September 30, 2004

Teach-in Highlights Electoral Issues

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Professors and students alike gathered yesterday in the Kaufmann Auditorium of Goldwin Smith Hall as part of the government department’s teach-in on election 2004, a lecture series that has taken place over the past three weeks. The focus of the series was to bring attention to issues addressed by the presidential candidates in the upcoming election, and to share a variety of viewpoints on such topics.

Yesterday’s talk started off with Theodore Lowi, the J.L. Senior Professor of American Studies. The title of his presentation, “Before Elections: Coalitions” provided insight as to why candidates who struggle within their own party can still be successful in a bid for the presidency. Lowi referred to this concept as “the most widely shared second choice.” This applies to presidents who have been elected by the electoral college yet failed to win the popular vote, and candidates who are viewed essentially as the lesser of two evils. Lowi likened Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to former President Abraham Lincoln, in that both individuals were criticized for inconsistent positions. Rather than referring to political parties,

Lowi explained his preference for the term “coalitions” as a way to better acknowledge the vast number of primary interests represented in each group. Lowi also discussed the pressures put on candidates to satisfy this plethora of interests while campaigning, and how this may be a reason for inconsistent positions on the issues.

“I take solace in John Kerry because he is the best anybody could do under the circumstances,” said Lowi. “The candidate must be a choice that we can all live with.”

In order to represent the diffuseness of the party, the candidate selected must be able to live up to the standards held by the multifaceted coalition backing that candidate.

The next lecturer to speak was Prof. Devra Moehler, government. Moehler’s talk was entitled “A Comparative Perspective on U.S. Public Participation.” From a comparative standpoint, American citizens choose to vote significantly less than citizens of nearly all European countries. However, Americans choose to participate in other political activities at a much greater rate than other countries, Moehler said, illustrating her point with a series of graphs. Some of these activities include donating money, campaign work, contacting voters and affiliation with a political party.

“Group inequalities are magnified as a result of participation in ways other than voting” Moehler said, offering a possible reason why this trend exists.

Moehler explained that the varying percentages of voter turnout and general political involvement may be due to differences in gender, income, race/ethnicity, education and age. While voters do not differ from non-voters regarding partisan preferences and opinions on given policies, Moehler contended that voters do differ from non-voters on topics relating to personal circumstances, dependence on government benefits and priorities of government action.

“This causes inequalities to be magnified even more” Moehler added.

Following Moehler was Prof. Diane Rubenstein, government. Rubenstein’s speech, called “The Media and Masculinity,” offered a unique viewpoint on the role of the media in shaping perception of candidates on the basis of “who is more macho”. A topic particularly relevant to this election, Rubenstein discussed Kerry’s “war hero” reputation that was such a focal point of the Democratic National Convention and has now become a source of question after recent ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Rubenstein asserted that the candidates must be able to “stand up to the challenges of modern masculinity.” As opposed to President Bush’s “rugged, imperialistic masculinity,” Rubenstein said that Kerry could portray unconventional masculinity in an enterprising sense instead. She attributed this need to display masculinity as a possible reaction to the concerns of “security moms”, a category of swing voters whose main interest lies in protection from further attacks in the United States.

Last to speak was Prof. Robert Weiner, government. His talk, “Elections and Reforms at Home and Abroad,” discussed the “bugs in our system” that have gotten people thinking about changes that need to be made. A key reason for these bugs, Weiner said, is that the ways we do things “are just not natural.” The main example that Weiner gave was the electoral college.

“Everyone knows the electoral college is just weird” Weiner joked.

Weiner went on to argue the indirect system of voting in the United States has led to confusion and inefficiencies, particularly in the election of 2000. He also said that the lack of a central electoral data agency may add to this problem. Weiner provided Americans’ general resistance to change as a reason why reforms have not yet taken place, and that if such changes were to be made, significant steps would be necessary. In order to achieve reform,

Weiner described a need to get around existing politicians, incidents to stir people up and anger as a result of these incidents.

After the lectures were finished, the professors formed a panel in a brief question and answer session with the audience.

“I thought this was an interesting and effective way to educate people onthe upcoming election. The professors provided many viewpoints I would not have even considered had I not attended,” said Jennifer Schanes ’06.

Archived article by Jennifer Murabito
Sun Contributor