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POL S 456 A: Institutional Failure

Meeting Time: 
TTh 2:30pm - 4:20pm
SMI 311
Joint Sections: 
LSJ 456 A
Becca Thorpe
Rebecca U. Thorpe

Syllabus Description:

POL S/LSJ 456: Institutional Failure

Tu/Th 2:30-4:20, Room Assignment TBD


Professor Thorpe:

Office hours: Wed. 3-4:30 & by appt  

OH link:


The purpose of this course is to think critically about how and why political institutions fail to achieve their goals or operate in a manner that they were originally intended to and the consequences of these failures. We will examine the rise of a permanent U.S. national security state; suburbanization and urban gentrification; a centuries-long American drug war; the politics of policing American cities; the rise of mass incarceration; and failing schools on the basis of 1) policymakers' expressed aims; 2) the goals the institutions in question were meant to serve; and 3) the human costs of failure, particularly for the most disadvantaged members of society.


The course is divided into two main parts. First, we will examine leading theories of political power during the constitutional founding and in a contemporary context. This will provide a framework to assess the history of American empire, the development of a military-industrial complex and the growth of executive power over a vast national security establishment. Second, we will examine how a legacy of racial capitalism promotes segregated housing patterns, militarized policing and punitive forms of punishment. 


As backdrop for this seminar, we will be watching a season of the HBO television series The Wire, which follows police officers, drug dealers, public school educators, politicians and citizens of Baltimore. The series is meant to complement the scholarly texts that we will be reading in the latter half of the course.



Participation & short presentations (30%) 

Essay Exam (take-home) (30%) 

Research paper (30%) 

Response papers (10%) 


Course Material

The following reading materials and videos are required for this course: 

*White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality. 2021. Sheryll Cashin. Beacon Press

*The Power Elite. 1956. C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press

*Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. 2007. Doris Marie Provine. University of Chicago Press.

*The Wire. HBO television series created, produced & written by David Simon. Season 3 required.

*Why We Fight. 2006 documentary written & produced by Eugene Jarecki. (evideo access) 

*The House I Live In. 2013 documentary written & produced by Eugene Jarecki. (evideo access) 

*Electronic copies of articles, book chapters, videos, etc. available on the course website

The courses texts are available at the university bookstore (free shipping is available) and at online retail outlets. In addition to the written texts, the course requires students to watch Season 3 of The Wire. The series is available on DVD format at Suzzallo Library and for rental or purchase on Netflix, Itunes and Amazon.  We will be integrating the series into our class discussions in the second part of the course. There are 12 episodes in Season 3, so I suggest viewing at least 2 episodes/week. If you are not familiar earlier seasons, character descriptions and episode summaries are available at the HBO website:

Additional study material and reading questions will be available on Canvas.  


POLS/LSJ 456 Syllabus - WI22

Catalog Description: 
Examines why political institutions fail to achieve their goals or operate in a manner they were originally intended to, and the consequences of these failures. Topics include the national security establishment, the drug war, concentrated poverty, mass incarceration, and inner-city schools. Offered: jointly with LSJ 456.
Department Requirements: 
American Politics Field
GE Requirements: 
Social Sciences (SSc)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
January 10, 2022 - 4:30pm