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How Do You Teach Politics In The Year Of Donald Trump?

Donald Trump on the set of the Sept. 26 presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Donald Trump on the set of the Sept. 26 presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y.

In professor Jerome Hunt's American politics class last month at the University of the District of Columbia, there were many questions: Could whoever wins the election serve a second term, given Donald Trump's and Hillary Clinton's low favorability numbers? What will the Republican Party look like years from now, after the Trump phenomenon has its full effect? 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 completely 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 he did political queries. One student ranted that older generations had deserted millennials, leaving them to figure out a complex political world all by themselves. Others lamented the tenor of the election and decried what they saw as race-baiting throughout the campaign season. But above all, there were questions. So many questions.

Hunt's class seems to be part of a new normal: Political science professors throughout the country are having to engage students who are following this election with equal parts fervor and disgust.

I have students coming into my classroom with a surging antipathy for democracy. They are frustrated. They find it to be a ridiculous way to govern a society, and they are ready to dismiss it out of hand and start having the conversation about alternatives.

"I think there's a car wreck feature to it," said Todd Shaw, who teaches political science at the University of South Carolina. And that can be problematic if students feel alienated from the political process due to the election season's rancorous tone. "Fascinated by the wreckage," Shaw said, "but standing off in the distance."

For Lorna Bracewell, a political theorist at the University of Nebraska, Kearney, parts of her job have changed due to her students' emotions. "We go in assuming a baseline among students," she told NPR, "which is that they are uncritically, unreflectively fans of democracy. Right? America is a democracy. We all love America. Democracy is good."

Not so this year, she says: "This election season, that baseline, my experience has been, can no longer be assumed. ... I have students coming into my classroom with a surging antipathy for democracy. They are frustrated. They find it to be a ridiculous way to govern a society, and they are ready to dismiss it out of hand and start having the conversation about alternatives."

Bracewell says she used to start her semester with readings that were critical of democracy, to challenge students' positive assumptions of the form of government. But as a result of her students' negative feelings this year, she has totally redesigned her class.

Instead of starting with readings like Plato's Apology and Republic and Aristotle's Politics, texts full of reservations about Athenian democracy, Bracewell now begins her course with readings from Pericles' funeral oration and Sophocles' Ajax, which are much more supportive of the democratic ideal.

Besides adjusting coursework for inquisitive and sometimes dejected students, many political scientists have had to admit that some basic rules of American politics they used to hold dear have been challenged. Several professors told NPR about Donald Trump challenging the rule, onetime nearly iron-clad, that a political party has control over who gets its nomination — and that endorsements from political elites are a sign of that control and good predictors of who will be a party's nominee.

Others pointed out how Trump has challenged the notion that party nominees will always move to the center once they've clinched the nomination. "Trump has violated that rule," says South Carolina's Shaw, "in the sense that he is erratic in some respects."

Michael Berkman, a political scientist at Penn State, says the Trump phenomenon took his field by surprise. "One thing that occurred to me, and I don't think I'm alone on this in political science, is the extent to which we missed it," Berkman said. "I think we might have been more in tune to what was going on on the left in American politics than we were to what was going on in the right."

Berkman has responded to the challenges Trump's candidacy introduced by creating an entirely new class, focused solely on the Trump campaign. And he has recruited professors from various disciplines throughout the university to help him teach it — history, sociology, women's studies, African-American studies, political science, and media studies — in acknowledgment that one of the best ways to teach about Trump might be knowing that you can't do it alone.

Michael Salamone at Washington State University echoed the sentiments of several political scientists who spoke with NPR, floating the idea that, as disruptive as Trump's rise might have been, it's been beneficial to their field.

"It's definitely good for the study of political science," said Salamone. "It's definitely pushing our ability to make sense of political phenomena to its limit, and I think there is a lot of good that can come out of that. Whether or not it's a good thing for the political system is an entirely different question."

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Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.

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