17.20 | Fall 2020 | Undergraduate

Introduction to the American Political Process


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week; 1 hour / session

Recitations: 2 sessions / week; 1 hour / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

The United States is, in many ways, at a historical turning point. A global pandemic strains the health care system, raises questions about the role of government in managing crises and providing social services, and challenges the nation’s federalist structures as mayors, governors, and the president vie for control. A movement for racial justice shines a light on the nation’s long legacies of inequality, and calls to radically reform the criminal justice system. As people prepare to vote by mail in unprecedented numbers, the political parties are locked in battle over who has access to political representation.

The goal of this course is to give students the foundation to analyze these developments through the lens of academic political science. We will apply its theoretical frameworks and statistical methodologies to answer such questions as:

  • What was the rationale behind the design of institutions such as Congress, the Electoral College, and the separation of powers, and how have these institutions held up over time?
  • When and how have Americans overcome collective action problems to participate in social movements?
  • How do the American systems of voting, electoral geography, and campaign finance affect representation in government?
  • Has Donald Trump transformed or merely wielded the powers of the presidency?

Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Describe the essential formal and informal features of U.S. politics, including federalism, the three branches of government, political parties, and American political culture.
  • Understand core theoretical concepts and analytical frameworks of political science, including the various manifestations of power; coordination and collective-action problems; and formal and informal institutions.
  • Apply these theoretical frameworks to specific episodes and phenomena in American politics.
  • Communicate to others their insights into American politics, by means of oral and written compositions of various styles and lengths.


The following expectations are broadly applicable to any course in the social sciences:

  • Students are expected to treat each other with respect, listen attentively when others are speaking, and avoid personal attacks. At the same time, all students should feel comfortable expressing their opinions, political or otherwise, as long as they do so in an appropriate manner.
  • Plagiarism will not be tolerated in this course. As a general rule, you should never take credit for words or ideas that are not your own, and you should give your readers enough information to evaluate the source and quality of your evidence. Self-plagiarism (reusing material you have written in another context) is also not allowed. For more information on plagiarism and academic integrity, consult Academic Integrity at MIT: A Handbook for Students.
  • Please properly cite any direct quotations or ideas that you’ve taken from others. In this class, we will be using the Chicago author-date citation style (the citations in this syllabus follow this style). For details on this style, consult The Chicago Manual of Style Online.

Grading Policy

This being a communication-intensive HASS (CI-H) subject, written assignments of various lengths are an integral part of the learning process. Specifically, grades in this course are based on five components:


Paper 1

25% (5% first draft, 20% final)

Paper 2


Reading responses (6)


Final exam


Recitation attendance and oral participation

Recitation attendance is mandatory, and students are expected to be active and productive contributors to discussion in recitation.


For details on the activities above, see the Assignments section.

Required Reading

There is only one required book for the course:

Kollman, Ken, ed. Readings in American Politics: Analysis & Perspectives. 4th ed. W.W. Norton & Co., 2017. ISBN: ‎9780393283686.

Additionally, an important part of this class is learning to be an informed consumer of political news. In addition to the week’s assigned academic readings, you are expected to read/skim multiple news outlets of your choice and to be familiar with the main stories of the week. MIT students will therefore need a few paid journalism subscriptions. Think of these as equivalent to the expense of another book or two, and no less important than your other required reading. Here are a few suggestions (most have student rates). I strongly urge you to get the top 2 as a baseline and peruse some others:

  1. The New York Times
  2. The Washington Post
  3. The Guardian
  4. Your local news!
  5. The New Yorker
  6. CityLab
  7. The Atlantic

For additional readings, see the Readings section.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2020
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Exams with Solutions
Written Assignments with Examples