Thursday, May 14, 2009

Politics 114B - UCLA political science course

This is a guest post written by Saeed Ahmed

Politics 114B, "United States Political Thought; 1865 to the Present," taught by Brian Walker in the spring 2008, available in both video and audio formats in the UCLA Bruincast website, is divided into two parts (or units), which Dr. Walker refers to as American Political Theory, Here and Now and The Roots of Contemporary American Political Theory, respectively. The first comprises of lectures covering political philosophies starting with conservatism, neoconservatism, religious conservatism, libertarianism, and moving leftward to Rawls' ideas of justice, and eventually Chomskyisc progressivism. This unit is meant to describe, in summary fashion, what makes up the foundations of different schools as they exist today. Unit two is essentially a history of political philosophy from the post civil era to the present.

In the first lecture, Dr. Walker starts by listing major issues and social challenges that have caused political struggle over the last 150 years: Slavery, race and inequality; the women's movement; the importance of the military in American politics; the growth of the US as a hegemonic power; and the role of technology. These are some of the issues that provide the material of political philosophic dispute, which the course covers.

Much of the course is spent discussing subtleties. For example, it is emphasized that in US political thinking, nearly all intellectual traditions are essentially "liberal" (including conservatives), in that they believe in equality, justice and law. So the dichotomy is not between liberal and conservative, but rather consists of more nuanced distinctions based on what are considered proper responses to social challenges.

Conservative schools are distinguished: traditional (think William Buckley, George Will), neo- (e.g. Irving Kristol, William Kristol, David Fromm), religious, and liberatarian. On the other side are "progressive liberals", "welfare state liberals," and "anarchists".

Two key thinkers, who in many ways optimize the two streams of thought that the course is trying to contrast are John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Rawls elucidates a very complex notion of liberalism and justice, and Nozick persuasively advocates a individualistic, liberatarian philosophy. While not opposites, and not exhausitive in their coverage of all prior political philosophers, these two thinkers synthesize many of the key elements of the progressive liberal and conservative liberal traditions.

Absent from this course is the type of conservatism which is exemplified by certain elements of American media today, such as right-wing talk radio, and certain hosts on Fox News such as Glenn Beck. I think one or two lectures covering the liberal and conservative media would have been good to add to this course. That is because most people get more exposure to these, than the more heady journals, books, and manuscripts which are discussed in this course.

This is an upper division course, so to fully appreciate it, considerable attention, effort and diligence is required. Listeners should know some basic US history, and if they don't, probably could benefit by listening first to Gretchen Reilly's course on post-civil war history (currently available in Itunes). The reading list for the course (which can be downloaded from the course website) is quite extensive. Sampling some of these readings may also contribute to a better understanding of this challenging material.

More Political Science
Political Science 10 (UCLA),
Political Science 179 (Berkeley).

History 1c,
Israel Studies.