Political Science 401 Political Controversy & Political Skills

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Political Science 401

Political Controversy & Political Skills

Prof. Court

Mondays & Wednesdays 2:30-3:45, Sterling 1333

Student Hours: Monday-12:30-2:30, Thursday-10-12, 301 North Hall


Course Overview and Goals

This course presents a choice between enjoying the sensation of ‘being right’ and the possibility of moving one’s personal and political agenda forward in concrete ways. Lately, political culture has been almost exclusively about the former to the detriment of the latter. In this course, participants will exercise political skills in the classroom and apply them outside the classroom in community service and in political advocacy. This course stresses the radical difference between political skills and political punditry, one requiring practice and application, the other requiring only primitive rhetorical skills.

This course will ask students to develop their civic knowledge, communication abilities, and networks of relationships that will define their role as an active civic actor, providing genuine hands-on experience as an engaged citizen. Despite the recent claims of higher education, the teaching of skills is not a frequent focus of undergraduate education in the liberal arts. Teaching methods involved in imparting skills are necessarily different from those employed in imparting knowledge. As such, participants have to take active responsibility for their own development.

This course will develop political skills discussing and debating—from multiple perspectives—four contemporary controversies, Healthcare in America, International Free Trade Agreements, the War on Terrorism, and Immigration in America. Moving from lesser to greater complexity, from understanding and application, to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, the each of these four units will ask, Where are we?, How did we get here?, and Where are we going? Participants will read a combination of policy briefs, academic articles, and long-form journalism. Each week students will engage in a discussion followed by a debate. Students will rotate between advocating for a political view, to rebutting that view, to being the ‘Devil’s Advocate’. Finally, complex intellectual and social skills developed over the course of the semester will be contemporaneously applied to a co-curricular activity of either community or political engagement. This class follows a ‘flipped’ format with time in class devoted to discussion and debate—course content, recordings, readings, quizzes, and reflective exercises online. Twice a week, students will also be required to find and submit a reading that they intend to apply to the next day’s discussion or debate. At the end of the course, students will give a presentation of their advocacy work and how they have been able to move their own political agenda forward.


Students in this course are expected to do both individual writing and presentation work and group work. Groups will be selected at random at the beginning of the semester and be remixed before each new unit. Variation in political views among members of any group is expected. Responsibilities and roles in group discussions and debates will rotate. It is inevitable that students will articulate and advocate for political views that contrast with their own views. This is not an example of political indoctrination. Indeed, past experience has shown unequivocally that these activities tend to strengthen political views rather than weaken them. The goal of this class is to strengthen students analytical, argumentation, and presentation skills, the skills needed to move any agenda forward. Debates and discussions will be graded collectively—everyone receives the same grade—therefore it is the responsibility of members to keep each other on task throughout the semester.

Since face-to-face activities are all group activities, and that this is where the real work of the class will happen, attendance is mandatory. All students are required to attend every class meeting, and agree to be present and participating.

Course Materials

Recordings, readings, self-assessments, wildcard submissions, and quizzes are all built into the Moodle online classroom platform. Each of these elements is accessed sequentially, that is, one must listen to the recording or read the selections before moving on to the self-assessments. Monday course materials are available from Thursday at 3pm to Monday at Midnight. Wednesday course materials are available from Monday at midnight to Wednesday at midnight. Recordings, readings and assessments must be completed in that time frame. This will assure that each student is prepared for group work the following day.

Office Hours are Student Hours!

Office hours is a strange term. I want you to think of them as Student Hours. Student hours are on Mondays and Thursdays. If you cannot make these hours arrangements can be made. This is your opportunity to talk with me in small groups or one-on-one. Student hours are reserved for you, so please take advantage of them. The semester moves quickly so if you feel like you're falling behind or are having trouble in the course, come see me immediately! These are your hours; never feel that you are bothering me coming in.

Moodle & email communications

I will be using email and the course website regularly to communicate with the class. I will be using your official @wisc.edu mail account. You should feel free to contact me via email. I will do my best to respond to email queries within 12 hours during the week. Know that while you may be working through the materials at 2am, I will be sending email responses Monday to Friday between 8am and 6pm!

If you have comments, questions, or concerns about the course that you do not feel comfortable bringing to me personally there is a link on the course Moodle site from which you can send me anonymous email.

The course website is your source for important course information, including readings, details on assignments, and announcements. Make a habit of checking the main page.

Grading Scale

  •  Participation marks 4 per week, 60 total: 20%

  • A-F assessments and activities, 4 per week, 60 total: 30%

  • A-F Group work, 2 per week, 30 total: 30%

  • Presentation of Community or Political Engagement Project: 20%

  • A-93%+; AB-92-88; B-87-83; BC-82-78;C-77-70; D-<70; F-<60.

Group Work

Different roles will rotate between group members from unit to unit (1-4). Each member is required to take on each role at least twice during the semester.

Discussion Roles: The Discussion Leader keeps the group on task and mediates the discussion making sure that all views are heard and that the discussion remains civil; The Scholarship Connector guides the conversation by inserting ideas and materials from the readings and recordings; The Citation Master tracks down facts and figures from the readings and from online sources to keep the conversation grounded; the Devil’s Advocate will keep the others on their toes by interjecting alternative questions; The Recorder keeps the minutes on the Canvas website, which will be graded.
Debate Roles: The Challenger presents the question to be argued; The Rebuttal provides a point-by-point response; The Cross Examiner challenges the strength or veracity of the two debaters; the Responder judges the success of the debate, highlighting the success of each side; The Recorder keeps the minutes on Canvas, which will be graded.
Civic & Political Engagement

As part of the class students will volunteer, intern, or otherwise participate in a registered student organization, community organization, non-profit, governmental agency, legislative office, political campaign or similar political activity broadly defined. The key to this is to engage the political process in practical and pragmatic terms, to see how political advocacy happens ‘in the real world’. Students will be expected to have acquired their positions no later than the semester drop deadline. Details of placements will be due by that date. Presentations will detail the chosen organization’s political views, ideological orientation, and political strategies employed to move their agenda forward. Presentations will conclude with a learned critique of the effectiveness of their organizations tactics and strategies. Students who have first engaged the Writing Center for editing, format, and syntax assistance can bring their presentations to Student Hours for consultation. The purpose of the consultation needs to be substantive rather than copy editing, which is the responsibility of students.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism or other forms of cheating or dishonesty are destructive. Students in this class have the right to expect that their classmates are upholding the academic integrity of this University. While you will work together on group work you will appropriately recognize and cite all sources of data or information you use. Unsure what constitutes plagiarism? Please see UW's academic honesty policy here: http://students.wisc.edu/saja/misconduct/UWS14.html.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities needing academic accommodation should: (1) register with and provide documentation to the Student Disability Resource Center; (2) bring your McBurney VISA indicating the need for accommodation and what type. This should be done during the first two weeks of class. For more information about services available to students with disabilities, contact McBurney Center 702 W. Johnson St.; 608-263-2741; mcburney@studentlife.wisc.edu; http://www.mcburney.wisc.edu/

Course Structure

This course is taught in a “Flipped” format. That is, the recordings, readings, quizzes and exams are done online, and the discussion is conducted face-to-face.

Typical Week Format







Out of Class

Recordings ()

Reading(s) ()

Self-Assessment ()

Wild Card Reading ()

Reflective Writing (A-F)

Recordings ()

Reading(s) ()

Self-Assessment ()

Wild Card Reading ()

Reflective Writing (A-F)

In Class

75 minutes ()

60 min. Discussion (A-F Group Grade)

Roles (2x per semester)

Discussion Leader

Scholarship Connector

Citation Master

Devil’s Advocate


15 min. Conclusion

75 minutes ()

60 min. Debate (A-F/GG)

Roles (2x per semester)



Cross Examination



15 min. Conclusion


Week 1.

Tuesday (online) 1/17--

Readings: The Key to Political Persuasion

One Way to Weaken Political Polarization

Civil conversations between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates

Intellectually honest and intellectually dishonest debate tactics

Wednesday (in class) 1/18. Introduction. Political orientations: Left, Right, “Up”, & “Down”
Week 2. Healthcare, Where are we?

Weekend (online) 1/19-

Recording: “Alice Rivlin, the Affordable Care Act, and America's Health.”

Reading: “Brill, Bitter Pill”

Essay Prompt: Rivlin argues that the ACA has reduced costs (or at least slowed the growth of costs) but Brill argues that costs have gotten out of control. How might broader insurance coverage bring costs under control? How might it not?
Monday (in class) 1/23 Discussion: Problems with Health Care in America
Tuesday (online) 1/24

Readings: “Kaiser ACA Survey”

“How Germany is reining in health care costs: An interview with Franz Knieps”

“Knotty Challenges in Health Care Costs”

Essay Prompt: The ACA includes a wide range of studies and commissions that will investigate the effectiveness of the law. Choose two or three and comment on their missions.

Wednesday (in class) 1/25 Debate: Goals of Health Care Reform

Week 3. Healthcare, How did we get here?

Weekend (online) 1/26-

Readings: “How Did America End Up with This Health System?” Bill Toland

The Big Idea: “How to Solve the Cost Crisis in Health Care”

Essay Prompt: Is there an underlying logic to American Healthcare? What forces have been applied to that logic? And, what has been the result?
Monday (in class) 1/30 Discussion: How is the American Healthcare system a historical accident?

Tuesday (online) 1/31

Recording: Guest Lecture, Simon Haeder

Readings: “A Brief History,” Karen S. Palmer MPH, MS

Essay Prompt: The politics of health in America seem to be the victim of other political movements. Or are they? How have politics been used to mask narrow ‘special’ interests? Has health suffered as a result? Have other parts of the economy?
Wednesday (in class) 2/1 Debate: Political polarization and healthcare
Week 4. Healthcare, Where are we going?

Weekend (online) 2/2-

Recording: “Dr. Tim Johnson Battles Obamacare Confusion In Podcast”

Readings: Gawande, “Overkill”

“Two Substantive Sides to Debate Over Obamacare’s ‘Cadillac Tax’,” WSJ Drew Altman

Essay Prompt: Are cost controls and quality controls at odds with each other? Explain how they can work hand in hand.

Monday (in class) 2/6 Discussion: Cost vs. Quality
Tuesday (online) 2/7

Readings: Gladwell, The Bill

“How an obscure drug’s 4,000% price increase might finally spur action on soaring health-care costs”

“Takeaways From The Supreme Court's Obamacare Opinion,” NPR

“Obamacare Dissent”

Essay Prompt: The Supreme Court interpreted three parts of the ACA in order to rule that the law is constitutional. 1. That those who opt out need to pay a tax. 2. That the Federal Government can only withhold additional money if a state refuses to expand Medicaid. And 3. That the Congress intended to give subsidies to participants of both State and Federal Exchanges. Is it reasonable to expect that the Court should correct mistakes? Would it be reasonable to thwart the Congress’ intent because of mistakes in a law?

Wednesday (in class) 2/8 Debate: The place of the Federal Government in healthcare markets
Week 5 Free Trade, Where are we?

Weekend (online) 2/9-

Recording: “Banter #108: Free Trade” (RC: these guys are annoying, but there are interesting points)

Readings: Outlines of the TPP, United States Trade Representative.

Essay Prompt: Can you detect a lack of patience in Barfield’s voice? In the expressions he uses? Read into his reactions and his tone and what it might mean politically for the approval (or not!) of the TPP.
Monday (in class) 2/13 Discussion: What will it require to approve the TPP?
Tuesday (online) 2/14

Recording: Pro: Why economists think the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be good for Americans, The World, PRI 5/22/15

Con: Robert Reich takes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, 1/29/15

Readings: New Yorker: The Corporate Friendly World of the TPP; Trade Agreement Troubles.

Essay Prompt: Much of the protests aimed at elements of the TPP are speculative. Many elements have been part of past agreements and are well known in international trade. They have shown themselves to be subject to abuse. How might they be included while avoiding the pitfalls?
Wednesday (in class) 2/15 Debate: TPP: good or bad for America?
Week 6 Free Trade, How did we get here?

Weekend (online) 2/16-

Recording: “Barriers and Benefits in Free Trade Agreements”

Readings: New Yorker: Winners and Losers, John Cassidy, 8/2/2004

Essay Prompt: Comment on this excerpt:

The essential point is that comparative advantage is no longer endowed by nature: through hard work and enlightened administration, countries can wrest it from each other's grasp. [The economist] Ricardo was writing about economies dominated by agriculture and rudimentary manufacturing, where a favorable climate and the ready availability of raw materials were vital. These days, the keys to economic success are a well-educated workforce, technical know-how, high levels of capital investment, and entrepreneurial zeal — all of which countries can acquire with the help of supportive governments, multinational firms, and international investors.

Monday (in class) 2/20 Discussion: What is ‘comparative advantage’ and what are the ramifications for Americans?
Tuesday (online) 2/21

Recording: “Trade Deal Confidential”

Readings: Hornblower, Beech, Frank & Graff, “The Battle in Seattle”.

Essay Prompt:

The circus that was the ‘Battle of Seattle’ has given way to the TPP. Comment on why the signatories of the TPP might have looked back to the WTO meeting in Seattle and chosen to operate in secret.
Wednesday (in class) 2/22 Debate: Should trade deals be done in secret?
Week 7 Free Trade, Where are we going?

Weekend (online) 2/23-

Recording: “The Strategic Case for Free Trade”

Readings: New Yorker: Silicon Valley’s Big TPP Win

Essay Prompt: Gauge the impact on information flows and the private exploitation of public data that seems to be implied by the TPP.
Monday (in class) 2/27 Discussion: TPP and the commerce of ideas
Tuesday (online) 2/28

Recording: TPP Press Conference 10/5/2015

Readings: NY Times: “Unpacking the TPP” 5/12/2015

Essay Prompt: When responding to the questions from the press, each of the ministers couched their language in high soaring but vague language. What does this imply? (Please give specific examples.)

Wednesday (in class) 3/1 Debate: Who needs the TPP?
Week 8 Terrorism, Where Are We?

Weekend (online) 3/2-

Recordings: Frontline: United States of Secrets.

Readings: “Americans Are Okay With Surveillance and Torture,” Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 7-8/2015.

Essay Prompt: It what ways did the government follow the law and it what ways did the government create law it was willing to follow?
Monday (in class) 3/6 Discussion: The stakes in secrecy
Tuesday (online) 3/7

Recordings: “An Intelligence Officer Looks at Terrorism: Where it’s Been, Where it’s heading”

Readings: “What ISIS really wants”

“The Syrian Kurds are Winning!” NYRB 12/3/15

Essay Prompt: Identify the divisions in the Middle East that are driving unrest.
Wednesday (in class) 3/8 Debate: What is the threat from ISIS?
Week 9 Terrorism, How Did We Get Here?

Weekend (online) 3/9-

Recordings: Peter Taylor’s BBC Documentary: “The Secret War on Terror” Part 1

Readings: “Do We Still Need The Saudis?”

“The rise of the Salafis”

Essay Prompt: Identify some of the ethical stresses that were revealed in the struggle to get a handle on terrorism.

Monday (in class) 3/13 Discussion: The ethical dilemma that is alliance with Saudi Arabia
Tuesday (online) 3/16

Recordings: Peter Taylor’s BBC Documentary: “The Secret War on Terror” Part 2

Readings: “The Last Defenders of the NSA,” Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 5/19/2015

Essay Prompt: Comment on the prospect of continuing to identify and kill extremists. Is this a viable long-term solution?

Wednesday (in class) 3/15 Debate: Killing our way out of terrorist danger
Spring Break 3/18-26
Week 10 Terrorism, Where Are We Going?

Weekend (online) 3/25-

Recordings: “Is There a Better Way to Fight Terrorism? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast”

Readings: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Robert Pape.

Essay Prompt: Identify some of the counter-intuitive aspects of terrorism.
Monday (in class) 3/27 Discussion: How effective is suicide bombing?
Tuesday (online) 3/28

Recordings: Frontline: “The Rise of ISIS”

Readings: The Battle for Nigeria.

Essay Prompt: Who is ISIS?

Wednesday (in class) 3/29 Debate: Who is ISIS?
Week 11 Migration, Where are we?

Weekend (online) 3/30-

Recording: Slate Money: The Migration Edition

Readings: The Case for Open Immigration

America’s Immigration Battle by the Numbers, Frontline.

Essay Prompt: Advocates for open immigration use a particular vocabulary. Give examples of terminology and rhetorical constructions used.

Monday (in class) 4/3 Discussion: Immigration is a rhetorical battle
Tuesday (online) 4/4

Recording: “What If No One Were Born American?”

Readings: The Fearful and the Frustrated.

Essay Prompt: Compare the rhetoric of Liu and Trump. What terms do they use? How do they employ their rhetoric and vocabulary to motivate people? What are they trying to tap into? Who is more skilled?

Wednesday (in class) 4/5 Debate: Who gets to become a citizen?
Week 12 Migration, How did we get here?

Weekend (online) 4/6-

Recording: “Coming Out As An ‘Undocumented’ Immigrant”

Readings: Counterpoint: Why Vargas should leave.

Migrant or Refugee? There Is a Difference, With Legal Implications, NYTimes 9/18/15,

Essay Prompt: Terms like illegal alien, undocumented immigrant, migrant, and refugee are politically charged words. Comment on their use.

Monday (in class) 4/10 Discussion: The difference between migrants and refugees
Tuesday (online) 4/11

Recording: Immigration Battle, Frontline


Readings: My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

Essay Prompt: Comment on what Bismarck called the ‘sausage making’ that is legislative negotiation. Surprises?
Wednesday (in class) 4/12 Debate: Who wants immigration reform and why?
Week 13 Migration, Where are we going?

Weekend (online) 4/13-

Recording: The Roots, Rhetoric, and Remedies of Europe’s Migrant Crisis Explained”

Readings: Europe’s New Border Crisis.

Essay Prompt: Comment on the scale and size of the ‘migrant crisis’ in Europe in comparison to EU population. What is the nature of the crisis? How much is real, how much is rhetorical or cultural?
Monday (in class) 4/17 Discussion: Size and scale of the EU’s migrant crisis
Tuesday (online) 4/18

Recording: “Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11”

Readings: US-Mexico border "Secure enough", Economist, 6/22/2013

Essay Prompt: Consider how economic concerns and security concerns can come into conflict and the potential impact of that conflict.

Wednesday (in class) 4/19 Debate: Economy vs. Security.
Week 14

Monday (in class) 4/24 Student Presentations

Wednesday (in class) 4/25 Student Presentations

Week 15

Monday (in class) 5/1 Student Presentations

Wednesday (in class) 5/3 Student Presentations

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