Crisis of the American Idea

The details
Interdisciplinary Studies Centre (ISC)
Colchester Campus
Full Year
Undergraduate: Level 5
Thursday 08 October 2020
Friday 02 July 2021
18 May 2020


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA T700 American Studies (United States),
BA T702 American Studies (United States) (UK Study),
BA T708 American Studies (United States) (Including Year Abroad),
BA T710 American Studies (United States) (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad),
BA T712 American Studies (United States) (UK Study) (Including Placement Year),
BA T770 American Studies (United States) (including Placement Year),
BA T7P3 American Studies (United States) with Film,
BA T7P4 American Studies (United States) with Film (Including Placement Year),
BA T7W6 American Studies (United States) with Film (Including Year Abroad),
BA T7W8 American Studies (United States) with Film (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad),
BA MT26 Criminology and American Studies (UK Study),
BA MT27 Criminology and American Studies (Including Year Abroad),
BA MT28 Criminology and American Studies (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad),
BA MT2R Criminology and American Studies,
BA MT3R Criminology and American Studies (Including Placement Year),
BA MT62 Criminology and American Studies (UK Study) (Including Placement Year),
BA T711 Latin American Studies (Including Year Abroad),
BA T721 Latin American Studies (Including Placement Year),
BA T731 Latin American Studies,
BA T7N3 Latin American Studies (Including Foundation Year),
BA T7N2 Latin American Studies with Business Management,
BA T7N4 Latin American studies with Business Management (Including Foundation Year),
BA T7M8 Latin American studies with Human Rights (Including Foundation Year),
BA T7M9 Latin American Studies with Human Rights,
BA L994 Global Studies with Latin American Studies,
BA L995 Global Studies with Latin American Studies (including Foundation Year),
BA L996 Global Studies with Latin American Studies (including Placement Year),
BA L997 Global Studies with Latin American Studies (including Year Abroad),
BA L990 Global Studies and Latin American Studies,
BA L991 Global Studies and Latin American Studies (including Foundation Year),
BA L992 Global Studies and Latin American Studies (including Placement Year),
BA L993 Global Studies and Latin American Studies (including Year Abroad)

Module description

The module, taught by staff from across the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University, is titled 'Crisis of the American Idea'. Across a wide spectrum of political opinion one finds a shared conviction that something is amiss in the American project. Some point to Trump's election as evidence that something has gone badly wrong. At the same time Trump's supporters pointed to an American crisis as their reason for electing him. What they agree on is that there is indeed an American crisis underway.

This module takes an extended, interdisciplinary look at The American Idea and its current crisis. We take our point of departure from an observation made by Margaret Thatcher on one of her visits to Washington DC. Europe, Thatcher claimed, was the creation of its history; America was created by philosophy. Thatcher's observation is borne out by looking at the faces of American coins, which are thick with ideas about America: "Liberty," "e pluribus unum," "In God we trust." Even the name of the nation - The United States of America - expresses a complex thought, incorporating ideas about federalism, divided self-governance, unity in plurality. A principal aim of this module will be to unpack and unpick the American Idea, both as it was expressed in the early history of the American Project and as it has been articulated in and by its subsequent history. We will then try to assess the current crisis. To what extent is it a crisis internal to the American Idea itself and to what extent is it a failure of implementation of that idea? To what extent can this crisis also be traced the US' foreign relations and domestic policies to those defined as its cultural andpolitical "others"?

In this presidential election year, we will pay close attention to the relationship between these structural accounts of crisis and the ongoing federal and state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

To examine the historical roots of major issues in contemporary political and social issues in the United States of America.

To examine whether or not the current status of US political discourse might be understood as a ‘crisis’.

To analyse and discuss varying perspectives on contemporary issues as they relate to the foundational ideas, ideologies and texts of the United States of America.

To discuss the place and status of United States in relation to its neighbours in Latin America and the Caribbean and its various marginalised communities;
Fundamentally, to examine if the current ‘crisis’ is a crisis of these founding ideas, ideologies and texts, or a crisis of their (mis-)implementation.

Module learning outcomes

At the end of the module, the student should be able to:

speak and write with authority about a variety of issues relating to the US’ political and cultural history, particularly in relation to its foundational ideas and ideologies

Identify key historical, social, cultural, political and geographical themes that are specific to and defining of these issues in historical and contemporary discourse, particularly in regards to race, class, gender, and national identity

Discuss the relationship between ideas of (for example) liberty, freedom and, justice, and their execution in the US context

Approach topics and texts from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

Module information

No additional information available.

Learning and teaching methods

There will be a one hour lecture and one-hour class/seminar each week. All teaching events will be accessible to students on and off campus either face-to-face or remotely through online teaching. Weeks 8 and 21 are Reading Weeks. As some of the teaching material includes films some sessions may vary in length and content.


  • (no date) The Federalist Papers - Numbers 1, 6, 10, 42, 51, 54, 68, 84, 85.
  • (no date) Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n :: 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  • Strauss, D. A. (2015) 'Does the Constitution Mean What It Says', in Harvard Law Review.
  • Ewen MacAskill. (2013-11-01) 'NSA files decoded: Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations explained', in Guardian.
  • (no date) OHCHR | International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19).
  • Sandel, Michael J. (1996) 'The Public Philosophy of Contemporary Liberalism and Rights and the Neutral State', in Democracy's discontent: America in search of a public philosophy, Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press., pp.3-53
  • David Daley. (2017) 'Introduction / The Mastermind', in Ratf**Ked: Why Your Vote Doesnt Count: Liveright; Reprint edition., pp.xi-16
  • (no date) Declaration of Independence: A Transcription | National Archives.
  • Zinn, Howard. (2003) 'Chapter 17: Or does it explode?', in A people's history of the United States: 1492-present, London: Pearson/Longman.
  • J. Patrice McSherry. (1999) 'Operation Condor: Clandestine Inter-American System', in Social Justice: Social Justice/Global Options. vol. 26 (4) , pp.144-174
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. (1962) 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History', in The frontier in American history, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • (no date) The Bill of Rights: A Transcription | National Archives.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. (1972-06) 'Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox', in The Journal of American History. vol. 59 (1) , pp.5-
  • Doug Stokes. (2003) 'Why the End of the Cold War Doesn't Matter: The US War of Terror in Colombia', in Review of International Studies: Cambridge University Press. vol. 29 (4) , pp.569-585
  • Robert K. Goldman. (2009) 'History and Action: The Inter-American Human Rights System and the Role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights', in Human Rights Quarterly: The Johns Hopkins University Press. vol. 31 (4) , pp.856-887
  • (no date) Schenck v. United States :: 249 U.S. 47 (1919).
  • Malavet, Pedro A. (2004) 'The legal relationship between Puerto Rico and the Estados Unidos de Norteamérica (United States of America)', in America's colony: the political and cultural conflict between the United States and Puerto Rico, New York: New York University Press., pp.28-48
  • Nourse, V. (2018) 'Reclaiming the Constitutional Text from Originalism: The Case of Executive Power', in California Law Review.
  • Zinn, Howard. (1980) 'Introduction', in A people's history of the United States, London: Longman.
  • (no date) Abrams v. United States :: 250 U.S. 616 (1919).
  • Garfinkle, Norton. (c2006) 'American Economic Vision / Lincoln's Economics / The Gospel of Wealth', in The American dream vs. the gospel of wealth: the fight for a productive middle-class economy, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Brands, Hal. (2017-11-02) 'The Unexceptional Superpower: American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump', in Survival. vol. 59 (6) , pp.7-40
  • (no date) Brandenburg v. Ohio :: 395 U.S. 444 (1969).
  • How Bulk Interception Works, https://privacyinternational.org/explainer-graphic/140/how-bulk-interception-works
  • (no date) Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Debate - YouTube.
  • (no date) The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription | National Archives.
  • Frum, David. (©2018) Trumpocracy: the corruption of the American republic, New York, NY: Harper., pp.ix-xvi
  • Denis, Nelson A. (2015) 'Four Hundred Years of Solitude', in War against all Puerto Ricans: revolution and terror in America's colony, New York, NY: Nation Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group., pp.11-18
  • Winter, Jana; Weinberger, Sharon. (6/10/2017) 'The FBI's New U.S. Terrorist Threat: 'Black Identity Extremists' – Foreign Policy', in Foreign Policy.

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   SUMMER 24hr take home exam     50% 
Coursework   Assignment 1 (3000 words)   18/12/2020  25% 
Coursework   Assignment 2 (3000 words)   26/03/2021  25% 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Matt Lodder, email: mlodder@essex.ac.uk.
Various staff will lecture on this module from across the university
Interdisciplinary Studies Centre General Office - 6.130; Email: istudies@essex.ac.uk.



External examiner

Dr Jonathan Mitchell
University Of East Anglia
Senior Lecturer in American Studies
Available via Moodle
Of 732 hours, 0 (0%) hours available to students:
732 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

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