Jennifer L. Lawless and Mary Kate Cary
Worried that 2021 could be filled with cringe-worthy political conversations around the virtual dinner table and, post-pandemic, in real life? Dreading the moment that an outspoken neighbor, work colleague or family member pops off? Well, the two of us — one a card-carrying liberal and the other a self-avowed conservative — just survived 13 weeks of hour-long political conversations, twice a week every week. And get this: We actually enjoyed it.
When the Politics Department at the University of Virginia asked us to co-teach “Election 2020,” we weren’t sure how it would turn out. We didn’t know each other well, and our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. One of us was a tenured professor who had taught a campaigns and elections class every four years since 2000 (Lawless), the other an adjunct professor who had only been teaching for a year (Cary).
One had run for Congress as a Democrat in 2006 (Lawless); the other had been a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush (Cary). One of us has served on the board of Planned Parenthood (Lawless); the other used to be deputy communications director at the Republican National Committee (Cary). Our class would be one of the only college courses in America to be taught by a liberal and a conservative side by side. It was either a brilliant pairing or a disaster waiting to happen.
Embracing our different points of view
In designing the course, we decided to embrace our disparate backgrounds and political views. Rather than mask our politics and present ourselves as dispassionate, nonpartisan observers, we told the students where we stood and promised to present multiple perspectives. And throughout the course — which covered the Constitution, the Electoral College, third parties, debates and conventions, polling, media coverage, women’s underrepresentation, race and politics, voter turnout, presidential transitions, the list goes on — we stuck to our promise. Alternating between lectures and guest speakers, we assembled a mix of political science scholarship, news coverage, political commentary and experts from both sides of the aisle.
Soon enough, we realized we were onto something. Granted, it’s hard for a class to flub when the experts who Zoomed in included Bush campaign manager Karl Rove, former ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton, Obama policy adviser Melody Barnes, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, No Labels co-founder Ron Christie and journalist Molly Ball.
The civility that accompanied the political debate and discussion included in every session was notable, too. When one of us disagreed with the other’s lecture content, we’d launch into a segment we called “She Said/She Said,” and respectfully rebut the other’s points. When our guest speakers made claims or offered analyses that flew in the face of what we believed, we asked questions and engaged them in further discussion. We made a point of doing so without calling names, raising our voices or making moral judgments.
That’s not to say, of course, that we never needed to bite our tongues or suppress an eye roll. We didn’t sit around singing “Kumbaya.” But much to our surprise, we regularly found ourselves agreeing with each other. We learned that we both believe it’s vital for young people to get involved in politics. We both think it’s unfortunate that misinformation is so prevalent in the political arena. We both wonder whether political conventions, candidate debates and political TV ads are going to go the way of the rotary dial phone. We both find Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, extremely handsome. And we both think it’s essential to inject more civility and respect in our politics.
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We weren’t alone on that last one. When Democratic debate prep man Bob Barnett and RNC site selection chair Ron Kaufman joined us for a discussion about debates and conventions, they first pointed out what good friends they’ve been for years. Former Reps. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla., and L.F. Payne, D-Va., did the same prior to discussing the causes and consequences of political polarization. Campaign strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin demonstrated that their political divisions were not nearly as strong as their 27 years of marriage. None of our speakers changed each other’s minds, but they exemplified that’s it possible to listen, learn from and even like someone with whom you strongly disagree.
Rough spots and rave reviews
By no means do we think that putting a liberal and a conservative in the front of the classroom is all it will take to ensure that the next generation brings a little more civility to politics. Even in our class, students occasionally behaved disrespectfully to guests and to each other on the Zoom chat box. Several conservative students shared with us that they felt outnumbered and, thus, were reluctant to ask questions and make comments. And attendance at our separate office hours often sorted out along party lines.
On the last day of class, we polled our 223 students about their experience. A whopping 9 out of 10 students said they’d like to see more Politics courses co-taught by a liberal and a conservative (this despite the fact that roughly 80% of the class identified as Democrats). We also saw rave reviews for the guest speakers and the diversity of viewpoints they represented. This unusually inclusive, bipartisan learning environment might pay off: 85% of the students said they plan to get involved in politics in the future — either as candidates themselves or in political or policy jobs.
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The students weren’t the only ones to learn something during the semester. As has been the case for so many people, 2020 was especially difficult for each of us on a personal level — teaching a new virtual course, a stressful election season, COVID-19 concerns. We each also endured the tragic death of a sibling. Many times, our weekly phone calls to plan lectures and identify guest speakers turned into downloads about balancing it all and supporting each other. Ironically, Election 2020 — the most partisan and divisive in modern history — helped a liberal and a conservative forge a friendship that has nothing to do with politics.
If we don’t want 2021 to be a volatile repeat of 2020, maybe the lessons we learned this semester can apply. Try to listen respectfully, invite a variety of viewpoints into the discussion, and acknowledge that it’s unlikely you’ll ever see eye to eye on hot-button issues or the last election. You might even enjoy yourself.
Jennifer L. Lawless (@jenlawlessUVA) is the Commonwealth Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and the author/co-author of six books, including “Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics.” Mary Kate Cary (@mkcary) is an adjunct professor in the Politics Department at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at UVA’s Miller Center.