With the fall semester starting, I am preparing once more to teach undergraduate and graduate students at Pepperdine University about American political thought. But this year I find myself compelled to revise my syllabus in a way I never dreamed necessary—I am including a section on fascism.
When I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 2000s, I served as a teaching assistant for various courses in American politics and they inevitably began with the same spiel: American political thought has largely resisted ideologies like communism and fascism. These systems of thought might therefore be safely put aside when studying the United States. Few foresaw then the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. His ascendancy to the Republican presidential nomination means many things to many different people. But for professors of American politics it means rethinking the syllabus from the ground up.
Composing a syllabus in political science is itself a political act—which societal problems are important? Which can be glossed over? How should a political movement, party, or candidate be conceptualized? Describing political reality often entails entering the political fray. For example, every year when I teach about race in the United States, I have students who find Michelle Alexander’s thesis that Americans live in a system of racial caste not only inaccurate but offensive. They do not see why it should be included on the syllabus at all. At the same time, I have students who strongly object to describing the U.S. as a colorblind meritocracy. The very way in which political life is conceptualized and described is subject to controversy that is, in turn, political.