics rather than as a set of institutions of government. As the unit explores, the origin of these forces, their interplay and tensions, how they relate to different understandings of democracy, and how these forces produce, are refracted through, and reshape the traditional institutions of US government can be used to understand developments in US politics, including the results of the most recent Presidential election.

In other words, over the course of the term, we therefore use the linkages between US American political cultures and the institutions of US government in order to assess the claims made that the US is a ‘pre-eminent’ democracy, exploring how democracy is not possible unless cultures of privilege are overcome, and critiquing debates that focus on the structure of institutions to ‘engineer’ democracy.

Whilst the unit will address illustrative and traditional topic areas, such as political parties, Congress and the Presidency, we will also focus on race, masculinity, economic inequality, mass media and cultures of (in)security. Throughout, students are expected to apply their accumulated knowledge to discuss broader questions relating to the nature of democracy.

Unit aims:

• To present an analysis of US government and politics and probe common assumptions and stereotypes about the US American system.
• To introduce the core issues confronting the US political system at the beginning of the 21st century.
• To critically evaluate the performance of US American government against its claims to be one of the world’s principal democracies.
• To present an analytical lens through which students can evaluate political, institutional and contextual explanations.

Intended learning outcomes

The learning outcomes of this unit are to develop:

  1. an understanding of the cultural and political institutional workings of the US political system and an appreciation of the complexity of these cultures, structures and processes.
  2. an appreciation of theories applicable to the study of democracy and the ability to relate these theories and debates to the cultural, structural, political and institutional context of US American politics.
  3. an understanding of the capacity for citizen action in relation to cultural, structural and contextual constraints.

Teaching details

2 hours of lectures and 1 hour seminar

Assessment Details

  • 1500 word essay or equivalent (25%)
  • 3,000 word essay (75%)

Both assessments assess all learning outcomes.

Reading and References

  • Barbour, Christine and Wright, Gerald (2014) Keeping the Republic, Sage.
  • Foley, Michael (2007) American Credo: the Place of Ideas in US Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Foner, Eric, (1999) The Story of American Freedom, New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Hochschild, Jennifer (1995) Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Hudson, William E. (2013) American Democracy in Peril: Eight Challenges to America’s Future, 7th Edition, London: Sage.
  • Miroff, Bruce, Seidelman, Raymond and Swanstrom, Todd (Eds.) (2012) Debating Democracy: A Reader in American Politics, 7th Edition, Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage.
  • Omi, Michael and Winant, Howard (2014) Racial Formation in the United States, Third Edition, Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Rana, Aziz. (2010) The Two Faces of American Freedom, Boston: Harvard University Press.
  • Roper, John (2002) The Contours of American Politics: An Introduction, Cambridge: Polity.
  • Sheeler, Kristina Horn and Karrin Vasby Anderson (2013) Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture, College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  • Singh, Robert (2003a) Contemporary American Politics and Society: Issues and Controversies, London: Sage.
  • Street, John (2010) Mass Media, Politics and Democracy, London: Palgrave Macmillan.