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Author: Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

We will discuss the construction of the course, survey class participants on policy concerns, discuss "hot" public policy issues in the news, take an exam (!) and develop preliminary answers to four questions:

  • Why does government get involved in some things and not in others?
  • How are public problems framed and described?
  • What criteria are useful in developing and assessing policy choices?
  • How are policy choices and outcomes mediated and influenced by individuals, organizations and political institutions?

Quotes of the Day

When U.S. Senators retire from service, the tradition is for them to give one last speech on the floor in which they address their colleagues and the nation, reflecting on democracy and the problems and opportunities facing the American people. Here are two excerpts from such speeches, known as farewell addresses, delivered in 1996, at the close of the 104th Congress. I chose an excerpt by Senator Howell Heflin (D-AL) because I always admired him during my years as a staffer on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Policy on which he served. He was a moderate Democrat, always seeking common ground between warring factions. And I selected an excerpt from Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) because he so well captures the distinction between skepticism and cynicism that is important as we contemplate policy issues during the course of this semester.

“…During his term as vice president, Jefferson once asked for a room in Baltimore’s preeminent hotel. Not recognizing the vice president, who had shown up alone and in soiled working clothes, the owner turned him away. Shortly after Jefferson’s departure, the owner was told that he had just sent away the vice president of the United States. The horrified proprietor immediately dispatched some of his workers to find Jefferson and offer him as many rooms as he liked. The vice president had already taken a room at another, more modest, hotel, and sent the man who found him back to the owner with this message: “Tell [the owner] that I value his good intensions highly, but if he has no room for a dirty farmer, he shall have none for the vice president.”
"Our government’s greatest successes have come about precisely because it has made room for dirty farmers and all kinds of hard workers. It has made room for those who want to work hard, but who might be disadvantaged by poverty, injustice, or oppression. It has never been the task of government to guarantee success to everyone across the board. Instead, it has been to ensure, through responsible sensitivity and compassion, that everyone has the opportunity to work toward the kind of life and success for which we all strive, given the same opportunities. When we fall short, it should not be because government has done the wrong thing, whether too much or too little—it should be only because we as individuals did not take advantage of the opportunities afforded by our free society through out Constitution and backed up be representative, democratic government.”

Senator Howell Heflin [D-AL], "Farewell Address to America," Congressional Record S11241-S11245, September 25, 1996

“…American citizens should frequently remind themselves that democracy was never intended to be orderly and neat. It is always messy. I am often scolded by constituents who want to know, “Why don’t you bums in Washington just buckle down and do the right thing?”—as if the “right thing” to a resident of Manhattan is the same “right thing” that appears obvious to a resident of Wyoming. But so much of the time, it is not. The decisions and direction of this great nation can follow only from hearing the conflicting interests and viewpoints that compose our citizenry, and balancing among them as best we can.

All of us, therefore, with our own individual, biased viewpoints, will be frustrated on occasion by the results which accrue from “the system.” And sometimes the decisions made in Washington will truly be wrong; be counterproductive, as measured by any objective standard; and policies and processes will need reform and correction. But this does not give us the option of opting out, or of becoming so cynical about the process and about one another that we fail to discharge our obligations as citizens of a democracy.

Our Founding Fathers also placed in our collective hands the responsibility for the welfare of posterity; this responsibility could have been placed with a monarchy, or with a military dictatorship, but it is our great fortune that it has been placed with the electors in this country. Now that the United States is the most powerful and most influential nation on this planet, this is perhaps the greatest responsibility ever borne by any collection of individuals. Nothing less than the fate of humankind rests upon our rising to our responsibilities.

The distinction between skepticism and cynicism is vital. Cynicism is a cop-out. It takes no virtue—or brains—to be a critic. Anyone can qualify. It serves no one—certainly not the children of America—to carp, snipe, and complain, and to leave national challenges unmet.

Skepticism, on the other hand, is essential to the functioning of a representative democracy. We live in an age in which misinformation and error is propagated freely by special-interest lobbying groups, Internet chat-lists, the media, and political advertisers. We can react by abdicating our responsibilities, and simply cursing the difficulty of making sense out of the babble…”

Senator Alan Simpson [R-WY], Congressional Record, September 1996.

Discussion Questions

Senator Heflin stresses the importance of equal opportunity. How does our system measure up to the vision he has laid out in this quote? Are there instances when you think our government has provided more or less than equal opportunity? Senator Simpson challenges us to differentiate cynicism from skepticism. What frustrates you about “the system?” Are you skeptical or cynical about government and why?

Background for Introductory Class

You come to this course with undergraduate degrees in anthropology, zoology and everything in between. Some of you come from different countries. In this course we focus on American policymaking, particularly at the federal level, yet many of the theories and actual processes we study will be applicable around the world.

As a start, I expect that your view of the appropriate role of government to be informed by political philosophy, your view of the nature of man and the origins of the state. In this class we will briefly review ways of thinking, using the provocative writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Of the Social Contract, [762]), Aristotle (Politics, [335-323 BC]), Plato (The Republic, [360 BC]), Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, [1651]) and others.

We will also briefly review texts particular to American policymaking. In The Federalist Papers, published under the pen name Publius in New York State newspapers between 1787 and 1788, authors James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton sought to gain popular support for the then-proposed U.S. Constitution. The debates they initiated are relevant to this day. French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations on the character of American democracy (Democracy in America, Vol I (1835), Vol. II (1840)) continue to frame policy debates over majority rule, social mobility, and voluntary association. What would de Tocqueville say, for example, if he traveled in time and found himself in the U.S. Senate in the spring of 2005 debating the so-called “nuclear option” – elimination of the “filibuster” rule that allows any one Senator to speak non-stop until 60 Senators vote to stop him?

In our first class I will select questions from U.S. Citizenship for Dummies (2003) a primer designed to help immigrants pass the U.S. citizenship test. Will you pass? My impression is that the level of civic education is quite low these days. The first time I taught this class I asked students how many justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Not everyone could answer and I pondered out loud whether it was a fair question. A young immigrant from India raised her hand. “I don’t know if its fair or not,” she said, “but next week when I take the citizenship exam, I am required to know it.” That moment has stuck with me. As we debate theories of public policy, let us also use this class to improve our understanding of the basic mechanisms of government as the two go hand in hand. As Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter (What Americans Know about Politics and Why it Matters, 1996) assert, “an informed citizenry is a common thread that implicitly ties together all theories of democracy.”

This class will engage you in policymaking and remind you that you can make a difference. Our assignments will include writing letters to our elected officials on topics we are individually concerned about as well as writing legislation as a class to submit to the Massachusetts State General Court (our legislature) for their consideration.

I hope you vote. Maybe you’re a Democrat. Maybe a Republican. We’ll briefly look at the political parties and their histories (nicely summarized in “Origin of the Species, Political parties have evolved far from the Jeffersonian model” by David von Drehle, The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, August 9-15, 2004). In the 2000 election, 54.7% of eligible voters exercised their right to vote. In 2002, a so-called mid-term election, the number dropped to 42.3%. It is estimated that 59.6% of eligible voters exercised their right to vote in the 2004 election. From a report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate: “When all the vote-counting is completed by early December [2004], it is predicted that an estimated 120,200,000 citizens will have cast their votes for President in this election, a 59.6 turnout rate of eligible citizens, the highest since 1968 when 61.9 percent of eligibles voted.”

Have you registered? If you need inspiration, check out the advertisements for voting on Rock the Vote’s website. For most of our classes, you will be provided with useful websites that we will use to augment class readings listed on the syllabus.

Data from the U.S. Census Current Population Survey for the 2002 election.

Table 2. Reported Voting and Registration, by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age, for the United States: November 2002 (In thousands)
ALL RACES Total Total Population U.S. citizen Not a citizen
Reported registered Not registered Reported voted Did not vote Reported registered Not registered
Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent Number Number Number
Total 18 years and over 210,421 128,154 60.9 82,267 39.1 88,903 42.3 121,517 57.7 128,154 64,502 17,765
18 to 24 years 27,377 10,470 38.2 16,907 61.8 4,697 17.2 22,680 82.8 10,470 13,865 3,043
25 to 44 years 82,228 45,553 55.4 36,675 44.6 28,019 34.1 54,208 65.9 45,553 26,541 10,133
45 to 64 years 66,924 46,430 69.4 20,494 30.6 35,521 53.1 31,403 46.9 46,430 16,842 3,652
65 to 74 years 17,967 13,681 76.1 4,286 23.9 11,339 63.1 6,628 36.9 13,681 3,734 552
75 years and over 15,925 12,020 75.5 3,905 24.5 9,328 58.6 6,597 41.4 12,020 3,520 385

54.7% of eligible voters exercised their right to vote in the 2000 (presidential) election. Data from the U.S. Census Current Population Survey for the 2000 election.

Table 1. Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2000
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Internet Release date: February 27, 2002
(In thousands)
U.S. citizen Not a citizen
Sex and age Reported registered Not registered Reported voted Did not vote Reported registered Not registered
Total Number Pct Number Pct Number Pct Number Pct Number Number Number
Total 18 years and over 202,609 129,549 63.9 73,060 36.1 110,826 54.7 91,784 45.3 129,549 56,817 16,243
18 to 24 years 26,712 12,122 45.4 14,590 54.6 8,635 32.3 18,077 67.7 12,122 11,793 2,797
25 to 34 years 37,304 20,403 54.7 16,902 45.3 16,286 43.7 21,018 56.3 20,403 11,831 5,071
35 to 44 years 44,476 28,366 63.8 16,110 36.2 24,452 55 20,024 45 28,366 12,068 4,042
45 to 54 years 37,504 26,158 69.7 11,345 30.3 23,362 62.3 14,142 37.7 26,158 9,072 2,274
55 to 64 years 23,848 17,551 73.6 6,297 26.4 15,939 66.8 7,910 33.2 17,551 5,186 1,111
65 to 74 years 17,819 13,573 76.2 4,246 23.8 12,450 69.9 5,369 30.1 13,573 3,660 586
75 years and over 14,945 11,375 76.1 3,570 23.9 9,702 64.9 5,243 35.1 11,375 3,207 363


Major U.S. Political Party Sites

Advocacy Groups for Voters

Election and Voter Analysis

Citizenship and Immigration

Political Philosophers

  • Read the works of Aristotle, Plato and Hobbes. -
    • Project Gutenberg eBooks are older literary works that are in the public domain in the United States.

Historical Information

  • National Archives and Records Administration -
    • For U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and other Federal documents.