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In Professor Jerome Hunt’s American Politics class last month at the University of the District of Columbia, many questions arose as to whether whoever wins the election could serve a second term, given the low favor numbers of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? What will the Republican Party look like years from now, once the Trump phenomenon is in full swing? What will happen to the Supreme Court?
It was the first session since the first presidential debate, and a good hour or so of the 80-minute class ended up being entirely devoted to a question-filled discussion – sometimes veering into therapy session territory – breaking down the week. in presidential politics.
Hunt faced almost as many strong emotions as political questions. One student said older generations deserted millennials, leaving them to experience a complex political world for themselves. Others lamented the tenor of the election and decried what they saw as racial bait throughout the election campaign. But above all, there were questions. So many questions.
Hunt’s class appears to be part of a new normal: Political science teachers across the country must hire students who follow this election with as much fervor as they are with disgust.
“I think there is a characteristic of car wreckage to it,” said Todd Shaw, who teaches political science at the University of South Carolina. And it can be problematic if students feel alienated from the political process because of the resentful tone of election season. “Fascinated by the wreckage,” said Shaw, “but standing in the distance.”
For Lorna Bracewell, a political theorist at the University of Nebraska, Kearney, parts of her work have changed due to the emotions of her students. “We assume that students have a baseline,” she told NPR, “that is, they are uncritical and thoughtless fans of democracy. America is a democracy. We all love America. Democracy is good. “
This is not the case this year, she said: “This election season, this baseline, my experience has been, can no longer be assumed. … I have students who come to my class with a growing antipathy for democracy. They are frustrated. They think it’s a ridiculous way to run a society, and they’re ready to dismiss it out of hand and start discussing alternatives. “
Bracewell says she used to start her semester with critical democracy readings, to challenge students’ positive assumptions about the form of government. But because of the negative feelings of her students this year, she totally redesigned her classroom.
Instead of starting with readings like Plato’s Apologies and Republic and that of Aristotle Politics, texts full of reservations on Athenian democracy, Bracewell now begins his course with readings from the funeral oration of Pericles and Sophocles Ajax, which are much more favorable to the democratic ideal.
In addition to tailoring classes for curious and sometimes discouraged students, many political scientists have had to admit that some basic rules of American politics that they hold dear have been called into question. Several professors told NPR that Donald Trump challenged the once almost inflexible rule that a political party has control over who gets his nomination – and that endorsements from political elites are a sign of that control and good predictors of who will be the party of a party. candidate.
Others have pointed out how Trump challenged the idea that party candidates will always move to the center once they land the nomination. “Trump broke that rule,” says Shaw of South Carolina, “in the sense that he’s erratic in some ways.”
Michael Berkman, a political scientist at Penn State, says the Trump phenomenon took his field by surprise. “One thing that came to my mind, and I don’t think I’m the only one in political science about it, is how much we’ve missed it,” Berkman said. “I think we could have listened more to what was going on on the left in American politics than what was going on the right.”
Berkman responded to the challenges introduced by Trump’s candidacy by creating a whole new class, focused solely on the Trump campaign. And he recruited professors from various disciplines across the university to help him teach it – history, sociology, feminist studies, African American studies, political science and media studies – recognizing that one of the best Ways to teach about Trump might be knowing you can’t do it alone.
Michael Salamone of Washington State University echoed the sentiments of several political scientists who spoke to NPR, suggesting that, as disruptive as Trump’s rise may have been, it has been good for their field.
“It’s definitely good for studying political science,” Salamone said. “It definitely pushes our ability to make sense of political phenomena to its limits, and I think there’s a lot of good that can come of it. Whether or not that’s a good thing for the political system is an entirely different question. . “