PS 4532 Seminar in Constitutional Politics

Fall 2017

American voters overturned the anticipations of most political observers when they selected Donald J. Trump as president in the 2016 election. Their intentions, and of course the statements and actions of Trump and his administration during its early months, raise fundamental questions about the nature, practice, and prospects of American constitutional government.

For students who have already done upper-division course work in American or comparative political institutions, this course offers an opportunity to combine what they have learned with pertinent advanced material on the nature of constitutionalism and on current challenges to American constitutionalism, and to pursue and share with one another their original individual research on topics of their own choosing touching on those areas. Material to be covered prior to the research projects includes the development of modern American constitutional ideologies; American constitutional crises; constitutional failures in other democratic countries; and present critical constitutional issues in the U.S.

Prerequisite: A previous course at the 300-level or above in constitutional politics, constitutional law, or law and society; or, with instructor's permission, other relevant advanced coursework.


Course Outline and Approximate Schedule


Week 1 (Aug 31)

Course logistics

Introductory remarks

In-class readings and discussion


The possibility of democratic failure

Week 2 (Sep. 7)

Week 2 will begin with discussion of paper topics you might be interested in. Come to class with a couple of ideas in mind on which you have done a small amount of preliminary research.

Readings for discussion in class:


Development of current U.S. political ideologies and coalitions

Week 3-5 (Sep. 14, 21, 28)

For week 3 (Sep. 14) read the items under "Parties, ideologies, coalitions" and "20th -- and 21st? -- century liberalism"

Parties, ideologies, coalitions

  • Gary Miller and Norman Schofield, "The Transformation of the Republican and Democratic Party Coalitions in the U.S." Perspectives on Politics Vol. 6, No. 3 (Sep. 2008), pp. 433-450. Click here to obtain online.

20th -- and 21st? -- century liberalism

From classical liberalism to progressivism to 20th-century American liberalism

  • Byron Dexter, "Herbert Croly and the Promise of American Life." Political Science Quarterly Vol. 70, No. 2 (Jun., 1955), pp. 197-218. Click here to obtain online.
  • Recommended only: Gary Gerstle, "The Protean Character of American Liberalism." American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 1043-1073. Click here to obtain the full article online.
  • Brief excerpts distributed via email.

The New Deal Constitution

Civil rights

Identity politics

Recommended only: from progressivism to liberalism (to interest-group liberalism) back to progressivism again: two very short readings:


Conservatives and their constitution

For week 4 (Sept. 21): From anti-New Deal to Conservative Movement

  • Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands (2010). Excerpts as follows (about 175 pages total)
    • all of Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10 (about 165 pages), plus the following pages (begin with the first full paragraph; go to end of subsection, unless indicated):
    • 56-58 subsection, "Dozens of organizations... sprang into existence" and full paragraph on 60, "…nightmarish fears inspired by anticommunism"
    • 111-114 subsection on Reagan's career at GE, to end of chapter
    • 188 (last 2 lines) and all of 189
    • 205-206: The Chamber of Commerce bridged between business's anti-regulation, anti-welfare state advocacy and the opposition to civil rights, day rights, feminism, antiwar movement
    • In the Epilogue, the first section (on 263-265) and the final paragraph (269).
  • Excerpts from Thomas Mann & Norman Ornstein, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, rev. ed. (2016):
    • Read carefully Chapter 2 (50 pages)
    • Skim Introduction and Chapters 1 and 3 (58 pages).

For week 5 (Sept. 28): The new new right: Tea Partiers and Nationalists

  • Excerpts (118 pages, plus some skimming) from Theda Skocpol & Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Updated ed., 2016).
    • Skim the Introduction -- get an idea of the time line & of the authors' overall argument and methods.
    • Skim Chapter 1 for a general picture of the demographics, opinions, and prior politics of Tea Party members.
    • Read chapters 2-4 (106 pages).
    • Skim introductory sections of chatper 5 and 6.
    • In chapter 6, read the section "The Paradoxes of Tea Party Citizenship," pages 197-201.
    • Read the Epilogue (8 pages).

  • The Trump coalition
    • Sean Trende, three-part series on the Trump coalition on RealClearPolitics. (Each part includes a link to the earlier parts, but not to the later ones.)
      • Part I “The Meaning of Trump” (Jan. 27, 2016)
      • Part II “Cruz, Trump and the Missing White Voters” (Jan. 28, 2016)
      • Part III "Why Trump? Why Now?" (Jan. 29, 2016),
    • Arlie Russell Hochschild, "Trump’s Biggest Fans." Mother Jones (Aug. 28, 2016). Click here to obtain online.

  • Trumpism?
    • skim: Publius Decius Mus, "The Flight 93 Election." American Greatness website (Sep. 5 2016). Pre-election, pro-Trump view arguing why conservatives should support Trump. The author, actually Michael Anton, is now a senior national security official in the Trump administration. Click here to obtain online. Concerning one of Anton's claims:
      • Graph of U.S. homicide rate, 1900-2006 from a talk by Randolph Roth, author of American Homicide (Belknap Press, 2009).
      • More graphs (beginning on p. 36; scroll down) on U.S. larceny (1933-1998) and homicide (1900-1998) rates, from the Justice Research and Statistics Organization (about).



Week 6 (Oct. 5)

  • Topic: an aspect of the relationship between constitutional government and Americans' political interests, beliefs, and coalitions
    • Keeping in mind that you’ll be writing further about a specific Trump-era constitutional issue, choose one such issue or group of issues and explore the positions taken on that issue by various ideological and party groups. You should make reference to a variety of position statements, being careful to identify accurately the political identities of their authors.
  • 4-5 pages, to be revised & incorporated
  • paper due Monday Oct. 2, to be returned to you with comments on Thursday
  • be prepared to give an informal 5-10 minute presentation of your findings in class
  • revisions to be turned in by the following Thursday, Oct. 12


Constitutional issues of the Trump administration, and some historical antecedents

Week 7-10 (Oct. 12, 19, 26; Nov. 2)

Overview of issues

  • week 7: election legitimacy and voting rights; more generally, suppressing political opposition
  • week 8: financial/ethical improprieties
  • justice system
  • 14th amendment goals
  • civilian control of the military
  • incompetence in executive functions

Protective institutions

  • congressional independence and opposition?
  • week 9: congressional investigative powers and independent executive-branch investigations
    • Iran-Contra affair
  • week 10: impeachment and the 25th Amendment
    • Watergate (Emery book)



Week 11 (Nov. 2)

  • Topic: describing a specific constitutional issue of interest
    • Describe one constitutional issue (or connected set of issues) implicated in some actions or controversies during the Trump presidency. The constitutional stakes may be narrow and legalistic (the emoluments clause) or, at the other extreme, involve distant norms (prosecutorial independence; rejection of white supremacy) of political behavior that are derived from or contribute to constitutional goals and concerns. Establish the arguments why this issue does and does not constitute a constitutional violation or threat.
    • You may take any side, or no side. Your main job is to clarify the issue, or the claimed issue, and to analyze it.



Mechanisms of constitutional failure

Week 12-14 (Nov 16, 30; ; Dec. 7)

  • Assertion of unconstitutional presidential powers
  • A failing political culture?
    • desperate populism
    • violence
  • corruption of political discourse



Final exam period (?) (Dec. 20, 6:00-8:00 pm)

  • Topic: constitutional prospects on your issue from essay 2
    • With reference to the constitutional issue to identified in Essay 2: does this issue present a threat to the administration’s survival? A threat of some significant constitutional failure? A threat to democracy generally? As appropriate, refer in your explanation to issues of weakening democratic or civic norms; rhetorical or ideological developments that threaten some aspect of constitutional functioning; and to relevant historical or comparative examples.
  • (?) first draft due Monday (reading week); returned Wednesday; revision due at final exam date


This page written by Randall Calvert  2017
Comments and questions to calvert at
Thursday 2:30-5:30
classroom: Seigle 111

Jump directly to CURRENT topics & assignments


available at the Campus Store:

  • Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands (2010)
  • Theda Skocpol & Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2016)
  • Thomas Mann & Norman Ornstein, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, rev. ed. (2016)
  • Fred Emery, Watergate (paperback edition, 1995)

Course Requirements

Three papers, at least as shown in course outline and schedule at left. Each is to be 2500-3000 words; each will undergo one revision following my feedback and comments.

  • Using Times New Roman 12 point with 1-inch margins, you should end up with about 650 words per page; thus we're talking about a 4-5 page paper. If your paper needs to run a little longer to accomplish your purpose, no problem.
  • These aren't formal research papers, but rather more in the nature of well informed long-form essays. You should bring in outside material to apply course ideas to a chosen topic. The more you can connect ideas from the assigned readings to your essay topic, the better.

The course grade will be derived as follows: 2/3 from the main essays and 1/3 from weekly discussion

  • In turn, the essay grade will be weighted as follows: 2/3 for the first drafts, 1/3 for re-written drafts.
  • weekly discussion includes classroom participation, brief presentations of your essay research, and any weekly precis on the readings.
  • I will give you private feedback on class participation along the way.


Trump timelines