‘Your voices are exactly the voices the world needs right now’

In the midst of divisive election, WashU students learn how to influence world around them

Generation Z, people currently 18 to 23 years old, make up 10% of eligible voters in 2020. This influx of young and first-time voters has the potential to shape the outcome of the race — if they come out to vote. In this video, WashU students share their hopes for the future and how they plan to drive change. 

At a time when Americans are increasingly polarized and partisans share a mutual disdain for one another, students in Betsy Sinclair’s “Public Opinion and American Democracy” course at Washington University in St. Louis are learning how to bridge the divide.

The fall 2020 course syllabus sets the tone for the semester: “Your voices are exactly the voices the world needs right now. Voices with a theoretically-informed understanding of democracy and public opinion are needed to build better neighborhoods, communities and government. This course will help you grow and become effective agents of change.”

Sinclair, professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, said her goal is for students to end the course with a tremendous sense of hope and a desire to take action.

Betsy Sinclair

“Their voices matter. By taking this course, they are learning how to be heard and how to meaningfully influence the world around them. That’s the kind of ‘influencer’ I want our WashU graduates to become,” she said.

The course focuses on three key questions in the field of American political behavior:  How do we measure public opinion? Which elected officials listen to public opinion? And how can we change public opinion?

Students began the semester by writing letters to each other explaining their political beliefs — a project inspired by Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams famously wrote to Jefferson, “You and I, ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.” Jefferson later echoed the statement.

The course’s virtual format has enabled additional learning opportunities, including guest lectures by scholars around the country and researchers from polling firms, as well as virtual peer discussion groups.

Students also participated in a virtual debate watch party on Oct. 22, after which a few had the opportunity to share their thoughts publicly during a local CBS newscast.

In the midst of a divisive election and pandemic, Sinclair’s students are learning how to have a political discussion with the goal of understanding one another, even if they ultimately disagree. By reflecting on the experiences and perspectives of others, they are refining and developing their own views, Sinclair said.

“They are intellectually ferocious, precise and thoughtful. They challenge each other respectfully.”

Betsy Sinclair

“I am amazed by my students. I look forward to seeing them every week. They are intellectually ferocious, precise and thoughtful. They challenge each other respectfully,” she said.

“The academic research that surrounds political persuasion is grounded in a kind of radical empathy. I see our students practicing that in their own lives, in our class discussions. They are learning to evaluate survey data with a keen eye and they are learning how to influence the world around them. Look out, future!”