Presidential Selection with Donald Brand, professor of political science

By Meredith Fidrocki

Course Description
Professor Donald Brand’s Presidential Selection course studies the process by which the United States selects its president and is only offered during an election year. The course examines the current presidential campaign while grounding students within the historical context of the development of the presidential selection process. Topics include critical analysis of the nomination stage and the election stage, as well as the function of the Electoral College.

Objectives of the Course
Students study the evolution of the presidential selection process since the American Founding, with the goal of developing an appreciation for the intricacies of the system and a critical foundation for examining modern ideas for reform.

Required Texts
Presidential Selection by James Ceaser; The Perfect Tie by James Ceaser & Andrew Busch; Why The Electoral College is Bad For America by George Edwards; The Party Decides by Cohen, Karol, Noel & Zaller; Citizens Divided by Robert C. Post; Campaign Finance and Political Polarization by Raymond La Raja & Brian Schaffner; The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. Students are also asked to stay informed on current events by reading a major national newspaper.

A 13-page paper on a selected presidential election, a four-page paper centered on a debate topic, an op-ed on a chosen subject related to the course, a midterm and a final exam.

On the Day HCM Visited Class
On the clear and crisp fall morning that I attended Professor Brand’s Presidential Selection course in Stein 217, the country was exactly one week away from Election Day. This Nov. 1 class would break from a more traditional lecture format and focus heavily on student participation. Brand began by opening the room up to a discussion of any recent updates in the 2016 presidential campaign between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. The director of the FBI had just announced a new email investigation centering on Clinton. Brand invited students to consider what impact this “October surprise” might have on the election and to keep in mind that 20 million Americans had already cast their ballots in some form of early voting.

After a brief look at current polling estimates in battleground states, the class took a 120-year leap back in time to the presidential election of 1896. Two students presented background on this so-called “realigning election” between William McKinley (R) and William Jennings Bryan (D), which ushered in a period of Republican dominance and divided voters on issues like the gold standard and the interests of industrialists and organized labor versus rural farmers. Each of the presenting students embodied one of the 1896 candidate’s platforms and delivered a fervent first-person speech in character at the podium.

With this historical background in hand, we jumped back to present day and moved into a simulated presidential debate that would take up the majority of the class time. Each individual in the 18-person class had been randomly chosen to research and argue for the party stances of either the Trump or Clinton campaigns. Brand, who would serve as moderator, instructed Team Trump to gather on his right and Team Clinton on his left. As the students shifted onto their assigned teams, the randomness of the groupings was confirmed by this reporter, who spotted a “Hillary” sticker on a student laptop in the Trump camp during Brand’s first class section meeting and a “Trump” t-shirt on the Clinton side during the second class.

Brand asked both sides tough questions on immigration, health care, trade issues and Middle Eastern and Russian policy. Students, who had prepped in these specific areas, responded to questions like, “What would you do to fix [the health care system]?” and “Is it realistic to say we can bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.?” The debate was dynamic, impassioned at times and always respectful.

Professor Bio
Professor Donald Brand, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, taught in the political science department at Holy Cross for two years in the early eighties, then returned in 1995 and has remained ever since. Brand is a professor of political science and also co-directs the Charles Carroll Program at Holy Cross, which explores ethical and political themes of American politics and has been instrumental in bringing lectures, conferences and post-doc fellows to campus and supporting student fellows and summer researchers. Brand, who studies American politics, American national institutions and public administration, has taught a number of courses, including American Presidency and Capitalism in Crisis. He has written 15 scholarly articles and one book, with another in progress. Brand is a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught math and science in a small village in Nepal, and he serves as an informal resource for Holy Cross students considering joining the corps.

Space for Discourse
“I take advantage of the heightened level of student interest as presidential elections are going on,” Brand says of the course, which is typically offered in the spring semester during a presidential primary and then again in the fall during the general election. The curriculum draws on the past to better understand the present: “So much of the study of presidential elections [is framing elections in terms of each other]—so you really have to have a very deep historical sense of a variety of elections to be able to make sense of the current election.”

When studying the present election, Brand is committed to creating a classroom space that is respectful and that asks students to think critically. “I’ve spent my entire career really trying to find a way of teaching that allows students of all political persuasions to feel comfortable and to explore their views and be challenged,” Brand says.

Brand uses simulated presidential debates, like the one held on the day HCM visited class, to broaden his students’ thinking. “[The debates force students] to be more thoughtful about contemporary public policy issues,” he says. It is important to Brand that the teams are always randomly assigned. “[I] want them to learn to argue for both sides,” notes Brand. “For the contemporary election, … I put both candidates under the microscope.”

From Student to Colleague  
“The main reason I enrolled in Professor Brand’s course is that I was very interested in studying the presidency,” says Gregory Burnep ’09, who is now an assistant professor in the political science department at Holy Cross. “What made the class even more attractive was its timing: the 2008 presidential campaign was in full swing, and campus was buzzing about it. 2008 turned out to be a historic election—we elected our first African-American president—and Professor Brand’s class offered me deeper insights into how it all happened.

“Especially illuminating was learning about how the current system for picking presidential candidates differs from the methods used in the past. After taking Professor Brand’s course, I became convinced that we have a lot to learn from the past—and that our current system could use some reform, using the past as a guide.”  

Burnep and Brand now find themselves colleagues in the political science department. “And yes,” says Burnep, “the books Professor Brand assigned in the course now sit on the bookshelves in my office ... a few doors down the hall from Professor Brand’s office.”  ■