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The Presidential Election of 2016 in Historical Perspective

Early last spring, Professor of History Rebecca Edwards had a hunch that this year’s presidential campaign “might be a tad unusual.” So she hatched an idea for a half-semester course this fall called the Presidential Election of 2016 in Historical Perspective.

Antonella DeCicci ’20, Antar Thiam ’19, Professor Edwards, and Frank Swiatowicz ’20 examine the New York Times map of the 2012 presidential election county-level results. Photo: Karl Rabe

The title of the course notwithstanding, Edwards says it was her goal to teach the entire seven-week class without ever mentioning Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. “And I almost made it,” she says. Her goal was to demonstrate that many of the issues raised and the tactics employed in the 2016 campaign have roots in American political history. 

Edwards says she thought the course would be particularly helpful to her students as media coverage became increasingly overzealous. “As we watch journalism move back to the partisanship that we saw in the 19th century, I thought it would be useful to use history to be more informative,” she says. “The media floods us with real-time information 24/7, but I thought maybe stepping back and providing some historical perspective would be a good idea.”

Edwards realized that the subject matter – more than 200 years of American politics – would be impossible to cover fully in a half-semester course, so she gave her 54 students a list of about two dozen subjects and let them choose which ones they wanted to tackle. “Predominantly, the topics the students chose centered on issues of fairness and access to the political process,” she says. The class was divided into teams that gave presentations on topics of their choice. In addition, each student was required to pick a congressional district anywhere in the country and analyze it.

Topics in class discussions included analyses of this year’s party platforms, a look at the role of race and religion in American political campaigns, an analysis of immigration policy, and the history of gender issues.

Antonella DeCicci ’20 used her own congressional district in suburban Philadelphia to illustrate an age-old political gambit: gerrymandering, the manipulation of voting district boundaries to favor one party. Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania is widespread, DeCicci says. As a result, 14 of the 18 congressional districts in the state are represented by Republicans despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 4 million to 3.1 million.

Gerrymandering certainly worked in her hometown 13th Congressional District, DeCicci says. It had been Democratic before voting districts were redrawn in 2012, but now it’s solidly Republican. “The boundary lines are crazy,” she says. “Some parts of my district are only 800 feet wide.”

Such political maneuvering can generate cynicism about the political system, and Edwards says one of the most common questions her students asked during the course was, “Why don’t more people vote?” A guest lecturer for the class, Brown University Professor of History Robert Self, noted in his remarks that the United States ranks in the bottom third in voter turnout among western democracies.

Frank Swiatowicz ’20, of Yonkers, NY, says he studied a congressional district in Chicago that was composed primarily of Hispanic voters. While the boundaries were drawn to help ensure that a Hispanic candidate could win that congressional seat, it also shut Hispanic voters out of other districts, so they could not threaten non-Hispanic candidates.

Swiatowicz says Edwards’ course taught him one discouraging lesson: “We seem to be talking about the same problems over and over again without solving any of them.”

Antar Thiam ’19, a history major from London, says he took the course in part to learn more about a country where he has citizenship (his mother is an American) but where he has never lived. Voter apathy was one topic he explored. “I looked at the various ways people are discouraged from voting,” Thiam says. “The congressional district I analyzed was a working class area in Queens where there were many single-parent working families and many of them don’t always have time to vote. That really incensed me. I think more people would vote if Election Day were a holiday.”

Learning about such flaws in the political system wasn’t enough to discourage Edwards’ students from voting, however. DeCicci, Swiatowicz and Thiam all cast their absentee ballots well ahead of Election Day. And Edwards says she too has reason to be optimistic about the future of American democracy.  “People can say what they want about the apathy of millennials,” she says, “but I had 54 politically engaged young men and women in this class. These people are out to change the world.”

--Larry Hertz