Monday, September 03, 2012


My Wish for Election Season

This year, for the first time since leaving grad school, I’d love to hear students on campus seriously discuss the election outside of class.

Admittedly, that’s a tall order.  Most of the national role models for political conversation don’t exactly make it look appealing; as Dana Gould put it, it’s professional wrestling, with ties.  The convention last week showed speakers ranging from ‘vaguely disappointing’ to ‘entirely fictitious,’ with a special category of ‘What was that?’ reserved for Clint Eastwood.  None of them came close to making an intelligent case for a coherent position.

Not that I expect a lot more from this week’s convention, either.  Even if nothing tops Eastwood for sheer weirdness, I’d be surprised to hear anything actually thoughtful.

In the last few national elections, I just haven’t heard students having actual conversations about politics.  

That’s not unique to students, of course, but it’s particularly disappointing.  Students are supposed to think big thoughts, think out loud, try on arguments for size, and generally practice being citizens.  Missing the opportunity to develop those skills here is a real loss.

Tragically, I suspect some of that comes from being at a community college.  At Snooty Liberal Arts College, it wasn’t hard to find students discussing politics, especially around the election.  Part of that was a function of leisure time, but I think part of it came from a sense of relevance.  At SLAC, we felt important enough to believe that our opinions mattered.  Many of the students here don’t seem to feel that important, and that’s disturbing.

In the late 90’s, the sociologist Nina Eliasoph wrote a brilliant book, Avoiding Politics, which was about the deliberate production of political apathy.  Among other points, she argued that one of the most powerful ways that real discussion gets short-circuited is through mandatory appeals to identity.  (“As a mother...”)  When identities are either highly charged -- as in race -- or very much in flux -- as in almost everything else at age eighteen -- it can be difficult to find a secure position from which to speak.  And when the larger issues are too poorly understood to form the basis for discussion, that tends not to leave much room.

In my ideal world, students would consider themselves important enough that their opinions would actually matter; therefore, they would make the effort to develop opinions.  And as long as I’m being idealistic, I’d love to see students (and the rest of us, really) get sophisticated enough that we could look at politics beyond the lens of team sports.  As our politics have become more polarized, it has become far less common to hear thoughtful people stray from a party line.  

Wise and worldly readers -- especially the academics among you -- have you seen settings in which young people have thoughtful discussions of politics?  What made it work?

In the late 90’s, the sociologist Nina Eliasoph wrote a brilliant book, Avoiding Politics, which was about the deliberate production of political apathy. Among other points, she argued that one of the most powerful ways that real discussion gets short-circuited is through mandatory appeals to identity.

I rarely discuss conventional politics because those politics are very rarely about surface-level policy debates or the trade-offs that different policies entail. Politics are usually about signaling team allegiance and fundamental personality traits, which are only tangentially, if at all, connected to policies. If you want to understand why, read Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter and Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

When people talk to you about politics and religion, instead discuss meta-phenomena, like why they believe what they believe and how politics / religion work as signaling devices. Those topics are usually less contentious than, say, gun control, or whatever.

Moreover, it's almost impossible to understand what's happening in modern politics without these ideas. The Republic Party mostly seems to get this, and they craft their messages accordingly, without particular regard for the truth. The Democrats are behind on this, as George Lakoff has argued in various books, but they might be slowly catching up.

It's mandetory. I teach students who want to be journalists or go into PR. 6-7 chapters of their 18 chapter book I'm using for senior seminar discuss politics in some way. And they talk it on their own--in most campuses I've been on. I teach at CC's and lower level private schools. Maybe you're not listening hard enough.

Maybe we're (the professors) are tired of talking about it too. Just a thought.
Your two questions:

(1) Smart parenting.

(2) Modeling critical thinking to them.
check their facebook and twitter accounts.

guarantee you they're talking politics. they're just not doing it out loud. it's all online.
Back in the early 1960s, I was an undergraduate student at Snooty Liberal Arts College. There was very little student political activity at that school, and even the 1960 presidential campaign passed by with little interest among the students.

The faculty at the school continually whined about student apathy, and the school newspaper complained about student apathy in just about every issue, maintaining that the student body cared about little else besides sports, fraternities, getting good grades, and getting a good job upon graduation.

But the school was a church-related college in which most of the students were fairly conservative. However, the school was not at all like Liberty University, and the amount of religion that was present on campus was not all that oppressive. Maybe the complaints about student apathy were coming from the mostly liberal faculty who were frustrated because most of the students in their classes were conservative. Liberals were sort of a rare species on that campus.

But maybe things changed in the later 1960s, with the Vietnam war and the draft. But this was after I graduated.
Personally, I think you could cut the last five words of your penultimate paragraph.
We are talking and we did when I was in school. True it was a SLAC with a heavily liberal slant but fairly conservative student body. The only active student political body was the Young Republicans. That really got the goat of the liberal faculty. You could get the Young Democrats to do anything.

Maybe what you are hearing is standard young voter feeling. What we think and feel doesn't really matter because our parents (or grandparents) are running the country. And our thoughts won't matter until we are running the country which won't happen until the older generation dies off or gets out of the way. Bet that sounds familiar though.
I have no idea what there is to "talk" about. Both Parties are well to the right of the average student, so they don't feel any representation. And one of the Parties is a fascist insanity that wants to return us to the social contract and living standards of the 1650s. So, here's the discussion:

"You gonna vote for the Dems?"

"Well, I can't vote for the Repubs, because they hate me and want me to die. But the Dems aren't actually good."

"...yeah. I hope the polls stay open, since this is a majority-Democratic district."

"Well, I guess we'll see."

Conversation's over.

Welcome back from your vacation, DD. Very impressive, how you can keep your blog going, keeping it interesting and fresh. Although I often disagree with you, and some of your commenters, I keep coming back for more insights. It's always a treat.

BTW, I was squirming during the Eastwood performance when I saw it live. Then I read the following "explanation" of it as a deliberate performance. Now it seems hilarious to me.

"Clint did the BEST "Jefferson Smith" (from one of our favorite movies) since 1939...

looking at the details;
the off the rack non-tailored new suit, shirt and tie, NOT QUITE A GOOD FIT…


the casual posture, the odd pauses, the out-of-sync gestures

the strange vocal dynamics…

This was Clint Eastwood doing Jimmy Stewart doing Jefferson Smith..


over 60 years old Reagan Democrats and Center/Independents..

and it was FABULOUS…

i knew some big name Hollywood Lefties who are FREAKING OUT OVER HOW GOOD EASTWOOD WAS, "

I have an article you might appreciate...I have made a long study of politicians and have come to this conclusion (as cycnical as it m ay be)


I can think of no better synecdoche for the Republican Party than a semicoherent old man castigating a chair for not solving problems that he and his buddies created.

The "problem" with the Clint Eastwood performance was that it was an absolutely perfect representation.

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