Fall 2012

Seminar on Parties and Elections

Listed in: Political Science, as POSC-304


Donald L. Robinson (Section 01)


James MacGregor Burns, an eminent political historian, once remarked that party leaders in America are constantly engaged in an attempt to “outwit the framers.”  To foil “factions,” the framers built a structure of separated powers, added staggered elections, and distributed the powers of government through a federal system.  The struggle of partisans to overcome these obstacles continues today.  Indeed, it is a major theme in the 2012 presidential election.    

In the mid-twentieth century, many political scientists urged that America adopt a version of “responsible party government” on the European model. The entrenchment of Southern Democrats in positions of Congressional leadership and the strength of liberal Republicans in coastal states prevented that, but the recent polarization of parties (how has that happened?) may put that old vision within reach. Is this what the Committee on Responsible Party Government had in mind?

Many scholars include party leadership among the “hats” presidents have worn. Another, tracing the outlines of the “rhetorical presidency,” writes of the enduring vitality of the Constitution as a restraint on what a president can accomplish.  Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz have shown that, while 32 countries in the Americas, North and South, have adopted constitutions featuring the separation of powers, only one of them, the United States, has avoided collapsing into presidential dictatorship. How do we account for this? It may have something to do with the nature of the American party system.  If that is changing, do we risk an end to American exceptionalism, or are there other factors that account for it?   

We will examine how these factors--the Constitution and the party system, interacting--have shaped American political development, and what they contribute to the current impasse in American politics.

Requisite: Coursework in either American National Government or American Presidency, or consent of the Instructor. Limited to 15 students.  Fall semester.  Visiting Professor Robinson.


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2016, Fall 2018