Political Science class tracks historic presidential election

illustration of a ballot box box with a ballot sticking out

Class doubles as public lecture series featuring 50 faculty experts

A global pandemic followed by the second-largest economic downturn in U.S. history — these are just two of the unprecedented issues taking center stage in the 2020 presidential election. The topics are also front and center in “Political Science 216: The 2020 Presidential Election,” a Fall semester course and public lecture series led by San Francisco State University Political Science Professor Joel Kassiola that offers a variety of expert opinions on the election.

Kassiola launched the class in 2004, back when Democratic nominee John Kerry and Republican George W. Bush were vying for the Oval Office. He’s resurrected it every four years for subsequent presidential elections. This year’s course, which has roughly 150 students registered, will be held via Zoom (like most classes this fall at San Francisco State) and will be available to view online. Fifty faculty members from more than 12 departments will give lectures on a range of key election issues, including health care, education, COVID-19, civil liberties, foreign policy and immigration.

Part of Kassiola’s motivation behind the class was to showcase SF State faculty expertise, he says. The other was to educate the public about the election process and give people a non-partisan understanding of the issues. 

Nowadays, it’s too easy for people to exist in an echo chamber, he says. People consume news the way baseball fans follow the sport. “If I’m a Giants fan, I don’t care about the Dodgers,” he said. “I only care about the Giants. In fact, I’m only going to seek out positive stories about the Giants.”

In other words, people are only reading news that affirms their beliefs — a disaster for education, Kassiola feels. The hope is that this course will “cut through the media noise,” he says, by letting faculty do what they do best: present both sides and let the audience make up their own minds.

One unforeseen result of the pandemic is that people are waking up to how entwined politics is with their lives, Kassiola says.

“People don’t usually make a connection between welfare policy and their income, or between foreign policy and what foods are available at their local Safeway,” he said. “But now people are noticing the role government plays. When lawmakers increase unemployment [benefits], that could be the difference between making rent and not. The connection between public policy and people’s private lives has become close.”

But it remains to be seen whether or not that will affect voter turnout. Ultimately, he hopes that the coronavirus sends a message that even if people dislike politics, the candidates or political parties, it’s important to express their views by voting. And if people are unhappy with the results of the election, his final class — devoted to action individuals can take to affect change long after the polls have closed — might provide an antidote. “It’s a way of helping your community beyond voting,” he says.

Visit the Alumni Relations website for a full lineup of classes.