Teaching the Anthropology of Elections in times of Trump

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the #teachingthedisaster series.

This is post in the #teachingthedisaster series comes to us from Maria L. Vidart-Delgado. Maria lectures in the Anthropology Program at MIT and is also the co-founder of Department of Play. 

I taught a class on the 2016 U.S. presidential election (syllabus here) to a group of undergrads at MIT with diverse political commitments, social sensibilities, and with different levels of exposure to anthropology. I faced two challenges. One was getting my students to think anthropologically about electoral politics and democracy more broadly. I mean moving away from analyses that mimic prevalent political punditry (do elections work?), to a comparative mode of analysis attentive to how different groups of people experience, understand and perform free, fair, legitimate elections. The second challenge was to build a common ground to listen to each other in an emotionally charged political environment. I found that in cultivating an anthropological perspective we built a common place to question the assumptions shaping our political preferences, and to discuss the implications of those preferences.

I made an effort to cultivate in my students what Clifford (1988:19) calls an “ethnographic attitude,”  one that sees “culture and its norms—beauty, truth, reality—as artificial arrangements susceptible to detached analysis and comparison with other possible dispositions.” This “relativistic” approach (and I mean it facetiously) was fruitful to study electoral campaigning in its own terms. As charismatic assemblages—of experts, supporters, techniques, political ideals, political networks and media infrastructures—working in concerted action toward electing a candidate (Nielsen 2012; Stromer-Galley 2014). We saw that these assemblages deploy strict top-down management tactics to fuel and spread a collective enthusiasm for a political cause, and produce dominant storylines that ultimately become the bases for political judgment and policy design (Laclau 2008). 2016 provided abundant case studies, like Brexit or the Colombian Peace Referendum.

I organized the class syllabus with a comparative perspective in mind, and informed by my own work in Colombia.  I study the rise of an American-style of political management. As a Colombian, studying American electoral management practices in my home country, I have seen that the American style of campaigning—which is candidate-centered, dependent on vertical information practices and based on popular participation—looks a lot like what has been called populism in the global south. I purposefully organized the readings to compare ideas and practices of political authority and democratic consensus in time and with other contexts, and especially in light of shifting media infrastructures.

Schudson’s (1998) The Good Citizen, and Lakoff’s (1996) Moral Politics were great resources to outline a tension that runs deep in American political history between consensus and political authority, between an expectation of egalitarianism and a representation system organized around social deference.  Schudson especially helped us understand that this system relies heavily on political communication, on arguments and persuasion, and gave us an overview of the historical processes, of technological and institutional shifts leading to our media-intensive, celebrity-centered political culture.

We focused on the emergence of professional political campaigning and the public relations industry in the 1920s, what’s commonly known as “modern campaigning.” Here, we examined the rise of the citizen/consumer and the marriage of advertisement, demography, and electoral campaigning through a mix of ethnographic and political communication works. Lempert and Silverstein’s (2012) Creatures of Politics and Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram’s (2016) recent article “The Hands of Donald Trump” were great resources to study candidate branding and political spectacle. Rasmus Nielsen (2012) Ground Wars, Sasha Issenberg’s (2012) Victory Lab, and Stromer-Galley’s Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age were useful texts to study political communication techniques (for example like micro-targeting or controlled interactivity), the types of relations they prefigure, and their relationship to dominant social structures. We learned, for example, that campaigns select canvassers based on ideas of race and class, limiting the opportunities for participation for volunteers (an expression of institutionalized racism).

We read ethnographic works about elections in other contexts, and social theory texts to question the colonial history of democracy, and its “provincialization.” Texts like Kim Coles (2007), Democratic Designs, Mukulika Banerjee’s (2008) “Democracy, Sacred and Everyday”, Jeffrey Witsoe’s (2013) Democracy Against Development, Julia Paley’s (2004) “Accountable Democracy,” and Pierre Bourdieu’s (2004) “The Mystery of the Ministry” sparked productive discussions about the social relations produced and reproduced through electoral campaigning. Through these discussions, we questioned Donald Trump not only as a product of socioeconomic trends and racial histories, but also as a catalyzer of new political narratives and institutional conditions.

I found that discussing ethnographic assignments in class and comparing findings helped us talk about our political stakes openly, and think together about the implication of our preferences. From the outset, I voiced freely my rejection of Trump (as a hispanic immigrant, recent citizen, and as a woman). But, I also openly recognized that mine was a preference among many and that in class we’d peer into the assumptions informing our preferences.

I assigned a semester long mini-ethnography. Students had to choose a site exclusively activated during elections. Some students chose digital sites, some chose comedy shows, others chose to go to political rallies. Students often shared their findings coded in an emotional register, expressing feelings of excitement/identification or discomfort/rejection. We studied that emotional responses to politics reflect ideals of political virtue and fairness that take different shapes depending on the ideological camp that’s making the claim to virtue (thank you, George Lakoff!). Fighting against relativism, we compared notes. And we questioned each other. For example, can we simultaneously have policies that are good for business and that threaten our environmental systems? Are the social effects of economic policies ‘trade-offs’? Who’s trading and at what expense? How are technocrats more right about policy than someone who feels its effects?

Regardless of political leaning, the day after Trump won, in class we sat with our emotions and listened to our arguments. If elections are “rituals of renewal,” of giving birth to a common political imagination, what do current political polarization and social tensions say about the kind of “renewal” we’re witnessing? We thought it might be time to devise new ways of connecting politically. We don’t have a definite answer. But the classroom, and I mean the open, face-to-face, know-your-peers type of classroom, may be instrumental in this endeavor.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to my students, Alex, Charles, Gustavo, Noa, Piper, Sarah and Sean, for the thoughtful discussions and generous exchanges.

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