New Berkeley course examines 2020 election through the lens of American democracy

Students in UC Berkeley’s new course focus on this year’s election in real time, while also delving into the historical aspects of American democracy. Here the virtual class was captured from the point of view of its professors and students. (Video by Clare Major and Roxanne Makasdjian)

Racial unrest and violence between armed white militias and Black Lives Matter protestors. Millions of acres burned in California wildfires. The appointment of a new Supreme Court justice. A pandemic that has left more than 225,000 Americans dead and over 20 million unemployed. Presidential candidates with vastly different visions for the future.

These are just some of the lofty issues weighing on the minds of American voters casting their ballots on Nov. 3. For first-time voters, many of them college students, confronting all these crises can be quite overwhelming.

archive photos of Frederick douglas and Thomas jefferson

Students in the course analyze the U.S. Constitution and its relation to the historical texts and experiences of intellectuals and founding fathers such as Frederick Douglas, left, and Thomas Jefferson, right.

But students taking a new UC Berkeley course, “The 2020 Election,” are getting help making sense of it all. They’ve got a virtual front row seat to a real-time analysis of this year’s candidates and campaigns by Berkeley experts and scholars who are examining this unprecedented time in history, as it happens.

Offered through Berkeley’s Department of African American Studies and the Goldman School of Public Policy, the course asks students to analyze how America’s past reflects its current politics and policy by attempting to answer challenging questions such as: How has white supremacy shaped the United States since its founding? Why are there only two political parties in the United States? And how will the future of American democracy be defined by this year’s election?

“In teaching this class, we believe in, and support, democracy,” said historian and African American Studies professor Michael Mark Cohen, who conceptualized the course from his scholarship of how racial formations have changed throughout American history.

“Answering some of these fundamental questions helps when you want students to analyze Donald Trump’s immigration policies, or Joe Biden’s crime bill, because it comes back to the same set of original narratives and the country’s founding documents, which weren’t as democratic as some may think,” he said.

The personal as political

Seven doctors in white lab coats talking at a pdium in front of a hospital building

When President Trump was infected with COVID-19, professors in the course examined the implications of the news on the election, and the narrative Trump’s doctors created. But for students with sick family and friends, the pandemic is more personal than political. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Taught by Cohen and public policy adjunct professor Saru Jayaraman, the class is part of Berkeley’s “Semester in the Cloud,” an initiative transitioning select undergraduate gateway courses to online formats. Recorded and posted on YouTube by UCTV (University of California Television), the class meets for Zoom lectures twice a week, and the content can change, depending on the day’s current events.

For instance, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died on Sept. 18, Jayaraman shifted gears to focus on the impact the court could have on a close presidential election, as it did nearly 20 years ago when then-Republican candidate George W. Bush defeated former Vice President Al Gore after the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 against a recount of Florida’s electorate. The outcome gave Bush the presidency, when he didn’t actually get more votes in the state.

Saru Jayaraman, left, and Michael mark Cohen, right, smiling

Berkeley professors Saru Jayaraman, left, and Michael Mark Cohen, right, have teamed up to teach “The Election 2020” course, a first at Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photos)

And when President Trump announced on Twitter that he had contracted COVID-19 earlier this month, Cohen examined the Trump administration’s record of openly denying the importance of mask-wearing during the pandemic, and also related the narrative around Trump’s health to the history of U.S. presidents who have lied about their personal health.

In separate virtual discussion sections, students in the class also critically analyze readings with their fellow classmates and graduate student instructors.

Jayaraman said that those sections, along with scheduled office hours, are an opportunity for students to relate what they are learning in class to what’s happening where they’re living this semester, and in their personal lives.

“Students are living at home, and I’m sure people around them are getting sick or dying,” said Jayaraman, who is also director of UC Berkeley’s Social Movement Center at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

“For academics at the university, we know, on a scholarly level, how elections impact our lives. But for a lot of students who are just trying to graduate and get a job, attending a class where they are learning about the implications of an election on their lives helps them connect the personal with the political.”

‘Fairness and civic engagement’

dontald trump gesturing to joe biden on stage

The first presidential debate between President Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, was ripe with interruption and insults. In discussion and debate, students in the election course are encouraged to practice specific principles of “fairness and civic engagement.” (AP Photo by Patrick Semansky)

Cohen said the idea for the class was first inspired by Berkeley students who expressed a desire for an academic space to learn and talk about the election.

Healthy and civil debate is welcomed in the course. During these discussions, students are asked to abide by specific principles of “fairness and civic engagement,” according to the course syllabus, and are encouraged to not only listen to different opinions in a respectful manner, but to be open to learning from them.

“I’m willing to debate students, or hear them out, and I try to respond as best I can,” said Jayaraman. “I definitely give everybody the space to express their viewpoints, and everyone seems to be very excited and engaged because of it. Students are really sharing with each other. It’s been really great to see.

Michael Omi smiles at the camera

UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Michael Omi. (UC Berkeley photo)

On the political spectrum, Jayaraman and Cohen admittedly come from more left-leaning progressive perspectives, as Cohen said “you’re not going to find me saying nice things about Joe Biden or Donald Trump in this class.”

The course includes readings that some may label as impartial or biased, such as texts about the impact of neoliberalism on income inequality and examination into the theories of communist intellectuals, such as Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci.

But students are being asked to base their own work and arguments on critical reflection and evidence — not on political affiliations.

“Nowadays, civil discourse has just migrated to Twitter. Who’s talking face to face anymore?” said Cohen. “This class is a pedagogical space. You’re allowed to be wrong. You’re allowed to change your mind. You’re allowed to learn and reevaluate your understandings.”

Certain attributes of the course, though, are non-negotiable, the commitment to anti-racist pedagogy being one of them. Notable guest speakers, such as Berkeley ethnic studies professor Michael Omi, a pioneer in the study of race and ethnicity, have been tapped to give students a breakdown on how race and racism has impacted the foundation of American politics to this day.

Omi, who co-authored the seminal 1986 text, Racial Formation in the United States, spoke to students last month about the importance of the U.S. Census and how political apportionment within Congress, and federal resources, are impacted by the accuracy of the data about communities of color.

Madison Raasch smiling at camera

Berkeley student Madison Raasch helped to get out the vote this past March. (Photo courtesy of Madison Raasch)

“It’s hard to imagine the United States as a kind of raceless society, where race doesn’t matter,” Omi said to students during the lecture. “There are some students that believe that ‘oh, if I’m just colorblind, that’s the answer to this… I treat all people the same’: We don’t. And we have to acknowledge the ways race is not only embedded in our institutions, but the way in which it really shapes our practices in everyday life.”

Transfer student Madison Raasch said the course, and experts like Omi, have really helped her reflect on her own knowledge of American democracy and the ingrained exclusion of people from it along racial lines. She said she feels more confident talking about issues she was already passionate about, like voter suppression.

“I now more deeply understand how the electoral rights that I assumed were granted under our founding documents or in later revisions have been systematically denied to Americans,” said Raasch, who registered for the class after taking a course taught by Jayaraman last summer.

“History shows us our systems weren’t really designed to function as what we would consider to be democratic, especially when it comes to racialized voter suppression….a realm in which our democracy is currently under attack.”

Beyond the election

a line of voting booths in a brightly lit room

After election night, many political commentators are saying final results may not come until days, weeks or even months later. (Photo by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

With a class dedicated to a critical analysis of the events leading up to Election Day, what happens once Nov. 3 has come and gone?

As many political commentators have opined, the impact of the coronavirus on early and mail-in voting may leave the country with no clear president-elect on election night.

Cohen seems to concur with that sentiment, but said the election is so much more than who becomes president. While most students in his course have already voted, Cohen still hopes to assign what he calls, “Ballotpalooza,” a series of in-class discussions on California propositions that students research and present as groups.

The research project gives students a better depth of knowledge when it comes to local and statewide politics, said Cohen.

“They have to give a general sense of the pros and cons of each prop, and then they tell us how they think we should vote. We can agree or disagree,” he said. “It’s democracy in the classroom.”

Berkeley professor Saru Jayaraman is also an attorney and organizer who is president of One Fair Wage, a nonprofit seeking to raise wages for restaurant workers across the country. Here she speaks to political commentator Bill Maher about her work and research. (Video courtesy of YouTube/The Bill Maher Show)

In addition to analyzing election night, week or potentially month returns, Jayaraman said an election is so much more than who wins — it’s about building social movements.

A well-known attorney and campaign organizer, Jayaraman is also president of One Fair Wage, a nonprofit seeking to raise wages for restaurant workers across the country. Since June, students have enrolled in her “Freedom of Summer” internship, where they get hands-on experience reaching out to restaurant workers in key swing states to get out and vote.

a logo reading "racial justice in America"

Berkeley News will examine race justice in America in a new series of stories.

Jayaraman said there are currently students in the election course who have joined her effort. She hopes to give them an opportunity to make a concrete difference in the election by taking what they are learning in the class and applying it to real grassroots activism.

“My hope, as somebody who is engaged in the world, is that my students also engage and feel inspired and motivated,” said Jayaraman.

First-year student Ritika Kuppam will also be a first-time voter this year. She said taking the election course has made watching the news less stressful, because it has helped her realize that the significance of this moment in political history needs to be critically analyzed.

She said the course has given her a historical lens to view American politics, with all of its faults, and has come to realize that “democracy is fragile.”

“I’ve constantly wanted to do good, in whatever way I can, to give voice to the voiceless,” she said. “But the politics in America are so complicated and interwoven, it’s hard to figure out where to start.”

“The skills and knowledge that I’m learning in this class from the guest speakers, from the professors, about how I can reasonably make a change — I’m going to take that past this class into my career at UC Berkeley and beyond.”