17.50 | Fall 2022 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Comparative Politics


Topic 1:  State and government

Session 1: Introduction

  • Review of syllabus 
  • Introductions (who you are and what you want to get out of the class)
  • Pop quiz
  • Overview of readings for next week
  • No recitation this week
  • By session 2:
    • Read this syllabus thoroughly.
    • Take the pop quiz. Read through the whole quiz before attempting any of the answers. Then spend 60 minutes to answer some of them, dividing your time however you please across questions. (You may wish to take a deep dive into one particular question or, alternatively, to answer several questions at a superficial level.) Please discuss the pop quiz with as many people as you want. You can also consult any sources you wish, but if you do, make sure to cite them properly in your posts. Post your replies on the class website. there is a separate thread for each question on the pop quiz.
    • Comment on pop quiz answers (~30 minutes). Pick one question, read through the answers already posted, and then post your own commentary.

Session 2: The state and its discontents (1)

  • Introductions of any newcomers
  • Pop quiz question 1
  • Lecture: What is a state, and why have one? (Part 1)
  • Reminder on map test

Session 3: The state and its discontents (2)

  • Random AnecdoteTM: Montezuma’s instructions to his messenger, in delivery of a letter to Hernán Cortés at Veracruz
  • Lecture: What is a state and why have one? (Part II) How were states originally created?
  • Nasty things states do. Better no state than a bad state?
  • Can we make the state “smaller”?
  • By next recitation:
    • Prepare for map test
  • By session 4:
    • Register to vote. Please confirm via the class website that you have registered. If you are a citizen of a country without absentee balloting, you should write a short email to an official from your country inquiring into the rationale for the lack of absentee balloting, and forwarding the message to the TA afterwards. If you are from a country where elections are meaningless or where writing a government official with such a query might get you into trouble, or if you have some other principled objection to registering to vote, talk with the TA or me about how to fulfill this assignment in a way that takes a similar amount of time.
    • Schedule your (optional) one-on-one meeting with me, assuming you wish to schedule one.

Topic 2: Making rules

Session 4: Making rules and the state in countries that are “born free”

  • Random AnecdoteTM: Approved undergarments in a Japanese high school
  • Born free versus something else
  • Introduction to the (fictitious) island nation of Compostela
    • Backup rainwater catchment versus coastal defense?
    • Who should pay for public services?
  • The problem of rights, numbers, and intensities (a.k.a. the James Madison problem):
    • What to do when majorities trump minorities with intense preferences on “ordinary” issues? (e.g., trade policy)
    • Possible solutions within democracy
      • Encouraging deliberation
      • Veto players
      • Single-issue voters
  • The scope of the public sphere
    • Indecency and offensiveness without harm (a.k.a. the Joel Feinberg problem)
    • Sexuality and gender identity in a conventional society
    • Reproductive rights
    • How to decide the limits of the rights necessary for citizenship
  • The problem of cultural rights and prejudices (a.k.a the Larry Diamond problem)
    • Religious freedom in a largely but not completely homogenous society
    • Language policy in a deeply divided society
  • The problem of popular ignorance (a.k.a. the H.L. Mencken problem)
    • “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
    • Introduction to minimalism
  • Democracy versus liberalism (a.k.a the Judith Shklar problem)
    • “Liberalism is monogamously, faithfully, and permanently married to democracy – but it is a marriage of convenience” rather than one of love.
    • “Undemocratic liberalism” (per Yascha Mounk) as guardianship
  • Explanation of breakout groups

Session 5: Presentations by breakout groups

Topic 3: Picking and constraining rulers

Session 6: Picking rulers

  • Review pop quiz Question 4
  • Leadership selection (and training) mechanisms
    • Popular election
    • Lottery systems
    • Expertise
    • Non-democratic mechanisms (selection by outgoing leader, divination, revelation, contest, popular selection from pool of vetted candidates, oligarchic selection, etc.)
    • Getting to the top of the Communist Party in China
  • Discussion of breakout groups

Session 7: Constraining rulers

  • Discussion of conclusions from recitation
  • Quick discussion of paper topic
  • Paper 2 due (See Assignments section)

Topic 4: Entering the real world: Improving governance through better selection of leaders

Session 8: Can we design better representative institutions?

  • Electoral rules for the legislature
  • Presidentialism versus parliamentarism
  • The problem of multidimensionality in representative systems
  • The problems of political parties (internal and external)

Session 9: Buzz groups

  • Pros and cons of different electoral institutions in practice
  • Would institutional changes really matter?
  • Can we predict the effects?
  • Paper 3 due (See Assignments section)

Topic 5: In the real world: Improving governance through federalism and devolution

Session 10: Does decentralization improve governance?

  • Political versus administrative federalism
  • Dealing with ethnic and regional divisions
  • Authoritarian enclaves, clientelism, and other challenges
  • Discussion of decentralizing reforms in problematic contexts
  • Paper 4 due (See Assignments section)

Session 11: Can participatory mechanisms enhance the quality of governance?

  • The democratic chain and the inadequacy of the electoral mechanism
  • Direct democracy and related innovations

Session 12: Class discussion

  • Follow-up on buzz groups
  • Discussion of paper
  • Rewrite of Paper 4 due (See Assignments section)

Topic 6: In the real world: Improving governance through monitoring and motivating officials

Session 13: Monitoring street-level bureaucrats

  • Causes of corruption and shirking among street-level bureaucrats

Session 14: Buzz groups on corruption

  • You are a police captain (heading a precinct) and would like to supplement your income by at least $50,000 per year through corrupt practices. But you also do not want to go to jail or lose your job, which might happen if your corruption is exposed. What scams can you invent that fall within acceptable risk parameters?
  • You are the Inspector General of the police department. Your police department is known to have some corruption and you are trying to get it under control. What policies will keep captains (who head a precinct) on their best behavior?
  • You are the Inspector General of the police department. You have a relatively clean police force but are trying to make sure that police captains do not become corrupt. What policies do you invent?

Topic 7: Who are the people?

Session 15: Who are the people?

  • Defining the boundaries of a political community
  • The political community in post-conquest and post-colonial states
  • National identity: instrument of state control or crucial social glue? Does having a strong national identity make governance better?
  • Class discussion of readings

Session 16: Building national identity

  • Options for promoting national identity in the now diverse nation of Compostela
  • Options for promoting national identity in a post-colonial society
  • Paper 5 due (See Assignments section)

Session 17: The debate over immigration

  • Random AnecdoteTM: “Beer hall putsch” coup attempt; November 8–9, 1923
  • Overview of immigration policies

Session 18: Class discussion and debate

  • Forty years after the founding of your now large, flourishing, and well-ordered nation of Compostela, climate change has created a vast number of desperate refugees from all over planet Earth. You – now pillars of the community, with spouses, grown children, and grandchildren – have been asked to make policy recommendations about how many refugees should be admitted. How many refugees should be admitted each year as a percentage of the colony’s current population (from 0% to 100%)? What conditions, if any, do you wish to set regarding the types of refugees the colony should accept? Will you favor certain individuals more than others? What mechanisms of integration for refugees should be created? Finally, how should the colony decide on your recommendations – by ordinary legislation, by supermajority legislation, by a majority in a referendum, or by a supermajority in a referendum – and why?
  • We will vote on which teams made the best arguments
  • Paper 6 due (See Assignments section)
  • Informal gab session on Friday: Recent elections

Topic 8: What can the government do to promote prosperity? What should it not do?

Session 19: Bloated states and their consequences

  • Random AnecdoteTM: Attempted assassination of Park Chun-Hee in 1974
  • Bloated states and their consequences

Session 20: Broad explanations for economic development

Session 21: Industrial policy and its discontents

  • Review pop quiz questions 9 and 11

Session 22: Further discussion of industrial policy

  • Random AnecdoteTM: Anniversary of the Hat Law in Turkey (November 25, 1925)
  • Post at least 250 words of commentary for both question 9 and question 11 on the pop quiz

Topic 9: Revolution, democratization, and regime change

Session 23: Regime change

  • Theories of democratization and democratic breakdown
  • Democratizing autocratic regimes

Session 24: Arab Spring

  • What happened in the Arab Spring?
  • Why do people protest?
  • Why do dictators respond to protests as they do?

Topic 10: Do new technologies increase accountability or social control?

Session 25: Theories of technological impacts on politics

Session 26: Buzz groups

  • Random AnecdoteTM: North Korea bans laughing, drinking, etc. on 10th anniversary of Kim Jong-Il’s death (December 17)
  • Buzz groups: You are the Advisory Council to the President-for-Life of Qumar. Pick two emerging technologies (e.g., AI, facial recognition, genetic databases, etc.) and make recommendations to him regarding what he should do about them
  • Discussion based on buzz groups

Topic 11: The future of democracy and the state

Session 27: The fundamental challenge of governance

Session 28: The future of democracy and the state

  • Compostela has become divided into two factions of roughly equal size that disagree sharply on the direction the country should take. The colony recently had a very close election; one side claimed victory whereas the other side argued that the results of the election were well within the margin of fraud. Can you prevent civil war?
  • Discussion of final exam
  • How not to be a total idiot about politics

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2022
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments