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2015/2016  BA-BPOLV1015U  Theories of American Politics

English Title
Theories of American Politics

Course information

Language English
Course ECTS 7.5 ECTS
Type Elective
Level Bachelor
Duration One Semester
Start time of the course Autumn
Timetable Course schedule will be posted at calendar.cbs.dk
Study board
Study Board for BSc/MSc i International Business and Politics, BSc
Course coordinator
  • Edward Ashbee - Department of Business and Politics (DBP)
Main academic disciplines
  • Political Science
Last updated on 05-02-2015
Learning objectives
To achieve the grade 12, students should meet the following learning objectives with no or only minor mistakes or errors:
  • outline and explain the principal theoretical frameworks that have been, or could be, employed in the study of US politics
  • consider, discuss and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these frameworks
  • assess and evaluate the methodological challenges associated with each of these frameworks
  • apply these frameworks to structured case-studies in a developed, rigorous and coherent way
  • consider and discuss the literature that is relevant to the theoretical approaches they are using and the case-study under consideration
Course prerequisites
No prerequisites
Theories of American Politics:
Exam ECTS 7,5
Examination form Home assignment - written product
Individual or group exam Individual
In the assignment students will be asked to select a case-study (which must be pre-approved by the course coordinator) and critically apply three of the theories considered during the course.
Size of written product Max. 10 pages
Assignment type Case based assignment
Duration 2 weeks to prepare
Grading scale 7-step scale
Examiner(s) One internal examiner
Exam period Winter and Winter
Make-up exam/re-exam
Same examination form as the ordinary exam
In the assignment students will be asked to select a case-study (which must be pre-approved by the course coordinator) and critically apply three of the theories considered during the course.
Description of the exam procedure

In the assignment students will be asked to select a case-study (which must be pre-approved by the course coordinator) and critically apply three of the theories considered during the course.

Course content and structure

Theories of American Politics will ask why contemporary US political institutions and processes take the shape, form and structural character that they do. The course will, in particular, consider and assess different theoretical approaches to this.


1. The US political landscape (1)


The first introductory session will consider the formal structures created by the U.S. Constitution (1787) and the principles structuring the relationships between the different branches and tiers of government.


2. The US political landscape (2)


The second introductory session will look at the development of the American state over the past two centuries. It will pay particular attention to the growing importance of the federal courts.


3. The US political landscape (3)


The third and final introductory session will reflect upon the emergence of an “imperial presidency” and consider the extent to which the principles that seemingly underpinned the Constitution still govern political relationships. It will also assess the extent to which the formal or “old” institutional approaches employed up until this point in the course are sufficient as a form of analysis.


4. Agency Perspectives


Many accounts of US politics rely implicitly on claims that particular political actors play a pivotal, usually decisive, role in shaping political processes and either bringing forth or holding back change. There is often an old-fashioned faith in the wisdom and foresight of “great men”, most notably the US’s “founding fathers”. That wisdom, it is said or implied, explains the country’s later political (and perhaps economic) successes.


In a few accounts, there is a focus on actors who are customarily neglected. In recent decades accounts of American history have sought to de-privilege narratives structured around white, male figures and give much more attention to the struggles of women and minorities.


5. The Pluralist Inheritance


Pluralist perspectives tend to overlap with agency-based accounts. . Both at times implicitly inform accounts without the theoretical and methodological assumptions on which those accounts rest being made open and explicit.


If the chapters of standard US government and politics textbooks are surveyed, the chapters on interest groups and lobbying processes almost always talk in these terms but pluralism also informs the coverage of parties and the work of Congress. Accounts such as thus have been subject to extended and relatively easy criticism. Neo-pluralist variants conceded considerable ground to elite theories by acknowledging the disproportionate powers of business interests.


6. Elite Approaches


Elite perspectives rarely appear in US politics books except in the few that offer some coverage of political sociology. These refer to C Wright Mills’s 1956 book, ThePowerElite and the concept of  a military-industrial complex bringing together political, defense and corporate elites. In standard politics texts, there are sometimes hints of an elite perspective in the coverage of lobbying that some interests undertake.


This session will look at pluralist claims and discuss the extent to which they offer a satisfactory basis for understanding US politics. It would consider the ways in which they are structured around instrumental representations of power insofar as they focus on perceived interpersonal ties and financial connections between political and commercial interests.


7. Historical Institutionalism


Writing with Margaret Weir, Theda Skocpol’s study of comparative public policy responses to the inter-war depression considered the ways which different state institutional structures contributed to the embrace, repudiation or partial acceptance of Keynesian economic approaches (Weir and Skocpol, 1985). This set the stage for moving beyond the ways in which formal institutional structures influence the behavior of actors and considering the impact of policy legacies.


The session will also draw upon formalized studies of path dependence such as Paul Pierson’s American Political Science Review so to look at the ways in which such concepts could be usefully applied to US political processes (Pierson, 2000).


8. American Political Development (APD)


In contrast with many institutionalist accounts, which are structured around order and “institutional complementarities” or periodizations suggesting punctuated equilibrium, APD rests upon representations of entrenched tension, stress and disorder. From an APD perspective, different political orders, which in some accounts were institutional and in others institutional and ideational, had emerged at different points in time, were fashioned by different sets of actors, and were therefore  subject to very different and competing logics. Thus, when relative stability emerges it is always tenuous and precarious.


APD is thus structured around the stresses and tensions or, “chafing” and “abrasion”, between orders. Such “intercurrence” as it is termed in the APD literature lays a basis for processes of political change and at the same time provides openings for political actors capable of navigating between orders. It has also informed studies of the American state and the ways in which a state of “courts and parties” was transformed into the sprawling “hapless giant” that the APD literature depicts.


The session will consider APD, the scholarly literature that it has generated, the challenge that it and in particular the concept of intercurrence poses to other theoretical approaches, its implications for accounts of the US political process more broadly, and the extent that it provides a basis for further studies.


9. Constructivism


Although constructivism is now well-established within the study of international relations and to some degree political economy, it has largely by-passed other fields and sub-fields.


The session will consider the construction of inter-subjective understandings but also look at counter-claims that ideas only secure traction within particular institutional contexts. It will look at the ways in which celebrated American values, many of which are structured around competitive individualism, have taken shape, been embraced, but have also been subjected to processes of contestation.


10. The hegemon


For the most part the study of US domestic institutions and arrangements have been considered without reference to the US’s structural location within the world and its economy. By the same token, most surveys of the US’s world role barely consider the structural character of the American state apparatus (Ashbee, 2010).


There are however some important exceptions primarily those drawn from within the Marxist tradition. Leo Panitch’s account, The Making of Global Capitalism, sought to show that capitalism and the state were closely tied together and that globalizing processes were not in some way inevitable but had been brought forth in conjunction with the American state (Panitch, 2013).


11. Case study: the Obama administration


This session will review the different theoretical approaches that have been considered on the course through a case-study of the policies and politics of the Obama administration. It will pay particular attention to the first two years (2009 – 2011) and the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Dodd – Frank Act (regulating the financial sector), and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (introducing “Obamacare”).


12. Workshop


The concluding session of the course will review proposals for the further case-studies that students undertake in the course examination. It will point to the ways in which such projects could be informed by different theoretical approaches.

Teaching methods
The course will be class-based. It will be interactive in character requiring a significant degree of student participation.
Student workload
Preparation 88 hours
Teaching 37 hours
Examination (including mid-semester assignment) 80 hours
Expected literature

A course compendium will be issued bringing together extracts from the following publications:



Ashbee, Edward (2011)”Imperial Missions and the American State: Dying Empire: US Imperialism and Global Resistance” (Francis Shor), Journal of Political Power, 4:3, 456-464



Ashbee, Edward (2012) USPoliticsToday, ThirdEdition, Manchester University Press.



Ashbee, Edward (2013) “A Terminal Prognosis?: The Study of US Politics in Europe”, Journal of American Studies, 47:4, 1197-1213



Ashbee, Edward (2015) TheRightandtheRecession, Manchester University Press.



Baumgartner, Frank and Bryan Jones (2009) AgendasandInstabilityinAmericanPolitics, University of Chicago Press.



Gilens, Martin and Benjamin I. Page (2014) “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, Perspectives on Politics, 12: 03, September, 564-581



King, Desmond S and Rogers M Smith (2005) “Racial orders in American Political Development”, The American Political Science Review, 99:1, February, 75-92.



Lowndes, Vivien and Mark Roberts (2013) WhyInstitutionsMatter: TheNewInstitutionalism in PoliticalScience, Palgrave Macmillan.


Panitch, Leo and Sam Gindin (2013) The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso.


Pierson, Paul (2000) “Increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics”  AmericanPoliticalScienceReview, 94:2, June, 251 – 267.


Ross, Fiona (2007) “Policy Histories and Partisan Leadership in Presidential Studies: The Case of Social Security,” in George C. Edwards III and Desmond King, eds., The Polarized Presidency of George W. Bush, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 419 – 446.


Weir, Margaret and Theda Skocpol (1985) “State Structures and the Possibilities for "Keynesian" Responses to the Great Depression in Sweden, Britain, and the United States”, in Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Theda Skocpol (eds.),  Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge University Press, 107-164.


Last updated on 05-02-2015