As the United States anticipates Decision 2016, Chestnut Hill College has been preparing its students, faculty and staff on the upcoming election and reasons it is so important to make sure one's voice is heard. Through a semester full of history and political science courses about topics related to elections and election impacts, to a series of community events, the History and Political Science Department has made sure everyone on campus has been engaged and energized over the past several months.
The following text was adapted from the article, "Learning from History in the Making", in the Fall 2016 issue of the Chestnut Hill College magazine, which can be read in its entireity here (story starts on page 20). For more information on some of the final election events hosted on campus, please visit the College's calendar.
Some may think they’ve seen everything now — thanks to the 18-month run-up to the November 2016 presidential election with its never-ending tweets, counter-tweets, intrigue and more twists and turns than a John Grisham novel. Some even think this year marks the oddest election in American history.
But is it really unique? Who can forget the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush? A recent March CNN.com post calls that “perhaps the craziest, most controversial election in U.S. history.”
The article about 10 fascinating elections by Eliott C. McLaughlin goes on to mention the election of 1920 when union leader, Eugene Debs, campaigned as a member of the Socialist Party of America from his prison cell. The election of 1824 was dubbed the “corrupt bargain” by Andrew Jackson, who won the popular and Electoral College votes and yet did not win the presidency. He came back four years later as a “Washington outsider,” backed by his new party, the Democrats, to beat John Quincy Adams.
So maybe, although this election campaign is most definitely one for the record books, the vote is still out on whether it is the oddest yet. History will be the judge of that.
Through the Lenses of History and Political Science
Both Jeffrey Carroll, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science, and David Contosta, Ph.D., professor of history, are teaching courses this semester about the office of the President of the United States. Contosta’s class, The American Presidency, provides an understanding of the origins and evolution of the American presidency, the powers and limitations the president possesses and the role of the president in the governmental system.
“I teach the students how the office of the presidency has evolved in the context of so many changes … culture, technology and the electoral process,” says Contosta. “I talk about how the president has become extraordinarily powerful and how that power can lead to abuse. I also talk about how modern electronic media has given him a bully pulpit and about how social media has changed everything. I don’t think the framers of the Constitution would be happy about many things.”
Students participate in mock debates and analyze previous elections. They also were required to watch at least two of the presidential debates and write a critical analysis of them.
Meanwhile, in Carroll’s classroom, students explore the American presidency through various institutions of American government and politics; how the president interacts with the public and other branches of government. Numerous intersections with history, sociology and anthropology create an interdisciplinary atmosphere.
“The biggest part of the political science approach is learning how the president makes his way through the political party. How does he get elected? There is nothing in the Constitution about that,” says Carroll. “Our political environment is changing and it’s a very interesting time to be a political scientist.”
Phil McGovern, department adjunct since the early 1970s, agrees that all the drama exists within the presidential election but adds, “the nuts and bolts are in the Congressional elections. The House and Senate are very important in shaping the president’s power for years to come.
“We often forget the role of those bodies and their makeup is extremely important in relation to presidential power,” he says.
McGovern is teaching American Political Parties, which includes coverage of the country’s other races. He says that a focus on refugee and immigration issues are important, as are domestic issues including social programs, defense spending, gun control and healthcare.
The makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court also is critical and will be shaped by the next president. “Choices there will influence the future interpretation of the Constitution for a long time,” he says.
Encouraging Open Debate
As this election cycle winds down, history and political science faculty remain objective in the classroom even as the political climate does whatever it will do all around them. This is not always easy, but Carroll implemented a process in the spring helped maintain his apparent objectivity and helped his students learn to voice their opinions and engage those with different points of view in reasoned ways.
Sophomore Richard Cotto, a political science major, appreciates this approach, as does Joey Galantuomo, a senior, and president of the Student Political Science Association (SPSA).
“Dr. Carroll is really good about getting students involved and poses his questions in such a way that the students inform him,” says Cotto. “He acts as if he doesn’t understand the issue so the students will give their opinions.”
Cotto spent a great deal of his freshman year working with Carroll, Jacqueline Reich, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, and Lorraine Coons, Ph.D., professor of history and chair of the department, on a project to create an internship bank through which students will be able to find internships with Philadelphia and Harrisburg public officials. He says so far there has been a great response from interested students.
Both students say they take this election and their work around it “very seriously.” Galantuomo, who canvassed for Hillary Clinton in May, says, “Democracy is a privilege and everyone’s vote matters. We are at a crucial time in our history, and we really need the right person as president. There is a lot at stake in this election.”
And Cotto finds so much about this election to be fascinating. “Things have exploded in social media. Elections are followed in a way they never were in the past and everyone is talking about it all.”
Speaking their mind is not a problem for either Galantuomo or Cotto, and each will vote for the first time in November. They say it’s important to speak up, be fair-minded and listen to other viewpoints.
“People have been shutting down others quickly, and when you do that, the other person is done,” explains Galantuomo. “If you really think your candidate is the right candidate, you should take the time to provide information, to listen and educate them.”