Last January, nearly 80 political science students gathered in Ingraham Hall with a shared goal: to find a way to talk about politics and policy beyond traditional party lines.
That evening, they formed the Political Science Student Association to foster discussions and provide networking and professional development opportunities — all with a nonpartisan approach.
“Before PSSA, there was no space for nonpartisanship on campus,” says Anna Barry, a junior majoring in political science and German and the group’s first president.
And it’s hardly any wonder why. Partisanship has been dividing the country for decades, and party affiliation is a bigger wedge than other societal divisions such race, religion, gender or education, the Pew Research Center has found.
Instead of listening only to like minds, political science students want to hear from a variety of voices. Since January, PSSA has brought in speakers ranging from Democratic State Rep. Chris Taylor to conservative political commentator Charlie Sykes. Political science alum Kevin Allexton spoke about ocean conservation, and economics lecturer David Johnson decoded the Trump Tax Bill.
There’s a real usefulness in learning about someone who thinks differently than you.
The group also hosted a successful panel discussion on gun control. Barry served as moderator at the event, which drew members of the College Democrats, College Republicans and the UW-Madison chapters of Young Americans for Liberty, Young Americans for Freedom and the International Socialists.
“It got a bit heated, but it was productive,” Barry says of the discussion. “By the end, the libertarians started to agree with the socialists.”
The event was a reminder to Barry that there’s common ground to be found, even on hot-button issues. “People are surprisingly open,” she says. “If someone is truly political, they will listen” to other views.
Political science professor Dan Kapust agrees that there’s incredible value in students hearing perspectives that don’t overlap with their own.
“There’s a real usefulness in learning about someone who thinks differently than you,” he says. “I teach Adam Smith and Karl Marx in the same semester, and I encourage students to think through how and why someone thinks the way they do. Maybe you don’t agree with them, but you can understand them.”
There’s a sense of urgency that [students] need to be actively engaged in the world they live in.
While students absorb a variety of views and concepts in their political sciences courses, they’re hungry for additional opportunities to explore and discuss issues. And the department is increasingly seeking to provide those experiences, says Amy Gangl, a senior faculty associate and director of undergraduate engagement who helped students form PSSA.
“There’s a sense of urgency that they need to be actively engaged in the world they live in,” she says. “They’re thinking long-term about the issues facing today.”
The political science department used gifts given to its annual fund to help PSSA get on its feet. And Robert Barnett (English and History ’68) and Rita Braver (Political Science ’70), members of the department’s Board of Visitors, generously donated seed money to assist Kapust and students in launching another nonpartisan student effort, a new political science debate society.
“As a high school debater, I saw the value of the skills that a debater develops and practices — research, organization, rapid response and advocacy, among others,” Barnett says. “These talents are applicable in so many career paths. Debate has been largely abandoned in high school and in college. I am so pleased that UW Poli Sci is bringing it back.”
Department chair John Zumbrunnen believes PSSA and the debate society will complement students’ experiences and prepare them for life after college in which ideas are expressed and exchanged openly and freely.
“Our students’ passion for politics isn’t simply partisan,” he says. “They want to hear all sides, and they want opportunities to think and talk about big issues that transcend ideological divides. We’ve always offered those kinds of opportunities in our courses. With our new student organizations up and running, students can now continue the nonpartisan conversation outside the classroom.”