Description   |   Syllabus

Present at the Apocalypse: Writing About Our Damaged Politics
UC Berkeley
Spring 2021


Present at the Apocalypse

Writing About Our Damaged Politics

Journalism 298, Mondays 9 am–12 pm

Mark Danner


The apocalyptic has become the commonplace in writing on American politics. That we face the fall of democracy, that the United States' "unique experiment" may be coming to an end -- these have become the daily tropes of our political commentary. This course will attempt to grasp this striking moment of political crisis, in which a pandemic has combined with a racial reckoning and a climate crisis to strain the institutions we have long come to take for granted as singularly resilient and competent. We will attempt to understand the moment, in part by reading and studying the best that is being written and produced by political journalists -- and, in some cases, by studying the best that has been written during other crises -- and to come to grips with the singular problem of how to report on it accurately and powerfully. The course will be taught in seminar style with a good deal of reading.


Class Requirements This seminar will be a mixture of lecture, class discussion and workshops/assignments, backed up by selected readings. The most important requirements are that students


*Attend all class sessions

*Keep up with reading and writing assignments

*Participate in discussions

*Do one presentation on a problem of contemporary American politics

*Devise, pitch, and complete a work of political reporting and/or commentary


A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the quality of his or her writing, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.


Schedule Note that classes will meet Mondays at 9 am via Zoom, until otherwise noted.


Reading Our primary reading will draw largely from a number of books of political reporting, classic and contemporary. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies and in the edition specified, either from local bookstores or from online suppliers, so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them.

Tracking the News A significant part of the class will be given over to tracking and discussing political reporting as it takes shape around ongoing political conflicts. Following these events closely in various publications, beginning with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers and websites, and getting to know the work of the leading contemporary political correspondents and commentators, is essential. Even if you are not a habitual newspaper reader, you must become one for this class.

Presentations Each student will make a presentation in class on a major theme of our contemporary politics. Use of multimedia and social media during the presentation is strongly encouraged. Students will present throughout the semester.

Project The project will take up a major issue or event in contemporary politics and report or comment on it. We will be discussing these projects extensively in class sessions and in individual meetings. Note that your pitch is due for your project no later than February 22.

Writing To bolster the clarity and vigor of your prose, I strongly suggest studying two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which can be readily found online, and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.

Office Hours I will count on meeting with each of you individually at least once during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My office is North Gate 32. My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

Grading Students will be graded on their preparedness and their participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of their written work, as follows:


Attendance            25 percent

Participation          25 percent

Presentation          25 percent

Project                   25 percent


Note that regular attendance is vital. Those who miss multiple classes will not do well in this course.


Films During the semester we hope to be screening a number of films that bear closely on the subject of politics and political conflict.


Syllabus and Texts Note the list of assignments and books below will certainly change during the semester. Many books we will read in excerpt, not in full. As the semester progresses some articles will replace books or supplement them.



Required Texts


Stacey Abrams, Our Time Is Now (Holt, 2020)


Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton, 2017)


Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (New Press, 2020 [2010])


Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (One World, 2018)


Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public (Stripe, 2018)


Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land (California, 2016)


Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (Simon & Schuster, 2020)


Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy (Norton, 2019)


Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Radical Right (Anchor, 2017)


Mary L. Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Simon & Schuster, 2020)


James Poniewozik, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America (Liveright, 2019)


Elizabeth Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class (Metropolitan, 2017)





D.A. Pennybaker, The War Room


Alan Pakula, All the President’s Men


Franklin J. Schaffner, The Best Man


Michael Ritchie, The Candidate


Spike Lee, Malcolm X


Gus van Sant, Milk


Mike Nichols, Primary Colors


John Frankenheimer, Seven Days in May


Alexander Payne, Election  




Note the emphasis here on “tentative,” for the list will change during the semester and likely some books and readings will replace others


January 25Present at the Apocalypse: Introduction

Writing about politics in 2021. Politics as a death match. The dysfunctional political system. What Trump showed us. Minority as majority. The current world of political journalism. Objectivity: the eclipse of the old model. The Fox News model becomes universalized. The plan of the course. Beginning with the contemporary. Our reading list. Projects and writing. The presentation.


Required: Mark Danner, “Be Ready to Fight,” New York Review of Books, February 12, 2021

                  Jonathan Chait, “Republicans Have Decided Not to Rethink Anything,” New York       Magazine, January 22, 2021.


Class Notes:

?      Check out Kanopy for movies listed on the course syllabus if you do not have access to them in some other format.

?      A lot of America’s current tensions stem from deep racial resentment and a shifting of political power that began in the 1960s.

?      Pay attention to Georgia and other southern states for the fight of political power in the future -- in particular Stacey Abrams.

?      Read news stories from a variety of outlets and a variety of reporters (mentioned in class were Wapo, NYT, WSJ, Politico, The Intercept, Peter Baker, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Olivia Nuzzi, George Monbiot, Ta Nehisi Coates, etc.).

?      Come to class each week prepared to discuss one piece of news that you found interesting and try to figure out why or why not you like certain reporters/outlets.

?      Look up what it means for the Senate to be in “regular order.”

?      History + Geography = Present


February 1 –

Required readings/viewings:

?      Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (Simon & Schuster, 2020)

?      Alan Pakula, All the President’s Men (Warner Bros., 1976)

?      One news story from the past week to discuss

?      For news pieces, look for articles that are: 1) good;  2) has a finger on the pulse of the political winds; 3) interesting. This process teaches us to weed out the bad pieces and trains our eyes to pick out the newsiest of the news.

Class notes:

?      Uniquely unprecedented times

?      Pandemic, economic recession, racial justice era, climate change, new administration finding its feet, impeachment.

?      What will fill the post-Trump journalistic landscape?

?       “There is a significant Trump vacuum,” Prof. Danner.

?      Marjorie Taylor Greene, extremists

?      Negative partisanship is currently what is driving the news and not necessarily the most newsworthy events.

?      Clicks and ratings have come to dictate the news.

?      The Filibuster

?      grew to prominence during the Civil Rights Era when senators used it to block legislation.

?      The Clinton era also saw a dramatic increase.

?      Escalated even more recently

?      America does not have a majoritarian system.

?      Democratic senators represent 41 million more people than the Republicans.

?      filibuster needing 60 votes to overcome a block.

?      Set up that way “to prevent the unwashed masses from seizing power.”

?      Rise of the mass media

?      Started sometime in the late 18th century with the printing press and papers were very partisan; America is heading towards this again.

?      The modern thought of “objectivity” came in the late 19th century when papers started to try and reach as many people as they could instead of a targeted group.

?      Chatroom ethics are a gray area for reporting

?      requires creative thinking to navigate it

?      If quoting directly or identifying someone, you need to reach out to them directly for comment.


Class story picks

?       Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fahim Abed, In Afghanistan, Follow the White High-Tops and You’ll Find the Taliban

?       Astead W. Herndon and Lisa Lerer, Biden Won’t Budge on the Senate Filibuster. Why Aren’t Progressives Pushing Him?

?      Jane Mayer, Why McConnell Dumped Trump

?       Stuart A. Thompson, Three Weeks Inside A Pro-Trump Qanon Chatroom


February 8 –

Required readings/viewings:

?      Mary L. Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Simon & Schuster, 2020)

?      John Frankenheimer, Seven Days in May

?      Ezra Klein, Democrats, Here’s How to Lose in 2022. And Deserve It

?      Jonathan Chait, All the Lies They Told Us About the Filibuster


?      One news story from the past week sent to other classmates on Feb. 7

?      For news pieces, look for articles that are: 1) good;  2) has a finger on the pulse of the political winds; 3) interesting. This process teaches us to weed out the bad pieces and trains our eyes to pick out the newsiest of the news.


Class Notes:

?      One of the greatest tasks of the current news movement is to notice the revolutionary trends of our time.

?      Impeachment

?      Twice

?      Incitement and sedition



© 2021 Mark Danner