Should Political Science Professors Remain Non-partisan in the Classroom?

Mark Carl Rom, Associate Professor of Government and Public Policy, Georgetown University,

 This essay was originally published in the Political Science Educator’s Fall 2020 series.  

There is never a dull time to teach courses on American politics, but presidential election years are even more exciting: the students are engaged and the stakes are high. But how should professors talk about politics during the election in 2020, and during the highly polarized and partisan years that are sure to follow? Should professors stick to the science of politics, or should we be more overtly political?

Conservatives already tend to believe that professors are not politically neutral, and that they seek to promote Democratic candidates and liberal policies. According to the Pew Research Center, 4-of-5 Republicans believed that professors “are bringing their political and social views into the classroom” (Fingerhut 2017). (Only 17 percent of Democrats had the same belief.) Given that academia “is one of the most liberal occupations in the U.S.” (Gross 2016), it requires no stretch of the imagination to infer that these political and social views favor liberal principles and Democratic positions. Almost 3-in-4 Republicans believe that higher education is going in the wrong direction, and almost 60 percent of Republicans hold that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country” (Brown 2018).

That higher education, including the political science profession, is dominated by liberals does raise important questions about the potential for liberal bias (Rom 2019). Yet I wish that those who believe that higher education is contributing to the country’s woes by spreading liberal views could sit in on a typical political science class. I’ve interviewed political science professors around the country, from community colleges to Ivy League universities, about how they teach and grade their students. Without exception, the professors make statements like:

I don’t teach my students what to think: I teach them how to think.

I don’t care how my students vote. I care that they vote.

I know I’ve succeeded if, at the end of the semester, the students can’t guess my partisanship.

These sentiments are genuine, and I share them. Professional norms call for us to be non-partisan in the classroom, and I believe that most political scientists strive to abide by those norms while they teach. In the American Political Science Association’s Guide to Professional Ethics, the first statement in the section on “Responsibilities in the Classroom and to Students” is “Academic political scientists must be very careful not to impose their partisan views, conventional or otherwise, upon students or colleagues” (APSA 2012: 11). Because ignoring ethical guidelines, or deliberately violating them, may now seem acceptable (Bookbinder, et al. n.d.), it can be easy for the Ben Shapiros of the world to scoff at this claim (Shapiro 2004). Those who wish to believe that professors are mad libs are unlikely to be persuaded, even when professors explicitly seek to be unbiased (Rom and Musgrave 2014).

For most of the nearly three decades I have been teaching political science courses, I have tried my best to live up to the APSA’s ethical standards, and it was pretty easy to do so by preaching partisan symmetry. As I taught it, both Republicans and Democrats believed that they were acting in the public interest, while the other party served special interests. Partisans believed that they were on the side of justice and truth, while their opponents were ignorant, evil, or corrupt. Republicans believed that lower taxes, less regulation, and more military spending were beneficial to the national interest; Democrats believed the opposite.

Moreover, scholars know that “All presidents, no matter their partisan differences, their personal backgrounds, their leadership styles, or their rhetorical flourishes, want all the power they can acquire” (Howell 2015: ix).  They sometimes lie (Pfiffner 2004). They have a love-hate relationship with the news media (Frantzich 2019). They reward those who are loyal or otherwise beneficial to them (Berry, Burden, and Howell 2010). All Presidents have engaged in various forms of misconduct (Banner 2019). In these ways and many others, Trump has acted presidentially, to the extreme.

Many of the Trump administration’s policies were wrong-headed and needlessly cruel, I believed, but I did not teach those personal beliefs and it was not my role to do so. Instead I would offer to my students that “The Trump administration seeks to dramatically reduce immigration by tightening restrictions and increasing punishments; the Democrats oppose these policies and favor greater protections and fewer restrictions.” The Trump administration was grossly irresponsible in its climate change policies, in my view, but I portrayed its differences with the Democrats as a predictable matter of competing policy priorities and interests. In describing ways to think about congressional oversight of the Executive branch, I continued to teach the models of “police patrols vs. fire alarms” (McCubbins and Schwartz 1984) and to describe the ordinary reluctance of Presidents to cooperate with Congress, overlooking the extraordinary resistance of Trump to congressional demands. My ethical duties not to impose my partisan views prevailed over my personal political beliefs. As they normally should.

Political scientists understand the difficult choices that public officials (and, at least at public universities, professors are public officials) face when their personal moral beliefs collide with their professional obligations (Thompson 1985). There are no easy answers as to when officials should choose to follow their beliefs in violation of their obligations and vice versa. Many officials in the Trump administration have faced especially ugly choices. DHS Secretary Kirsten Nielson implemented some of Trump’s most heartless immigration policies, including those separating children from their parents, although she was never “as grotesquely cruel or as dismissive of existing law as her boss demanded” (Rubin 2019). Finally, enough was enough. “I don’t regret enforcing the law, because I took an oath to do that,” Nielsen said, but “it became clear that saying no [to Trump]…was not going to be enough, so it was time for me to offer my resignation” (Sands 2019).

As I reflect on my continued teaching of undergraduate courses on the US political system, I will continue to “be very careful” not to impose my partisan beliefs on my students. But in the fall of 2020, for the first time ever, I made them quite clear: A vote for candidates and parties who seek to degrade and disrupt the institutions vital to well-functioning representative democracies is a vote against the grand American experiment in self-governance.

President Trump’s use of disinformation to discredit and distort the vote was, in fact, the very action that pushed me away from my non-partisan obligations. As with other policy issues, I had long framed the differences between Republicans and Democrats over voting rights as policy disagreements based on valid moral concerns. Democrats cared most about expanding access to the vote; Republicans cared most about ensuring the integrity of the vote. Both parties (coincidentally!) supported policies that they believed would help them on Election Day. The Republican position did not seem unreasonable to my students, who overwhelmingly supported photo ID requirements and who engaged in lively debates over what were reasonable voting policies. [Redacted] students find it hard to believe that anyone actually lacks a photo ID — they overwhelmingly come from affluent families (New York Times n.d.)  — and they always overwhelmingly reject my hypothetical proposal for universal (every citizen, no matter how young!) voting rights.

Trump ruined this debate, as he has so much else. He lied, again and again, about voter fraud (Farley 2020). He sought to undermine voting-by-mail rhetorically and by appointing a crony to run the US Postal Service (Hasen 2020a; see also Hasen 2020b).  In office, he degraded and disparaged our electoral system, questioning its legitimacy: “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged” (Chalfant 2020). Moreover, there is no reason to expect that Trump will stop attacking the legitimacy of our electoral system. Before he was elected, he was a leading proponent of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory that President Obama was not a US citizen. During the run-up to the 2020 election, he repeatedly tried to sabotage public confidence in the outcome, if not the outcome itself. As Gellman (2020) put it: “Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.” In action after action, Trump sought to corrupt other institutions and norms vital to our form of government: the separation of powers, the criminal justice system, bureaucratic competence and neutrality, and basic (but essential) respect for the opposition.

As a party, Republicans disavowed none of this. On voting, Republicans can no longer credibly claim that their main concern is voter integrity. It’s voter suppression. Trump was clear about this. When the House passed legislation providing $3.6 billion to enhance “election resiliency” (Kilgore 2020) Trump in opposition stated “They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” (Blake 2020). In virtually every identifiable state-level debate and action in recent years (but see Ciaramella 2020), Republicans have sought to make it harder to vote by purging voter rolls (Vasilogrambros 2019), limiting early voting (Neumann 2020), reducing the number of polling places (Leadership Conference Education Fund 2019) or drop boxes, and over-ruling the public will (Totenberg 2020). The Republican Party stands with Trump in seeking to subvert our electoral system to its benefit: “One [Republican] party seems to be systemically making it harder to vote and taking other steps that undermine the integrity of the electoral process” (Bacon 2020). “In present-day politics, we have one party that consistently seeks advantage in depriving the other party’s adherents of the right to vote” (Gellman 2020). Barring an entirely unpredictable change of heart, one party will continue to do so long after the 2020 election.

Trumpism, and the party that now represents those interests, repudiates the values of those political scientists who believe that democratic norms and institutions are worth preserving. Most of us nonetheless have remained true to the principle that we should remain non-partisan in the classroom. Trump — the person and the party — have by their words and actions negated that obligation.  I will still invite the partisan critics of higher education to my (virtual) classroom — or the classroom of the thousands of devoted political science instructors — to see for themselves how we teach politics. If they do come, it will be an honor to show them that I promote genuine American values: “I plan to vote for the party and the candidates that seek to win votes, not suppress them. I will oppose those who attempt to destabilize democracy, and support those who plan to strengthen it.” For the first time in 2020, I encouraged my students to vote the same way, and I will continue to do so. With luck, one day those statements will again be seen as non-partisan.

Works Cited:

Bacon, Perry Jr. 2020.The Latest on Republican Efforts to Make It Harder to Vote.”
FiveThirtyEight. September 9.

Berry, Christopher R., Barry C. Burden, and William G. Howell. 2010. “The President and the Distribution of Federal Spending.” American Political Science Review 104 (4): 783-799.

Blake, Aaron. 2020. “Analysis | Trump just Comes Out and Says it: The GOP is Hurt when It’s Easier to Vote.” Washington Post. March 30.

Brown, Anna. 2018. Most See Higher Ed Going the Wrong Direction. Partisans Split on Why. Pew Research Center.

Ciaramella, C. J. 2020. Iowa Governor Restores Voting Rights to Tens of Thousands with Felony Records. Reason.Com.

Sands, Geneva S. 2019. “Kirstjen Nielsen Says She Left DHS because ‘Saying no’ Wasn’T Enough.” CNN. October 19.

Fingerhut, Hannah. 2017. Republicans Skeptical of Colleges Impact on U.S., but most See Benefits for Workforce Preparation. Pew Research Center.

Frantzich, Stephen E. 2019. Presidents and the Media : The Communicator in Chief. New York, NY: Routledge

Gellman, Barton. 2020. “The Election that could Break America.” The Atlantic, November.

Gross, Neil. 2020. “Professors are Overwhelmingly Liberal. do Universities Need to Change Hiring Practices?” Los Angeles Times. May 20.

Hasen, Richard L. 2020b. Election Meltdown : Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hasen, Richard L. 2020a. “Trump’s Relentless Attacks on Mail-in Ballots are Part of a Larger Strategy.” New York Times. August 9.

Howell, William G. 2015. Thinking about the Presidency: The Primacy of Power Princeton University Press.

Kilgore, Ed. “Election Funding is being Held Hostage in Stimulus Standoff.” Intelligencer. August 12.

McCubbins, Mathew D. and Thomas Schwartz. 1984. “Congressional Oversight Overlooked: Police Patrols Versus Fire Alarms.” American Journal of Political Science 28 (1): 165-179.

Neuman, Scott. 2020. “Federal Court in Wisconsin Upholds Voting Restrictions Favored by Republicans.” June 29.

New York Times. n.d. “Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at Georgetown University.”

Rom, Mark Carl and Paul Musgrave. 2014. “Political Outcome Bias in Grading: Identifying Problems and Suggesting Solutions.” Journal of Political Science Education 10 (2): 136-154.

Rubin, Jennifer. 2019. “Kirstjen Nielsen’s Legacy of Cruelty and Incompetence is Sealed.” Washington Post, April 8.

Shapiro, Ben. 2004. Brainwashed : How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth. Nashville: WND Books.

The Leadership Conference Education Fund. 2019. Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote.

Thompson, Dennis. 1985. “The Possibility of Administrative Ethics.” Public Administration Review 45: 555-561.

Vasilogambros, Matt.  2019. “The Messy Politics of Voter Purges.”, last modified October 25.


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