Can out political system be saved? Many people across the United States have been asking themselves this question as they’ve watched extreme rhetoric and actions crowd out civil discourse and compromise. As the Bob Dylan song goes, “The times they are a-changin’,” but what do the rhetoric and actions signify for our civic life and our country?
Ben Epstein, assistant professor of political science, is captivated by the idea “that this could be the first election in a very long time, maybe the first election ever, that could actually change the balance of power in all three branches at the same time.” The new president will propose a nominee to the Supreme Court, possibly changing its ideological makeup, and the Democratic Party could take control of the U.S. Senate. “That’s just a really historically amazing thing to comprehend,” he says.
Molly Andolina, associate professor of political science, counts the political behavior of young people among her areas of expertise. The 2016 election cycle has revealed to her common misconceptions of the young electorate: “There’s a myth that young people aren’t serious, that they volunteer because they want to put it on their resume. I see in my work and as a faculty member the sacrifices that young people are making because they want to effect political, social and environmental change motivated by a deep desire to make the world a better place.” She says there is a liberal-progressive “tint” to the generation, but that “young people reflect whatever the broader waves are,” citing as evidence the majority of the youth vote that went to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Wayne P. Steger, professor of political science, observes, “We have a constitutional system that requires cooperation or compromise, but we have political parties, political party activists and partisans at the mass level who absolutely deny the acceptability of compromises. The pressing issue for me is whether our political system can sustain for any long period of time such phenomenal differences of opinion.”
The election has highlighted how social media and partisan news and opinion outlets have fragmented the population and made the term “common good” seem quaint. But are we as divided a country as we’ve been portrayed?
“Research by scholars at Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley shows that partisanship has replaced race as a fundamental divider in American society,” says Steger. “People are avoiding people they disagree with rather than avoiding politics.”
Epstein has a more optimistic view of the situation: “The loudest and the most extreme voices are the ones that are heard more. I think they lead to political polarization, but they don’t necessarily represent how many people feel. Individual Americans are much more nuanced than that. They might be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. For example, they might feel differently today about gay marriage than they did 20 years ago.”
Andolina believes we can still find common ground if people are trained to listen to each other. “I try to make sure that there’s a space in the classroom for a diversity of opinions. I really want my students to be able to talk across difference, to ask somebody they disagree with about where they’re coming from, to try to understand their perspective, to see what they have in common. If I can teach them to even consider that dialogue, then I will feel they’ve left my classroom with some skills that are essential to democracy.”