Rethinking America

Political Questions All Americans Should Ask

To get real, Americans must urgently rethink many modern mythologies they hold dear.

Credit: Joseph Sohm


  • “Intelligence” failures are usually failures of intelligence.
  • Many assert that de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is the greatest work of political analysis ever written.
  • In the American experience, one can argue that the US has behaved as if “right makes might.”

It is an amusing exercise to contemplate what a former exam writer would offer to colleagues for consideration for a political science exam.

Here are a few sample questions of an unconventional kind, covering international as well as domestic U.S. politics, that have come to the mind of this lapsed political scientist.

Part 1. International relations

1. “Intelligence” failures are usually failures of intelligence. Discuss with reference to specific cases.

2. What is the difference between an “existential” threat and a garden variety threat?

3. The dramatic rise of far-right, ultra-national forces in many countries is an unexpected phenomenon. Analyze its causes without using the words “populism” or “populist.”

4. Candidate Obama promised us “transparency” of an unprecedented nature in the conduct of his government – including broadcast sessions of National Security Council meetings. In the light of his administration’s performance in foreign policy, do you believe that he would have produced superior results had he kept his promise?

5. There is an old adage is that “might makes right.” In the U.S. experience, one can argue that the United States has behaved as if “right makes might.” Discuss this proposition.

6. Two puzzling issues raised by U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East are:

a. The United States’ unqualified support for, and military contribution to, Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, without stating a U.S. national interest and with the effect of strengthening markedly both al-Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen.

b. The United States tacit, indirect alignment with the al-Qaeda in Syria as the dominant and controlling force in the armed opposition to the Assad regime.

What theories of international relations help to explain this drastic transformation?

7. How might Maddux’s advice be made applicable to U.S. foreign policy?

Part 2. Domestic U.S. politics

1. Many assert that Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America is the greatest work of political analysis ever written. For the past century, political scientists have been trying to improve on it. In your judgment, which ideas as expressed in which publications have made the most noteworthy contributions to a deeper understanding of U.S. political culture?

2. There is much discussion that Donald Trump is a clinical narcissist – hence, psychopathic. What behavioral evidence do we have that supports that thesis? How does it differ from that of your ordinary ego-maniac?

3. What would be the impact on the process of selecting presidential candidates were there a requirement that the first five primaries be held in states that host at least one professional sports team?

4. For decades political scientists asserted that U.S. political parties were distinguished by their decentralized organization, factionalism and localism. Consequently, at the congressional level, they were loose aggregations of individuals, each of whom was a political party unto himself.

Yet, over the past 15 years, we have seen Republicans in both houses voting with a discipline reminiscent of Communist delegates to the Supreme Soviet. What hypotheses can you offer to explain this drastic transformation?

Stan Musial

5. Musial’s tongue-in-cheek remark seems to have been taken literally by Barack Obama – shaping his approach to dealing with the Republicans over 8 years. Did it work as Musial implies – why? (Baseball rules prohibit “spitballs” by the pitcher).

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About Michael J. Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [Texas, United States]

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