American Politics

Founding of the American Political System

The American political system did not suddenly appear. It has evolved through a unique and complex convergence of countless civic actors, political ideas, and significant events. To grasp the complexities of our unique political system, it is important to understand the roots of our polity, how it has emerged, and some of the major theories concerning its development. This research paper begins with discussion of the major elements that influenced the founders of our republic. Those influences include the early colonial experience, the British legal system, natural rights philosophy, classical republicanism, and religious teachings. Next, the research paper examines the sequence of events and underlying factors leading to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation. Attention finally turns to the United States Constitution and its framers, underlying concepts, theories, and remarkable features. See Research Paper on Founding of the American Political System.

Urban Politics

Summarizing and synthesizing the literature on urban politics is a challenging and rewarding task. The field is by definition interdisciplinary, encompassing political science, economics, sociology, planning, and other fields. To their credit, political scientists have effectively integrated the work of these allied scholars into their research and writing on urban governance. This research paper focuses on the study of urban politics in the United States. This field is particularly vibrant in the United States, given the nation’s federal structure and its deep tradition of, and affection for, local government. In the United States, cities have a political life of their own, independent of the national government, and thus are susceptible to fruitful academic study and analysis. See Research Paper on Urban Politics.

Media and Politics

The media are commonly understood to be able to— and many would argue, obligated to—provide a forum for the expression and discussion of a diverse range of oftentimes conflicting ideas. This is especially important in the run-up to elections, where citizens are to base their decisions at least partially on whose policy proposals they deem most attractive. However, even when elections are far off, this type of discussion serves to inform citizens, and most scholars believe that democracy benefits from a more knowledgeable citizenry. This forum function of the media is often defended from the perspective of truth seeking, the argument being that only through the meeting of diverse opinions will the truth emerge. This is known as the marketplace of ideas perspective. There are at least two main lines of criticism to this approach. First, many would contest the notion of truth seeking in politics. The meat of politics, this perspective suggests, is value conflict, which in the final analysis is irreconcilable. Thus, there is no underlying truth or fundamental consensus that may be exposed through discussion. See Research Paper on Media and Politics.

U.S. Congress

Study of the U.S. Congress is one of the largest areas in the American politics literature. As the so-called first branch of our three major political institutions, Congress enjoys the power of the purse in that it controls the budget and the appropriation of monies to federal agencies and to the states. Congress is also responsible for passing the laws, or policies, that govern the lives of all citizens of the United States and can even amend the Constitution, which it has done 27 times in the nation’s history. As such, the U.S. Congress merits scholarship in its own right. Yet, as any student of political science knows, Congress does not operate in a vacuum. The Founders sought to balance the federal government by giving shared responsibility to all three branches. In addition to the obvious power of the veto, the president also acts in much more subtle ways to try to gain influence over the policies and budget priorities of Congress. The federal agencies, to which the budget is appropriated, also under the president’s purview, then have power over the implementation of legislative policies, which are often ambiguously worded. The courts, with the power of judicial review, frequently deem the acts of Congress unconstitutional, thus overruling the actions of elected officials. Additionally, members of Congress are under pressure from their political parties and their electorates, who push them to enact policies that best accord with their respective wishes. One studying the legislature must necessarily acknowledge these pressures faced by members of Congress and ask how the pressures affect the behavior of the institution and its 535 individual members. See Research Paper on U.S. Congress.

The Presidency

In many ways, the powers of the presidency are contradictions born out of the constitutional debates among the framers. Informed by their experiences of tyranny under King George, many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted no executive at all, or at least one with very limited powers. It is striking that despite the clear deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation (which had no executive branch), discussions of their failings did not include the absence of a chief executive. One of the pressing debates of the convention was whether to have a singular or plural executive and whether the powers and responsibilities invested in the executive branch should be divided across more than one office. This option would have weakened the presidency, thus allaying the fears of those who saw danger in a powerful chief executive. Indeed, some have argued that the term president was chosen because it was an innocuous title, likened to a presiding officer who would exercise little independent power. See Research Paper on U.S. Presidency.

American Judicial Politics

The field of judicial politics began when scholars began to doubt that the decisions of judges were driven solely, or primarily, by the law. The legal argument has traditionally maintained that judges are like technicians, applying the law to the facts, so that the decisions they make are not based on their preferences or their emotions but on an expert reading of the law. Judicial politics insists that this account is both incomplete and misleading. The primary goal in the field is to explain what factors influence the decisions made by judges, particularly those serving on the U.S. Supreme Court and other appellate tribunals. There are other topics raised in the field of judicial politics, including the interaction between courts and other parts of the political system and the ability of judges to effect change outside their courtrooms. Although these are important and worthy subjects for study, this research paper focuses on judicial decision making, since decision making is the area in which the field has made the most progress in developing explanatory theories. See Research Paper on American Judicial Politics.

American Bureaucracy

When political scientists speak of bureaucracy, they typically mean two things. First, they acknowledge the depth and breadth of bureaucracy, much as the initial definition presented. Bureaucracy here is seen as an administrative apparatus that fulfills the duties of the executive branch of a government. It is the accomplishing arm of government. The second approach to bureaucracy taken by political science is a narrower, organizational definition that is often linked to a particular agency and is associated with Max Weber. Weber described an ideal type of bureaucracy and stressed its rational form and organization. In his definition, a bureaucracy is any organization, public or private in nature, that contains seven key attributes. First, the organization must have jurisdiction and be made up of positions that contain detailed responsibilities and scope of authority. Second, there is a hierarchy or a system of supervision and subordination for individuals. Third, there needs to be unity of command and an understanding that although officials do not own the resources, they need to perform their functions so that they are still held accountable for their use. Fourth, bureaucratic organizations must operate on the basis of written documents. Fifth, managers and workers are trained and skilled in the job to assure efficiency and productivity. Sixth, there must be consistent application of rules. Finally, personnel are hired, and work assignments are based on competence and experience. See Research Paper on American Bureaucracy.

Interest Groups and Pluralism

An interest group can be defined as an organized group sharing common objectives that actively attempts to influence government (Janda, Berry, & Goldman, 1997). Interest groups are private organizations that try to affect public policy and try to influence the behavior of political decision makers. As a result, interest groups are often called pressure groups because of their effort to exert pressure in an effort to promote their agenda. The term interest group covers just about any group of people attempting to influence government. David Truman (1951) defines an interest group as “a shared-attitude group that makes certain claims on other groups in society” (p. 37) by acting through the institutions of government. Some interest groups are temporary; others are permanent. Some focus on influencing a particular policy, others on broad changes. Some work through the executive or administrative agencies, others through the judicial or legislative sectors, still others through public opinion. See Research Paper on Interest Groups and Pluralism.

American Federalism

The United States has a federal political system. Federalism is a system in which political power is shared by national and subnational governments. A national government is the central governing authority in a country. Examples of subnational governments include states, provinces, and territories. Political scientists tend to distinguish federal systems from the two other major categories: confederal and unitary systems. A confederal system is one in which subnational units have nearly all the political power. A unitary system is one in which the national government has nearly all the political power. There are few countries in the world with an identifiable confederal system, with Switzerland being the prominent example. Accordingly, the two main types of political systems in practice throughout the world today are unitary and federal systems. There are 21 nations that have a federal system of government. These nations account for nearly 40% of the world’s population. In addition to the United States, other countries that have federal systems—to one extent or another—include Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia. Although the autonomy enjoyed by subnational units varies from nation to nation, federal systems have a few things in common. See Research Paper on American Federalism.

American Political Parties

Although not provided for in the Constitution, political parties emerged in the years immediately following the establishment of the Republic. Initially, they were loose factions of officeholders, what Duverger (1964) would classify as “cadre parties,” and the development of political parties corresponded to the expansion of the franchise, as political parties evolved into mass parties that focused on organizing and mobilizing the expanded electorate. By the late 19th century, urban political party organizations, known as political machines and led by bosses, mobilized immigrant voters (by offering patronage and petty favors) and triggered a reform movement that aimed to reduce the influence of the bosses and party organizations. During the 20th century, as the welfare state emerged and as candidates turned to candidate-centered organizations to run their campaigns and consultants to manage them, the American political party has continued to evolve. In examining the modern American political party, it is important to understand what they are, their functions and components, and how the present two-party system has developed. However, one cannot ignore third parties in American politics, and many political scientists continue to speculate about the future of parties in the American polity and whether it’s time for a new party—or perhaps a new party system. See Research Paper on American Political Parties.

State and Local Government

The study of state and local government is essentially the study of all that is not national government in the United States—the 50 states and the more than 88,000 other subnational units of government from counties to small towns, fire districts, school districts, and water districts. Typically, the study of cities—communities of larger than 50,000 people—is considered a separate realm of inquiry. The distinction among these layers of government has been confounded in recent years with the emergence of the metropolis—such as the so-called BosWash region that encompasses the Northeast corridor from Boston to the nation’s capital and includes all the cities, suburbs, and rural areas in between. State governments, and the municipalities within them, preceded the creation of the national government. A drive through the northeastern United States will reveal cities and towns founded in the 1600s and 1700s, long before the 1787 writing of the founding document of the nation in which they sit. Thirteen states were viable political entities at the time of the American Revolution. The states had their own constitutions, forms of government, political processes, political cultures, and political identities. Virginians, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians existed long before Americans. See Research Paper on State and Local Government.

Public Policy and Administration

Policy studies emerged as an important focus in political science in the 1970s. In 1969, David Easton (1969), president of the American Political Science Association, was frustrated with the trend in political science research to study narrow questions that lent themselves to the quantitative methods expected by the behavioral movement. Thus, he called for a postbehavioral revolution where political scientists would study the most important political problems of the day even when quantitative methodologies could not be employed. Easton’s call served as a catalyst for policy research that sought to explain and predict policy patterns as well as to evaluate the relative impact of various types of policy solutions. At the time of Easton’s call for relevance, the public administration subfield had declined as a prominent subfield in the discipline. The behavioral movement had prevailed in expectations for quantitative research, and public administration had not moved toward a grand theory or wed itself to quantitative methods. However, it had gravitated toward more policy-relevant models and concepts that were important foundations for the emerging field of public policy. See Research Paper on Public Policy and Administration.

Campaigns

Political campaigns represent the core of representative democracy. To win an election, a candidate must earn the support of the general public. The quality of a democratic society can be easily linked to the quality of its election campaigns. Vigorously contested elections and widespread voter participation are two of the hallmarks of a strong democratic nation. Scholarship into campaigns therefore has significant implications for the quality of democracy. As parties weakened from the beginning of the 20th century, candidates (and therefore campaigns) became much more important. Candidates have taken on the responsibility of organizing and funding their contests after more than a century of partisan control over campaign administration. In the intervening century, campaigns have become more varied in their approaches, structures, and strategies. The continuing evolution of campaigns and campaigning has created a rich area for academics to study. See Research Paper on Political Campaigns.

Political Socialization

Research on political socialization commenced in earnest in the 1950s. In an attempt to understand the decision-making process of the American voter, voting behavior scholars in the 1950s found that factors outside an individual’s control influenced, indeed dictated, his or her vote choice in a given election. Survey research subsequently revealed that political orientations and opinions were not hastily made or haphazardly decided; rather, they were the result of a long process that seemed to begin early in childhood, a process called political socialization. Among the first groups of voting behavior scholars is the Columbia school. These scholars surprisingly stumbled on socialization in their research on vote choice. In several localized studies (including Erie County, Ohio, and Elmira County, New York), they followed voters through a campaign to examine the influence of the campaign on the vote (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, & McPhee, 1954; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). They found that the campaign had little influence on the vote; rather, voters made their decisions well in advance based largely on party identification. Their party identification was based on primary group associations, the most important being the family through the process of socialization. The primary finding of the Columbia school was that voting decisions were determined by social forces having little to do with electoral politics. See Research Paper on Political Socialization.

Voting Behavior

Walter Dean Burnham said, “Electoral politics is not the backdrop; it is the essence, the keystone of the political process. The big issues, such as military, economic, and welfare policy are influenced by the electorate’s opinions” (cited in Neuman, 1986, pp. 1–2). Scholars study voting behavior because it matters for the creation and implementation of public policy in democracies. For the purposes of this research paper, voting behavior can be broken down into two subsections: vote choice and vote decision. Vote choice is defined as forming an opinion in support of one candidate over another. A vote choice must be made before an actual vote is cast. A vote decision is defined as deciding whether to take part in the participatory action of voting. Thus, voting is a two-step process. People must choose which candidates they prefer, and they must decide if they are going to vote at all. Understanding voting behavior is absolutely necessary today because of the ever-growing number of democracies in the world. Since the 1970s, democracy has been the most widely used form of government throughout the world and has been expanding. If democracy has become the most widely distributed form of government and the votes of those living in democracies guide public policy, it becomes quite evident why studying voting behavior is important. See Research Paper on Voting Behavior.

American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy has fluctuated throughout the existence of the United States, stemming from the influence of exogenous dynamics and significant watersheds felt throughout the international system as well as endogenous changes and influences within the American government. Noteworthy declarations such as the Monroe Doctrine, international conflicts such as the Spanish-American War, World War II, and the cold war as well as regional conflicts such as the Vietnam War and the Korean War significantly influenced American foreign policy. Currently, the events of September 11, 2001, represent the major exogenous watershed that influenced the foreign policy decision-making of the U.S. government. In addition to the exogenous dynamics that have been decisive in American foreign policy, the endogenous aspects of the U.S. government such as the president, Congress, the bureaucracy, and American public opinion have considerable influence in foreign policy decision making. See Research Paper on American Foreign Policy.

Race, Ethnicity, and Politics

The field of racial and ethnic politics concerns itself with the role that race and ethnicity play in shaping the political behavior of individuals and groups, as well as the role that race and ethnicity play in how social, economic, and political institutions are constructed. In providing an overview of any field of inquiry, it is important to define the meaning of the basic terms and concepts that are used. As Michael LeMay (2000) has pointed out, this is all the more true for the field of racial and ethnic politics because the terms used are often controversial and emotionally charged. In fact, the manner in which scholars in the field use terms such as racism, prejudice, and discrimination can sometimes be at odds with the manner in which these terms are used in the media and in popular discourse. Therefore, the following section of this research paper seeks to carefully define the core terms and concepts that are used in describing the experiences of minority groups in the American political system. It then turns to a brief overview of the various political strategies that ethnic and racial groups have utilized in coping with their status as a minority group. See Research Paper on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics.

Gender and Politics in the United States

In the last few decades, women in the United States have made great strides in politics. Although women have historically voted in lower numbers than men, a higher percentage of women have registered and voted in presidential elections than men since 1984. Women now also win election at rates comparable to their male counterparts. In Congress, women have made substantive policy changes that positively influence women. Beyond Congress, women have achieved other political successes. Hillary Clinton almost gained the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Sarah Palin was the second woman to be a major party vice-presidential nominee, and Condoleeza Rice recently served as the first black woman secretary of state. The successes of women in politics raise a few important questions. First, is the political glass ceiling broken? Do women still face barriers in participating in politics based on their gender? If there are barriers, what are they and how can they best be minimized? And second, when women engage in politics—whether as participants in local city council meetings, as voters, or as members of congress—does their behavior make a difference? Do women have distinct political preferences from men? And if so, what explains this? Finally, what potential value lies in more women engaging in politics? See Research Paper on Women and Politics in the United States.

Religion and Politics in America

One could easily make the argument that too much attention is paid to the United States by political scientists. If so, it is not as bad as it used to be. There was a clear ethnocentrism to early comparative political science. The effort apparent in much of that normative research was to try and build up what was great about American politics and see what the other nations had to do to be more like “us.” Political scientists today take a more empirical approach to studying the world. Still, a disproportional amount of attention continues to be paid to the United States. This may just be a function of the availability of data in the United States for political scientists to analyze. If this is the case, then recent attempts to expand the collection of public opinion and other data from around the world should help level the field. Regardless, it is easy to say that in many ways, a very stable political system in the United States has been overanalyzed, and many more dynamic political systems around the world have been significantly understudied. In the field of religion and politics, the extra attention paid to the United States is definitely warranted. The United States is the outlier, the exception to the rule in many ways. It is a modern, rich, and developed nation that is remarkably religious. Why is the United States unique in this regard? See Research Paper on Religion and Politics in America.

LGBT Issues and the Queer Approach

Intimate desires and erotic feelings seem to belong so obviously to the domain of the private sphere of each human that recognizing sexuality as an important element of politics—that is, of public activity—has not been an untroubled process in American social, political, and economic histories. Indeed, sexuality continues to be one of the most contested issues in modern politics, so much so that it is almost impossible to talk about modern liberal democracy, with all its ideological baggage, claims to human rights, and individual freedoms and liberties, without addressing the issue of sexuality.Without doubt, one of the factors that enabled this shift was the rise of identity politics in the post–World War II world. As such, the rise of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) identity politics is part of wider structural shift in political organization of contemporary democracies. See Research Paper on LGBT Issues in America.

Return to the overview of Political Science Research Paper Topics.

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