Teaching Political Science In The Age Of Donald Trump

Saint Louis, MO, USA - March 11, 2016: Donald Trump talks to supporters at the Peabody Opera House in Downtown Saint Louis.
Saint Louis, MO, USA - March 11, 2016: Donald Trump talks to supporters at the Peabody Opera House in Downtown Saint Louis.

Most political science professors have their own philosophy about how to approach teaching their discipline to college students. In general, my philosophy has been to illustrate to students that politics is most often about competing visions of human society about which good and reasonable people can have honest differences of opinion. My approach has been to emphasize that most political questions are less a matter of "right and wrong" and more a matter of trade-offs between competing goals that are both desirable, most often freedom vs. equality, or freedom vs. security. Because of this, we should avoid demonizing those who disagree with us and appreciate how our competing perspectives can complement each other and enhance our democratic society and shared self-governance.

This election season has sorely tested this philosophy. As I have written elsewhere, President-Elect Trump is not a traditional candidate whose rhetoric, proposals, and appointments (so far) have been within the commonly-accepted boundaries of American politics. Much of what he has said and proposed is not only what I would hope everyone would view as morally reprehensible (e.g. rhetoric and proposals based on racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc.), but far outside the boundaries of traditional democratic norms, traditions, and institutions (e.g. revoking citizenship for flag burners or appointing a white nationalist as Chief Strategist). But the American people, through the Electoral College, have now elected this person to be their President and chief political representative of their values and priorities.

In my view, it is neither normatively desirable nor ethically defensible for me as a college professor to frame these types of rhetoric, proposals, and appointments as reasonable positions upon which honest people of good faith happen to disagree.

That being said, I also believe that I have an obligation as a college professor to foster a classroom environment that challenges both conservatives and liberals alike to critically evaluate their assumptions and positions. I believe I have a responsibility to present multiple sides of issues as objectively as I am able and I have taken it as a badge of pride for many years that students are not usually able to discern, purely based on their classroom interactions with me, what my personal preferences are on most political issues.

I have been thinking hard about this question for many months now and I still do not have a perfect answer. But what I am going to try for now is to follow Jennifer Victor's advice on teaching political science in the age of Donald Trump. She argues that political scientists do indeed have an obligation to be as objective as possible, but that it is both ethically defensible and desirable to take the position that liberal democracy is a better form of government than autocracies or authoritarian regimes. She then makes an interesting analogy:

"Is it biased for a nutritionist to show that malnutrition is bad? Is it biased for an economist to show that hyperinflation has negative consequences? Is it biased for a doctor to show that high blood pressure and high cholesterol lead to increased risk of heart disease? Perhaps so. Such statements express bias and a preference for a particular outcome."

In other words, Victor is arguing that bias is not necessarily a bad thing in a political science when the bias is in favor of Constitutional liberal democracy:

"I suspect most political scientists agree that constitutional, republican democracy in America is valuable. And if we agree that preservation of this form of government is a common value, then it is also appropriate to speak, write, and vocally object to actions or proposed actions that jeopardize the integrity of the institutions that support our favored form of government.

If we agree on common values associated with the preservation of democracy, then we can also agree that it is appropriate to be vocal about violations of the institutions that have contributed to the preservation of democracy. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to do so. For we are the scholars who most lucidly understand the relationships between institutions, behaviors, and policy outcomes, and who can most clearly articulate how threats to disruptions in existing institutions may threaten the persistence of democracy."

In sum, if what we say and do as college professors and political scientists shows bias in favor of defending and promoting liberal democracy, then so be it. I think this is a strong argument.

Of course I also think that there are strong arguments to be made both for and against liberal democracy as a desirable form of government, but I feel comfortable as a professor of American politics showing a bias toward American Constitutional liberal democracy in my courses. (I will leave that other discussion to my friends who teach global comparative politics and political philosophy!)

Going forward, my goal in the classroom and publicly will be to engage with my subject matter as objectively as I can while identifying and explaining when and where President-Elect Trump and his supporters are promoting ideas or proposals that would weaken America's democratic norms, traditions, and institutions. I will also endeavor to emphasize which ideas and proposals are within the boundaries of traditional American political discourse where smart people of good faith can and do have reasonable differences of opinion, from Republicans and Democrats alike. If I do publicly share a preference, I will try to explain whether the preference is one on which reasonable people differ or whether it is one that I believe to be in defense of America's democratic norms, traditions, and institutions. (One recent example is here.)

Teaching about politics is never easy, but it's only getting harder from here. Wish us luck.