The Colgate Scene
March 2001
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Election 2000: A view from the classroom

by Timothy A. Byrnes
For the past nine years, I have had the pleasure of teaching POSC 211, "The Presidency and Executive Leadership." What that means, among other things, is that every four years I get to serve as a kind of local expert on the minutiae and esoterica of how we actually elect our presidents in the United States.

     Four years ago, for example, the editors of the Scene asked me to comment on the 1996 campaign. At that time, I took the opportunity to offer a brief primer on the electoral college. I tried to remind the Scene's readers that it is the states, not the people, who choose presidents, and that despite all the media and public frenzy during autumn, the real presidential election takes place in state capitals in mid-December, not in voting booths in early November.

     If I am sure of anything in the wake of the extraordinary events of election 2000, however, it is that such a reminder is not needed this time. Anybody with a television or a newspaper got a remarkable education in electoral process over the last months. It will be a good while before "electoral votes," "faithless electors," and "competing slates" reacquire the obscure flavor they had in the not-so-distant past. So, in response to the editors' request this year, I will spare the Scene's well-informed readers of another didactic description of our electoral laws. In its place, I want to offer something that I hope will be a little more interesting -- an account of the reaction that my students in POSC 211 had to the remarkable events we all witnessed last fall.

     In many ways, I imagine that the students' reactions mirrored the reactions of many people around the country. But given the more formal, academic setting from which the students observed the election, I also imagine (or hope, anyway) that their reactions were more closely tied to an overall view of the American system of government than they otherwise might have been.

     The first response that many students in POSC 211 had to the events of election 2000 was one of disbelief, and I would even say disorientation. I had carefully planned the semester's syllabus so that we would be discussing electoral process in the days leading up to November 7, and discussing analysis of electoral results in the days immediately following that date. But surprisingly -- amazingly, even -- the results were not known on November 7 or November 8, or for 36 long, fascinating days. The syllabus for the rest of the semester went out the window, of course, but so did the class's sense of the proper order of things. Despite my repeated pronouncements throughout the fall that the "real" election would not held be until December 18 the students had still expected a resolution on the evening of November 7. They had expected someone to offer a concession (that would stick), and someone to be declared the president-elect. In a matter of days, I would say that their disquiet in response to the uncertainty of election night gave way to annoyance. Almost all of them were furious at the media for confusing matters so thoroughly, and for presuming to impose "projections" and "finality" on an uncertain reality. And they were just about split down the middle between those who were mad at Al Gore for refusing to just go away quietly, and those who resented George W. Bush's presumptive attitude.

     As I think about it now, there may have been no more interesting aspect to our class's reaction to the whole saga than the fact that the object of an individual student's annoyance was so readily predictable. We learned in POSC 211, as I suspect many people learned around the country, that ideological predisposition and partisan identification can be very powerful influences on perception. Over the five weeks we spent talking together, I don't think we ever heard from a Republican in the class who thought a dimpled chad was a valid vote, any more than we heard from a Democrat who thought that Katherine Harris was simply a public servant diligently performing her duty. It was among the clearest cases I can ever remember in a classroom where all of us, students and professor, had to recognize a phenomenon we so often choose to obscure. It wasn't just that we disagreed with each other about what the outcome should be, though we did plenty of that. It was also that we understood the circumstances, perceived the "facts" of the case, in fundamentally different ways. And that understanding and perception apparently depended almost entirely on how we approached American politics before we ever thought about the merits of punch card voting systems or reflected on the workings of the Twelfth Amendment.

     For me personally, however, I have to say that the most interesting thing that I learned in POSC 211 was really a reinforcement of an impression I have been forming for many years now. What I saw in these circumstances more clearly than ever before was how devoted the vast majority of my students are to the American system of government, in all its peculiarities. Some wanted Bush to win, and some wanted Gore. But after it was all over, very few of them wanted to dispense with a system that had produced a president who had lost the popular vote. When I asked them to defend the electoral college, most responded that without the electoral college residents of small states would have less of a say in national politics. When I then asked them to justify a system that over-represented the residents of, say, Vermont, in comparison to the residents of, say, New York, they responded with full-throated defenses of federalism and the centrality of the states in our political processes.

     A similar dynamic pertained in relation to the role of the Supreme Court in election 2000. To be sure, some of my students welcomed the court's decision in Bush's favor as a blow against Florida's standard-less recount mess, while others denounced what they saw as the spectacle of a slim conservative majority delivering a presidential election to the conservative candidate. What very few were willing to question, however, was a constitutional order that regularly sends momentous political and policy questions to be decided by unelected judges, serving for life, and meeting in secret. They, like almost all of my students over the years, are firmly committed to the concept of independent judicial review. They consistently see it as an indispensable check on what the framers of the Constitution called the "whims and passions of the mob."

     What was reconfirmed for me this fall, in other words, was that students come to the political science department already powerfully socialized to endorse American procedures as emblematic of democracy, and to celebrate our Constitution's myriad limits on the power of the majority as necessary to good government and to the preservation of liberty. In Federalist 47, James Madison argued that "the accumulation of all power in a single hand is the very definition of tyranny." And when Madison wrote those words he meant them to be true even if that "hand" was acting at the democratically expressed behest of the majority of the public. This fall, with considerable eloquence but not always with self-reflection, my students in POSC 211 demonstrated that, though some might be Democrats and some Republicans, almost all of them are, at heart, Madisonians. For better or worse, their primary political commitment is to limited government, and to the institutionalized checks on the national majority implied in indirect elections, federalism, and the separation of powers. I'm frankly not sure whether to celebrate or mourn an educational system that so reliably reproduces such views. But I am sure that my students' Madisonian convictions will continue to influence their perception of political circumstances, and continue to shape their expectations of political outcomes, long after the election of 2000 has faded in their memories.


Byrnes is an associate professor of political science.
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