As a rule, we political science professors rarely have a chance to actually participate in politics alongside our students. Voting isn't generally a team sport. Interning in a congressional office or combing through constituent mail may be worthwhile for a student who wants a job, but most professors won't carpool to the office with their students to take on the task.
But students have been omnipresent since I arrived at Drake. I spend more time at candidate events than most people could imagine, and what's really remarkable is that I rarely attend an event where I don't run into a student. Some of them are working on a campaign, some of them are interning with a news outlet, some are affiliated with an interest group, some are curious onlookers, but they are there. They're not big donors to the campaigns, nor do they necessarily support the candidate they've come to see. They just want an opportunity to participate.
When Michele Bachmann came to campus at 10am on a Thursday morning, 350 students were there, including the president of Drake Democrats. Heck, once upon a time, when Thaddeus McCotter was a presidential candidate and came to visit with Drake students, nearly 50 students became a standing-room-only audience at 7 p.m. on a weeknight. (And most Americans didn't even know he was running.) When the Republican Party of Iowa offered a table at the annual Reagan dinner for 10 students, we had 25 students request a seat within four hours. Facebook photos of students and candidates were distributed all over the social media universe that night.
Today (Friday, as of this writing) we're using a lottery to choose students to attend the debate in person. We have 1,000 requests. That's nearly a third of our undergraduate population. Within an hour of sending out an email to debate interns requesting help unloading ABC equipment on Wednesday morning, 10 of 25 responded. If you can get 10 college students willing to venture into the cold air of December in Iowa at 7am the week before finals, and there's no pizza, doughnuts, or candy to get them there, you're doing something right.
The debate isn't a wonderful opportunity for students to sit and chat with the candidates. That really isn't how debates are run, for those who have missed the dozens of them we've seen so far this cycle. But it is a pretty outstanding way to see politics from a completely different vantage point. Let's face it, the "election" that most of us see on TV is airbrushed and impersonal. Meeting candidates in person is a wonderful way to circumnavigate that. Seeing a major news network transform your athletic facility into a working press room 24 hours after a double-header basketball game is also pretty great. Too often, presidential elections seem to be about finding some magical answer to our collective national problems in a single person -- someone who will lead the nation to be everything we've ever wanted to be. Watching a debate transforms your campus is something akin to pulling the curtain back to reveal the great and powerful Oz.
Candidates are not the images we see on TV, they're people -- and whether you love them or hate them, we rarely take the time to really think of them as individuals who have real lives. Politics can be much more compelling when you see it up close and understand that it's a real, human thing.
Sometimes we forget that, at its core, democracy is not a spectator sport. You can read all the books in the world, but it's an amazing thing to actually get in the game. Engaged citizenship is essential for the future of our politics, but talking about it isn't going to do any good. Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and venture forth. Along the way, you learn a lot -- and when you reach your destination, you'll often find your students are already there.