2020 APSA Election Reflection Series: Bringing Politics Back In

Prior to the 2020 election, APSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Programs Department issued a call for submissions for a PS Now series entitled 2020 APSA Election Reflections. The views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of the APSA. Read more about the Election Reflection Series below, after the feature essay.

Bringing Politics Back In

By Abe Goldberg, PhD, Executive Director, James Madison Center for Civic Engagement and Carah Ong Whaley, PhD, Associate Director, James Madison Center for Civic Engagement

College student turnout jumped from just 19% in 2014 to 40% in 2018 according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education’s Democracy Counts, and preliminary analysis by the Center for Information and Research of Civic Learning and Engagement suggests that 52%-55% of voting-eligible young people cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election. The rise in student voting rates is encouraging and hopefully a sign of things to come, but turnout alone is insufficient to build a more just and inclusive democracy.

Even with record turnout in 2018 and likely 2020, half or more of eligible young people are not voting in elections. More concerning is that young people are placing less value on living in a democracy. Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa found that young people have become jaded and cynical about the value of democracy as a political system. According to their analysis of World Values Survey panels, one-in-four millennials considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country and 26 percent responded that it is “unimportant” in a democracy for people to “choose their leaders in free elections”. Moreover, undemocratic sentiments and openness to authoritarian alternatives have risen by some 30 percentage points since the 1990s among those who are both young and rich.

As the country grapples with a mass pandemic, multigenerational crises of racial injustice and inequity, waning public trust in political institutions, climate disruption and migration crises, colleges and universities need to produce students equipped to confront the unresolved public issues we face while reimagining and reinventing our weakened democratic practices, norms and institutions. So what can political scientists do?

At the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, we are bringing politics back onto campus through classroom discussions tied to curriculum in disciplines beyond political science, co-curricular programming, for example with Orientation and Residence Life, and through discourse in public spaces. Our campus-wide political learning and engagement initiatives emphasize the value of voting to exercise agency and as means of full participation in democracy. But reimagining democracy can’t stop at the water’s edge. Our research and experience show that students care deeply about issues, but are not connecting political and civic participation as a means to address those issues. For example, surveys of political behavior conducted by our Center for Assessment and Research Studies show that the majority of JMU students have not participated in most (20 out of 22) of political behaviors. There are only two behaviors in which 50% or more of students report participating: 1) community service or volunteering for non-political organizations/programs and 2) boycotting products.

Preparing students to be active and informed participants in civic and political life during their undergraduate experience is met with significant challenges“.

Furthermore, the average student feels only somewhat confident in their ability to comprehend and influence politics (internal efficacy). Meanwhile, on average, students have a greater sense of external efficacy when it comes to believing that campus administration will respond to their concerns, but feel that local government would only pay a moderate amount of attention, and that the national government would pay almost no attention (The Political Engagement Project Survey Fall 2018 & Spring 2020 Report Prepared by Dena A. Pastor, Ph.D. & Yelisey Shapovalov, September 2020).

Preparing students to be active and informed participants in civic and political life during their undergraduate experience is met with significant challenges. A 2018 campus climate study for political learning and engagement on our campus revealed that student interest in political learning and engagement is mixed. Many students struggled to understand how public issues affect them, how best to address civic problems and were not convinced that their actions would make a difference anyway. Students focused on the private good of a college degree, emphasizing getting a job and making money, and public engagement was primarily apolitical and limited to volunteerism and community service. Concerns were raised by students and faculty members about the proposition of introducing political discussion into the classroom, a promising practice for preparing young people to engage in our democracy. Many students perceived in-class discussions about political issues as uncomfortable and risky. Reasons included not wanting to be perceived as countering the instructor’s opinion, fear of being attacked for their views, and wanting to avoid offending classmates. Faculty voiced concerns about not having the skills necessary to facilitate in-class discussions about political issues and fear of reprisal by students and the university if the discussion gets out of hand.

To respond to the disconnect between addressing public problems through political participation and to increase internal and external efficacy, we co-create and co-implement with students programming and initiatives that meet civic and political learning outcomes. JMU students are consistently asked two questions through our programming and year-round voter education class visits: what do you care about? And what can you do about it?

Student-led efforts lean into politics through learning-centered, action-oriented dialogues, dubbed “Tent Talks”, which bring major issues like racism and social justice, the economy, the public health crisis, the environment and immigration to public spaces on campus with opportunities for deliberation, discussion and action. In the pandemic, we’ve harnessed social media spaces for public deliberation and action. The program’s goal is to normalize and demystify discourse on public issues, especially important as discussion of politics has been deemed too divisive and therefore off-limits in other areas of students’ lives.

Students are learning about myriad pressing public issues and new methods for understanding the nature of problems in the classroom”.

Scholars have found that young people primarily engage in activities that are available, which perhaps explains impressive rates in student volunteerism and community service (Hart and Youniss, 2018). Institutions striving to prepare students for deeper democratic engagement would be well-served to provide opportunities for political learning. JMU Civic hosts Traveling Town Halls, which invite local, state, congressional and even presidential candidates for office to meet with students and take questions in the common areas of several residence halls during the course of an evening. The program educates students on public issues and competing visions, while formally inviting them into the political process in the comfort of their living quarters.

Because of the pandemic, 2020 Town Halls were held virtually and on social media, with 55 virtual programs reaching over 260,000 individuals. Tent Talks were also retooled as Instagram Live discussions and carousels that combine videos, pictures and graphics to share in-depth, multi-media posts on key issues and why voting matters. Additionally in 2020, we partnered with the Office of Residence Life to hold virtual trainings for Resident Advisors on how to facilitate difficult election conversations with hall residents and offered a new tool to facilitate reflection and discussions exploring how experiences and identities shape our politics. We also partnered with JMU Athletics, hosting virtual town halls in 2020 with congressional candidates for over 250 student athletes and registering 100 percent of our student athletes to vote.

From 2014 to 2018 (the first year of programming), JMU’s voter turnout rate increased 300%. Students have also responded positively to programming, including the virtual format in 2020. One student reflected, “I liked attending the virtual Town Halls because I got to hear from the candidates directly rather than their campaign, and it was neat to see different perspectives in the political process.” Preliminary survey data from an instrument that was administered to the same students in Fall ‘18 as freshman and Spring 20 as second-semester sophomores indicates that there has been a statistically significant growth in four areas of civic skills. Additional data collection and analysis is planned for 2021.

Students are learning about myriad pressing public issues and new methods for understanding the nature of problems in the classroom. We have to also equip them with skills, capacity and agency to embrace politics and political participation as a means for solving those problems and building a more just and inclusive democracy. Voting rates in recent elections are promising, but we believe that colleges and universities can better prepare students for deeper engagement in democracy by leaning into politics.

About the 2020 Election Reflection Series

The call asked submitters to respond to one or two of the following questions:

  1. Tell us about an original research project, article, or finding that you are working on, which sheds light upon political behavior and/or public opinion and the 2020 Presidential or State and Local Campaign and Election.
  2. How have you incorporated themes relevant to diversity, inclusion, equity, race, systemic racism, protest, or representation into your political science teaching or research on the 2020 campaign and election, or your service and engagement?
  3. What group(s) of the electorate does your research focus on and what policy issue(s) proved to be salient to them in the 2020 Campaigns and Elections?
  4. What role can/does political science research play in helping to make sense of the 2020 Campaign and Election results?

 All submissions were welcome. We were especially interested in featuring content that addressed the political behavior and opinion of individuals from the following groups: underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women, individuals with disabilities, first generation Americans, Indigenous communities, and the LGBT community. All submissions were reviewed by APSA staff political scientists.

What resulted is a series, covering a diverse collection of political science topics ranging across such sub-fields as public opinion, political behavior, political parties, race, ethnicity and politics, gender and politics, Indigenous Politics, teaching and learning political science and classroom discussion strategies, and the complex intersectionalities contained therein. Additionally, a variety of research methodologies are brought to bear to address and shed light upon these topics and research questions.

We understand that this series is but a snapshot of the political science scholarship being done on the 2020 Campaign and Election. However, it is our hope that these pieces will contribute to election-related scholarship, critical thought, and informed discussion in the weeks and months to come. To that end, we invite your comments. You can find more information and the complete series at 2020 Election Reflections.

Kimberly A. Mealy, PhD
Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programs
American Political Science Association