How Politically Active is the Burroughs Community?

Adina Cazacu, Head Layout Editor, Online Editor

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Today’s youth must be politically minded go-getters who seek to make change in the world around them, right? Surely, the student body of John Burroughs School, an institution that prides itself on creating such go-getters, must fit this description. Well, yes and no.

The upcoming 2018 midterms are near and dear to my heart, given the days I spent this summer putting blood, sweat and tears (albeit mostly sweat) into canvassing. However, I realize that most people don’t spend their free time listening to NPR’s Politically Speaking podcast. Nevertheless, I needed to know just how politically involved the Burroughs community is. This craving for knowledge couldn’t be satiated by select interviews with classmates I know to lean this way or another. Instead, I (via Ms. Salrin) sent out two surveys: one to the faculty, another to the student body. Here is my analysis of the results, with 56 faculty and 169 student responses.

First, a majority of both students and faculty read and discuss political news. A simple majority of students check political news daily, and 70% of faculty as well believe they are up to date in political news.  

Moreover, while 58% of faculty (3% strongly agreed) felt comfortable discussing politics with their coworkers, 61% of students (17.4% strongly agreed) felt comfortable doing the same. Because of the higher percentage of strongly agree in student responses, we can conclude that a higher percentage of students than faculty enjoy engaging in political discourse.

However, the simple similarities between generations ended there. 45% of students strongly agreed they were excited to vote. Another 39% agreed. From these data points, one might believe the young political base is activated. However, nearly 30% of students believe their vote won’t matter. What an interesting paradox.  To compare, 90% of faculty believe to some degree that their vote matters, and 100, 96, and 90% of teachers vote regularly in presidential, midterm, and primary elections, respectively. These numbers, although not perfect, are pretty high.

Students are understandably skeptical. For most students, the 2016 election was the first presidential election they witnessed where they had a grasp of the issues at hand. To then watch as a candidate won the presidency while losing the popular vote can shake one’s confidence in our country’s ability to hold a free and fair election. For teachers, on the other hand, they’ve had enough life experience to know that the past election was one of many. This isn’t to say the student body is naive in some way. In fact, given that we live in one tiny blue part of a red state, liberal students who believe their vote doesn’t matter on a national level are, frankly, being realists.

16% of students have worked with a political campaign, while 32% of faculty have done the same. However, when comparing the tasks accomplished, students are two times more likely to have canvassed (gone door knocking) than faculty members. Faculty members, instead, are more likely than students to have worked in a phone bank or attended/hosted an event.

In the short answer section of this question, students listed who they worked for. There were opposing candidates Ann Wagner and Cort VanOstran, as well as Claire McCaskill and private organizations on the list. Students weren’t afraid of naming names. There were also alternative ways to get involved that included directly contacting voters, such as writing postcards. One faculty member, on the other hand, described their coordination of volunteers, an activity one step removed from voter interaction.

Students, overall, while exhibiting the same or greater interest in politics through their actions, don’t consider themselves politically involved. For example, 90% of faculty (40% strongly agree) say they are interested in politics. On the other hand, only 62% of students (14.5% strongly agree) say the same. If we examine how many responses were collected for the issue short response, where the survey taker had to generate issues that mattered to them, only 75% of faculty members who took the survey stated an issue they cared about, which means 15% of faculty who stated they are interested in politics didn’t list an issue. However, 70% of students submitted an issue, which means that 8% of the students that submitted must have identified as “neutral or disagree” when asked about their interest in politics. The bar for political involvement is set higher in the younger generation.

91.1% of faculty agree to some degree, with 42.95% strongly agreeing, that students nowadays should be politically active. However, this isn’t how most students view themselves. Although a majority (62.3)% of students agreed to some degree that they were interested in politics, only 27% agreed they were politically active. 30.7% of students disagreed with the statement. Now, comparing the charts of students’ political activism and teachers as they viewed themselves in high school raises many questions. Note the difference in key; I apologize for the confusion.

The students’ chart shaves off 5% disagree and 18% agree from the faculty’s chart to form a simple majority of students feeling “neutral” about their political activism. We live in an age where young people feel they have to be out on the streets protesting or campaigning in order to be politically active, while older generations believe passive actions constitute political activism.

Some may argue that younger people don’t partake in passive events such as candidate fundraisers and other financial contributions because they are unable to, and should students have disposable income or a multitude of friends capable of voting for a candidate, they would opt for these options. However, I disagree.

When tallying responses for the issue ask, I was surprised by the depth and breadth of the issues laid out by students (see supporting graphic). Not only did students on average list three issues while faculty listed one, but the responses given were specific. The most common category for faculty was somewhere in the general area of “social justice and equity for all”–with healthcare and environmental protection coming in for close seconds. On the other hand, students who fit into this same category didn’t just stop at “social justice.” They explained that they wanted politicians to “re-evaluate mass incarceration,” “clarify and uphold anti-discrimination laws” and seek “criminal justice reform.” Additionally, the specific responses towards LGBT rights as well as gender and racial equality far outnumbered that of the faculty percentage-wise.  

However, the most common response of the issue ask was “immigration,” with responses ranging from border security for upholding DACA and reuniting children with their parents. No matter where students fall on the political spectrum, they are articulate about the issues that matter to them. Foreign affairs, the economy, net neutrality, and specific seat races were brought up in the student responses but not in the faculty ones. It’s as if the weight of adulthood shifts one’s view towards the issues that will only directly affect them or are daily beats of newspapers. While this is understandable, it’s perhaps a bit disheartening that those who seek out information on the US’s role in the Turkey-Kurdish conflict and the Venezuelan migrant crisis aren’t the ones going to polls this November.

In conclusion, today’s students are politically active now more than ever. However, in an increasingly polarized political landscape, teenagers attempt to do what they do best: fit in. Students become quiet liberals and conservatives, keeping viewpoints to themselves unless among like-minded peers. In our time, regularly voicing political opinions can earn you various epithets such as “social justice warrior” or “bigot.” I believe this comes from a shift to online media, where ideas are categorized and dismissed before becoming fully developed. Many students retreat from a public “politically active” identity. Instead, they continue to read and discuss and fight…quietly.

I’m not evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of such a scenario. I am simply noting what I believe to be its existence from the data I’ve collected. At the end of the day, these students will turn 18. Hopefully, they will vote. But until that point, it is up to the readers of this article who have that privilege to use it. Midterm elections are on November 6, 2018.