The US Election in a Comparative Context

Teaching in DC, at the #mostpolicallyactivecampus (GWU’s unofficial Twitter hashtag), I decided to embrace all the craziness of the election season and design my Introduction to election2016Comparative Politics syllabus around it. I bring the US in as a point of comparison a lot already – both in formal assignments like debates and informally during class discussion – but this year, I will be more deliberate about it. Knowing my student population, they will be watching debates and following the election like hawks. If I can tap into that enthusiasm, I think it will be a good hook for student engagement. Bonus points if it means they become move critical consumers of news about the election.

I arrange my syllabus around key questions, so the first step is to identify the questions that can bring in the US election. There are some obvious areas (see below) where it would fit, but I’m putting this out here to see if anyone has any other suggestions. The objective is to use the election as a case to which they can apply concepts/theories or a point of comparison to other cases to illustrate ideas.

I already know the following topics (and corresponding “motivating questions”) would work:

  • Electoral systems (Duverger’s Law): What would be different about this election if the United States had a proportional representation system?
  • Parliamentary vs. Presidential: How was Theresa May’s election to Prime Minister in the UK different from the current US election for president?
  • Ethnic identity politics: Why doesn’t the US have ethnic political parties?
  • Women in Politics: Why are there so few women in the US Congress?

In addition to the scholarly readings that I typically assign in this course, I’ll be on the look out for academic blog posts and newspaper articles that will help students make the connection. These two have already caught my eye: NPR’s “Why Aren’t Gary Johnson and Jill Stein Doing Better in this Election?” and “Could a third-party candidate win the U.S. Presidency? That’s very unlikely” from the Monkey Cage. Please send any others my way.

As I think of this, I can see a few challenges. The first, challenge is re-arranging my class schedule that I’ve spent the past six years perfecting in order to cover the relevant topics before the election. The second, and most crucial, is keeping students on track. This is not, after all, an American Politics class. My plan is to link the US to another country in the context of each topic to keep the comparative in comparative politics. Finally, I have always joked that I’m glad I don’t teach American Politics because there are too many contentious issues that can lead to heated classroom debates. I anticipate that I will have to be a bit more proactive this semester to maintain a respectful classroom and keep discussion productive.