Contemporary Politics and Government in the United States - PO617

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Module delivery information

Location Term Level1 Credits (ECTS)2 Current Convenor3 2020 to 2021
Autumn and Spring 5 30 (15) DR A Wroe checkmark-circle


With the world's largest economy and most powerful armed forces, the United States bestrides the world stage. Culturally, politically, diplomatically and intellectually, it is the most important player, too. To understand the world, one must understand America and its politics. Yet, according to many critics, the US’s own political system is in crisis and turmoil, not least because of the ascension to power of an outsider president who revels in his disruptive capabilities. Trump challenged our notions of who could be elected to the most powerful job in the world and he is currently challenging long established theories about how the US government can and should work. His presidency is layered on top of an ongoing 'war’ over cultural issues and the deep-seated antipathy between the political parties and between the presidential and congressional branches. All this has further reinforced perceptions about the system’s dysfunctionality. The US, like many other nations, also faces serious public policy questions on the economy, health, energy, education, guns, crime, poverty and immigration, among others. But good, politically viable solutions seem remote. George Bush left office as one of the most unpopular presidents since polling began, and the bubble of expectation surrounding Barack Obama on his election in November 2008 quickly burst. Now the American people have chosen a neophyte populist to govern them. How will he do? More broadly, how will, or even can, the US political system rise to the challenges facing it when its political institutions and actors appear deeply divided?

It is not hard to see why many observers believe that the US has become harder to govern and increasingly interesting as a subject for academic study. In order to answer some of the questions outlined above, PO617 offers a comprehensive introduction to the politics and government of the United States.


This module appears in the following module collections.

Contact hours

Total contact hours: 44
Private study hours: 256
Total study hours: 300

Method of assessment

Exam, 3 hours, 50%
Essay 1, 2500 words, 25%
Essay 2, 2500 words, 25%
Essay 3, 2500 words, 25%
The marks of the best two essays will contribute to final average. This is designed to encourage students to experiment with innovative approaches to essay writing, and guards against a single mistake (such as misinterpreting a question) undermining their overall performance.

Indicative reading

David McKay, American Politics and Society, 9th edition (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017)
Gillian Peele, Christopher J. Bailey, Bruce Cain, B. Guy Peters and Jon Herbert (eds.), Developments in American Politics 8 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2018)
Jon Herbert, Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Wroe, The Ordinary Presidency of Donald J. Trump (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)
Russell Duncan and Joseph Goddard, Contemporary America, 5th edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course, students will:
- Have a thorough knowledge of the structure of the US governmental system;
- Be able to describe and account for the operation of the US's political institutions, including those 'intermediate' institutions (parties, media etc) that link citizens to their government;
- Understand how the individual institutions interact and work together (or not, as the case may be);
- Comprehend the relationship between government institutions and the US's cultural and societal attributes;
- Understand how the governmental structure and political culture interact to produce certain policy outcomes;
- Understand and be able to make predictions about the US's role and place in the world; and
- Be able to identify and analyse some of the major political problems facing the US at the dawn of a new century.


  1. Credit level 5. Intermediate level module usually taken in Stage 2 of an undergraduate degree.
  2. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  3. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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