Teaching Impeachment and the 2020 Election

Alan Singer, Hofstra University

The “Answer Sheet” column by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post published a letter that an Edina, Minnesota social studies teacher sent parents explaining how he was addressing the House impeachment hearings in his middle school classes. The teacher, Jason Pusey, stressed that lessons “focused mainly on process, not so much on substance.” Pusey makes an important effort to include students in discussion of current issues without alienating parents and administrators or risking his position. But given the level of the threats to American democracy posed by the Trump administration, focusing education on process, not substance, while it is a safer approach to teaching about impeachment and the 2020 election, sells students and democracy short. There are alternative classroom approaches that promote analysis, decision-making, and active citizenship and are aligned with state and national learning standards.

The United States is in the midst of a constitutional crisis that may be the worst since the 1850s when Southern states, fearing a permanent minority status in the national government and federal action against slavery, attempted to leave the union precipitating the Civil War. The contemporary Republican Party has embraced two very dangerous ideologies, the Unitary Executive and “win-at-any-cost no matter what the consequences” that threaten constitutional government and democracy in the United States.

In schools we teach that fundamental principles of the United States Constitution are “separation of powers” and “check and balances” between three theoretically co-equal branches of government, the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. This scheme has roots in the writing of French Enlightenment thinker Baron de Montesquieu who believed that “separation of powers” and “check and balances” were the most effective way to prevent autocracy and the abuse of power.

James Madison, writing in Federalist Paper 51, argued that these principles were imbedded in the Constitution by design. Madison famously wrote: “To what expedient, then, shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the Constitution? The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”

The problem, however, is that while the Constitution establishes three independent branches of government, in the case of the Executive and Judicial branches, it does not clearly delineate their responsibilities and the limits of their power. The Supreme Court’s authority to evaluate the constitutionality of laws and actions was assumed by the Court and accepted by the other branches following its decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). But the Court has no power to enforce its decisions and in the case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832), President Andrew Jackson refused to abide by the Court’s decision. In the 1950s and 1960s, states delayed implementing the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education school desegregation decisions while local authorities defunded public education and established white-only private academies.

While there are procedures for Congress to overrule the President and for the President to veto Congress, the words “checks,” “balances,” and “separation” do not appear anywhere in the text of the Constitution. There is also no definition of what is meant by Executive power. While Section 2 specifies some Presidential responsibilities such as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, the power to grant reprieves and pardons, and with the approval of the Senate, to make treaties and nominate and judges, Article II, Section 1, Clause 1, simply states “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”

During the administration of President George W. Bush (2001-2009), Bush advisors advanced a “Unitary Executive Theory” claiming he had unrestricted authority to invade Afghanistan and Iraq because the Constitution assigned the president all “executive power.” This supposedly meant the President could set aside laws and court rulings that attempted to limit his power over national security.

With Donald Trump in office, “Unitary Executive Theory” advocates have expanded this interpretation of the Constitution to justify every Presidential action as inherently legitimate because Trump as President is chief executive. Legislative or judicial challenges to his authority are dismissed as harassment. His current chief defender is Attorney General William Barr. In a recent speech to the Federalist Society, Barr argued that the Constitution does not permit Congress to place any limits on a President, even if a President is covering up crimes committed by the President or an associate. Based on this theory, a President has dictatorial power for four years, power that can even be used to destroy the government and American society. Congress’ only redress is impeachment and removal from office, which is incredibly difficult to do.

A unit or periodic lessons examining the question “Is democracy threatened?” allows space for a range of viewpoints. Democrats in the House of Representatives launched the impeachment hearings because they believe Donald Trump’s actions violate the standards for constitutional government. In response, President Trump charges Democrats with an attempted coup, trying to overturn the results of his legitimate election and popular will.

I propose three classroom alternatives to engage secondary school students in understanding issues but also prepares them for participation in the 2020 election as civic activists. Preparing and supporting students as civic activists is mandated in a number of state social studies standards. I call these approaches (1) Policy Wonks, (2) Campaign Fact-Checkers, and (3) Civic Activists.

(1) Policy Wonks: In this approach social studies lessons focus on specific issues, rather than on candidates. Students research and define positions on immigration, climate change, gun control, economic growth, free speech and social media, democratic values, health care, foreign involvement, and Presidential leadership. They can send their recommendations to candidates, promote their ideas in public forums, and use their research to evaluate candidates.

(2) Campaign Fact-Checkers: This approach is especially important as students evaluate candidate claims in the 2020 election campaign and draw conclusions and make recommendations about which candidate to support. Important websites that do fact-checking include FactCheck.org, Fact Checker, and Politifact. Students can also conduct textual analysis of testimony and documents, including transcripts of the phone calls. Based on these investigations students can turn to an examination of the Constitution and legal precedents and make judgments based on their investigations. Is President Trump’s decision not to make some documents available and his order to members of the Executive branch not to testify a defense of Presidential pejoratives and the independence of the Executive branch or obstruction of justice by a legitimate and Constitutional Congressional inquiry? If the Democratic majority on the House Committee concludes that President Trump did use the Office of the President to solicit support from Ukraine to further his 2020 reelection campaign, does that in itself constitute an impeachable offense and grounds to remove the President from office?

            (3) Civic Activists: Teachers constantly worry whether they are allowed to express a point of view in class on major issues or how to handle student views that may be extreme or disrespectful of others. Teachers I work with expressed that these two concerns came up repeatedly in discussions of the 2016 election and I expect them to continue in 2020. A goal in a democratic classroom community is that students learn to respect themselves and each other. Democratic classroom communities provide students with emotional support so they can take intellectual and social risks. For communities to develop, teachers must play active roles. I believe they must also be willing to model what it means to develop a point of view based on evidence and what it means to listen and learn from others.

The New York State Social Studies Frameworks are aligned with the National Council for the Social Studies College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework and national Common Core Standards. They specifically call on teachers and students to collaboratively “Analyze evidence in terms of content, authorship, point of view, bias, purpose, format, and audience.” In addition, students are supposed to learn to “Compare the points of view of two or more authors in their treatments of the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.”

As part of this process, students are expected to “Demonstrate respect for the rights of others in discussions and classroom debates; respectfully disagree with other viewpoints and provide evidence for a counter-argument”; “Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, and presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed; “Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions”; and “Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.”

As students develop their views through research and discussion, they are encouraged to act on their understandings. New York State and the NCSS’ C3 Framework specifically endorse student activism through voting, volunteering, and “joining with others to improve society.” I can’t think of a better way of “joining with others to improve society” than becoming involved in the 2020 election.

Some projects students can create as they engage in any of these approaches include rapping about a candidate or issue, making a sixty-second infomercial, or producing memes, t-shirts, letters to the editor of local newspapers, blogs, and tweets. I tweet Donald Trump my latest meme about two or three times a week. You can follow me on twitter at https://twitter.com/ReecesPieces8.

Teacher Responses on Teaching Impeachment and the 2020 Election

Mariya Korobkova, Curriculum Specialist New York City Department of Education: Understanding current issues and events is an essential component of a robust civics education. As students learn about engaging in and having an impact on their communities it is important that they remain informed about the issues affecting our city, nation, and the world. Civics for All has created, and will regularly add to, a collection of supplemental lesson plans and resources to aid in teaching current issues and events. The Civics for All: Current Issues and Events collection is available on WeTeachNYC. It is recommended that teachers download and review Current Events and Civics Education before using the resources in this collection in the classroom. These materials include two resource types: Full K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and/or 9-12 lesson plans that connect fundamental civics concepts to current issues and events. The formatting of the lesson plans is consistent with the Civics for All lesson plans and are distinguishable by their purple color-coding.

A brief summary of the issue or event with suggested resources for lesson planning and teaching civics-related current events.

The first resources created for this collection are grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 lesson plans on the impeachment process. They are available for download now on WeTeachNYC.

Derek Pearce, Division High School, Levittown, NY: Levittown is an interesting place. Despite the fact that I grew up here, went to K-12 school here, and have lived here for much of my adult life, I still have difficulty understanding the people here. On paper, Levittown is “left leaning” with 51.3% voting Democrat in the last presidential election. However, conversations with my students and neighbors reveal ample support for President Trump. Teaching something as politically sensitive as impeachment in such a politically divided atmosphere has presented a unique set of challenges that I have attempted to address throughout the year. My first lesson on impeachment coincided with the House Speaker Pelosi’s press conference announcing the beginning of the House impeachment inquiry on September 24th. I predicted that most of my students would have only the vaguest sense of the impeachment process and the circumstances surrounding the impeachment- predictions that unfortunately proved to be accurate. To counter this lack of context, I started the students with several headlines from various newspapers that provided clues about the background circumstances surrounding the announcement of the impeachment inquiry. This allowed the few students who were aware of the details to explain the context to their less informed classmates. To connect the impeachment inquiry with the curriculum, we moved next to a brief mini-lesson on the system of checks and balances inherent in the Constitution which included various examples outside of the obvious check impeachment offers Congress over the Executive. Finally, students compared an excellent video on the impeachment process from Ted-Ed with a well-designed flow chart from the Conthat demonstrated the possible routes of the Trump impeachment inquiry. The lesson closed with a debate among students about the likely course of the impeachment proceedings. Using their newfound knowledge of the historical context and Constitutional procedures of impeachment, many of my students came to the realization that impeachment was likely in a Democratic controlled House of Representatives, but conviction and removal from office was unlikely in a Republican controlled Senate. Since my first lesson on impeachment did not allow my students much room for a debate or discussion on their views of the Trump impeachment inquiry- a conscious choice considering their lack of contextual or procedural knowledge, I decided to teach a second lesson on the impeachment inquiry that coincided with the House Judiciary Committee’s vote to recommend two articles of impeachment on Friday, December 13th. In this lesson, students were presented with reactions to the announcement from various Democrats and Republicans. After identifying the repeating themes associated with the quotes, students were tasked with identifying the quote that most aligned with their view of the impeachment process. Students whose views were not adequately represented by the available quotes were able to create their own. Using the foundational knowledge from the previous lesson along with the spectrum of perspectives presented by the quotes, students were able to have a reasoned, informed, and academic discussion on a topic that many of them were unable to define just a few weeks earlier.

Pablo Muriel, Alfred E. Smith High School, Bronx, NY: This is a very exciting time to be a social studies teacher but it is also a vital time in our democracy and society as a whole. Currently we are facing a climate crisis that threatens the earth, income inequality that have led many historians to call this time period the second gilded age, immigration policies that place children in cages, massive cuts to social services and austerity policies that threaten public services. All of these current issues make teaching the impeachment process a vital part of participation in government. I begin my lessons with a 10-minute clip of democracy now and give the students time to write down issues that they believe have the most impact on their lives. Next students share out their ideas, this allows students to have a dialogue on the current issues and become acquainted with those issues. The class moves on to the lessons which this year have revolved around major issues such as climate, Immigration, and securing the social safety net (my students are mostly impoverished, 93% title one school). To this end students have read articles on these issues, have joined the climate protest, visited community board meetings (mandatory in my class) and are currently writing letters to their congressperson on bills they are in support of or against. During this process they are engaged in the topic of impeachment through reading newspaper articles daily as a do now assignment and must respond in writing on google classrooms and a share-out that typically leads to the lesson. The goal is to immerse students in dialogue, politics and activism so that they may take full control of their agency, use it to engage in government functions and ultimately include themselves as part of the larger system.

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