Teachers Still Processing 2016 Election Results with Students; Answers Remain Elusive

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

I spoke on Friday to a packed house at the 31st annual DuPage County Social Studies Conference held at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School. It’s the largest gathering of social studies teachers in the state (more than 800 registered this year) and an event I always look forward to attending.

As a teacher, I saw the DCSSC as one day a year when I got to be a student again. And as a presenter, it’s the one venue where all teachers are required to attend. It’s therefore an amazing opportunity to stand before a true cross-section of the local teaching profession.

Over the years, my best-attended sessions have been on elections and their aftermath, and last Friday’s was no exception. My guidance was broad, but I planned to unpack the 2016 Election results, lay out the current conditions for governance at the national and state level, and then pivot to engaging students in the policy making process. But I soon realized that some of these plans should be scrapped as I got a better sense of the reality that attendees are currently grappling with.

To me, November 9, 2016, felt similar to the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in that many of our students were traumatized by the election results and we were collectively making sense of what transpired. This process took weeks, not days, and nearly four months removed, we’re still dealing with its aftershocks.

A couple of colleagues on Friday pushed back on my analogy, suggesting that while we had free license to call an audible and spend weeks on 9-11, the reverse was true for the 2016 Election. School principals asked that teachers return to the standard curriculum for fear of further stoking political tensions among students and their parents.

These unfortunate directives aside, I would suggest that social studies teachers are made for this moment. Our students are still processing what happened and many are in fear of the early policies that have emerged from the Trump White House. We are more qualified than anyone in their lives to help them navigate these choppy waters and hopefully assuage their concerns.

Beyond the question of how we objectively teach about President Trump, questions proliferated in my session about the 2016 election results and what they mean for the future. I answered them to the best of my ability, but many were elusive or warrant further empirical study. I’ll conclude by listing them here, and will proceed to answer them in subsequent posts.
  • What role did the media play in Trump’s rise in both the Republican primary and the general election? And was critical coverage more damaging to him or Hillary Clinton?
  • Young voters are more progressive yet less Democratic. And both parties are clearly in a state of ideological transformation. Is the time ripe for a third party to emerge that is more closely aligned with the ideology and policy agenda of youth?
  • How important was religiosity in the 2016 election? In the recent past, church attendance proved a strong predictor of party affiliation.
  • Are public opinion polls reliable in the age of smart phones and Trump?
  • How will a Congress led by free market Republicans work with an economically populist President of their own party? And will Republicans jump ship when/ if his approval ratings fall to Nixonian levels?
  • Will early signs of solidarity among progressives lead to electoral gains for Democrats akin to the Tea Party among Republicans in 2010 and beyond?
  • How should Democrats position themselves against unified Republican control in Washington? And how strongly should they contest the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch?

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