Political science professor loves the learning curve during election season

Originally published by the Argus Leader on August 25, 2016 

Growing up, Emily Wanless wanted to be a large-animal vet, only to discover that science wasn’t exactly her forte.

Montana senator was a more achievable goal. But that wasn’t totally the right fit either. Next her passions turned toward political speechwriting. But it was a trip to Washington, D.C., in high school that ultimately cemented her current career as a political science professor at Augustana University.

Wanless is sharing the passion for politics she inherited from her father with the students who sit in her classroom each year. But it’s not the pros and cons of being conservative or liberal that Wanless focuses on. The science behind the politics is what really interests her.

“I love teaching what matters,” Wanless says. “American government has always been my focus because I’m fascinated by the inner workings of Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidency.”

Just don’t ask her about international affairs.

“I always point people down the hallway for that one,” she says with a laugh.

But teaching American government isn’t as tidy as making sure students understand checks and balances and the Bill of Rights, especially in 2016. And political science itself isn’t all Republicans versus Democrats; there are more nuances at play.

“The twofold challenge of teaching the subject I do is one, figuring out how to make political science relevant for those who couldn’t care less, getting them to pay attention, and two, helping those students who are passionate about politics and think they already know everything there is to know to see a different perspective other than their own.”

That perspective is crucial in all seasons, but especially essential for an election year where some of Wanless’ students may be voting in a presidential election for the first time. She even teaches a class analyzing whether campaigns matter in today’s world where everyone already seems to have their minds made up about who to vote for.

Hint, they really don’t. According to Wanless, unless you fall into the 1 percent to 2 percent of the population that remain undecided yet determined to stay informed on the issues, campaigns today are basically just noise. It’s the issues themselves that matter.

But just because political campaigns aren’t what they used to be, doesn’t mean Wanless thinks this election is less important; quite the opposite. Being a woman in the political science field, and having a woman spearheading a major party ticket for the first time in history, Wanless says there are plenty of factors left for voters to consider before casting their ballot in November.

One, that gender gap. Namely, there isn’t as much of one as most would think. Though many African American voters supported Barack Obama back in 2008, Wanless isn’t so sure women will do the same thing for Clinton in 2016.

“You would think a lot of women would want to vote for Clinton simply because she’s a woman, but that doesn’t seem to be true,” she says. “They’re more focused on the issues, and for some, the fact that she’s a woman is just icing on the cake.”

The argument that a woman isn’t emotionally stable enough to hold the highest office in the land, or that working with rival governments will be a problem, is a moot one, Wanless says.

“Just look at Germany’s Angela Merkel,” she says. “I think voters have considered those arguments and found them to be unfounded.”

The pay gap and abortion are also pertinent topics Wanless says merit attention this election cycle, along with future Supreme Court nominations. But not everything is presidential. Though the battle between Trump and Clinton is getting all the hype, Wanless says local elections will still be important in deciding the country’s direction into the future.

“I’ve seen interesting trends in states that have female governors,” she says. “In those states there tend to be more women running for office, more women in the Legislature and more women in the cabinet. I think having a woman in that high office has a definite trickle-down effect.”

Though it’s undoubtedly an exciting time to be involved in American politics, Wanless says her job is one she’s continually passionate about, election year or not.

“The study of politics is challenging,” she says. “But it’s also rewarding. These things matter in people’s daily lives, and it’s important to be educated and informed when it comes to political science.”

Wanless’ tips for being a responsible voter:

  1. Register. You can sign up to vote up to 15 days before the election at the county auditor’s office or on the Secretary of State’s website.
  2. Be skeptical. If you tend to watch one news channel or read one newspaper that tilts toward a certain perspective, balance it out with the opposite. Think the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
  3. Visit fact-checking sites like Project Vote Smart and check out polling numbers from Real Clear Politics.
  4. Remember the alternatives. If you don’t like either of the two options, there are always third-party candidates to consider.
  5. Keep an open mind. It’s easy to say you support one party or the other based purely on political affiliation. Don’t let your attitude downplay the importance of the issues, or make you forget about local elections.
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