What Do You Think About Politics?

August 28, 2006

A student questionnaire, poll results, and an excerpt from a high school student's prize-winning essay called "We Don't Believe in Politics" aim to open up discussion about what your students really think about politics.

To the Teacher:

Polls have become a major, even the major, source of information during election cycles. They tell us, among other things, what the public views as key issues. In the materials that follow the focus is on those issuesówhat students know and think about them, how likely voters view them, differences between Republican and Democratic voters and how students can learn the views of their representative and senators and respond to them. The materials also include an excerpt from a prize-winning essay in which a high school student argues that "We Don't Believe in Politics." The essay opens up an opportunity for honest talk about how your own students think and feel.

Two valuable internet sources of information on polling are justfacts.votesmart.org (see "polling" for links to the best-known polling organizations) and www.publicagenda.org (see "polling" for questions and answers on key aspects of polling). Teachers may also find useful "Presidential Election 2004: Questioning the Polls," which is available on this website.


Student Questionnaire

From June 14-19, 2006 the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press (www.pewtrusts.com) conducted a poll on issues that have been in the news to determine which were most important to voters.

What do you think? Please complete a version of the Pew poll below. Give each of the issues listed below a number that corresponds with its importance to you.

Very important = 4
Somewhat important = 3
Not very important = 2
Not at all important = 1
Don't know (DK)

____ Education

____ Economy

____ Healthcare

____ Social Security

____ Terrorism and security

____ Situation in Iraq

____ Taxes

____ Job situation

____ Energy policy

____ Immigration

____ Federal budget deficit

____ Minimum wage hike

____ Environmental policy

____ Constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning

____ Government surveillance

____ Inheritance tax

____ Global warming

____ Abortion

____ Constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage

____ Other issue(s)? ___________________________


For discussion

1. What three issues concern students most?

2. How do they define each of these issues?

3. Why is each issue of such concern?

4. What do students think should be done about each issue? Why?

5. What three issues concern students least?

6. How do they define each of these issues?

7. Why is each of lesser concern?

8. Are there other issues of special concern to students? If so, what measures do they support to deal with each?


Student Reading 1: 

The Pew Survey of Adult Voters

Results of the June 14-19, 2006, poll by the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press included the following.

  • Americans favor Democratic candidates over Republican candidates by 51% to 39%.
  • "Increased Democratic intensity is mostly driven by anger toward President Bush and Republican leaders, not by support for the party and its leaders. Fully 64% of Democrats say their party is doing only a fair or poor job in standing up for its traditional positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities and helping the poor."
  • The public is angry with Congress and anti-incumbent."
  • The issues that most voters said were "personally very important to them":
    Education 82%
    Economy 80%
    Healthcare 79%
    Social Security 75%
    Terrorism & security 74%
    Iraq 74%
    Taxes 68%
    Job situation 66%
    Energy policy 64%
    Immigration 58%
    Federal budget deficit 56%
    Minimum wage hike 52%
    Environmental policy 50%


  • Likely Republican and Democratic voters differ by more than 20% on a number of issues they say are "personally very important to them."
    Issue Republicans Democrats
    Healthcare 69% 89%
    Jobs 52% 78%
    Environment 30% 64%
    Minimum wage 36% 67%
    Government surveillance 33% 52%
    Global warming 23% 56%

For discussion

1. The Pew poll and other polls show sharp declines in voter satisfaction with President Bush and Congress. They indicate that voters have become "anti-incumbent." What do you think are the reasons? What makes you think so?

2. How do student concerns compare with those of adult voters? How would you explain any differences?

3. How would you explain the significant differences in what is important to likely Republican and Democratic voters?

4. Overall, 44% of votersóless than halfóview global warming as very important to them. Yet the overwhelming consensus of scientists is that climate change and global warming are occurring, that human behavior is the major contributor and that if humans in the next ten years do not "alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions" "it will soon be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences." (This quote is from Jim Hansen's article in the New York Review of Books entitled"The Threat to the Planet," 7/13/06. Hansen is Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute. What do you think about Hansen's comment? How would you explain the poll result? Should anything be done to increase American concern and action? If yes, what and how? If no, why not?


Student Reading 2:

"We Don't Believe in Politics"

The following excerpt is from a prize-winning essay by a high school student, Camila Domonoske, in a contest sponsored by The Nation magazine. She is a junior at Harrisonburg High School in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The essay was published in The Nation's 6/26/06 issue.

We don't believe in politics.

That's the biggest challenge facing American teenagers today—not war, poverty, debt, abortion or civil rights. It's the fact that we don't believe that the current political system can solve any of those problems. Most teenagers in America care deeply about the future of our country, but all the passion in the world will not help us unless we learn either to work within or to change the current power structure.

We want jobs, security, a better world for our children someday, stability, justice and freedom.  However, unlike the older public, halfheartedly involved in democracy, we don't realize the purpose in any involvement at all—and this may destroy everything we wish for.

We don't trust our government. Citizens three times our age have long memories and have seen government work. [But] most of what we remember are lies, scandals and war...

We don't believe in the power of the ballot. Many of us still plan on voting, but we don't think it'll matter.

We aren't that partisan.  As the nation becomes politically more and more divided,..., teens grow less inclined to join fully a party they only partially support.

We don't count on protests to create justice. During the civil rights movement, vast protests represented the conscience of America and sparked change—or so history classes tell us. What great protests have today's teens seen? When hundreds of thousands march to protest war, America invades Iraq anyway.

We don't expect journalists to solve anything.  Older generations saw Watergate; we saw mass media supporting the administration's claim that Iraq had WMDs.

We don't trust our current government, but we don't believe that our vote can change it. We don't full-heartedly support either political party.  In short, today's teens have given up on traditional ways to participate in politics.

What do we believe in? We believe in technology, that newer, cleaner machines will help save the environment. We believe in education, and that investing in college will help us find better-paying jobs.  We believe the world will continue to get worse but that our lives will continue to get better. We believe, in an abstract way, in justice, peace and freedom, but we mostly fail to see our connection to those ideals.

As a generation, we've given up on the ability of politics to create change. Our great challenge will be to either engage with the current political system, or to help transform it into one that we trust. Either way, something has to change; if teenagers can't figure out how to participate meaningfully in politics, we will have lost our voice, our impact and our power.

Fish Bowl

A "fish bowl" is one way to engage the entire class and is especially useful when emotions are heated or when students bring vastly different perceptions to a controversial topic.

Invite five to seven students to begin the conversation. Ask them to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that this group reflects diverse points of view on the issue. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl (so you will have a smaller circle within a larger circle). Only people in the fish bowl can speak; thus the process facilitates a kind of sustained, focused listening.

Begin by asking a question and inviting students in the fish bowl to speak to it in a "go-around." Each student in the fish bowl speaks to the question without being interrupted. Then designate a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from students in the fish bowl.

After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat. Continue this same procedure with additional questions

Possible Questions

1. Do you agree with the essayist's main point about teenagers: "We don't believe in politics"? Why or why not?

2. Do you trust our government? Why or why not?

3. Do you believe that voting changes things? Why or why not?

4. Do you want to join a political party? If so, for what reasons? If not, why not?

5. What is your attitude toward the media? Explain.

6. What do you believe in most strongly? Why?

7. What does the essayist mean by writing that she believes "in an abstract way in justice, peace and freedom"?

8. What do you see as the greatest political challenge to teenagers?

Class Assessment of the Fish Bowl

1. How do you rate the fish bowl discussion? Excellent? Good? Fair? Unsatisfactory? Why?

2. Were all points of view heard? Respected?

3. What ideas, facts, and questions were introduced into the discussion that complicated your thinking about this issue?

4. What's one thing you want to remember from this discussion?

5. What's one question that didn't get asked that you want us to discuss in the future?

6. How do you rate the "fish bowl" as a discussion technique? Excellent? Good? Fair? Unsatisfactory? Why?

7. What improvements in this technique might we make?

For further inquiry and writing

1. Organize an inquiry into where the the students' U.S. representative and two senators stand on the issues that most concern the class. Ask students how they would find out the legislators' positions. Do students know and can they locate the websites of these officials? Where on the site can they find the information they want?

What questions do they have about anything they have learned? How might these questions be answered? What are additional possible sources? How might students direct their questions and views to their public officials? While it usually takes some time, those officials will respond to e-mails and letters.

2. Organize an inquiry into global warming and climate change. For readings and suggested resources see "The Unpleasant News About Global Warming," which is available on this website.

3. Essay assignment: Write an essay in which you respond to Camila Domonoske. On the whole, do you agree with her? Disagree? Agree with some things, but not others? Why?

4. See "Presidential Election 2004: Making TV News," which is available on this website, for additional discussion and inquiry suggestions. Some are specifically applicable to the 2004 presidential election, but others are equally applicable to the 2006 congressional elections.

This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.