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Watson senior fellows to lead study groups

Seminars will discuss American and global politics, narrative, elections

Three new senior fellows at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs will lead study groups on issues in American society and global politics this semester.

The non-credit study groups feature former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India Menaka Guruswamy, writer ZZ Packer and former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who has led study groups in previous semesters. Topics to be covered include the influence of American domestic policy on the United States’ global status, comparative constitutional democracy between the United States, Iran and India, narratives that shape American identity and the politician’s approach to electoral success.

Heitkamp’s study group “How to Influence America’s Future” centers on structural issues in U.S. society and domestic politics and examines how this dysfunction influences America’s global standing. From her early career as a state tax commissioner to her later position as the first female senator elected from North Dakota, Heitkamp had “always been in the place of decision making,” she said.

Heitkamp plans to make use of “Data First” points — statistics showing demographic trends of the United States in issues related to the aging population, healthcare, the national deficit and climate change — as part of the study group to inform students of the need to build consensus based on data and fact. “One of the most damaging legacies of (the Trump Administration) is that there’s so little fact-based decision making,” Heitkamp said. “Future leaders of America … need to have a more long-term thinking  about America’s problems.”

In her session titled “Divided Democracies: Constitutions and Politics in the United States, India, and Iran,” Guruswamy will focus on commonalities and differences between the three constitutional democracies. Comparative constitutional systems is an important topic to discuss because “it can tell us not just about contemporary American politics, but the history of America,” she said.

Each of the three well-established constitutional democracies is experiencing a critical moment both politically and constitutionally, Guruswamy said, pointing to partisan American politics and the impeachment trial, the public protest against the Iranian theocratic state and the conflict caused by the Citizenship Amendment Act in India.

Packer will lead a study group that investigates the narratives that shape American identity. “The 1619 Project: Governing Narratives” will focus on the New York Times “1619 Project,” which was a journalistic effort to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the United States, according to a Watson press release.

Packer’s study group, through the theme of narrative, “offers a new interpretation of American history from the founding of the country through the present that focuses on the institution of slavery,” Director of the Watson Institute Edward Steinfeld said.

Guest speakers for the course include New York Times journalists Jake Silverstein and Wesley Morris, along with Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess.

In his group “How to Win Elections and Lose the Country,” Steele will focus on the “methods of American political parties and the systems they create in the fight for domination and electoral success,” according to the course syllabus. Topics include partisan politics in relation to U.S. history, the strategies of political campaigns, race and immigration in domestic politics and the prospects for the 2020 election.

“The only thing is that I wish we had more readings beforehand, so we (could) have a better sense of the baseline of discussion,” said Colin Olson ’23, who participated in Steele’s “The Dismantling and Rebranding of American Politics” in the fall.

The Watson Institute emphasizes expanding diversity and global perspectives, Steinfeld said. The study groups are designed both to have low entry barriers for students across different fields and to avoid infringing on students’ coursework. “In order to understand many challenges facing humankind, you have to expand the number and types of people in the discussion,” he added.

Peter Deegan ’21, who has participated in three study groups, said that the discussions “pushed me to construct my own arguments about social media and political polarization.”


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