Unprecedented election cycle provides focus for courses

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Oct. 11, 2016

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Emory professors teaching courses related to the 2016 presidential election include (top to bottom) Andra Gillespie, Alan Abramowitz and Brett Gadsden.

As voters nationwide try to make sense of the 2016 presidential election, many Emory College students are taking a comprehensive approach.

Faculty across a range of disciplines — from political science and history to African American studies and sociology — have been inspired this fall to teach courses that aim to give students new ways to evaluate this and future elections.

“We can’t assume that students born in 1998 have any clue about what happened in 1964 or even in 2000 or 2004,” says Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. “So much of understanding this election is based on learning the history and the context.”

Here’s a sample of courses dedicated to helping students do just that:


Race and the American Presidency (AAS 381 / AMST 381 / HIST 381)

How did Lyndon B. Johnson, a son of the Texas Hill Country and a product of the Jim Crow South, become the standard bearer of presidential liberalism?

An expert on U.S. and African American history, professor Brett Gadsden guides students in an exploration of the political work and legacy of President Johnson.

The course pays particular attention to the evolving relationship between Johnson and the rising tide of black freedom struggles post-World War II and his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“This is a consciously historical exercise in which students develop the analytical tools to read American politicians and politics in increasingly sophisticated ways,” Gadsden says.

The challenge for students is to assess Johnson’s complicated legacy — the ways in which his efforts produced a significant expansion of American democracy and the welfare state and prompted a backlash that undergirds much of the populist and racial resentment today.

“In this way,” Gadsden says, “students can build bridges between the past and the great political struggles of the moment which are, in essential ways, referenda on the 1960s, civil rights and the Great Society.”


Popular Culture and Politics in the United States (HIST 285)

Elections are all about capturing how people think, but voters’ values don’t come out of nowhere.

That’s why history professor Daniel LaChance is teaching students to turn to what was popular in mass culture at given moments in recent American history to understand what was shaping or reinforcing people’s political values.

“Pop culture provides a window into how people thought about what the good life looks like,” LaChance says.

Focusing on American culture since World War II, students learn how movies, music and television reflected and sometimes shaped struggles between the right and the left over the nation’s economic policies and its self-image.

One lesson students learn is that  consumers of pop culture don’t always take away the messages that the producers intended.

LaChance cites a popular TV show that aired two decades before current students were born. Norman Mailer was a leftist who aimed to mock bigotry by making the main character of “All in the Family” a cartoonish reactionary.

That Archie Bunker instead became a hero to many working-class men was a surprise, LaChance says, but reflected the anxiety of a fast-changing society. But if popular culture reinforces political divisions, it can also reveal areas of consensus.

“People’s cynicism about government skyrocketed in the 1970s,” LaChance says. “Many on the left and the right came to see government as the enemy. Pop culture helps explain how that happened.”

For instance, pop-culture heroes have gradually been packaged more as outsiders, rebels who must operate outside distrusted systems to do what’s right. Their stories can celebrate individual effort (for the right) and individual freedoms (for the left).

The current election season offers a fertile starting point for class discussions.

“Anxiety over the nation’s economic policies and its self-image are front and center in the 2016 election,” LaChance says. “This course teaches us how popular culture played a major role in getting us here.”


The Supreme Court in the Presidential Election (POLS 385)

Have presidential politics affected the U.S. Supreme Court, or is it the other way around?

The issue has become a topic of headlines, as congressional Republicans refuse to consider any nomination to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

In visiting lecturer Jeffrey Morrison’s course, there is a clear answer to that debate: Yes.

“We are still speculating about future 5-4 decisions that could result from Scalia’s replacement, but it is so much more than that,” says Morrison, who is also an attorney. “The next president will have three, maybe four, nominations. As the court has become more politicized in recent years, you can’t talk about presidential elections without talking about the court.”

Students in Morrison’s course must first study the growing power of the Supreme Court in the past 50 years. Historically, the Supreme Court deferred to the judgment of Congress, the president and state lawmakers on many issues that could be characterized as “political.”

But since the 1960s, the court has been willing to get involved in cases that seep into the political process and second-guess lawmakers, including affirmative action in public education, political redistricting, state restrictions on abortion, and a state’s definition of marriage.

Understanding how those issues were raised allows for examination in their current context both in the political realm and the legal one. It also lays the groundwork for the issues percolating in the lower courts that are likely to rise to the national stage, such as the courts’ role in monitoring the government’s response to the War on Terror.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether U.S. Justice Department drone strikes that kill Americans without any judicial due process are legal.

“The courts historically have deferred to the president in foreign policy and issues of war,” Morrison says. “Given the expanse of power by the Supreme Court, its willingness to judge the actions of the president with alleged terrorists interned in Guantanamo, the question becomes if it will have an increased role in second-guessing the president in areas involving foreign policy and war.”

Previous rulings, too, do not mean issues are fully decided. For instance, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year. Because the ruling was not based on the Constitution’s “equal protection” clause, though, questions remain about the rights of those couples in other legal arenas.

Issues like that will likely be back for the Court’s review as today’s undergraduates are in law school or starting their careers.

“Many of our students are bound for law school and need to understand the history and the ramifications of these cases,” Morrison says. ”They should be comfortable understanding cases beyond talking points or what they read in the news.”


Sociology of Conservatism (SOC 190)

The question of who is a “true conservative” has hit headlines throughout this election cycle.

Does being a former Democrat mean GOP nominee Donald Trump cannot claim that title? Can Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton make that claim given her championing of certain causes?

Such a tricky label far predates 2016 and even the supposed conservative revolution launched by the late Arizona senator and Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater and cemented by former President Ronald Reagan, says sociology professor Frank Lechner.

Lechner’s freshman seminar discusses the full conservative landscape, looking at Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s argument against the French Revolution, economist Friedrich Hayek’s claim to not be a conservative despite his anti-statist views and the diversity of viewpoints among those who claim the label today.

“I hope that by looking in detail at what conservatives have said about certain issues over time, we will have more understanding of the somewhat fractured state of the ideology and movement today,” Lechner says. “To take various conservative arguments seriously, we must first be able to articulate them as clearly as we can.”

Understanding conservatism’s historical contexts helps explain how 19th century “liberals” would be called conservative today, given their advocacy for individual liberty without state interference.

But those thinkers were against established hierarchies and not opposed to change — a political and social philosophy that became anathema in some conservative circles.

“An underlying theme is how hard it is [for something] to be considered American conservatism because there is tension between some conservative beliefs,” Lechner says. “Political labeling differs from political philosophy.”

Beyond learning historical context and recent history, such as the emergence of conservative think-tanks in response to left-leaning academic environments, students also have the chance to discuss political issues.

The political arguments against same-sex marriage and against American intervention abroad, for instance, will be presented both as current issues and historical debates.

“The students are learning about the ideas of conservatism beyond the caricature,” Lechner says. “Understanding who conservatives are, what they say, enables you to think through the arguments and think more deeply about political issues today.”


American Elections and Voting Behavior (POLS 348)

At the heart of every vote is the question of how people make their decisions about politics and candidates.

Demographics can help provide an answer. So, too, can polls and surveys, as well as looking at what the parties are doing to appeal to the electorate.

Knowing how to read and interpret those signs can help predict elections and help understand any given election, even the weird presidential battle this year, says Steven Webster, a teaching fellow co-teaching with Alan I. Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science.

“Certainly the craziness of this campaign has been a draw for both taking the class and for us teaching it,” Webster says. “As a discipline, we have to see what theories still work and what needs refinement.”

Most of the students are voting in their first presidential election and have come of age in a unique time when both major party candidates have remarkably high unfavorable ratings among voters.

That has prompted Abramowitz and Webster to emphasize their theory of negative partisanship — when people vote against a certain candidate or party rather than for one. Students also discuss the role emotional appeals have in certain campaigns.

Much of the class, though, emphasizes the favored methods of public opinion and research. To grasp how that works, students must analyze a current Senate campaign and make a prediction of the outcome using all of the available models.

“Even though this election is so bizarre, how different is it really from all the other ones we’ve had so far? The findings we have are showing that voters and states are lining up much the same as they had before,” Webster says.


Race, Gender and the 2016 Election (POLS 190 / AAS 190)

In 2008 and again in 2012, political scientist Andra Gillespie taught first-year seminars examining race and the presidential election.

This year, the class has expanded to include the role of gender, but it keeps the question of racial politics central as Gillespie walks students through the implications of explicit and implicit appeals to race in this election. Previously, scholars argued that in the post-civil rights era, voters would resist explicitly racist appeals because of the political incorrectness of such arguments. 

The candidacy of Donald Trump, who many argue has made explicit appeals to racial and other identities with his calls to ban Muslims or to build a wall on the border with Mexico, challenges the idea that these appeals are ineffective.

In the course, students pay close attention to whether Trump can overcome the racially charged elements of his successful primary campaign to appeal to the median voter, or the ideologically centrist voter who will cast the deciding vote for president. 

Specifically, students will question whether Trump could credibly pivot away from his polarizing persona in an attempt to cultivate a broader appeal. And, if he does, would it cost him more votes than he would gain? 

Discussions also will center on whether voters are truly turned off by racial rhetoric and how women and minority voters respond to appeals from Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Students are also being asked to put the news cycle for both candidates into an historical and empirical context and develop an understanding of voter behavior and accompanying candidate strategy in the course.

“It’s less about commentary and more about putting this election in context,” Gillespie says. “We want our students to be informed so that they can evaluate the dynamics of any election.”