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Teaching political science in the age of Trump

How, for better and worse, the 45th president affects teaching political science in the classroom.

President Trump takes part in a listening session on gun violence with teachers and students in the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 21. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Spoiler Alerts will be spending the rest of this week attending the 2018 International Studies Association meetings. Panels will be attended, badges will be examined, drinks will be quaffed, and if I’m very, very lucky there will be the occasional flash of insight or two from listening to smart people.

An awful lot of the program focuses on what President Trump means for world politics. Increasingly, however, I am wondering how the 45th president affects teaching political science in the classroom.

I wonder this from personal experience. This semester I am teaching a course called “The Politics of Statecraft,” about the myriad ways that interest groups, public opinion and bureaucratic politics can constrain policymakers from pursuing their preferred policies. While grounded in political science research, this course also folds in common sense and rules of thumb acquired from the close observation of previous administrations.

Teaching this class during the age of Trump has been a fascinating experience. There are many instances in which this administration’s behavior has been different from prior administrations in degree rather than in kind. For example, it’s not that shocking that a president marginalizes policy principals who publicly air disagreements. On that dimension, Trump is different primarily in the source of the public disputes. People left prior administrations because of petty scandals or substantive policy disputes. People leave this one for similar reasons, with the added frisson of disagreeing with the president about, say, white nationalists.

There are many instances, however, when I have to throw up my hands and acknowledge that the current president is not acting in a sensible way. This isn’t an ideological point; it’s that, even if you take Trump’s preferences and try to maximize them, he has seemed to sabotage himself repeatedly. Or maybe it’s that Trump does not have fixed and frozen preferences. It’s a mystery!

How does one teach this? Equally important, how does one teach this while trying to maintain some degree of objectivity? I have yet to find a good answer. It comes down to whether one believes that Trump has actually managed to alter political gravity, or whether Trump has made bad choices and we are therefore “off the equilibrium path,” as they say in game-theory circles. We won’t know this politically until the midterms, and we won’t know it substantively for longer than that. The one surefire way that Trump has affected my syllabus is a greater emphasis on individual factors affecting policy outcomes.

This is not just my dilemma. Last month, I asked political scientists on Twitter how they had adjusted their courses to incorporate someone like Trump. The answers were pretty interesting — here’s a sample:

You get the drift. Some of the responses might evoke the paranoid style in American political science, but most do not. They are just professors trying to reconcile current events with our (occasionally meager) understanding of how the world works.