Teaching Election Results

The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results.  The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.  

While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult. 

Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.

There is a tendency for reductionism and a search for simplistic narratives.  There are difficult to questions to answer that my students will ask: how can Democratic senatorial candidates receive 9 million more votes than Republicans and still lose seats? Why they can be up 7 points in the generic ballot but not sweep into a larger majority? Why is it that states elect Republicans into office while approving progressive ballot measures? All of that requires that I explain a bunch of concepts: the odd primary system in California, which did not have a Republican on the ballot for Senate, the difference in representation in the Senate v. the House, gerrymandering, tribalism.  And that’s not exactly easy to fit in when you are just taking a few minutes at the start of a class to explain what happened yesterday. But I do think its important to take the time to do this, as otherwise its easy to be swept away by the palatable but simplistic narratives found in the media.

The bigger problem for me is keeping my personal politics out of all of this.  I made a decision a long time ago to keep my politics out of the classroom.  I can’t succeed at this 100%, but I try very hard to present issues neutrally, to point out problems in both parties, to focus on historical precedent, democratic institutions and norms rather than policy preferences, and to provide information and ask questions so that students can make their own informed choices.

I’m not certain this is the right path.  I’m looking forward to the International Teaching and Learning Conference this June in Brighton where we will discuss issues on Teaching in an Era of Populism, so I can hear how others handle this problem, particularly colleagues outside the US.  The call for proposals is closing soon, so submit your paper/panel/roundtable/talk soon!