Evergreen Magazine

Electoral College

by John McLain

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” —Emma Goldman

Evergreen Tacoma faculty member Barbara Laners cast her first ballot in 1964, and she’s voted ever since. Because she grew up in Baton Rouge, La., in the 1950s, she knows her vote has the power to change things. Why else would some people have tried so hard to keep her from doing it?

Laners came of age with the civil rights movement. She remembers the Rev. T. J. Jemison, who led a bus boycott in Baton Rouge several years before Rosa Parks sat down in Montgomery. She knew that Thurgood (“the Lawyer”) Marshall and a young Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the city regularly to bolster its African American residents living under segregation.

The 1955 murder of Emmett Till—a boy close to her age—affected Laners profoundly. Beatings and murders of Southern blacks were all too common, but details of the brutal killing in Mississippi, along with images of Till’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket), presented grisly evidence of the terrors of Jim Crow to the world. A jury acquitted Till’s two white killers, who later bragged about the crime in Look magazine, but his murder marked a pivotal moment in the early struggle for civil rights.

“I always vote because in my mind I recall the martyrs,” Laners says. “This right was bought with blood, so we have to honor that by voting at every opportunity.”

"Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it is the same half." —Gore Vidal

Barbara Laners and Peter Bacho
Photo: In their program “Four More Years?” Evergreen Tacoma faculty members Barbara Laners and Peter Bacho urge students to “dig beyond the sound bite to see what the issues really are” this election season.

If one thing matters more than voting to Barbara Laners, however, it’s informed voting. As a lawyer, teacher, radio host and community leader, Laners has used her career to educate others about the issues affecting their lives. This fall, she and colleague Peter Bacho will teach “Four More Years?” at Evergreen Tacoma. Both are professed political junkies, though Bacho insists on one distinction. “Barbara will even watch C-SPAN, which I cannot bring myself to do.”

“Four More Years?” is one of three academic programs examining the election as it unfolds. November 6, 2012, will mark the 57th time that Americans go to the polls to elect a president. Governors’ offices and congressional majorities are up for grabs. Voters in Washington state will decide on a host of ballot measures about marijuana, tax increases, charter schools and same-sex marriage.

“The range of topics to discuss is potentially endless,” says Bacho, who is an expert in foreign affairs and, like Laners, a lawyer. “We want them to soak it up.” But it’s not only about how much information students get. It’s how they evaluate it. Election campaigns notoriously generate more heat than light, and Laners and Bacho agree that misinformed voters are more likely to cast ballots against their best interests.

“We are asking students to dig beyond the sound bite to see what the issues really are,” Laners says. As part of their work, each student is examining a particular contest—reviewing candidates’ policy positions, reading outside analysis, handicapping the outcome and evaluating the impact on issues that the students think are important. Before the election, the students will present their findings and predictions to their classmates. After the election, they have to explain themselves. “We want a briefing,” says Bacho, “about why they were so damn smart or why they were so darn wrong. What went right or wrong in their analysis?”

Historical issues loom as well—especially issues related to money, power and sex. “I want students to know that elections and politics are part of a historical continuum,” Laners says. “Things that we thought were resolved—like campaign finance, the right to vote, women’s reproductive rights—we’re faced with again.”

“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.” —Bella Abzug

Brian Walter, Susan Fiksdal and Sunshine Campbell
Left to right: Faculty members Brian Walter, Susan Fiksdal and Sunshine Campbell help students take a mathematical and linguistic approach to analyzing political campaigns. Photos by Shauna Bittle ’98.

Political campaigns are exercises in persuasion. To win your vote, politicians use—and often abuse—numbers and language. In the program “Elections, Education, Empowerment: Social Change through Quantitative Literacy,” linguist Susan Fiksdal, mathematician Brian Walter, and math teacher educator Sunshine Campbell will use the fall campaign as an exploration of language and discourse, math and quantitative analysis and how human beings make decisions. While Laners and Bacho want to penetrate style to arrive at the substance of a campaign, Fiksdal might find it hard to separate the two. As a linguist, she sees meaning not simply in what people say but how they say it and the unspoken implication behind it.

It’s frequent, for instance, for one candidate to want to smear another with the label “elite”—code for someone who is privileged, who doesn’t understand your problems and is unlikely to look out for your interests. “The problem,” Fiksdal says, “is that people choose what they consider to be elite. We have two Ivy-League educated men running for president this year—a former constitutional law professor and editor of the Harvard Law Review squaring off against a former CEO of an equity firm with a personal fortune of $250 million. Both are elite.” For Fiksdal, the candidate who can adapt his style and language to different audiences has the likelier chance of shaking the perception and the baggage that goes with it.

More profoundly, linguistics can highlight fundamental differences between voters. For linguists, metaphor often provides the critical lens through which people orient to their world and make decisions. Family is one such metaphor.

“A lot of conservative ideology in our country,” she says, “is built on what [linguist] George Lakoff calls a ‘strict father morality.’ You need to make it on your own. You can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and if you can’t, it’s your responsibility.

“Progressives, in contrast, see government as a nurturing parent, a benevolent force that can counteract larger social influences, that helps people when they’re downtrodden because it’s impossible for people to make it just on their merits.”

The program provides a reality-based opportunity for students to gain quantitative skills. Walter holds two workshops per week emphasizing statistics. “Introductory statistics can be a really dry subject,” says Walter. “A lot of people experience it as a mundane recitation of boring stuff, with no connection to anything relevant. Elections are real. If you care about elections you have to care about statistics.”

Campbell agrees that the election provides a way to engage students in a topic that many shy away from—mathematics. She thinks too many Americans are at a disadvantage in elections and in life because they don’t have good quantitative reasoning skills. “They don’t have basic number sense. How big is a million? A billion? It doesn’t get taught in school because math education in this country is so procedurally focused.”

The election presents interesting mathematical twists as well, especially at the presidential level. “Mathematicians,” Walter says, “thrive on rules: understanding rules and understanding consequences and finding where the boundaries are. Elections are a great topic for that. For instance, because of our electoral college system, this year there are only nine battleground states where the candidates are spending any time or money. That’s weird. Most of the map is already red or blue and everyone knows which way it’s going to go there. That’s an emergent property of the decisions that were made over 200 years ago about how we elect a president.”

John Baldridge and Mark Harrison
Photo: The play’s the thing for evening and weekend studies faculty members John Baldridge and Mark Harrison, as they and their students analyze candidates’ public performances this fall. Photo by Shauna Bittle ’98.

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” —James Madison

“Politics,” Ronald Reagan said, “is just like show business.” For Evening and Weekend Studies faculty members Mark Harrison and John Baldridge, the program “Playing Politics” necessarily takes on elements of an improvisational performance.

“It’s a bit of an adventure,” Harrison says, “because it’s not planned out in quite the way that a typical program is planned out. We’ll have books to provide background and context, but there’s a lot of material that has to be in the moment. We have to fashion a curriculum that challenges students, that is going to require a lot of their intention from week to week.”

Harrison is a theater scholar, director, writer and performer. Baldridge is a geographer with a background in linguistics. The overlap between their disciplines may not seem obvious at first, but spatial metaphors abound in politics (think left and right, the high and low road) and theater (upstage, waiting in the wings). “Between all the spatial metaphors and the performance language that goes into the study of an election,” Baldridge says, “it’s a great performance and geography piece.”

“The political sphere is really about power,” says Harrison. “It’s about who’s going to control things. Power is a central theme in the program. Who has it? Who’s trying to get it? What are they going to do with it? It’s really similar to what you see in a narrative structure in a film or a play.” As part of their work together, students will see the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra” and read Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo.”

Political events have their own theatricality, ripe for analysis. Take a 30-second TV ad. “The information,” says Harrison, “is one element of what is fundamentally a visual experience. Most people are not listening to the text. They are responding viscerally to the editing, the camera movements, the music.”

Like their colleagues in the other election programs, Baldridge and Harrison are committed to taking a critical stance in their teaching. “When you’re teaching a course like this,” Harrison says, “there’s an ethical responsibility to not turn it into a program that is advocating for a point of view.”

“In the quest to avoid advocating for a particular candidate or position,” says Baldridge, “my approach is to articulate the tools we want to deploy for analyzing political performance and apply them equally to all candidates that we consider.” The team plans to have students do a lot of fact checking leading up to the election. Part of that, Baldridge says, is “evaluating the veracity of the fact checkers themselves.”

“Ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets.” —Abraham Lincoln

“Voting is a civic sacrament,” said former Notre Dame University president Theodore Hesburgh. Americans’ participation in elections, nevertheless, is underwhelming. The 2008 election had the highest voter turnout in the nation since 1968, and still only 57 percent of the voting-age population showed up at the polls.

The faculty in these three programs are taking a hard look at the franchise. They want students to develop a healthy dose of skepticism about how the democratic process in our country plays out.

But they don’t want students to fall into cynicism. For Baldridge, the program will have worked if students develop what he calls “armor.” “We’ll be helping people to better understand when people are trying to manipulate them and how that manipulation works so they will be less vulnerable to it.”

Fiksdal wants students to grapple with a fundamental question—“What kind of country do you want to live in?”—and to act on the answers they find for themselves.

And Laners knows that the vote only works when people seize the opportunity to participate.

“The money coming into elections will have an influence, and people can try to sway your opinion,” she says. “But they can’t buy your vote. You can make a difference if you vote and you tell your friends to vote.”