Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session


MIT students must enter the HASS-D Lottery to take this course.

Course Description

This course provides an introduction to the academic study of American politics and, to some extent, to the discipline of political science more generally. We will cover a range of substantive topics, including the cultural and constitutional foundations of American politics; its institutional structures, such as Congress and the presidency; the activities of strategic political elites; the political behavior of ordinary American citizens; and contemporary debates over such important issues as economic inequality, partisan polarization, racism, and immigration. These topics will be examined using a variety of theoretical and empirical frameworks, with particular emphasis on the advantages and limitations of analyzing political actors as rational and strategic decision-makers.

Since this is a communication-intensive course, written assignments of various lengths are an integral part of the learning process. We are fortunate to be working closely with two excellent writing advisors, who will be actively involved in the writing aspects of the course and will be making several visits to recitations. Students must meet with their assigned writing advisor at least once during the semester, though many of you may find it useful to meet with them more than once. Another important part of the course is the assigned readings, which consist primarily of selections from scholarly books and articles. There will be daily reading quizzes, but no midterm or final exams.

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 books listed below contain many of the readings for the course.

Buy at Amazon Dahl, Robert A. How Democratic is the American Constitution? 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN: 9780300095241.

Buy at Amazon Kernell, Samuel, and Steven S. Smith, eds. Principles and Practice of American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings. 4th ed. CQ Press, 2009. ISBN: 9781604264630.

Buy at Amazon Mayhew, David R. Partisan Balance: Why Political Parties Don't Kill the U.S. Constitutional System. Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780691157986.

Remaining readings come from a variety of sources and are detailed in the Readings section.

Grading Policy

Daily reading quizzes 15%
Three short papers 30%
Oral presentation 10%
Long paper 15% draft, 20% final
Recitation participation 10%