Teaching through the Crisis

Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the best-selling textbooks We the People, American Government: Power and Purpose, and American Government: A Brief Introduction, among many other publications.

Image Credit: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

I have been teaching various American politics courses since 1971 and have authored an American politics text since 1986. Political scientists like me know that government and politics are important and interesting, but it’s often difficult to get students to care. Well, during periods of crisis students are actually eager to understand American government, and our job as teachers is less convincing them to pay attention than it is to penetrate the media noise and help them understand what’s important. This was true during such crises as the Vietnam War, Watergate, and 9/11, and it is true again today. What should students learn from the storming of the Capitol? What questions or provocations can we put forth that will foster healthy debate and critical thinking? Here are seven that I plan on incorporating into my own teaching, followed by a suggested discussion question you can use in your course: 

  1. American democracy is resilient but vulnerable to sedition. 

The rioters incited by President Trump came shockingly close to undermining the Congress of the United States, but in the crisis, the leaders of both parties, America’s military chiefs, the vice president, and other officials rallied to defend the Constitution. Trump was quickly isolated. The certification of the Electoral College vote was completed (though obviously not without controversy), and President Biden was inaugurated. 

For discussion: Does the riot at the Capitol reveal the strength or the fragility of American democracy? 

Image Credit: lev radin/Alamy Stock Photo
  1. The American presidential selection system is flawed. 

Party leaders have little control over the nominating process, and the only candidate vetting is done by the mass media. Today, in the age of social media, candidates can bypass even the media and, like Trump, reach directly for popular support. This is a recipe for disaster. Presidential politics has always attracted attention-seekers and anyone who had or could raise money, but party leaders generally weeded out the most extreme of them. Today, they can’t. And when presidents are unchecked, dangerous outcomes, such as speeches that encourage insurrection, can occur. 

For discussion: Could the Republican Party have stopped Donald Trump from becoming president? Should it have? 

  1. The presidency has overwhelmed the separation of powers and become the dominant force in America’s government. 

This is one reason our elections have become so acrimonious. The power of the presidency is so great that no one is willing to consider losing. Thus the presidency has become more and more powerful, and thus dangerous. We need to remember that Congress is America’s only democratic institution. Presidents may be democratically elected (the antidemocratic slant of the Electoral College notwithstanding), but only Congress governs in a democratic manner. That is why it is slow and inefficient, like a faculty committee. We should love it anyway. 

For discussion: Is the presidency as an institution too powerful? Is that power likely to grow or shrink? Do all presidents wield too much power, or only the ones you disagree with? 

  1. Despite claims to the contrary, American voting systems work fairly well. 

I grew up in Chicago during the reign of the legendary mayor Richard J. Daley, so I am familiar with election fraud. There is, however, no evidence of significant fraud in the 2020 election. Students might explore the electoral machinery of their state to see the protections against fraud. Many Trump supporters think the 2020 election was stolen, but they have no credible evidence to support this idea. 

For discussion: America’s elections are administered by the states, who can set their own rules. Does this make American elections more or less secure?  

  1. Politicians are generally not the most truthful people in the world. 

In fact, even politicians we might admire often do not tell the truth. Politicians evaluate words for their utility, not their truth value or even their factual accuracy. President Trump has asserted that he did nothing to incite the rioters who stormed the Capitol. Read and listen to a clip of Trump’s speech and decide for yourself

For discussion: Based on the transcript and video, did Trump incite the rioters at the Capitol? Were Twitter and Facebook justified in suspending Trump’s accounts after the events at the Capitol? 

  1. The ability to evaluate sources is a skill everyone needs. 

There is a tremendous amount of political noise—on TV and online. And social media helps dubious claims find an audience. We need to help students learn how to evaluate sources and redirect friends and family who have been led astray by misinformation. 

For discussion: What do you count as credible media sources, and how do you know a source is credible? Where do you get your news? 

  1. Rethinking your assumptions is key to a healthy democracy. 

Many individuals are prisoners of their own biases and preconceptions and absolutely cannot evaluate information with any degree of objectivity. This is why Democrats and Republicans have difficulty speaking to one another. When it comes to politics, we need to encourage students to always question their beliefs as much as or even more than the beliefs of those who disagree with them; to carefully consider the arguments made by the other side; to think past their biases. Democracy is a conversation; it requires thought, engaged listening, and active participation. 

For discussion: When is the last time you’ve changed your mind about a politician or political issue? What caused you to rethink your beliefs? 

During a time of crisis, we have students’ attention, and students want to learn. Maybe these topics for thought and discussion will engage your students and enliven your classroom. I’d love to know how they work for you and to hear your ideas about teaching through the crisis. I can be reached at bgin@jhu.edu.

For a brief, assignable essay about the riot at the Capitol (and its roots and the aftermath), please visit:  https://seagull.wwnorton.com/Ginsberg_insurrection

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