How do ideas shape public policy? How do they interact with interests and institutions to produce policy change? How much can – and should – theoretical abstractions guide the practical and concrete work of politics?

In this online course, led by political scientist Daniel DiSalvo, fellows will examine the influence of ideas in some of our key policy debates – from social class and race to welfare, education, crime and policing, and immigration. Reading will include seminal texts in political science as well as contemporary accounts. In studying major domestic policy issues, fellows will gain insight into our expectations of and dissatisfactions with American government. They will learn how ideas can transform politics, while also appreciating the limits and pitfalls of policy reform. 

Image: Patrick Moynihan and Richard Nixon Touring the Redevelopment Area of Pennsylvania Avenue, 1970

Dan DiSalvo on Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and its Consequences


Daniel DiSalvo

Daniel DiSalvo is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at The City College of New York-CUNY.  His scholarship focuses on American political parties, elections, labor unions, state government, and public policy.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Session I Readings:

  • Daniel P. Moynihan, “Liberalism and Knowledge,” Coping: On the Practice of Government (Random House, 1973)
  • Edward C. Banfield, “Policy Science As Metaphysical Madness,” in Bureaucrats, Policy Analysts, Statesmen: Who Leads?, R. A. Goldwin (AEI Press, 1980)
  • James Q. Wilson, Ch.16, Political Organizations (Basic Books, 1973)
  • Terry M. Moe, “Vested Interests and Political Institutions,” Political Science Quarterly (2015), pp. 277–99
  • Peter Schuck, Ch. 1, Why Government Fails So Often (Princeton University Press, 2014)

Optional Viewing:

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can policy studies help or hurt government programs? Can we do without policy studies when government is so large and deeply involved in so many facets of life?
  2. How does the substance of a government program shape the politics surrounding it?
  3. Why is policy performance important?
  4. What factors tend to weaken government policy performance?


Session II Readings:

  • Brian Riedl, “Spending, Taxes, & Deficits: A Book of Charts,” E21, October 2020
  • Christopher DeMuth, Sr., “The Rise and Rise of Deficit Government,” Law & Liberty, May 5, 2021
  • John J. DiIulio, Jr., “Facing Up to Big Government,” National Affairs, Spring 2012
  • Nicholas Eberstadt, “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State,” National Affairs, Winter 2015
  • Lane Kenworthy, “How the Safety Net Can Survive Trump: Social Democracy’s Staying Power,” Foreign Affairs,July-August 2018
  • Eric Patashnik, “Budgeting More, Deciding Less,” The Public Interest, Winter 2000

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the basic features of the American welfare state? Who benefits from it?
  2. How is the American welfare state financed?
  3. Who actually carries out many of the nation’s major policies?
  4. What will the future of the welfare state look like? Is the growth of the American welfare state both inevitable and desirable?
  5. What is the federal budget process? Why has it become so politicized?


  • Peter H. Schuck, Ch. 2, One Nation Undecided (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017)
  • Edward C. Banfield, “Welfare: A Crisis Without ‘Solutions’,” The Public Interest, Summer 1969
  • Daniel P. Moynihan, “In Opposition to the Welfare Reform Bill,” U.S. Senate, 104(2) Congressional Record, S8074–8076, July 18, 1996

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the causes of poverty?
  2. How is poverty measured?
  3. To what extent can government alleviate poverty?


  • Terry M. Moe, “Vested Interests and Political Institutions,” Political Science Quarterly (2015), pp. 299–318
  • Frederick Hess, “The Next Conservative Education Agenda,” National Affairs, Spring 2020
  • Martin R. West, et al., “The Education Triangle,” The Forum 10, Issue 1 (2012)
  • Claudia Goldin, “The Human Capital Century,” Education Next 3, No. 1 (Winter 2003)
  • David F. Labaree, “No Exit: Public Education as an Inescapably Public Good,” Reconstructing the Common Good in Education, Larry Cuban and Dorothy Shipps (Stanford University Press, 2000)

Optional Viewing:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the basic structure of the politics of public education?
  2. What is the status of the education reform movement?
  3. Can American public schools be improved?


  • George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows,” The Atlantic, March 1982
  • George Kelling and William Bratton, “Why We Need Broken Windows Policing,” City Journal, Winter 2015
  • Heather MacDonald, “A New Crime Wave and What to Do About It,” City Journal, Fall 2021
  • Daniel DiSalvo, “The Trouble with Police Unions,” National Affairs, Fall 2020
  • Joseph Bessette, “More Justice, Less Crime,” Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2017

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the theory or broken windows? Why might it be very hard to do well in practice?
  2. Why might police unions hinder effective policing?
  3. Should punishment for crime be based on deterrence, incapacitation, or retribution?
  4. What would be required to reduce mass incarceration?


  • Nathan Glazer, “Foreword,” in ed. Carol Swain, Debating Immigration, Cambridge University Press (2018), pp. xvii–xxv
  • Alex Nowrasteh, “The Case for More Immigration,” Democracy, Fall 2016
  • Peter Skerry, “Comprehensive Immigration Confusion,” National Affairs, Fall 2016
  • Reihan Salam, “Republicans Need a New Approach to Immigration,” National Review, January 2016

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the meaning of the statement that the United States is a “nation of immigrants”? How should that phrase be understood?
  2. How should one think about the current wave of immigration as compared to prior waves of immigration in US history?
  3. Should immigration be increased, decreased, or remain the same?
  4. What are the core immigration reform alternatives?

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