Utah political science and law professors said students need to focus on compromise and having productive conversations to accomplish good in the increasing divisiveness of politics.
Utah Valley University political science professor Steven Sylvester said the “last four years have systematically changed the way we view politics.”
Sylvester said a “win at all costs” mentality has slowly been growing in politics but has been especially fueled by Donald Trump’s presidency. This mentality, he said, reduces all incentives for compromise.
“It doesn’t need to be all about winning,” he said. “If we just view politics as a zero-sum game, we’re really never going to move anywhere. We’re not really going to move forward at all.”
As a professor, Sylvester said he teaches his students to think for themselves, look at the other side of politics and always leave room for negotiation.
“We as professors have to teach our students that looking at the other side not as the enemy, but as a way to learn more,” he said.
The rising amount of calls for impeachment is contributing to the divisiveness of politics because the threat of impeachment is sometimes used by lawmakers as “a tool to punish their enemies,” Sylvester said.
“We shouldn’t just be calling for impeachment of the other side just because we don’t like what they’re doing,” he said.
BYU law professor Stephanie Plamondon Bair said impeachment is a “legitimate tool that is built into our system of checks and balances in our government, but it’s also a tool that is meant to be reserved for very specific and usually pretty extreme situations.”
This tool is important to call on when needed and appropriate, but shouldn’t be “tossed around” as a way to threaten, intimidate, or gain political advantage over people you disagree with, she said.
Bair said this highlights how living in a pluralistic society, there are divergent views on approaches to policy and solutions for societal issues.
For her, it is important to train students to have “productive conversations rather than just retreating to their sides and digging in their heels and not listening.”
These divisions, combined with a norm against compromise, make it difficult to communicate and to “accomplish things that we really do need to accomplish just to keep our society functioning and doing things that are for the well being of the citizenry,” she said.
Bair said the BYU law school has always emphasized training students to handle situations where the others involved have various backgrounds, interests and perspectives. The change in the political landscape, she said, “has made it even more important for us as law professors to teach our students how to approach conflict and how to communicate with people in productive ways when those people have different interests from you.”
Teaching students to not be afraid of having conversations with those whose viewpoints differ and learning to express viewpoints in rational ways will help students to achieve mutually satisfactory outcomes, she said.
Going into these conversations with the goal of understanding will help “combat the divisions we are seeing right now,” Bair said.
BYU political science professor Jeremy Pope said party loyalty and fidelity have become more important than individual beliefs in the current political climate.
The Republican Party has gone through the biggest change with old-style conservatism starting to phase out and loyalty to Donald Trump becoming the current prominent feature of the party, he said.
“As the parties have tried to enforce ever-higher levels of loyalty through various mechanisms, including primaries, elected officials get more and more extreme,” Pope said.
Pope wrote an opinion piece published in the Deseret News discussing polarization and partisan politics. In it, he said, “When partisanship has no limits, the republic will have truly fallen.”
Pope said the longer he studies partisanship and party politics, the “more obvious it becomes that almost anyone can be led down the path to defending unethical, even criminal behavior that they would not justify under any other circumstance other than a partisan fight where the limits come off.”
For Pope, he said it is important to teach students to have limits on their partisanship and to have their own personal beliefs instead of just believing everything on one “side” of politics.
Utah State University political science professor James Curry said he thinks politically things have “changed less than people perceive.”
“Conflict has been a constant of our politics,” he said, mentioning that parties will always fight about the political system, including Congress’ policymaking actions.
All presidents make their mark on the political climate and “Trump’s contribution to our politics was taking this to new levels, agitating the public on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Curry said he focuses on training his students to know how politics “actually works” and teaching students how to pass policies and make laws.
Finding common ground between members of the parties is the only way to get things done, he said.
“The vast majority of policy proposals require bipartisan support to be enacted. I have always, and will continue to, infuse this lesson into my teaching,” Curry said.
Director of the BYU civic engagement program Quin Monson said right now it is important for students to get involved in civic engagement projects.
Monson said he sees a lot of students who are idealistic when they enter politics and become disheartened experiencing the “toxicity” of the political environment.
He promotes local-level engagement for students to get involved so they can see their efforts actually make a difference in local government, rather than being discouraged by the toxic environment of “partisan animosity” at the federal level.
The civic engagement minor is relatively new, only being offered at BYU for the past seven years. The program focuses on teaching students how to be involved in local government and how to make changes in public policy.
“We really can guide students to make a difference,” Monson said.