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Vol 12|No6|Summer |2016

True or False?

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)


Photo © J. McKenzie

During the 2016 USA election, the issue of truth has come up repeatedly, with both major party candidates accused of falsehoods. Opinion polls show that both candidates are distrusted by a majority of American citizens.

A Fox News poll released last week (August 3, 2016) showed an increase in the percentage of people who consider Clinton "honest and trustworthy," up from 30 percent in June to 36 percent in the poll taken July 31-Aug. 2. Trump's "honest and trustworthy" numbers rose from 34 to 36 percent over the same period. - See more here.

This article explores how adult citizens might compare and contrast candidates with regard to truthfulness and considers how social studies teachers might approach this controversial task with students.

How do voters pick a president?

In theory, they will carefully research the positions and the track record of each candidate and then compare them to see which person is more likely to lead the nation in the direction they hope to see.

Perhaps they will use questions like those below to make their evaluation.

What kind of justices will he/she appoint to the Supreme Court?

What is his/her voting record?

Is he/she religious?

Can he/she be trusted?

Does he/she have a history of telling falsehoods?

What was his/her position on the invasion of Iraq?

What does he/she say must be done about ISIS?

What does he/she say must be done about domestic terrorism?

What does he/she say must be done about immigration?

What does he/she say must be done about global warming?

What does he/she say must be done about education?

What does he/she say must be done about taxes?

What does he/she say must be done about trade?

What does he/she say must be done about assault rifles?

What does he/she say must be done about sexual harassment?

How does he/she treat the opponent?

How does he/she handle criticism, stress and surprise?

Does he/she take firm positions on issues and stick with them?

What is his/her attitude toward NATO?

How does he/she go about building a position on an issue?

In reality, such research is extremely time consuming, and while voting is meant to be a thought process involving logic, evidence and facts, many people pay little attention to policies or proposals.

For some, all that matters is political party. They vote for the party candidates no matter who they might be. They assume their party will pick good people, and this loyal behavior saves them lots of time and inconvenience. They have a set of beliefs that are very important to them, so they pick the party most supportive of those beliefs. It might be gun control or immigration or trade policy or birth rights. They line up behind the party that matches their stands.

There are also "independents" who might vote based on the candidates' qualifications and positions rather than party, but some claim that most independents are actually party voters who avoid registering or enrolling in a party because they don't want much to do with the party establishment.

The myth of the “independent” voter (Republic 3.0)

A new poll finds that just 5 percent of voters are truly “independent” – ideologically centrist and unaffiliated with either political party.

Many vote based on personality and character. They work primarily on instinct and intuition. Others listen to the ads and the rhetoric without doing any fact-checking. Ads are meant to push "hot buttons," of course, so they may appeal more to emotions, fears and prejudices than logic. Some people take pride in voting on their "gut."

The Power of Insinuation and Innuendo

"Clinton Is Against the Police," Trump Says in Wisconsin.

CNN's Tara Setmayer: "Donald Trump is a silver-spooned draft dodger who bragged about bedding women while real men of courage were giving their lives serving this country in Vietnam."

In this year's presidential election, there are countless charges and counter-charges raging back and forth from campaign to campaign as various speakers or commentators accuse the other side of heinous offenses in the past and predict more to come if the other candidate is elected. Many of these allegations are unsubstantiated, but insinuations can have a powerful effect upon voters. Being inclined to think the worst of a candidate to begin with, many are quick to swallow the attacks "hook, line and sinker."

If you visit each of the following "news" sites, you will see the American election through starkly different lenses. Allegations, insults and counter-charges predominate. Whether it is a New York Times article about Paul Manafort, the campaign manager for Donald J. Trump, that alleges cash pay-offs for pro-Russian activities ("Secret Ledger in Ukraine Lists Cash for Top Trump Aide") or Fox News reminding folks of a Bill Clinton Moscow speech for which he was paid $500,000, insinuation keeps trumping factual reporting.

As a social studies educator I am inclined to focus on the rational aspects of voting, but it is clear that a very large percentage of those who vote are quick to adopt the pundits' rants and raves on either the left or the right without questioning or doubting their veracity. Truthfulness is not held in high regard, evidently. Hot buttons, hot issues and inflammatory rhetoric on all sides tend to push facts and policies to the background. Issues of character seem to trump issues of fact and policy.

A ninety minute speech on the economy or international relations may get less press attention than a rancid attack or insult. Small wonder that less than half of the voters think either major party candidate is honest and trustworthy.

But even as character comes to the forefront, it is difficult to judge the "true" nature of these media-savvy candidates.

Who are they really? And what do we tell the 13 year old students? How do we prepare them for elections like this one?

Modern candidates are usually "packaged" by media consultants who help them to seem warmer if they have come across as cold, tougher if they have seemed weak, and trustworthy if they have seemed the opposite. This packaging can be quite powerful, cosmetic though it may be.

Ironically, in this election, Donald Trump has steadfastly refused to change his style or succumb to the efforts of handlers, as he was rewarded throughout the primaries for his bold, brash and often outrageous style by those who were sick of politicians with too much makeup. What worked in the primaries has failed him so far in the general election as his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has orchestrated a much needed face-saving campaign that began with the convention.

Does truth matter?

Cynicism abounds, as many voters seem to assume that campaign promises and positions will be violated or later forgotten. Will Trump actually build a wall? Will Clinton actually make college free for families who earn less than $125,000?

By 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities. And from the beginning, every student from a family making $85,000 a year or less will be able to go to an in-state four-year public college or university without paying tuition. Source

Few candidates for the presidency can translate campaign promises into reality because Congress must approve all such measures, and most candidates, when elected, have too little support in Congress to translate promises into legislation, spending and action.

What can a teacher do?

There are many excellent election lesson plans and resources available online. Matt Davis has created a useful list at Edutopia, some of which are included below:

Given the unsettling and unusual nature of this year's election, teachers must combine their traditional approach with something new and a bit out of the ordinary.

1. Ask students to research the statements or positions of all presidential candidates (including the Green and Libertarian parties) on the key questions listed at the beginning of this article and any others they deem important. You might break up the class and the list into teams. Consider creating teams that are made up of students who disagree on the candidates and the issues. Consider asking these teams to find out how all 4 candidates feel about the issues they are assigned to study. In this way, they have to pay attention to the ideas of all candidates - not just their favorites. This activity should include oral presentations by the teams to the rest of the class.

2. Ask students to work in teams to define the character of one of the candidates.

This process begins with brainstorming, as the team comes up with character words like "courageous" and "bold" based upon their prior knowledge of the candidate. Each of these guesses or suppositions is followed by a question mark to show that evidence has not been collected yet. In this initial stage, the words are unsubstantiated.

If the teams are mixed with supporters and opponents of the candidate, the guesses will also be mixed. Some words will be positive and some negative. In either case, each word must be followed by a question mark until after sufficient evidence has been gathered to validate the word choice.

This process is similar to the character analysis performed in English classes for decades.

"What kind of person was Kurtz in Heart of Darkness? List six words that best capture his character and then find evidence in the novel to support your choices."

It should be noted that some students will be tempted to suggest inflammatory words like "racist" or "liar" or "crook" when thinking about candidates Trump and Clinton. This should be discussed in advance and students should be warned that any class consideration of such words much be handled in a calm and respectful manner.

Collection of evidence results in the additions shown above. In the case of inflammatory words, students should be shown the importance of definitions. Just what is the meaning of "racist?" And what kinds of actions and statements might justify the use of such a term?

The question mark remains next to the word until the team feels it has collected convincing evidence to support its use. In the case of words like "liar" or "racist," team members might not be able to come to agreement, as is the case with a hung jury. It is not our goal to force consensus on such matters, but we do hope the use of the words will be based on evidence rather than hearsay and insinuation.

The Study of Controversial Issues

While some might shy away from handling such issues, there are school boards across the nation that have adopted policies supporting such study, as is the case for the Beaverton School District (Oregon), a portion of whose policy is quoted below:

Since our society is based on the free exchange of ideas and diversity of political and social thought, it shall be the policy of this district to encourage unbiased, unprejudiced and scientific study of controversial issues as they arise as part of the school curriculum. A controversial issue may be defined as any topic or problem which society is in the process of debating on which there is honest disagreement. Such issues arise when different interpretations are given to a particular set of circumstances. (source)


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