Good News for Political Scientists! We are living in interesting times.
Yet, some periods in history are too interesting.
You and I find ourselves in the midst of an era of profound political turmoil. After hundreds of years of seemingly ineluctable and irreversible
progress, we have awakened to find that many of the defining features of relationships with other human beings–our liberal democratic institutions, commitment to human dignity, universal ideals, and even our acceptance of political facts–are under assault. In the words of the paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, we are experiencing the explosive effects of a period of “punctuated equilibrium.” Gould’s wisdom extends beyond politics to every aspect of existence, including our relationship with our earthly home. After roughly 4.5 billion years, who is to say that the world we cherish will be around in the coming century?
Still, nothing is inevitable. Thus, we may be able to claw our way out of this mess. There is room for hope. And Notre Dame is all about hope.
As participants in these developments, we are also fortunate.
In ordinary times, it is hard to see the world as it really is. This is a particularly difficult task for people like us. You and I are the privileged members of privileged societies. By virtue of your presence at Notre Dame, you are now a member of the ruling class. In fact, one of Notre Dame’s greatest virtues is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Because Notre Dame provides you with a privileged education that is deliberately buffered (see Community Standards Du Lac) against the daily trials that most people encounter. At Notre Dame, the real world is a “foreign country.”
My job is to help you make the rest of the world real. This includes making the US real.
In times of abrupt change and psychological stress, the most privileged members of society must ask hard questions about what matters most and what the future holds for both them and billions of other human beings. Whether you are religious or not, or whatever your religious faith, these questions matter at our Catholic university. In fact, they matter more than at any secular university. For my part, I affirm one Catholic (and non-Catholic), non-negotiable principle in all of my courses:
All human beings are endowed with intrinsic dignity and should be treated accordingly
My primary goal is to encourage you to “think big” about world politics.
Where we are today is not simply the result of some virtuous act by white, wig-wearing aristocrats drinking port wine while writing flowery constitutions. Nor is it the creation of educated people who (wrongly) think they know more than their less-privileged fellow citizens. Rather, our political world is the product of countless, converging forces–good and dumb ideas, erratic decisions, violent movements, lucky accidents, and natural and self-inflicted disasters–that have passed before us for centuries.
Focusing on the Modern Nation-State
The study of world politics is dauntingly huge. To make our task manageable, I shall introduce you to a single theme that illuminates many of the features of our current condition. This theme is the ongoing, and necessarily conflictual, evolution and revolution of a novel form of political organization known as the Modern Nation-State.
By Modern, I mean the consequences of a revolution in epistemology, human identity, organization, and political perceptions that has come to fruition over (roughly) the past four centuries. By Nation-State, I mean a “symbolic community to which people voluntarily devote their primary political loyalties despite the many particularistic loyalties–religious, cultural, ethnic, political, social, economic, gender, academic, and athletic–that otherwise divide them.” Modernity and the Nation-State are abstract terms. Still, they are useful tools. Like the best tools, they can help us make sense of our particular juncture in the long history of humanity. They alert us to the fragility of our world and the possibility that we may be the cause of its ruin.
They can also give us hope.
My story is divided into five interlocking chapters. In the first chapter,
Modern Politics, I shall introduce you to some basic concepts about modernity and the Modern Nation-State. In the second, we travel down the rocky road the West has taken toward a particular form of the nation-state: Liberal Democracy. In the third, we consider an initially credible but ultimately failed path: Leninism. In the fourth, we confront the pathos and rage of people living in the fractured Postcolonial world of weak nation-states and failed states. Finally, we return to our starting point to examine the ecstasy and agony of the nation-state in an age of Global Upheaval.
I shall frequently refer to some troubling themes about our age.
The politicization of fact-seeking in modern democracies. If we can’t agree on facts, there can be no democracy.
The threat of populist politics to liberal democracy. Populism is not another form of politics. It is anti-politics. In an extreme form, whether it is on the political right or the left, it can kill democracy.
The fact that, in our times, politicians, cable personalities, and social media moguls can make people in advanced democracies believe just about anything.
I am an ambitious teacher. My pedagogical goals extend far beyond introducing you to the field we call political science. I hope to persuade you to:
Dedicate yourself to a “deep knowing” of politics, rather than “much knowing” (a distinction drawn by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus
Defend arguments and persuade others that you are right. Or admit you are wrong when you are wrong. I have made a habit of being wrong, and I feel just fine about it.
Develop a critical perspective about everything you (think you) know.
Ask what it means to attend Notre Dame. You have self-selected to be here. This is no normal university. We are a utopian experiment!
The requirements for our course are HERE as well as on the right column of each page. You are responsible for knowing all the information on this syllabus. I will change the syllabus and its assignments and readings throughout the semester. Thus, you will need to consult it on a regular basis.
This syllabus is much more detailed than the typical course syllabus. Instead of simply posting topics and readings, I use the syllabus to provide a running commentary on the themes we will be discussing. This should help you understand how everything fits into a single, coherent narrative. You can also read ahead to see where we are going. In this sense, this syllabus is another form of a required course reading.
I have a modest personal objective. If I can challenge you to think about world politics in a new way, I shall be pleased.
Please leave your laptops, cellphones, video games, hidden microphones, NSA listening devices, FBI trap-and-trace hardware, ChatGPT, and other digital weapons at home.
I love street art. The photos throughout this site are from interesting places I have visited over the years.