How students and faculty are approaching politics, research, and the way they think about the future in an evolving political climate

By Sarah Fister Gale

Recent political outcomes have sparked new paths of research for UChicago students and faculty who focus on democracy and politics. An election of a presidential candidate who had never held a political office, the emerging prevalence of social media as a platform for political messaging, and the withdrawal from long-standing international partnerships and agreements, including NATO, and the United Nations' Arms Trade Treaty, has led many to reevaluate and reassess previously held positions.

James T. Sparrow“Today’s politics have brought attention the fragility of many of our current institutions, and the dangers of making assumptions about democracy in America,” says James T. Sparrow, Associate Professor of History, The Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, and the College.

Such reassessing means that some faculty are reframing how politics is studied in social sciences courses and to reconsider how lessons from the past can interpret what will occur in the future. John Mark Hansen“The 2016 election showed us that the candidate and the campaign don’t really matter,” says John Mark Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science and the College, and one of the nation's leading scholars of American politics. “It all came down to partisanship and the balance of Republicans and Democrats.”

In response, faculty are introducing new topics to their courses that help students look to the past as one way to understand present events and identify the triggers in social structure that led to these changes. Others are launching new research projects designed to engage students and young people more fully in the political conversation.

Cathy CohenCathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science, has spent the last three years leading the GenForward Survey project, a first of its kind a nationally representative bi-monthly survey of 18-36-year-olds that pays special attention to how race and ethnicity shape respondents’ experience with the world. “It provides another avenue to amplify the voices of young people, particularly young people of color,” she says.

While Cohen began planning the project long before the 2016 election, it has become a powerful source of information to understand how current politics affect all members of this generation. “It’s an opportunity to highlight the opinions of groups that have largely been excluded from the conversation.”

Hansen, Sparrow and Cohen are each exploring new ways to frame the study of political science, democracy, and politics with students, as well as how the current democratic landscape may transform their future research. 

An otherwise normal election

Hansen notes that in many ways the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was fairly predictable from the patterns of the past. The election was expected to be close for a number of reasons, he says, including a weak economy and the lack of an incumbent president.

When Donald Trump won the nomination, it seemed the conventional wisdom in political science might be out  the window. But issues and events that one might think would cause a candidate to suffer in the polls did not have significant impact. “He ran the worst campaign in American presidential history against a seasoned politician and he still ended up the winner.”

Hansen recalls the days following the 2016 election.  He remembers telling his students in his Electoral Politics course the story of Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 run for reelection against a former Civil War general, George McClellan, not long after the Emancipation Proclamation. “Lincoln knew that if McClellan won he would sue for peace and leave slavery in place,” Hansen says. Hansen notes that in many countries, the leaders would have forgone elections, fearing that the risk of losing would be too great. “But Lincoln was willing to lose to uphold the principle that the people decide,” he says.  “Lincoln underscored how important democratic norms are in our politics,” he added, “and Trump suggests how fragile the norms may be.” 

 “Many students think they understand US politics and are invested in the outcomes of these campaigns,” he says. But as a political science professor, he tries to keep them focused on the question of what will or did happen rather than what they wish will or did happen. Analyzing past elections illustrates context and ensures the course is not overtaken by the current political situation.

“I didn’t want the course to become an introduction to Donald Trump,” he adds.

Hansen says that Trump and the current political landscape have had less of an impact on his research. Most of his work focuses on interest groups, citizen activism, and public opinion. He spent much of his early career researching the impact of interest groups on large political institutions, which led to his first book, Gaining Access: Congress and the Farm Lobby, 1919-1981 . The work explores when, how, and why interest groups gain and lose influence in the policy deliberations of the United States Congress. 

Subsequently, he analyzed large survey studies to understand political behavior. That resulted in his second book, Mobilization, Participation and Democracy in America with Steven Rosenstone, which analyzes the dynamics of citizen involvement in American politics, and identifies who participates in the political process, when they participate, and why.

In addition, Hansen has spent much of his time outside the classroom in administration roles, serving as Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences, Chairman of the Political Science Department, and Associate Provost for Education and Research. In 2018, he was named deputy dean and executive director of master’s programs for the division.

Unexpected outcomes: a historical perspective

Sparrow also uses current political events to encourage students to question assumptions about why events occur and consider the purpose of the choices governments make, rather than of the cause by which they arise.

“There is an assumption that democracy is always the result of good things happening, but you have to reconcile both sides.” His research explores the twists and turns the democratic state has taken in unpromising times, such as during total war.

Sparrow has spent his career studying how political events shift national decision making and their impact on social groups. His first book, Warfare State, is a history of the social politics of the national state as its foundations shifted from welfare to warfare during World War II. It examines how different groups encountered the burgeoning warfare state and in the process accepted, rejected, or otherwise contested the legitimacy of expanding federal authority in everyday life, thereby shaping the horizons of political possibility for decades. “The central question was how total mobilization for World War II shaped American citizenship,” he says.

At that time there was a robust concept of citizenship only for white males, but the rights given to soldiers nationalized and reshaped that structure. “It became the foundation for other groups to make claims about their national citizenship,” he says. For example, Mexican American and African American veterans then made claims that they were entitled to GI Bill benefits, even though they were initially excluded. “It was an unintended consequence of the ‘Jim Crow Army’ that produced an opportunity citizens could act on.”

Looking at the long-term consequences of rules or decisions made to support specific causes offers important insights into the evolution of democracy and America, he says. And there are many other examples.

When the US expanded its political influence globally by helping to found the United Nations Organization, supporting reconstruction efforts through the Marshall Plan, and forming NATO, it created an “offshore state” that continues to impact the country today. “These are not just alliances,” he says. “They are organizational structures, with budgets and staff, which is an extension of the state.”

The extension of the state had global political and social implications, he says, and changed public expectations of the role government plays sometimes in unexpected ways—not all of which expanded democratic accountability in the end. He points to the housing crisis that occurred after WWII, which led to federal subsidies for private home loans; and the Bretton Woods Agreement, which pegged the US dollar to the price of gold, and led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. “It seemed impossible, but it put banks in the driver’s seat,” he says. Only a few years earlier banks had been targeted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the enemies of democracy, but now they were subsidized and applauded as essential to the “free world” on which democracy depended.

Current politics has raised questions for him regarding the longevity of some of our nation’s long standing agreements, including membership in NATO and the UN. “We are seeing these commitments seriously challenged for the first time in decades,” Sparrow, says. “It’s shocking how easy they were to destabilize.” Now he wonders how the current administration will affect an economy built on “free trade” and long-standing relationships with national allies. “It will be interesting to see if the US spent 70 years building a free trade infrastructure only to exclude itself from it,” he says. “But it’s still too soon to say.”

Political outcomes are only one shift causing Sparrow to rethink future projects. The evolution of big data, analytics, and social media as tools for research are providing new opportunities to answer historical questions with greater certainty. “Big data and analytics tools allow us to look at the data in ways that are more open-ended,” he says, opening a new door to empirical discovery.

He is already leveraging these tools in a current long-term collaborative research project on the problem of the democratic state in the American Century. The project team is analyzing public opinion data, news stories, and Congressional records using natural language processing and machine learning tools to understand how public discourse about key topics evolved, and where these shifts produced political consequences. The technology allows his team to combine analysis of public debates at a national, regional, and local levels, distinguishing how issues are evolving and decisions are being made. “That precision wouldn’t be possible without machine learning.”

Giving millennials (and Gen Z) a voice

Cohen carries the discourse about the current political environment beyond the confines of campus through her GenForward project, which she manages with the aid of two post-docs and a number of graduate student researchers. Cohen, who is the author of two books, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, and Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, devised the survey in response to the lack of attention paid to the perspectives of young people of color in the political conversation.

Each bi-monthly survey includes a battery of questions on politics today. Additionally, each survey also drills down on while another gathers opinions on one key issue, such as attitudes about race and discrimination, technology, the economy, violence in the community, climate change, and political elections. “We want to look at important topics where young people’s opinions should influence policy,” she says. 

The data often highlights differing opinions among millennial groups. For example, in the final 2018 survey focusing on public education, 79 percent of millennials of color believe progress was made under the Obama administration to ensure all children are given access to quality education, yet only about 20 percent felt the same to be true under the Trump administration. In comparison, more than twice the percentage of white millennials (42%) believe there has been progress made under the Trump administration. It’s one example of how race and experience shapes our opinions.  “We believe researchers make a mistake when they present data on young adults in a manner that assumes a monolithic millennial generation and young adult vote,” she says.

The survey’s frequent and regular publication of summary reports also reflects the changing nature of academic writing in the modern age. While Cohen has plans to write a book about the data and how it reflects the need for more participation of young people in the political process, the survey summaries make it possible to share the data rapidly so it can become part of the current conversation and considered in policy decision-making. The findings from the survey have now appeared in almost every mainstream press organization and currently NBC News is their formal media partner. “We want to get the data out quickly to help shape policy, but as academics we are trained to go deeper into the data analysis,” she says. “We want to do everything at the same time, but it isn’t easy.”

Not content to only focus on the national lever, Cohen and two graduate students—David Knight and Margaret Brower—recently authored a report on young people in Chicago. The report, Race & Place: Young Adults and The Future of Chicago, explores the ways in which geography and race shapes one’s experiences in a city and features the opinions and perspectives of 200 young people.

 In the classroom, Cohen explores race, gender, and politics through courses and formats that help students understand how democracy functions and to make sense of system that can be exclusionary. “It is exciting to see students recognize both the limits and the possibility of this system we call a democracy. More importantly, I want them to understand how change is made and to begin to imagine themselves as a source of change in our democracy.”

She is happy to see that UChicago students, and young people in general, getting more politically active in recent years. They see how both parties have failed to include their opinions in important debates, and they are looking for new ways to get involved, she says. “Many of them are redirecting their attention to local elections, activists and civic organizations because it is a place where they can see the fruits of their labor.” While she sees that as a good place to start, she encourages all students to pay attention to national and international politics as well, because the decisions those leaders make will “ultimately shape what they can achieve at the state and local level.”

Bipartisan ethos shapes the conversation

All three faculty are uncertain about the long-term impact that the current political climate will have on their research, their students, and the future of the country. But they are eager to work together to figure it out, and to shape the discourse and study of how this transformation occurred and why. They believe that the University of Chicago is an ideal forum to have these conversations. “The students here are incredibly engaged,” Sparrow says. And the College is working closely with the division to involve undergraduate and graduate students in more research and field studies. “It’s a chance for students to get more involved.”

Their location in the heart of Chicago’s south side, makes this period in history especially noteworthy, adds Cohen. She notes that many students still recall the excitement of Barack Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park and his ensuing legacy. They also lived through the heartbreak of Laquan McDonald’s murder by a Chicago police officer. “In Chicago, we have the opportunity to be confronted by the real world outside of our ivory towers,” she says. “It gives us the framework to question what’s happening in the world, and to lend our insights to the political discussion.

Hansen adds that the university has a culture that encourages collaboration and debate, even in the face of polarizing issues and events. He points to the work of David Axelrod, founding director of the UChicago’s non-partisan Institute of Politics. “From the beginning he made sure the Institute was not full of people all working on the same side politically,” he says. He made a point of bringing conservative thinkers to the table to broaden the conversation and to avoid group think based on ideology. “To an extent his work reflects the entire ethos of the University of Chicago,” he says. “We focus on ideas, debate, and using evidence to support arguments and to discuss things in a rational way. That is the kind of engagement we really need at this time in our history.”