EngagePerspectivesPolitical Empathy: American Conservatism, Its Past, Present and Future
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Political Empathy: American Conservatism, Its Past, Present and Future

We continue The PARK by thinking about deep understanding or empathy around political difference through an interdisciplinary lens. Political empathy asks that we apply empathetic skills to US politics, a realm that has not only been markedly polarized, it has reflected extreme disconnection between those who identify differently ideologically because they do not share information or space. In the first episode of the series, our host Dr. Lia Howard interviews historian Dr. Brian Rosenwald and Dr. Deirdre Martinez, executive director of the Penn in Washington program. Both teach SNF Paideia designated courses that probe American Conservatism, it’s past, its present, and its future. They talk about the work they’re doing in their classrooms and beyond to help students develop deep ways of thinking and acting that foster political empathy as a skill, which seems vital to the health of the US Democratic Republic.

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Excerpts from edited transcript:

Lia Howard: Welcome to my guests, Brian Rosenwald, a scholar, instructor, and author who teaches the SNF Paideia designated course, American Conservatism, from Taft to Trump, and Deirdre Martinez, the executive director of Penn in Washington, who is co-teaching the SNF Paideia course, the future of conservatism and the GOP in the fall of 2021.

Brian, intellectual humility asks us to acknowledge that some of our information may be incomplete. As you set out to teach the SNF Padilla course, American Conservatism, from Taft to Trump, what ideas or information about conservatives do you think might have been incomplete among your students? What were you trying to fill in or augment?

Brian Rosenwald: I think that there’s a lot of common perceptions about conservatives about conservatism that are caricatured a little bit or stereotyped. And also, I think there’s a tendency to morally judge positions that we find offensive or problematic, as opposed to kind of interrogating things.

And so I always say to students week one, we’re going to spend a week on George Wallace, for example. And yes, absolutely he’s a racist. He does and says horrible things that have really terrible human results. But it’s more interesting to try to understand why people are subscribing to him, why he’s popular, why that’s resonating, as opposed to just writing him off.

We can acknowledge the moral component without just stopping our inquiry there. And so I try to promote really digging into things. I try to show, first of all, that conservatives are not just one monolithic thing. That there’s a lot of different strands that come together. You’ve got this whole cadre of southern Democrats who are conservatives before the mid ’60s.

I try to show the role that those guys play. And then I show them, a lot of this is setting up well, how do conservatives take over a major political party. How do they go from being in the wilderness to driving American politics for four decades.

So there’s a lot of different things that I try to teach students or try to get them to think about. And realistically, I have no preconceived notions about what my students, what their political beliefs are, what their backgrounds are. The classes appeal to students in all schools at Penn.
And so I just really just dive into the material and say let’s go in with an open mind. And what you see today is not necessarily what has always been. And how do we get to here. And that’s sort of the inquiry we’re undergoing.

Lia Howard: Thank you, Brian. Deirdre, in your capacity directing the Penn in Washington program, what have you noticed about the experience of Penn students as they live and work in Washington, DC, particularly in terms of this idea of political empathy. Has their experience taking courses and working on their internships revealed areas where their political information about others is incomplete?

Deirdre Martinez: It absolutely has. The vast majority of students who spend the semester in D.C. come away from that experience really inspired by the people that they worked with, their faculty, the many guest speakers that come into the classes, and really just policymakers in general. All of those people that they’re interacting with day to day in their internships and sort of everywhere just living in Washington.

And I’m talking not just about people who share their own ideas. I’m talking about people across the political spectrum. The idea that you might get, if you only watch one news source, that your side is right and the other side is unhinged, it really isn’t so black and white when you’re surrounded by people who are committed to public service, and who genuinely are in Washington because they want to make the world a better place.

And you might disagree with how they want to make the world a better place. But you sort of share the same sort of goals. And there are, of course, huge differences between parties and factions within parties today. But there are more people who just want to get the work done than you might think. And getting inside that D.C. bubble, this is a surprising discovery for most of the PIW students.

Lia Howard: Wonderful. Let me turn back to you, Brian. One unique aspect of your course that students have commented favorably on was the series of guest speakers. This included diverse figures such as former US representative Carlos Cabello former director of the Office of Public Affairs department of justice Sarah Isgur, political commentators S.E. Cupp and Amanda Carpenter.

These folks clearly represent a wide range of conservative views. Can you explain how you intentionally structured the course with content, guests, and even TV shows that gave students a more nuanced view of conservatism. How does having a more complex understanding of conservatism foster political empathy?

Brian Rosenwald: Well the first part of that in terms of diversity, I set out this year knowing that we would be online, that we’d be teaching on Zoom. Sort of said to myself, is there a way I can add value to this and take advantage of being on Zoom.

And so doing multiple guest speakers was one way of doing that. And I think it’s so easy to fall into traps of saying, well, you’ve got a never Trump camp, or anti Trump camp, and the Trump camp in the Republican or conservative movement or party. I try to bring in diverse people because I don’t think that’s true in terms of one stripe or another.

And one thing, obviously I don’t think it’s a huge secret to say that most Penn students, most college students, tend to lean more left than right. And so I’ve always felt that it’s important, when teaching this class, to bring in authentic conservatives. Smart people, thoughtful people, people who are young that come in and say, you know what. You’re right. LGBTQ rights are important. Or climate change is important. But here’s why I’m a conservative.

And have kind of heterodox views. Because I think that it punctures any stereotypes that there might be about conservatives and does foster a sense of– I think that one of the biggest problems in our politics today is the sense that we’re so far apart, that we’re so fractured. And when you bring these speakers in and you see them agreeing with the students on issues, or saying things that I think the students would expect from people right of center, it also helps to get students to understand that when we get beyond the elected classes, people currently in office, there’s more in common maybe than there isn’t in common.

And so I tried to do that with the guest speakers. In terms of weaving together different types of sources, different ideas, I think it’s really important to understand that our understanding of conservatism has been oversimplified to some extent.

And that, yes you have social conservatives who have one set of goals. You have libertarians who have another set of goals. You have defense conservatives, or for the bulk of the history of the class, anti-communist. Understanding how these groups kind of stitch together is really important.

Lia Howard: That’s amazing to hear about, thank you. And Deirdre, as you gear up to teach the SNF Paideia course, the Future of Conservatism and the GOP in the fall, the first Penn and Washington course to be held also on Penn’s campus, you’ll not be teaching it alone, but with Penn alumnus Evan McMullin, a Republican who ran against Donald Trump for president in 2016 as an independent.

In a video for the course, he used the term principled conservative to describe his views. Can you talk about what you’re anticipating from the course in terms of the content? And how the course reflects SNF Paideia’s commitment to dialogue across difference.

Deirdre Martinez: Evan and I are so excited about doing this course. And it really does line up so nicely with what SNF Paideia’s goals are. I would say the defining characteristics of the PIW courses is our focus on the moment we are in. For example, the first time we offered balance of power was during the Obama administration. And there was a lot of talk about whether he was overreaching on issues like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

And of course, every year since then we’ve had a completely different set of questions about presidential power. For the conservatism course, the conversation right now is about this insurgent faction within the Republican party and how traditional conservatives are going to respond to this very real threat, both to their party and to democracy.

So to try to understand what’s happening, we’re going to have lots of conversations with people across particularly the right side of the political spectrum, which for many students will be the first time they engage face to face with people whose political philosophy is so different from their own.

What will become clear to students is that the questions we’re asking in class are the same questions that conservative leaders themselves are struggling with. How do they define modern conservatism? What does it mean to be a conservative today? How do you address historical racism in the Republican party? How does a philosophy that discourages change, change?

So to me, that’s very humanizing. And then as for the actual coursework, in a variety of ways we’re going to ask students to take these ideas apart and find the elements that are perhaps shared across the political spectrum. So students break down these ideas. They’ll be comparing them to their own ideas about democracy in the role of government, which is really useful on its own. But I think importantly, will let them see the connections between their ideas and others.

Lia Howard: Building off what Deirdre says, Brian, what skills are you teaching in your course? How is their discovery of American conservatism developing ways of thinking and dialoguing with others? The students we spoke with from your course all expressed a greater sense of tolerance for listening to people with different viewpoints, which they said you model to them in the class by having constructive discussions with people of widely differing views. Tell us more about how you teach these skills to undergrads.

Brian Rosenwald: I think that teaching history, you always go in with two goals. I think that one of the popular misconceptions about history, one of the reasons that history has become so fraught and political, is that you have a huge segment of Americans that think that teaching history is about teaching facts and names and dates. And I don’t believe that.

I think that you want to lay out the history. You lay out what happened. You have that as part of your inquiry. But the key is teaching students to interrogate that. The key is giving them skills to be better writers, better thinkers, better able to interrogate sources, better able to really think and push not just others, but themselves on their own views. And so I try to model that.

I say to students week one– feel free to say anything. You can challenge anyone in this room, including me, as long as you’re respectful. We want to have a respectful conversation. And often the best conversations are when we disagree. It used to be that there were much more heterodox living, where you might disagree fervently politically with someone but you were in an Elks Lodge together or you were in a bowling league together, you went to church together.

And we’re seeing so much less of that. People are living much more in bubbles. Where if you look at neighborhoods– the New York Times did this really cool thing zip code by zip code after the election. Where you could see, vividly, that so many of these zip codes were like 95 to 5 in terms of the presidential vote, one way or the other. Or 85 to 15. They were overwhelmingly one sided. And people living around and interacting with only those who agree with them.

And so they’re kind of othering people who don’t fall into that camp. And there are things that are going to make it harder to have a dialogue. Obviously in the wake of the election, it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who says no, the election was stolen, when there’s no basis in fact for that. We have to be able to agree on a common set of facts to then debate ideas.
But I want to teach my students that if you can get that shared set of facts, if you can talk to people who disagree with you, maybe you can find common ground, or at least understand where they’re coming from.

Lia Howard: Brian, that’s excellent. I want to push you on that one last point there. As a scholar yourself, how do you teach or try to grapple with the beliefs among some Trump era conservatives that may run counter to evidence. You mentioned one just a minute ago, the big lie for example, around the election of 2020. And even though all evidence proves conclusively a Biden win, some people believe the opposite. The embrace of conspiracy theories like QAnon or alternate facts, the desire among Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy not to investigate January 6 insurrection, even though they expressed outrage about it in the days afterwards.

So how do you balance the desire to compassionately understand people that hold these views with the scholarly imperatives to use evidence to build arguments? And so what skills are you teaching here?

Brian Rosenwald: I’ve grappled with this a lot over the last year. Because I taught introduction to American politics in the fall. And after the election, especially, I was very outspoken with my students about saying, look, the facts and the evidence are this.

And we’ve never seen this. We go back to 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the peaceful transition of power is the hallmark of American democracy. It is the bedrock. Without that, you don’t have anything else. There are certain lines that you can’t cross. And that as a scholar, it’s very important that we stay in the world of facts and we stay in the world of evidence.

Lia Howard: Wonderful, thank you. Deirdre, I want to ask you the same question that I asked Brian. How do you extend respect and understanding to conservative thinkers who have beliefs that run counter to evidence? How do you teach students to approach interactions with individuals whose views might promote misunderstanding?

Deirdre Martinez: I’m going to agree with Brian that this is a really hard question. And I think it’s also important to note that there are two categories of people in your question– conservative thinkers and people whose beliefs run counter to evidence. There are people whose beliefs run counter to evidence across the political spectrum. But in the past, they haven’t had this kind of power in their party that we’re seeing today.

There are also plenty of conservatives who follow the evidence. So that’s an important first step that we shouldn’t lump folks into a category too quickly. For this course, we’re going to borrow some of Adam Grant’s really good ideas from Think Again on how to talk across differences and how to be thoughtful about how to engage people with whom you strongly disagree.

We do a lot of that in the Penn in Washington program overall. But I will also say that when we’re talking about what the conservative position should be on a particular policy issue, for example, that work has to be based on evidence and facts. Conspiracy theories don’t get the same weight as facts when it comes to important decisions that impact millions of people.

Lia Howard: Deirdre, public service has long been viewed as a career track avoided by young people. In fact, current Penn student Kaitlyn Rentala, a Penn in Washington alumna, is writing a book about Gen Z in public service. Can you speak to, what films to Penn students as they serve in DC for a semester. What skills do they learn? How are their life trajectories perhaps altered? Should we be optimistic when we think about Gen Z and the future of public service?

Deirdre Martinez: I’ll start with saying I am very optimistic. And I think that students for many, many students it is life altering. The vast majority of PIW students say at the end of their semester the experience has inspired them to return to D.C. after graduation. They say they have a much better understanding of what the work is and the mechanics of how to make a start in public service.

They know what the possible selves are because they’ve met so many people doing so many interesting things, they have a better sense of, OK what does it take to be an ambassador or a foreign service officer or a congressional staffer on the hill. They actually know the day to day work. And I think that’s incredibly useful.

Many students have told me that when they went to D.C. they found their people. That they found all of these people who actually shared the same excitement about doing public service. And I should note, too, the cohorts themselves have very strong bonds that last a lifetime. So even within sort of the Penn community, this little subset is a really important subset of people that share these same ideas and passions.

So I think spending a semester or even a few months in Washington, before you graduate or after you graduate, has lifelong positive effects on a person’s sense of civic responsibility and engagement. Even if you never go back to D.C., you have an appreciation for how hard the work is and why it does seem like it’s so hard to get things done and how smart and driven and dedicated so many people in the policy arena are, regardless of their political affiliation.

Lia Howard: Brian, you’ve previously taught several political science and history courses at Penn, including Intro to American politics in the fall of 2020 and the Rise of Conservatism in America 1948-2014 in the spring of 2015. From your perspective, what is this SNF Paideia seminar course offer that is unique to the Penn undergraduate experience? How do you think the discipline of history speaks to political empathy? What disciplinary tools does history provide? And finally, looking back over the semester, what do you think your students gained from the course in general?

Brian Rosenwald: SNF Paideia and the ethos of having dialogue is really something that’s unique to Penn at a time when, in higher education, there are debates about where should lines be drawn. Is it just someone being offended by something. Should we be engaging uncomfortable ideas and things that make us feel uncomfortable.

And I’ve always said that I think that that’s part of scholarly inquiry, that we do watch clips of George Wallace rallies and things that are not necessarily– they certainly don’t make you feel good about the country’s background and about what you’re seeing on the screen. But it’s important to interrogate and understand.

Lia Howard: Deirdre, since you’ve started in the Penn in Washington program, have you noticed any changes in the atmosphere of DC? If so, how have you altered the program to fit these changing realities? How has your teaching changed? And how has your approach to matching students with internships changed?

Deirdre Martinez: If I could rewind a little bit further, I spent the ’90s working in Washington. And half of that time was as a congressional staffer. This was during the Republican revolution, the precursor to the Tea Party movement. And I was working for a member of Congress pretty far to the left. It was in that decade that you really started to see the gulf growing between the two parties and the changing attitudes about working across the aisle. And that became much harder.

So it’s important to note that this isn’t new. It’s been true for a while, for example, that if you think you want to work in DC in the future, you need to be careful not to enter for an organization or an elected official whose political ideology doesn’t match yours. So that’s something that we think a lot about as I advise students about where to intern.

If you’re a Democrat, you can’t work for a Republican. That wasn’t true decades ago. But that has been true for a while now. And then in terms of how I run the program, I work very hard to introduce students to a variety of viewpoints because these days, that will not happen as a matter of course. If you’re interning in a Republican office, it is highly unlikely that you interact with many Democratic offices. The line is very, very clear now. And crossing the line is seen as suspect. So we do go out of our way to cross the line a bit.

Lia Howard: Brian, do you have additional thoughts about the importance of teaching political empathy in higher education? Did this semester alter or strengthen any of your views about research and pedagogy?

Brian Rosenwald: My biggest fear for the future of higher ed is that it’s getting narrower and narrower in terms of what people are able to teach. And that’s not necessarily the situation at Penn. But in a lot of other places, you have a lot of faculty who are not full professors. They’re not tenured. They’re not on the tenure track.

And that’s important because sometimes they feel much more compelled to go along with student opinion, the opinion of their peers, because they don’t have job security. And as students have kind of revolted, in some cases I think wisely, and in some cases maybe not as wisely, about speakers and ideas and things that they find offensive or problematic, I worry a little bit that people will not be teaching to engage ideas and engage people who don’t agree with them.

And again, I’m never saying to a student, oh you must accept that they’re a good person or that their ideas are valid or anything like that. It’s just, can we understand them. Can we try to figure out what’s driving this. Maybe there’s some grain of something that we’ll see in there that can build a trust or at least an ability to talk.

Because whether we like it or we don’t like it, I don’t think it serves anyone to send students off into the world who haven’t had exposure to that and haven’t engaged that. And I think that the mission of Padilla and what we’re trying to do is really crucial to a good college experience, to what college should be.

My views changed during college as I talked to people just sitting around dorm late at night, as I engage with ideas in class, as I read things and learn things and learned about people I had never heard of. I really think it’s this amazing moment in your life where you can rethink things, where you’re in a totally different world from the one that you grew up in, and where you can really engage different ideas. It’s the hallmark to me of the liberal arts and why they’re so important.

And in terms of my research, I’m very focused in my career on how do we create and engage with forms that reach broader audiences. How do we do rigorous research where the byproduct isn’t just books and journal articles. And I think engaging with students and seeing what material resonates the most with them always influences those ideas and influences me in terms of thinking, well, how can we do something rigorously that might reach a broader audience.

We watched episodes of Miss America the semester. And seeing how excited that got students, even though it was really, really well done, there was very little that was factually stretched in any way, shape or form. They read a history book that recounted a lot of the same events and ideas and things that they then watched in this fictionalized television series. So that that was one example of something that the kind of got me thinking of like, well, what are the possibilities here.

So that that’s kind of my pedagogy and my drive. And students help to kind of fuel that and energized me.

Lia Howard: Thank you. Deirdre, same question. Do you have any additional thoughts about the importance of teaching political empathy in higher education? As you map out your course for next semester, what are you thinking about in terms of your own research and pedagogy as viewed through the course, the Future of Conservatism and the GOP?

Deirdre Martinez: When I’m thinking about programming for PIW and teaching PIW courses, in the back of my head, I’m always thinking about what skills someone needs to work in Congress, just in case we managed to nudge them successfully in that direction. Good policy making requires a diversity of views. I have seen legislation passed, and we all have, that didn’t have that input from the minority and it’s just not as good.

Having someone question your position is a good thing. And so finding ways to engage in those debates fruitfully is just critical. On a more practical level, I’ll give you an example from someone I know who is a senior staffer for Senator Toomey, who’s a Republican from Pennsylvania. He says that at the end of the day, senators Toomey and Casey– who’s the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania– share the common interest of doing what’s best for Pennsylvanians.

And whenever possible, they find ways of working together. You don’t really hear that on the news. But if you are overtly hostile to anyone from the opposing party, you can’t do that kind of work. My old boss in Congress, Xavier Bacerra, was a progressive, used to have dinner with Dana Rohrabacher, Republican. Hillary Clinton’s appointments with Newt Gingrich always went longer than scheduled because she so enjoyed speaking with him.

It’s important to be open to other ideas and to look for common ground. And that’s not easy, but it’s the smart move. And I do think students get that from the Penn in Washington program, or at least I hope they do.

Lia Howard: Thank you Deirdre and Ryan for joining us today.

I’ve been teaching and thinking about American politics for nearly two decades, and have always gravitated towards research that examines political culture, namely the kinds of elements be they demographic, historical, religious, or geographic that shape political attitudes, behavior, and moral imagination.

What goes into shaping interpretations of policy, and why do certain arguments work again and again with particular groups? How are people primed to think in certain ways, and how can those narratives be understood and potentially recast towards an agenda where more people feel incorporated and heard? How do we imagine those who disagree with us, and what kinds of arguments shape our views of that imagined other?

Political empathy seems like an important tool to develop and practice. Yet, are there qualifications to political empathy, limits to us engaging certain points of view, such as those which deny people’s humanity based on their identity? Or are there things we should not want to understand, arguments we dismiss. The answers to these questions are complex and surely multidimensional enough not to be captured by any one discipline.

So over the next few episodes, we will be asking different scholars from political science, public administration, urban studies, fine arts, urban planning, history, and other disciplines about what we can learn about deeply engaging those who disagree with us politically.

We look forward to our next dialogue with Caroline Connolly and Marissa Denker, to be released on July 13.

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