Capital Region

Dynamic midterm campaign is challenging local academics

Instructors helping students make sense of it all
Election signs stand on Milton Avenue in Ballston Spa on Thursday.
Election signs stand on Milton Avenue in Ballston Spa on Thursday.

The various midterm election campaigns have left today’s college students, at times, struggling for context, local academics said on Friday.

“This [midterm] is different for just the amount of attention it’s getting,” said Carl Bon Tempo, a historian and professor at the University at Albany.

Part of the reason for the heightened interest is the stakes of Tuesday’s elections, which are unusually high. Possible outcomes range from Republicans maintaining complete control of Congress to Democrats flipping the House of Representatives — taking back one lever of power in Washington for the first time under President Donald Trump.

“I have never seen an election at this stage that was less predictable,” Union College political scientist Clifford Brown said on Friday. “I think the country is still deeply polarized.”

Also online: Voices of the 19th District

Those interviewed late last week agreed the focus on national issues – particularly immigration – is largely a result of Trump’s effort to focus voters’ attention on migrants making their way north through Mexico and on his targeting of birthright citizenship.

“This is the result of a strategic effort by Trump and Republicans to redefine it as a national election,” Brown said.

While Democrats have tried to focus on local issues and health care, Brown said, Trump and Republicans want the midterm to be a referendum on immigration, a topic that has energized and mobilized Trump’s supporters since he launched his presidential campaign.

Also online: Capital Region Election Guide 2018

The election has unavoidably affected classrooms this semester, the professors said. Bon Tempo is teaching a history class on American identity since the Civil War, lending a prism through which students can view the current political climate.

“What happens in the classroom is an interesting alchemy, because I’m teaching a course about the ways Americans have defined themselves in the past, and the election itself is turning in many ways on issues of identity,” Bon Tempo said. “In class, we are speaking about how Americans have debated identity in the past, and students are filtering it through today. What they see are the connections between the past and the present.”

Brown is teaching a course on the American presidency this year, as well as a continuing-education course on the midterms for adults, and he is using the election to show students how Trump has carried out an aggressive messaging strategy. The effort to refocus the campaign on immigration, Brown said, is a prime example of how effective Trump and Republicans have been in driving the broader national political debate.

“Republicans are much better than Democrats at setting election agendas,” he said.

Brown said his students are politically savvy and represent views from across the political spectrum, but he also said they struggle to understand how much Trump’s behavior differs from traditional presidential behavior, as they are too young to have first-hand experience of how many other presidents executed their duties.

“They haven’t lived through normalcy, so to speak,” Brown said of his students. “But I think they understand that something is different here … and most of them are not particularly attracted to it.”

Bon Tempo also pointed to what he called a moment of “political disruption” that has unsettled some students. He said many are deeply engaged in politics, but they are also more stressed by politics than he remembers students being a decade ago. He also said the highly-polarized climate and aggressive use of identity politics has caused some to reflect on where they fit in the broader American society.

Also online: Voices of the 19th District

“The last two or three years have certainly heightened students’ awareness of their sense of self and where they might fit or feel like they don’t fit in 21st century America,” Bon Tempo said. “You just didn’t see students stressed out about the political climate and about their place in it as openly as they do now.”

But students are also looking for context to better understand how American politics has gotten to its current state.

“Students are looking for some sort of clarity — an explanation that is grounded in facts and reason,” Bon Tempo said. “They want some sense of: How did we get to this moment?”

Whatever happens Tuesday, historians and political scientists will have a new measure of how the nation’s political winds are changing, for now.

“It will be another piece of the puzzle as to the nature of the disruption,” Bon Tempo said. “I would also caution not to over-read the midterms, because 2018 is a long distance from 2016, and 2020 is a long distance from 2018, and a lot can happen in two years.”

Also online: Capital Region Election Guide 2018

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