Studying American Politics in 2020
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Students and professors grapple with a tumultuous and changing political landscape.
After low election turnout in the final years of the Obama administration, voter participation in the United States surged following the election of Donald Trump. In addition to high engagement in special elections, an additional 35 million voters turned out in 2018 compared to the previous midterm cycle in 2014. An even greater share of Americans voted in 2020 than in any election since 1900.
Young voters have also been more active than usual in recent cycles. While historically disengaged from politics, twice as many 18-24 year-olds voted in the 2018 midterms compared to 2014, and the youth share of this year's presidential election outpaced turnout from 2016.
Reflecting on this newfound engagement, many political scientists have observed a renewed interest in their subject. In poli-sci classes, students will find an engaging discipline that helps them build a broad skill set: They will learn to write, sharpen their critical thinking and reasoning skills, and, of course, hone their political knowledge and instincts.
Whether they realize it or not, today's political science students are studying a dynamic field that is changing right before their eyes. Alongside the ascension of right-wing populism in western societies and democratic backsliding around the globe, the Trump era has forced political scientists to reevaluate long-held assumptions about American democracy and adjust how they teach their classes.
What is democratic backsliding?
"At its most basic, it denotes the state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy."
— Nancy Burneo, Princeton University
Dr. Jeffrey Lazarus is one professor who altered his teaching approach.
"Traditionally, I'm sort of a Joe Friday, 'just the facts, ma'am' kind of professor," says Lazarus, who teaches American Politics at Georgia State University.
"Usually when I'm teaching undergrads, I want them to know the nuts and bolts of how government works. 'This is Congress. This is how Congress passes a bill. This is what the president is responsible for. This is how executive orders work.'"
But today's political climate hardly resembles the one Lazarus grew up studying. In recent years, Democratic norms, congressional rules, and even laws are no longer constraining the behavior of political actors the way they did just five or ten years ago. And while Lazarus concedes that "you're always going to have political shenanigans" to some degree, the current era requires him to take a different tack at the lectern.
Generally, Americans expect that "there are two parties that both want everybody to vote and adhere to the outcome of the election and things like that," Lazarus says. "That's not necessarily true in the last two to four years."
Indeed, the U.S. now more resembles a flawed democracy than a full one. Increasingly, societies with a less robust democratic tradition are proving to be useful guides for how to teach contemporary American politics.
What is a flawed democracy?
According to The Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) Democracy index, a flawed democracy is a country that has "free and fair elections and... basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation."
Each year, The EIU's report evaluates the state of democracy in each nation. The index measures each country's performance across five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties, and then grades them as either full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, or authoritarian states. The United States is considered a flawed democracy.
"We have to look at other nations where we've observed some democratic backsliding," Lazarus says. "How does it happen? Who leads the way? What are the mechanisms? Is that likely to happen here?"
These kinds of big questions aren't just for the political scientists: They're directly influencing how teachers cover material.
"I didn't know the phrase 'democratic backsliding' four years ago," Lazarus says. "Now it's like, 'here's what's on the syllabus.'"
Another problem for professors? The instinct to allow for a variety of opinions in class, and to avoid a perceived bias in favor of one political party, is at odds with the overwhelming consensus within the discipline that America's backsliding is predominantly the fault of the Republican Party and other right-leaning actors. Among political scientists, there is a consensus that the GOP is not a reliably democratic actor.
"Disrespect for pluralism and democratic norms is not equally distributed between both parties," Lazarus says."The Republican formula for at least the last six to eight years, and possibly going back much further than that, has not been to adjust their policy platform to attract more people. It's been to try to restrict the electorate."
The polarization of the electorate is reflected in the classroom. Students — who traditionally lean left — are now overwhelmingly liberal. At Georgia State's urban and diverse campus, the few conservatives in Lazarus's classes are outnumbered. And at the University of Puget Sound, where Dr. Robin Jacobson chairs the school's Politics and Government department, class discussions are entirely one-sided.
What is political polarization?
"Properly defined, polarization of U.S. politics reflects a sorting of political convictions by either the mass public or ruling elites, or both, into roughly two distinct camps: persons inclined to support the Democratic or the Republican parties' policies and candidates for elective office."
— Pietro S. Nivola
"The way I teach, I want to hold open space for competing ideas, but not if no one in my class is offering that particular idea," she says. "The party positions are no longer good standards for the kinds of debates that we might have in class. There are lots of positions to debate, but not the same ones we see on cable news anymore."
A substantial gap between the platforms of major political parties and the values college students hold is not unusual. But in recent years, the chasm has widened significantly from previous decades. A politics that values inclusivity and diversity often seems like a foreign concept in a system where one party openly seeks minority rule.
While politics have always been confrontational, the climate in recent years has become increasingly cutthroat. The current president refuses to concede an election he lost, and escalating political rhetoric has had a radicalizing effect in some quarters: Heavily armed protesters were a common sight at anti-lockdown protests last summer, and the FBI uncovered a domestic terrorist group's plot to kidnap Michigan's Democratic governor.
This has had a profound impact on understandably anxious students.
"Students today almost have an acute stress around questions of politics," Jacobson says. For some, "merely mentioning the party names can be honestly triggering. I don't mean to say that lightly. But I can watch my students, when we bring up certain issues, move into fight or flight mode."
Getting students to think productively about civic engagement in that context is a challenge, but an important one for professors. Civic engagement is at the heart of any democratic culture, and for Jacobson, the key to reaching students in this era is to reframe the way her classes analyze political institutions.
"My intro classes are not necessarily framed around what institutions are supposed to be doing," she says. "Rather than the key analysis being on how institutions are supposed to function, focusing on the forces that push and pull against those institutions."
Within that framework, it's important for students to think critically about how political actions are shaped. That includes discussing and reflecting on the importance of political polarization, inequality, and institutional shifts in how parties behave.
Professors are also contending with the grim possibility that today's polarized environment isn't going away any time soon. Most scholars in the field view the post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam era of relative political tranquility as a historical aberration and believe that a more confrontational relationship between competing factions is the norm.
None of this should discourage students from pursuing political science; quite the opposite. More than ever, the U.S. needs an engaged and civically literate society, and the next generation of political scientists have an important role to play in helping dial back dangerous rhetoric and preventing fake news from spoiling future policy debates.
For anyone looking to end on a more optimistic note, Jacobson encourages a broad perspective.
"Think of history as a guide to what's possible, even if it's not happening right now."
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