Thursday, 19 September 2013

American voices: seeking opinions on key questions

I wrote last week that I'm looking for some Americans with opinions to take part in preparing the content for a course I'm teaching at the University of Reading  this year (it's pronounced 'Redding' - it's not a pretentious book-based learning establishment!). As I plough on preparing my lectures and seminars for the American Government course , the issues I'd like some American Voice comments on are emerging. At a high level, the immediate ones are:


  • How do you regard Congress?
  •  Does it represent your aims?
  •  How effective is it in delivering on its power of oversight?
  •  Is the balance right between Congress and the President?

The Presidency

  • Are you comfortable with the way the President uses his powers?
  • How would you score the current presidency out of 10 - and why?
  • Who is/was the USA's greatest president - and why?
  • Who's at the bottom of the Presidential poll for you - and why|
  • Do you believe presidential power is in decline? Why/why not?
  • Who will be the white House's next incumbent and why?
The Supreme Court

  • Do you believe Americans understand the role that the Supreme Court plays in government today?
  • Is the Court doing a good job? Why/why not?
  • Inverting Alexander Hamilton, some commentators regard the Supreme Court as the most dangerous and least democratic aspect of US government today. Is that a fair assessment? Why/why not?
Political Parties and elections

  • How effective do you feel the two party system is in US politics?
  • In your opinion, what unites and what divides each of the US' two main parties?
  • What do the Republicans need to do to regain the White House?
  • What do the Democrats need to do to retain the White House?
  • Why is there so often a disconnect between voting patterns at local/State/Congressional and presidential levels?
  • Can one party ever dominate across the US political spectrum?

  • What effect has sequestration had on your views on the current US political situation?
  • Do you believe the wrangling over healthcare reform has enhanced or damaged both the President and Congressional opponents?
  • What impact is Syria having on the standing of the President and Congress?
  • Have recent debates around gay marriage and also voting rights affected your view of the Supreme Court?

  • Why are so many Americans often so critical of 'big government'?
  • What role does the media play in US politics today?
  • Do you feel the media is a power for good in US politics? Why/why not?
  • Is social media affecting today's political scene - and if so, how?
Capital punishment

  • What's your view on the death penalty - is it right that the US retains the right to execute wrongdoers?
Gun control

  • What's your view on gun control?
  • Why is it such a contentious issue in US politics?
  • Will events such as Aurora, Newtown or the Navy Yard shootings have any effect politically?

  • Which interest groups have the greatest impact on US politics, and why?
  • Do interest groups enhance or detract from the US political scene - why and how?
Civil rights
  • Do you believe the US is now a fair and equitable society for all? Why/why not?
  • How much power and influence does religion have in US politics?
  • Is that power on the rise or decline?
  • Does its rise or decline matter?
America and the World
  • What effect, if any, do you feel that current US politics has on the standing of the nation in the world?
  • Does the rest of the world's view of the US actually matter? Why/why not?
Would you be willing to answer these questions and share your views with a bunch of Reading University second year undergrads?

No responses need to be attributed fully - I'm looking at something like 'Fred, a store owner from Florida said...' - just enough to give the students a sense of whose opinion they're hearing.

I'm very happy to take written responses to all or any of the questions - or, for the more daring, sound or even movie files.

Interested? If you'd like to find out more or are even tentatively interested in taking part, email me at and I can fill you in on the details

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

In search of American Voices

It is, perhaps, fitting that on this 9/11 anniversary I've been planning content for my up-coming American Government course. I'll be teaching the L2 undergrad course at Reading University from next month, covering the usual bases - the separation of powers; who does what and how; the Constitution; parties and elections; 'big government'; States' Rights; interest groups; the media; capital punishment; civil rights; social policy and religion.

I have 66 eager undergrads signed up for the course. Most are British; the rest Continental European and very few have spent any time at all in the US.

My experience of teaching US politics over the last few years with similar groups is that they're generally quite liberal and find it easy to be antagonistic towards the US - while admiring its business ethics, much of its culture and many of its individuals. It's an odd mix that's often based on kittle understanding that US culture is quite different from ours in Europe.

I'm hoping to aid the understanding of my students a little more this year by introducing some 'American Voices' into the lectures. Beyond the usual textbook and assigned scholarly reading, I'd love students to hear from 'real' Americans who live and breathe the impacts of US political decision making every day.

I would like them to hear views on the death penalty and gun control for instance from the kinds of articulate, erudite Americans I've spoken to over the years; the kinds who've shared their views with me on both sides of the debate. I'd like my students to understand why the Constitution matters so much, given that in the UK we have no written constitution and seem to have a much more malleable view of constitutionally-based issues politicking.

I would love to know how gay marriage and Obamacare are playing in Peoria. It would be great to find out what being 'libertarian' really means to Joe from LA or Jessie from Idaho and my students would gain a great insight from understanding why and how religion matters if you're growing up in the Heartland.

I'll be putting out some feelers to my own US contacts over the next few weeks - I'd love to collect some audio files, perhaps some very basic videos or even have someone Skype direct into my class. But I'm very open to speaking to new contacts and building a range of real American Voices into my classes.

In many ways there appears to be a widening gap between the US and Europe. It can be narrowed through mutual understanding - and the best people to do the narrowing are the next generation of leaders and influencers.

So, if you're an American willing to engage with some 19-20 year old British students about one or more aspects of US politics, please get in touch. You can email me at

Thanks in anticipation for your help