Politics and Geography


While the formal study of politics has been around for well over a century, a nontrivial amount of scholarship sees individuals as “atoms” that are, in the words of Kenneth Shepsle, “unconnected to the social structure in which he or she is embedded” and the related theoretical work “worr[ies] hardly at all about the sources of preferences and beliefs.” Moreover, Shepsle observes that institutional details are often repressed and reject the “time and location-bound” qualities of institutions and communities, as they are frequently seen as barriers to general theory. This is a problem, for “politics and people” are embedded in particular spaces and places; and networks are highly conditioned based on specific locational qualities, histories, and features. This course rejects the idea that individuals are atoms and explicitly brings geography into the picture in our study of American politics at the start of the 21st century. After examining theory and methodology, the course tackles a number of big issues that are hotly debated in academic, political, and policy circles. One example is the ever-growing literature on geographic differences and regionalism in the United States as an underlying cause of American division and fractionalization. These geographic fissures do not fall along easy‐to‐map state lines but along a variety of regions in the United States that have been described and mapped by scholars in a number of social science disciplines. We will examine and review a number of literatures and large amounts of localized data that will enable us to look more precisely into the numerous claims that there are nontrivial regional differences in terms of political beliefs, behaviors, and distinct regional political cultures. While American regions display varied histories and cultures, the question that we will attempt to answer is whether these histories and cultures have an impact on contemporary political attitudes, behaviors, and social values. We will take on similar empirical topics throughout the year, using all the available tools from the social sciences—from GIS to historical election and economic data—to examine issues of welfare, mobility and “hollowing out the middle,” employment, innovation, gerrymandering and issues of representation, and competition over natural resources. Many of these topics will be familiar, but the tools through which we examine them will be via a geospatial lens. And the way in which we understand the surrounding politics will, hopefully, be more complete when compared to the traditional lenses in political science. Background in modern American history and politics is required. Comfort with data and statistics is expected.