U.S. Political Scientists Must Work to Support Free and Fair Democratic Elections in November

Democracy itself is on the ballot this November. And U.S. political scientists, whose work bears an especially close connection to U.S. democracy, should do everything they can to protect it.

Democracy is a central and arguably the central theme of contemporary American political science research and teaching. This is certainly true in the “subfields” conventionally designated as “Comparative Politics,” “American Politics,” and “Political Theory.” And even where it is not the central theme, as in most “International Relations” inquiry, it is an important theme.

By far the most broadly influential endeavor in U.S. political science—the teaching of “Introduction to American Politics,” a staple of undergraduate teaching at virtually every academic institution in the U.S.—centers on the dynamics of the U.S. political system, the nature of its constitutional democracy, and the complex dynamics of public opinion, party organization, political campaigning and competitive elections. Most of this teaching is not emphatically normative. But it is normative nonetheless, as a perusal of most syllabi or prominent textbooks will attest. The 2015 Brief Edition of Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics, written by Christine Barbour and Gerald C. Wright, for example, leads with a chapter on “Power and Citizenship in American Politics” that centers on the distinction between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Without some such discussion, what sense is to be made of American political institutions? Until recently (!), have you known anyone who teaches Introduction to American Politics and classifies the U.S. as an authoritarian regime?

Back in early March, I drafted and circulated, with my colleague William Kindred Winecoff, an open letter from political scientists declaring that “We Must Urgently Work to Guarantee Free and Fair Democratic Elections in November.” Within 48 hours the letter was signed by over one thousand political science colleagues, including many current or past APSA Presidents. The letter endorsed the excellent report produced by legal scholars at the Brennan Center for Justice, entitled “Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis.” It will entirely process-centered, and said nothing about the Trump administration or its growing authoritarianism. But, as Will and I argued in a piece reflecting on the Letter, it was clear, even then, that the subtext of the letter was not COVID-19 but the probability that in the face of the virus the Trump administration would work to guarantee that there would not be a free and fair election in November. Everything that has happened in the intervening months has confirmed these fears.

It is now painfully clear to a wide variety of commentators across the political spectrum that the November elections are in jeopardy. The kinds of measures proposed by the Brennan Center and other reputable voting rights institutions have not been taken up. State efforts to make possible by-mail voting in the interest of voter safety have been publicly opposed by the Trump administration and have been challenged in the courts. President Trump has declared that Democrats are trying to steal the election; he has insinuated that only fraud could explain a possible electoral defeat, raising questions about whether he would accept the outcome of an election as every one of his predecessors including Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the civil war. And he has quite brazenly weakened the U.S. Post Office at precisely the moment when it has never been more essential to democracy.

The continued functioning of constitutional democracy in the U.S. is now in question, and every day more and more commentators note this in fear and trembling.

This is very serious, empirically and normatively.

And it ought to be taken very seriously by every single U.S. political science teacher and scholar.

It is being taken very seriously by the leadership of the American Political Science Association (APSA).

In recent weeks APSA has published three very important public statements that ought to be much more widely known about by APSA members and the broader public.

The June APSA “Statement on Systemic Racism” declared that “The American Political Science Association recognizes and condemns in the strongest terms the systemic racism that contributed to these deaths and shares the justified outrage it has provoked. We strongly support the right to protest and are alarmed by the government’s violent responses to peaceful protesters, including excessive uses of force in the name of order. We are also alarmed at the opportunistic criminal conduct of some who do not share the protesters’ commendable goals. These actions are a severe violation of democratic principles.” This statement centers on the danger associated with threats to democratic citizenship.

The more recent APSA “Statement on the Essential Role of Social Scientific Inquiry in Maintaining a Free, Participatory, Civil, and Law-Governed Society” defends “the essential role of social scientific inquiry in maintaining a free, participatory, civil, and law-governed society, and our commitment to scholarship and professional practices that contribute to social as well intellectual progress. As a scholarly discipline, political science has a special connection to public life. It involves the analysis of ideas, institutions, and behavior to elucidate the distribution of power, the actions of governments, and their consequences for people’s lives.” Here too, the value of democratic citizenship, but also the importance of teaching about it, whatever one thinks about it, looms large.

Most important is the late July APSA “President’s Letter on 2020 Election & Voting,” which closely mirrors the March open letter noted above (which was signed by most of the signatories of the President’s Letter), articulating the normative importance of “America’s ‘Great Experiment in Democracy,’” and calling on all levels of U.S. government “to make our elections as open, accessible, and free to all citizens as possible, so that America may truly become a government of the people and by the people as well as for the people.”

U.S. election laws are complex and archaic, and there are many serious long-term problems with these laws that the current crisis all too painfully exposes. At the same time, the general freedom and fairness of the November election is in jeopardy in a way that no U.S. election in over a century has been in jeopardy.

And in the next three months, U.S. political scientists, whatever their partisan preferences, have a professional duty to treat this with grave seriousness and to incorporate it into their work as political scientists.

There are a number of things that can and should be done. While I would argue that none of them are inconsistent with professional ethics and a commitment to non-partisan classroom teaching, I will list them in increasing order of “contentiousness,” with the first being something that even the most scrupulous adherent of “value-neutral teaching” could embrace:

*   Every political scientist who is teaching a political science course this Fall ought to incorporate into their syllabus and their teaching some discussion of current events and of the momentous analytic and causal importance of the November elections. In the U.S., and in a wide range of other countries, the genuine dangers of COVID-19 are being used by some leaders to limit constitutional democracy. It is professionally irresponsible for us to ignore this in our teaching, and in particular it is irresponsible for American political scientists teaching U.S. citizens and residents about U.S. politics to ignore this. Even if you don’t feel comfortable “editorializing” about this, you should inform your students about the empirical, legal, and normative issues at stake in these ongoing developments.

*   Those colleagues, hopefully most of us, who feel comfortable doing more, can and should take a page from the many “voter registration challenges” sponsored by universities and colleges in 2018, and from APSA’s current “Raise the Vote” initiative, designed to furnish political science teachers and students “resources to amplify and increase student engagement.” There are a great many ways to practice non-partisan voter education in political science classes and to encourage students to register and to vote, and the APSA site is an excellent resource.

In 2018, I advanced a proposal for an extra credit assignment related to the experience of voting. Many such assignments can be crafted to suit different courses. This semester I am actually including such an assignment as a required assignment in a course on American democracy. Students cannot properly be required to state their preferences or even to vote. But they can be required to inform themselves about the voting regulations in their state, and/or to reflect on how they experienced election day. Such assignments are an entirely appropriate way of educating students about politics and raising awareness about how politics affects them. I would indeed argue that such exercises are obligatory right now, when the future of U.S. democracy is in question, and especially so in all classes that teach about U.S. politics.

*   One can go even further. The course on democracy that I mentioned above is a course entitled “Is American Democracy on the Ballot in November?” Not content to incorporate aspects of the threat to democracy into existing courses, I created a new course designed explicitly to raise these issues, and to raise them in a way that is non-partisan; encouraging of real, honest discussion and disagreement; and most definitely normative in its treatment of threats to constitutional democracy as problematic.

Here is how the course is described in the syllabus:

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was widely considered to be a momentous development by both his ardent supporters and his strong critics. Over the past four years of his presidency, U.S. politics has been riven by controversy. Many features of liberal democracy have been challenged by the Trump administration, and many liberals, and indeed many conservatives—some of whom early on embraced the label of “Never Trump Republicans”—have sounded alarms about whether Trump poses a threat to the future of American democracy. To be clear: the question for these commentators is not whether Trump is a good or bad president, or whether they agree or disagree with this or that policy. The question is whether his method of governing and communicating poses a threat to democracy itself. This is a serious question indeed.

These matters have been continuously debated in major periodicals, newspapers, and news outlets since 2016. They have also stimulated some important works of political science, such as Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s widely-discussed book How Democracies Die. In this seminar we will read and discuss a wide range of commentaries on the meaning of the Trump administration over the past four years, and consider whether or not the coming November election will represent a turning point in which the future of democracy will be determined.

The November election and its importance will be the central concern of the course, because its outcome is arguably very important, but also because there are real questions about how and even whether the election will take place as scheduled—questions that are unprecedented in the history of the U.S. political system since its founding well over two centuries ago. One reason for these questions is the COVID-19 pandemic, and the uncertainties surrounding election logistics, and the dangers associated with in-person voting, that it presents. A second and more important reason is the posture, and the very statements, of the current President, Donald Trump, who has consistently sought to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the upcoming election, and who has recently declared in a Tweet that he thinks the election should be postponed.

Over the first ten weeks of the semester, we will discuss the centrality of democratic elections to the U.S. political system; some of the distinctive features of constitutional democracy in the U.S.; the history of voting rights in the U.S.; and the main reasons for concern about this year’s November election. These discussions will culminate in student reflections on Tuesday, November 3—election day—and on the political atmosphere surrounding the election itself.

In the classes that follow the election, we will analyze the election retrospectively in “real time,” assessing whether concerns about the election were borne out by its results, and by its political fallout; interpreting its outcome; and speculating about what it means for the future of democracy in the U.S. Our real time answers to these questions will necessarily be provisional, for there is likely to be some contestation of electoral results, and there is a good chance that such contestation–in state houses, the courts, Congress, and perhaps the streets—will be unresolved by the end of the semester.

Was democracy itself on the ballot? And if so, how did democracy fare? Did it win or lose? Did we, as U.S. citizens, win or lose? Are the issues presented by the election—the issues that motivated this course– now “resolved,” or do they persist, and portend challenges in the future?

We will discuss these questions, and then students will write final essays on them.

I have no problem creating and teaching a course like this, because I am conventionally labeled as a “normative theorist,” but mainly because I have always taught courses like this, and in my roughly four decades of teaching I have developed methods of teaching courses like this that are very fair and appreciated by my students.

But many colleagues would feel inhibited about teaching such a course. And that is fine.

The really good thing about academic freedom is that within certain valid parameters, each of us can develop our own courses and teach them in ways that feel comfortable to us as the individuals we are. My course is simply an example of one way that colleagues who are deeply concerned about the November election and the fate of democracy in the U.S. could create or reconfigure courses that transform these concerns into real opportunities for relevant teaching and learning.

Creating or reconfiguring a course takes work. These are hard times. Some might not have the time to do such work. Some might believe teaching such a course would put themselves at risk. Each person should of course consult their own best judgment. But, precisely because these are hard times, and dangerous ones, I encourage colleagues to consider doing what they can, in the name of the best impulses of our discipline.

*   Finally, there is advocacy, outside of the classroom, but perfectly continuous with a sense of one’s rights and duties as a public intellectual. Political science colleagues: if you care about the future of democracy in the U.S., there is no time like the present to exercise your civic rights and to advocate publicly on its behalf.

Donate to voter education efforts and political campaigns of your choosing.

Volunteer to do (virtual) canvassing or poll watching.

In a way that is consistent with professionalism, support campus student groups that promote these things.

Use your knowledge and your skills as a writer to communicate about the importance of securing the November election: the importance of voter access, and fair, honest, and patient counting of ballots, and a constitutionally prescribed electoral process in which proper election results are treated as legitimate by all citizens. Citizens need to know much more about these things. Each of us is capable of writing opinion pieces and letters to the editor of local and national journals and newspapers that help to educate citizens about these things.

And this bring me to one further step, one that is both procedural and substantive: if you believe, as I do, that Donald Trump is an autocrat and that he and his Republican enablers are currently endangering democracy, then say this publicly, loudly and clearly, and work to defeat him and his party.


If you like Trump, fine. But if you are still reading this piece, it is likely that you are at least troubled by what he represents.

And if you are so troubled, then act. Communicate, organize, and mobilize, in your capacity as a citizen.

In a way this step is partisan. But in a way it is not. Defending democracy by defeating Trumpism surely means supporting Democratic electoral victories in November. But one does not need to be a Democrat to do this. Many “Never Trump” Republicans are doing this. Many former-Republicans, like the principals of the Lincoln Project, are doing this with vigor. If you are a democratic socialist, or a Green, or a libertarian, or even if you are a conservative who loves the Constitution, you can with good reason work now to defeat Trumpism. Such work is arguably necessary to safeguard democratic processes precisely so that it might be possible in the future for us to contend with each other without fear or favor.

Political science colleagues: there are so many valid and important ways for you to work to support free and fair democratic elections in November.

Doing what feels right to you is fully consistent with a sense of professional ethics. Indeed, refraining from doing some of the things I’ve mentioned is arguably a dereliction of professional duty.

I intend to do all that I can do, as a teacher, writer, colleague, and citizen.

My sense of political science as a vocation requires nothing less.

There are things to be done by everyone who has a sense of political science as a vocation.

Do what you can.

If not now, when?

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