SCCC’s politics and government class: An oasis of civil discourse in the Trump era

SCCC’s politics and government class: An oasis of civil discourse in the Trump era

It’s been a rough few months since Donald Trump’s election. The country has been rocked with public demonstrations of unrest — millions of people showed up to protest Trump’s presidency just one day after his inauguration. Trumps’ policies on immigration and refugees have spurred an incredible amount of fear in immigrant populations and resistance on the ground from liberal allies. Congressional phone lines have been jammed as hundreds of thousands of folks try to get in touch with their congresspeople, in order to oppose Trump’s proposed Cabinet picks.

It is against this tumultuous national backdrop that The Alt sat down with students in Dr. Babette Faehmel’s U.S. government and politics class, at Schenectady County Community College, in order to find out how they are attempting to do the ordinary — learn about the basic mechanisms of government — in an extraordinary time.

The four students we spoke to are very different politically — two voted for Donald Trump and two, for Hillary Clinton. And within that diversity, lies further diversity. Stephanie, a formerly single mother in her 40s, a military veteran and self-proclaimed libertarian, voted for Trump over her concern about Hillary Clinton releasing possibly sensitive information on a private email server — information that could have potentially endangered American troops. Tabitha, 29, also a veteran, was looking for a change — a big change. “For me, it was time to give that guy with no experience a chance,” she says. She, unlike Stephanie, was initially attracted to Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

Tonya, who is studying education, voted for Hillary Clinton as the “lesser of two evils,” while Kira, 17, says that Clinton was her favored choice. “She had a strong voice and was incredibly qualified for the job,” she says. And as much as she liked Clinton, she disliked Trump. “I was personally offended by most of the statements that Trump made,” says Kira. “I think he had a hateful and fearful campaign, I think he was ridiculously unqualified, and the outcome of the election was really telling about which way the country is heading. I think it’s wildly offensive that a woman who is so qualified lost to someone who picked up politics as a hobby.”

Communication has been a challenge.

Tabitha, who voted for Trump, doesn’t find it difficult to not think differently about those who voted differently from her. “Just because she,” (Tabitha points at Kira) “voted for Hillary and I voted for Trump doesn’t mean I like her any less,” she says. “Who you vote for doesn’t change who you are.”

Kira is having a harder time with this. “I try to be compassionate and empathize with others, but this has been incredibly difficult for me,” she tells The Alt. “If you voted for him you’re able to look past things he said or stand with things he said.”

And that anger on the part of Hillary voters towards Trump voters; it is felt, at least by Tabitha. “I’ve been attacked, as a Trump supporter. One of my friends got majorly attacked — she was called a racist, a bigot, a white supremacist. My uncle doesn’t talk to me anymore; he was a Hillary supporter.”

But even Kira, despite the anger she feels, is able to moderate how she speaks to the Trump supporters in class. “It’s about coming together that’s important, not necessarily about agreeing.”

And she agrees that, though she cannot bring herself to understand her classmates’ decision-making, she values the chance to speak to those who disagree with her. “This class has forced me to be more aware of other political opinions and realities. I live in a pretty well-defined bubble of people who share opinions that are pretty close to mine. I think that’s on purpose. I think that can isolate us into a different way of thinking.” And this class? It’s breaking down her boundaries. “I think this class has forced us to confront or be actively with and actively aware of people with other opinions. I hope that’s helpful forme in the future.

Despite everything, the students manage to keep it civil in the classroom. “We don’t fight in this class,” says Stephanie. “I think no matter what happened [in the election], we would have had civil discourse in class.”

Dr. Faehmel agrees. She’s a leftist, and isn’t shy about her views — she grew up in Germany, and is familiar with “actual socialist political alternatives,” like Democratic Socialism. But despite her personal feelings towards Trump (“he is a dangerous President,” she says), Dr. Faehmel speaks highly of her students who disagree with her.

“I can separate [my views] from my students who voted for Trump, often for very complex reasons. Their desire for change, their outrage over establishment political actors — I can totally relate to that,” says Dr. Faehmel. She turns to Tabitha and Stephanie. “I just want to make it clear that even though I’m in a different political camp, it’s not affecting my esteem of you guys,” she says.

Everyone laughs.The mood in the room is warm, even though the political differences are real.

“For the most part, amongst my students, there is openness, curiosity. These students are vocal, articulate, and intelligent,” says Dr. Faehmel, glowing with pride. “They might not always know the right words for things; they might not always ace their tests — that doesn’t seem to be all that relevant. There’s a native intelligence here.”

While Dr. Faehmel doesn’t have anything kind to say about the current Congress or Administration, she is bursting with praise for her students. “One party rule doesn’t make me sleep any better at night,” she tells The Alt. “But if Congress consisted just of my students, I would.”

Photo by Daniel Case, via Wikipedia Commons/GNU Free Documentation License

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