• Length:
    4 Weeks
  • Effort:
    2–4 hours per week
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  • Course Type:
    Self-paced on your time

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About this course

Skip About this course

Public opinion has a powerful yet inexact influence on elected officials. Politicians risk their careers if they ignore it, yet its power is not easy to capture nor quantify. This course will look at how political parties, campaigns, social movements, special interests, and the news media all play a role in influencing public opinion.

We’ll examine the attributes of public opinion, how polling attempts to measure those attributes, and how they impact the decisions of policymakers. We’ll address the unique features of the two-party system in the U.S., how those parties realign themselves in response to shifting norms, and how their candidates are vetted behind the scenes before the start of a campaign.

Outside of the formal organization of party politics, groups representing various interests aim to affect a change through the political system. Special interest groups resemble political parties, but while parties try to influence elections, groups concentrate on gaining influence over policies. Meanwhile, social movements take place outside these established institutions, often in the form of protest demonstrations and rallies. All of these interests are filtered through the news media, which plays a critical role in shaping people’s images of politics.

This course will help you to understand how these forces shape American politics, from “invisible primaries” to election day and beyond.

What you'll learn

Skip What you'll learn
  • The theory and practice of polling
  • The nature of today’s Republican and Democratic parties
  • How U.S. elections differ from those of other democracies
  • Key points of the 2016 Trump-Clinton race
  • Why social movements succeed or fail
  • Why some special interests are more influential than others
  • How the news system has changed in recent decades
  • The political consequences of a decentralized news media

Week 1: Public Opinion
This session will examine the attributes of public opinion and explore its impact on the decisions of policymakers—a subject that has been closely studied by political scientists.We will also explain the theory and practice of polling, which has become the primary method of assessing public opinion.

Week 2: Political Parties
Unlike most democracies, the United States has a two-party system, the Republicans and the Democrats. This session will examine this feature of the U.S. party system and will explain the nature of today’s Republican and Democratic parties. Party realignments will be a focus of the session.

Week 3: Campaigns & Elections
This session will begin with a look at the presidential nominating process, which includes what’s called the “invisible primary” along with the primaries and caucuses. The focus will then shift to the general election campaign, which centers on the battleground states—those that are competitive enough to be won by either candidate.

Week 4: Political Movements
This session will examine the factors affecting the success of political movements, such as their ability to attract the resources required for sustained advocacy. Four cases will be used to illustrate the significance of these factors: the black civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protest movement, the Tea Party movement, and Occupy Wall Street.

Week 5: Interest Groups
This session will examine interest groups, focusing on group influence and why some interests are more influential and fully organized than others. The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, enacted in response to the economic downturn that began in 2008, will be used to illustrate key points about group influence.

Week 6: News Media
This session will examine the news media’s influence on politics, focusing on the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the news system in recent decades and on the consequences of those changes. The U.S. news system was once dominated by the television broadcast networks and local newspapers. Today, they have to compete with cable and Internet outlets, many of which operate by a different standard. News coverage of Trump’s and Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaigns will be used to illustrate key points.

Meet your instructors

Thomas E. Patterson
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

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Learner testimonials

“Excellent course! The topics are well structured, the instructor explains in a clear and comprehensive way.” —Eva Palackova