Greetings and welcome to an intellectual journey across the landscape of American National Politics. My name is Gene Straughan and I am the instructor of the course. My educational background is in the disciplines of political science, law, and criminal justice. It provides me with a social scientific understanding of the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of society, and especially within the context of American National Government. Along with this course, I teach state and local politics, law and society, political philosophy, constitutional law, judicial process, introduction to criminal justice, criminal procedure, criminal law, trial advocacy, Native American law, comparative criminal justice systems, justice issues and public policy, introduction to social science, torts, and other courses at Lewis-Clark State College. My research interests focus on how public policy seeks to resolve political conflicts within the United States between a dominant culture and various subcultures, probing the significance of the unwritten character of the law and calibrating the weight to be assigned to societal values. I also work with governmental agencies on projects dealing with education, management, crime control, law enforcement, prosecution, adjudication, and corrections. I recently worked with the Idaho Governor, Legislature, and others to improve the funding of higher education. I have also served as an elected school board member of the Washington State School Director's Association and an elected officer of the Pacific Northwest Political Science Association. My professional experiences reflect a life-long yearning to share my expertise with my academic colleagues, community, and most importantly my students.
My teaching philosophy reflects a strong commitment to showing students how the social sciences provide a more thorough understanding of the complexities of society and human behavior. To understand society is to learn not only the conditions that shape human life, but also the opportunities open to the people for improving their human conditions. I take great pride in embracing such a social scientific approach and creating an intellectual climate that stimulates exploration, creative thinking, and critical reflection among all students. I consider myself to be very fortunate because I find learning and teaching to have an almost spiritual quality. My teaching pedagogy consists of orchestrating an interdisciplinary paradigm that draws from the disciplines of anthropology, economics, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and criminal justice. I concentrate on showing students how these fields contribute to a better sense of human behavior and society. I also teach students how to raise research questions, select proper methodologies, and interpret their findings. It is equally important that, at appropriate times, I make my scholarly commitments (like the principle of equal respect for the autonomy, diversity, and moral capacity of all people) clear to students to avoid getting caught in the value-relativity trap, provided I neither criticize nor indoctrinate them. Underscoring my teaching philosophy is a strong passion for showing others how the American political and legal systems shape people's lives around the world.
For me, what makes the study of United States Government so fascinating is the enduring struggle to pursue the lofty aims of democracy. The right of the people to rule themselves according to popular notions of social order, welfare, and morality must be balanced against respect for personal freedoms. American political life has always centered around clashes between individuals, groups, and institutions over how the state should go about reconciling competing perspectives of the good life. Conflicting values about security, morality, liberty, and equality and unresolved tensions among pluralist and majoritarian views of democracy are the lifeblood of American politics. No doubt the United States has over time become a far more democratic country because of the self-determination of the people to fight for democracy. Still, the United States is less democratic than it might be and further progress depends on meaningful participation by caring, vigilant, and informed citizens. It is also impressive to witness the growing demand for democracy within places like South Africa, China, and Eastern Europe. Such events serve as a constant reminder that no nation is isolated from the politics of other countries. How political issues, processes, and institutions are handled within other countries ripples into the American political system. Today the United States is part of a diverse global culture linked by channels of economics, politics, technology, ideology, and so on. Even cultural diversity within the United States is continuing to mushroom. Multiculturalism has quickly become a significant aspect of the national and international experience of American politics, presenting greater challenges for democracy.
As the twenty-first century begins, the people of the United States are confronting a wide array of compelling issues. How can the escalating costs of government be controlled? What state programs should be retained, reformed, and sacrificed? Other questions are equally compelling: How can staggering wages keep up with the soaring costs of living? What can be done to ameliorate the lingering effects of unequal treatment of women, minorities, and others? How can the government control violent crime and combat the looming threat of terrorism without sacrificing the civil liberties and rights of a democratic society? What sort of health care coverage meets the medical needs of the people? How can the rising costs of campaigns be contained to avoid the prospect of a government by the wealthy few? There are no simple answers to the problems government is expected to solve. Commonly cited solutions might work or might be only symbolic and even make the problems worse. Neither is anyone immune from such far-reaching and contentious issues. And yet people seem more apathetic about American politics than ever before. The past thirty years reflect a growing public cynicism towards government. There is some truth to the popular complaint that political leaders and institutions are out of touch with what life is like for Americans. It is equally true that the people are out of touch with the shortcomings of the political process and the ability of government to solve complex problems. Much of the apathy of the public stems from the failure of many Americans to make informed and active contributions to government efforts to make a better society. All too often, the unwillingness to take part translates into a self-fulfilling prophecy of even greater distrust of and distance from politics.
Many students taking a course on American National Government will share much of the same skepticism and cynicism towards the political system. Perhaps some students take this course to meet a graduation requirement appearing to have little connection to their own interest. Maybe students recognize that they could learn more about the political process. In any event, the goal of this course is to enable students to further develop their ability to think critically and creatively about American Government. Students should come to realize that American Politics is neither an altruistic nor egotistic process, but a human enterpriseone with moral spirit, selfishness, and even dangerous arrogance. Indeed the human capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but the human inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. Students should also be willing to shed their own prejudices and think critically about leading political issues by considering how alternative public policies would make life better for everyone, especially for the unpopular or less fortunate person. At few times has there been a greater challenge to learn about the political system to counteract the public apathy prevailing today. But with challenges come rewards for students who pay more attention to their political leaders, are more informed about the political process, and know more about public policy. A richer appreciation of American National Politics can only lead students to become more committed to keeping government responsive to the people and problems of the twenty-first century. Remember that nothing is graven in stone. There are no final lessons to understanding the struggle to sustain government by and for the people.