It’s hard to consider a controversial topic from a different political viewpoint, and it can be especially difficult in today’s polarized landscape.
Enter Assistant Professor Heather Silber Mohamed’s Introduction to American Politics course, where students took on personas of legislators to do just that during a 2½-hour simulation at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute (EMK) for the United States Senate in Boston in April. To Silber Mohamed’s knowledge, it was the first class from Clark to visit since the institute opened last year.
Silber Mohamed, a former Kennedy staffer, asked her students to become an assigned U.S. senator for the day. Regardless of their political ideologies, students had to represent that senator’s party, interests, constituents and values on immigration reform during a debate on the mock Senate floor — an exact replica of the actual Senate chamber — and agree on a bipartisan bill.
Two students, Taylor Miller ’18, a political science major with a concentration in urban development, and Crisbelly Medina ‘19, a management major, described their experiences during the simulation for ClarkNow. Each writes about how arguing from a perspective they didn’t share helped them understand the complexities of lawmaking in a polarized legislature.
Read Medina’s experience here:
“The (simulation at the) EMK Institute has been one of the best experiences of my life, without a doubt. It gave me the opportunity to see our assigned topic — immigration — from a different point of view.
“I consider myself a Democrat. However, I was assigned to be a Republican senator from North Carolina. In the beginning, it was difficult to adjust to my role, but I told myself that it was just for a day. Seeing how Republicans reflect on undocumented immigrants can be a little bit harsh, but they have a point. However, this doesn’t mean that I no longer consider myself a Democrat, but rather a little of both.
“The main obstacle keeping Congress from passing immigration reform is that it’s difficult to create a bill that satisfies both Democrats and Republicans, and most people don’t understand that process.
“Being in the shoes of a senator isn’t an easy task. It isn’t just about expressing your point of view but about influencing others to support your views, and that can be difficult. Being a senator has given me the opportunity to see what a bill goes through before becoming a law. It’s a very complicated process with an unpredictable outcome.
“I have learned that being a Republican doesn’t mean turning your back to all the undocumented people; it’s about following what the law states and, for the most part, that’s what matters. The most meaningful part of this trip is that it was good to experience political views from both sides and not just one. It’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages before making a final decision.”
Here’s Miller’s take on the experience:
“It’s easy for most Americans to judge the effectiveness of Congress, and especially of the Senate. To the public, the Senate looks constantly stagnant. But what we learned is that there are a number of things that are always happening and stalemates occur when the legislators stand stubbornly behind their parties and the party’s principles. While our class didn’t achieve our goal of the day — to create a comprehensive immigration bill — the process we partook in shed light on the barriers to legislative progress plaguing the United States Senate.
“Our mission for the day was to establish a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill. Each student received the profile of a U.S. senator and had to represent their interests. Our new identities affected how we voted on amendments, appointments and whether the bill would be passed. Both sides fought firmly for the amendments they supported; even if they would end up canceling each other out in the end, senators pushed to have their prospects represented before they considered negotiating legislation.
“Often, I had to act in ways that diverged from my own beliefs. For example, in our first caucus, my group of senators interviewed a new presidential appointee. We asked him for his position on several policy areas, and if they aligned with our own, we would vote to support the appointment. He (the appointee) was representing a department tasked with overseeing the expansion of civil liberties through education. His political positions depicted him as someone I, personally, would hire for the job; however, he didn’t support strengthening border control, nor strict immigrant background checks, so (in my role as a Republican senator) I voted against his appointment.
“The Republican group rallied behind an amendment on fingerprinting immigrants exiting and entering the country, and I was delegated to write and give a speech in favor of it, though it’s not something that I believe in. Regardless, this was a very interesting task. While writing my speech, the facilitator urged me to address the Democrats’ main concern, civil liberties, and to frequently stress the bipartisanship of supporting the amendment. This coaching paid off and the amendment received overwhelming support, and was added to the immigration bill. This was the most memorable part of the simulation for me. It made me understand that, at the podium, the success of a senator’s mission lies precariously on his or her rhetoric as he or she must speak confidently and carefully to receive support from [his or] her constituents.
“At the end of the simulation, our Senate did not pass any comprehensive immigration bill. Even though we built the bill ourselves, debating and choosing the amendments we supported most, we were unhappy with the final product and voted to kill the bill by a 10-vote margin.
“I noticed something during our short, unmoderated caucus that I feel could have contributed to this unproductive outcome. I asked senators why they would support or oppose the bill, and most of them were aligning themselves with their party and not basing their decision off their and their states’ values. Party polarization is one of the strongest inhibitors of progress in the U.S. Senate. When our class simulated a session of the U.S. Senate, we mirrored recent events in Washington by not producing an effective bill or passing any new legislation. It seemed that we suffered from debilitating political polarization; senators predominantly made decisions that aligned with their party and their principles over the values of their states.”