The Scoop on American Government


A Q&A with Marc Landy

As a functioning member of American society, you have surely been inundated with talks of government and elections in the last few months. So in honor of this political occasion, we sat down with Professor & Cambridge University Press author Marc Landy and got answers to all your Political Science questions, particularly regarding academia and his acclaimed textbook, American Government, co-written with Professor Sidney M. Milkis.


The third edition of the book was published in July 2014, and we chatted with Landy about his curriculum, social media, and the new revisions made to the text.  His answers are super-informative & interesting to students, educators, and anyone who’s looking to brush up on their political knowledge!

How long have you been teaching American Government courses?

I have been teaching about American Government for my entire career, 39 years.

Have you altered the way you teach the subject over that time?

Yes – over the years I have become increasingly convinced of the need to provide a historical – developmental context for the understanding of American Government. I came to believe that the best way to make sense of the seemingly bewildering political forces and governing institutions was to explain how they came into being and how and why they changed over time.

How much time do you spend discussing the aspects in which the government is still changing?

We devote considerable space in virtually every chapter to the ways in which government and politics are changing. The Contemporary Portrait segment of each chapter combines a description of present political and governmental dynamics with a consideration of how those are changing.

How do you incorporate modern political topics/events into your curriculum each semester?

I would distinguish between modern topics and current events. Modern topics permeate my classes in much the way they are broached in the textbook. For each topic I begin by painting a contemporary portrait and then introduce key developmental ideas and junctures, and show how they help to make sense of that portrait. I treat current events as “teachable moments” to clarify and provide examples of crucial analytic points that I have been making.

Which topics have you found students to struggle with the most in American Government courses?

The term ‘liberal’ gives them fits! They struggle to understand its different meanings and how those meanings have shifted over time. They learn about Classic Liberalism, meaning the political philosophy developed by Hobbes and Locke, in particular, which was so influential in setting the course of American constitutional development. They learn that in the American context this view stressed limited government. Then they have to come to grips with the contemporary meaning of liberalism that connotes an activist, expansive and compassionate government. This shift in meaning is very difficult for them.

Along the same lines, they struggle to understand the development of American political parties. How could the party of Jefferson Jackson that was committed to limited government be the same party of big government that FDR and LBJ led? How did the Republicans go from being the party pressing for more activist government to the one that now advocates for more limits on government?

How does your text go about clarifying these challenges?

The text seeks to clarify the confusion over the meanings of the term ‘liberal and ‘conservative’ in a number of the different ways. The Introduction describes the difference between the contemporary liberal, conservative and libertarian understandings of justice. The Political Culture Chapter explains Classic Liberalism.  The Judiciary Chapter describes the new use of the term liberal during the New Deal. A crucial theme of the Political Parties Chapter is the critical changes the parties have undergone over time that led them to at various times appear to be either liberal or conservative by contemporary standards.

Is it ever difficult to remain impartial while teaching politics/government?

I don’t find it difficult. My aim is not to indoctrinate but to awaken curiosity and fascination with politics and to provide analytic tools for thinking about it.  Of course I have my own partisan views.  But in the classroom I act the contrarian, sticking up for whatever point of view is under-represented in the discussion. I think that a sense of fun and a desire to stimulate thinking provide a great antidote for the urge to score partisan points.

Many students/classmates/professors are connecting through outlets like Twitter in order to stay connected outside of the classroom.  Do your find that social media is taking on a stronger role in academia? 

Social media is definitely taking on a much greater role and I think it has great potential to expand the kinds of conversations that are at the heart of learning and thinking about politics.

Why did you decide to write American Government: Enduring Principles, Critical Choices?

First I decided that a text would really be helpful to improve my own teaching of American government; for years I taught the course without one. But I finally realized that a good text could serve as a vital partner for my teaching. It would allow me to be more flexible about what I did in any particular class meeting because I could rely on the text to supply information and analytic principles that I had stinted on. None of the existing texts suited me. I found them either insufficiently grounded in ideas, institutions and history, or too dull, or both. I wanted to write a text that conveyed the dramatic and compelling nature of politics.

How did working with your co-writer, Sidney Milkis, affect the outcome of the text?

Sid and I have been talking together about the nature of American Politics and of American Political Development for more than 25 years. The pleasure we found in those conversations is what led us to decide to write a text that incorporated our mutual understandings and embodied the great sense of excitement and enthusiasm about American politics that we share

The third edition of your book has just published. What do you feel are the most significant changes between the second and third editions?

The earlier edition was too long and too discursive. This edition is one third shorter and more tightly organized. The introductory chapter gives a much clearer explanation of and rationale for the American Political Development approach that the book adopts. It establishes an analytic framework based on the two core concepts – enduring principles and critical choices – that constitute the book’s subtitle. Each subsequent chapter adheres to that analytic framework, and demonstrates how enduring principles and critical choices have worked to shape the particular political phenomenon that is its particular subject. The analytic unity of the book is complemented by greater visual unity. All the images in the book are of vintage political cartoons.

The previous edition placed all the discussion of contemporary matters at the end of each chapter. The new edition provides a contemporary portrait at the beginning of the chapter, immediately after the opening vignette. Comments from readers convinced us that beginning students can more fully appreciate the developmental insights the book contains after gaining more knowledge of how contemporary politics and government operate.

The earlier edition had no concluding chapter. We have added one. Because each chapter provides ample summaries at its end, the concluding chapter is not a summary. Rather it takes America’s most enduring principle, the American Creed, enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, and discusses how and why it remains seminal to American political life. It shows how the individualistic premises of the American Creed place that creed in tension with the communitarian and congregational principles that derive from other cherished sources of American political culture, especially biblical religion. It also describes how the creed’s assertion of natural rights has been undermined by the long and sad tradition of American racism. It concludes by reiterating the importance of political speech and political leadership. It reminds the reader of how the words and deeds of great American political figures, as described in the text, have served to enable America’s most enduring principles to flourish.

How do you think your book compares to other American Government textbooks, and why should someone adopt your book instead of those books?

This book was written to appeal to the best teachers. Politics is inherently dramatic and exciting. This book tries to capture that reality. It is jargon free. It has a strong narrative thrust and conveys a love for as well as an understanding of American politics. Its guiding principle is that in order to understand contemporary American politics and government, students need to understand how political ideas, institutions and forces have developed over time. It provides these critical dimensions of political understanding while also providing as much or more information about contemporary political forces and governing institutions as other texts do.

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