Student Pundits: Adults Don’t Vote Smart

On screen, Linda McMahon was back calling Dick Blumenthal a liar. In the studio, teen pundits accused adults of letting ads like that steer their voting.

The re-airing of one of the countless TV attack ads from the fall campaigns took place inside a public-access studio last week as local high-schoolers took turns as political pundits—and offered a post-mortem critical of the way their elders choose their political leaders.

Melinda Tuhus PhotoThe occasion was a taping of the program Twentyfirst Century Conversations. Host N’Zinga Shani shared the mic with Simms Sonet (pictured above), a senior at West Haven High School who had asked to sponsor a forum on this topic. Before the taping began, he explained that starting with President Barack Obama’s campaign, he had become intensely interested in politics. “I noticed a lot of flaws” in the system, he said. He wanted to discuss them with his peers.

Those peers included three juniors from Wilbur Cross High School: Tomer Canaan, Julia Boughton and Ciara Moran.

Canaan said that as an Israeli citizen he won’t be able to vote in U.S. elections even when he turns 18. But he has a lot of opinions about American politics. Boughton (at left in above photo, with Moran) said she needs to know about politics when she is old enough to vote, so she might as well start now. Moran said she works on the school paper and, along with some other students, got to speak to Blumenthal after an appearance there during the fall U.S. Senate campaign. “He listened to us,” she said.

The way they sounded, the students could be recruiting fodder for No Labels, the group that was born after the election and aims to steer campaigns away from attack rhetoric or ideological extremes. The panelists all agreed that adults vote too much along party lines, that they don’t even want to listen to a point of view different from the one they already hold. Instead, they concluded, adults just look for reinforcement of their existing views.

The panelists also criticized the attack ads, such as the ones reviewed on the show. “The candidates didn’t say what they are for and what they plan to change,” Boughton said. “They were more about attacking their opponent.”

After McMahon’s anti-Blumenthal ad, Sonet showed a Blumenthal ad attacking McMahon, which they thought was fair because she started it. But the negative campaigning was a turn-off in general, said Moran. “It’s a deterrent to voting.” Sonet agreed, saying, “Students at my school said, ‘They’re both bad, so why vote?’”

“Linda McMahon had more of a responsibility to tell us what she stands for because she had no record to run on,” Moran said, whereas Blumenthal had more than 20 years in public office that could be examined.

“I supported Blumenthal because of his record,” Sonet said, “but he attacked back and made it sort of a slander war.”

Shani (pictured) dropped in questions throughout the hour, like, “What role do you think the media played in the election?”  That sparked a discussion of the biases of news outlets like Fox and MSNBC (right- and left-leaning, respectively). Canaan opined, “You can watch different stations and get everyone’s slant and decide for yourself” what you think about the candidates. But he added that most adults “listen to and watch what they already agree with.”

“People take democracy for granted,” was how Canaan (pictured below on left) summed up his view, after the students pointed out the various shortcomings of American democracy.

“Amen!” Shani shouted, as her guest nailed one of her primary motivations for holding her “Conversations.” “We have not only the right but the responsibility to vote.”

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 31, 2010  8:58pm

Amen!” Shani shouted, as her guest nailed one of her primary motivations for holding her “Conversations.” “We have not only the right but the responsibility to vote.”

I would have ask them the question do you think both parties are the same and why is it we don’t have the system of proportional representation which gives the people more of a voice.

posted by: Allison Matura on January 3, 2011  2:20pm

Mr. Canaan and the Misses Boughton and Moran represent the very best of what Cross strives to be, a place where students are encouraged to learn how to think, not what to think. Tomer, Ciara and Julia have developing political views that range from conservative to quite liberal. Yet what I admire about them most is their willingness to engage thoughtfully with views that do not necessarily reflect their own, and do so in a respectful and intellectual manner.

As their Government teacher, I applaud their willingness to take up the office of citizen so enthusiastically. As an adult in the New Haven community, I have confidence that the next generation of voters is well represented and well on their way to seeing through labels.

Allison Matura
Wilbur Cross High School
Department of History

posted by: Linda Calvo on January 4, 2011  9:29am

A great reminder, not only of the responsibility to vote, but, more importantly, to vote responsibly. It is very easy, even for those of us who like to think of ourselves as open minded, to vote along party lines. Thanks for the wake up call. Our future is in good hands.

posted by: Lauren Michelle Kinsey on January 4, 2011  12:25pm

I love seeing young people engage in civics and discuss the issues of the day. Thanks so much for making this happen N’Zinga Shani and OneWorld Progressive Institute. I think we need to keep the focus of the discussion on excessive corporate power and how that disables our democracy. The organization “No Labels” is an obnoxious new corporate backed org to build “bipartisan” support for gutting pensions, etc. Sometimes the truth is polarizing. Sometimes taking a stand leads to conflict. But conflict is a healthy part of democracy. We must get the influence of big money our of our political system and our media and we must abolish corporate personhood. If we do these things, democracy will thrive.

posted by: Mary on January 11, 2011  6:08pm

It is wonderful to see students being engaged in politics.  when we challenge students to give of their best, most often they rise to the occasion.  OneWorld Progressive Institute is to be commended for the excellent work it does; this is particularly commendable because this is a very small community volunteer organization.  Their TV programs are truly outstanding.  The health literacy and education videos on the  web site are truly remarkable. 

After visiting the OneWorld web site we were so VERY impressed with what we saw there.  How wonderful that they are encouraging teens to think critically, especially about politics.  Clearly, we as educators, parents and community leaders need to engage young people more often in meaningful dialogue.  Congratulations to Ms. Shani and her group of volunteers for doing such important work.  Thanks to the NHI for highlighting them.

posted by: Waltrina Mullins on January 13, 2011  8:21pm

Thank you, N’zinga Shani, for bringing this engaging discussion to the airwaves.  It’s wonderful to see young people perceptive enough to recognize that there are flaws in our political system.  It seems there is hope based on the responses of many of our young people. 

In this regard, I want to point out that Dr. Martin Luther King Day is right around the corner.  The upcoming holiday reminds us to revisit America’s past with an objective eye.  When we do, we see that young people served as a powerful catalyst for change during that era.  They rallied to fight against political and social injustices that existed during that era.  Students like the Freedom Riders, the Little Rock 9, and more propelled positive change.  It was no easy task, but young folk across cultures worked together to help abolish many of those Jim Crow laws.

Much progress has been made since those days of mass rallies, picket lines, and non-violent protests. Much work, however, lies ahead, for there continues to be a need to speak out against social and political injustice within our communities and country that continuously rears its ugly head.  Once again, the involvement of our young people is required to evoke positive change, for as has held true in the past, our young people are America’s future!  In this regards, how do our blossoming young adults view their neighborhood(s), surrounding community, and overall world?  What efforts will they make take hold of the reigns regarding the bettering the social/racial/and political climate in America today?  These are challenging questions—questions that could serve as a focus for a follow-up broadcast with young people, N’zinga (smile)... 

In any event, accolades to those who participated in the televised forum, and to Shani for making it happen!

posted by: N'Zinga Shani on January 13, 2011  10:19pm

There are many challenges to presenting “21st Century Conversations” on a regular basis; some of those challenges are daunting.  However, programs such as this one compensate for much of the inherent difficulties. 

OneWorld greatly appreciates the efforts by Simms Sonet (West Haven High School), Myrta Bonilla (asst principal at Wilbur Cross), Allison Matura (teacher at Cross) and students Tomer, Ciara and Julia for participating.

Coordinating these programs takes commitment.  We need the cooperation of teachers, principals, parents and willing students. Everyone has to believe it is a worthy effort. For us at OneWorld, it is particularly gratifying when a student sends an email or calls to say he/she is interested in a particular topic and would like to organize a teen forum.  In this case Simms Sonet was that student. He identified the topic and the commercials he wished to have discussed. He was very unhappy with what he saw on the TV screen during the mid-term election season. That tells me that some of our students are paying attention to issues other than what many adults think teens pay attention to. 

Clearly, there are schools that involve students in critical-thinking activities other than the basic academic subjects. There are homes in which engaging family discussions go on all the time, and there are communities in which after-school activities expose students to civic engagement programs and a range of other culturally rich and enlightening activities.  All of these help to account for how well students are educated in a comprehensive way.

As a society we are in the middle of a major discussion about education reform.  Integral to that discussion is the ability of students to think critically, to solve problems and to make good, thoughtful decisions. Listening to these students talk to each other and analyze some of the advertisements that aired during the mid-term election was exceptionally gratifying. I was amazed and delighted at how keen their analyses were.  Some of those who will be running for national office in 2012 would be wise to have a focus group of thoughtful teens help them to design their commercials. 

The four students who participated in this program had insights that could teach some of the paid pundits a thing or two about getting the positive attention of voters.  Melinda did an excellent job of capturing some of the key points the students made.  These are smart students; they know how to think and how to analyze issues. They care about what is going on around them and about what they see and hear from our political and community leaders. Those in our society who claim positions of leadership should know that they are being evaluated by some of our future decision-makers: these smart teens.

We invite you to visit our web site at the OneWorld link to see more of what we have to offer. Again, thanks to Simms Sonet, Pamela Gardner (principal, WHHS), Peggy Moore (principal at Wilbur Cross), and North Haven TV for making this “21st Century Conversations” possible.

posted by: Zarina Townsend on January 13, 2011  11:48pm

This past mid-term political season was brutal; I think it demonstrated some of the worst things about America.  As a young person (I am now in college) the message to me was ‘stay away from politics!’  When we saw what happened to the decent persons who did not want to sling mud, then clearly politics is only for those willing to get really rough.  What I saw what the Republicans and some in the media did to President Obama, I know that I will never ever want to serve my country as a politician. 

As the students said, I was much more interested in hearing what the person who wanted my vote was going to do for my state and my community; I did not want the other person to be thrashed.  It was unsavory.  The conduct of some in the media was a disgrace; they were muck-rakers, not information providers.  Congratulations to OneWorld Progressive Institute for engaging these students so meaningfully; the students demonstrate that when given the right opportunities young people have worthwhile comments and we can think.
Zarina Beckford Townsend

posted by: Lavonne Beckford on January 13, 2011  11:53pm

This past election brought out the true colors of some of the politicians.  I found Linda McMahon’s campaign the worst in terms of her commercials and the things she took for granted—such as the women’s vote. I am really glad that she did not win.  If she had, it would have been more sad commentary about us as a society.  It was truly discouraging to see that those who were in elections where they were being attacked, if they did not respond to the lies and counter attacked, they would lose. We as a society need to talk more about these issues; that is what civic engagement is about.  Thanks for this article.

posted by: Don on January 16, 2011  11:48pm

As a middle school educator, I think it is interesting to note the time and energy we put into our efforts to address bullying and harassment, while during election season, these kids then see adults in leadership roles participating in such negative campaigning.  Kudos to these students for being able to see through it, and model for the politicians the type informed, respectable behavior we expect of good citizens.

posted by: Marcus Harun on January 17, 2011  4:06am

I’m glad to see that there are other young adults out there, like me, who care about what’s going on in the world and pay attention to politics. Too often, Teens are generalized as being trouble makers who don’t add anything to society; when in reality, teens are as diverse intellectually as adults are.

It’s important that young people pay attention to what happens in politics, because this generation will soon be the next generation of leaders, and its important that they know what went on in the past so they can intelligently lead in the future.

These teens seemed to hit the nail on the head.

posted by: Rosanne Ferraro on January 17, 2011  9:01pm

As a Connecticut educator, it is refreshing to hear the voices of our youth regarding the political process. Their honest opinions reflect maturity, honesty and thoughtful reflection. I applaud Twentyfirst Century Conversations and N’ Zinga Shani for hosting this forum. It is my hope that today’s young people continue to share their visions for the future.

posted by: A Concerned Parent on January 17, 2011  9:07pm

As a parent I am glad to read about these very informed young people taking an interest in politics.  The sad events in Arizona make it more important that our young people be truly informed and positively involved, and not influenced by inflamed rhetoric from either side of the political spectrum.  OneWorld is to be commended for its efforts at engaging all segments of our community in such positive ways.  It is really encouraging to visit the OneWorld web site and see the good information that is listed there.  I hope that more schools will participate in these programs in the future.
A Concerned Parent

posted by: Michael Lengyel on January 18, 2011  3:44am

An excellent article about what sounds like an excellent program. Thank you, Ms. Shani, Ms. Tuhus, Mr. Sonet and your fellow students who appeared on the program. A sad effect in America of such negative, attack-oriented campaigns is that they deter good people from entering politics. At any rate, it’s reassuring to know there are young people out there with, as Allison Matura put it so well in a previous comment, the “willingness to take up the office of citizen so enthusiastically.”

posted by: Smart Kids Are COOL on January 19, 2011  9:30pm

Hi Ms. Shani:

These kids are telling it like it is.  Many adults criticize teens for making bad decisions; yet, adults make some really bad decisions when they go to the election polls to vote. So many adults don’t even know what the people they vote for really represent.  Some only vote Democrat or Republican because that is how their family have been voting for decades; there is no real thinking or analyzing what the candidates stand for.  The fact that Simms wanted to talk about this and you could find other kids who are interested and have strong opinions, and are able to evaluate the commercials for themselves is really something many adults should learn from.

I disagree that because the ads are all bad people should not vote.  It means that people need to become more involved.  During election time the churches should have forums like this so that people learn about the important issues and tell their representatives what it is they they really want.

I totally agree with Tomer that Americans take democracy for granted.  That is too bad because in some countries people put their lives in danger to get to vote; some even die trying to vote.  Here we’re entitled but too many of us don’t bother.  This is a great program; thank you for doing it and for showing that there are some really smart kids.

posted by: Ewa on January 19, 2011  11:15pm

Thank you to Ms. Shani and OneWorld Progressive Institute for giving the platform for these discussions. They are really important for all of us.  These bright students presented in the program give us a fresh view on political process.  It is easy just to follow what you know. And the negative campaigns are a big turn off during elections.  Therefore, it is very promising for the future that we have young people who are interested in politics and are willing to be engaged and change it for the better.

posted by: Jazlyn Ocasio on January 20, 2011  1:39am

I believe this forum was very insightful and refreshing. I enjoyed hearing the views and opinions of fellow high school students about the political and campaigns in America. It is very refreshing to be able to get our opinions about a topic this major. Being a young adult, it is difficult for you to get your opinions and thoughts across because you are not yet an adult and unable to vote, but just because we are not able to vote yet does not mean that we don’t know what is happening in our government. I believe that we should all be able to voice our opinions on what is affecting our society and Twentyfirst Century Conversations gives us a chance to do so.

Now a days in politics we hear less about what the candidates do for America and more on why we should not listen to their opponent. Like Boughton said the candidates do not say what they are for and plan to change, they are more about attacking their opponent. I believe that these attack ads are very childish. It makes it seem as though the candidates are little children saying well you said this about me, so i’m going to say something about you. I believe the candidates should start telling listeners more about what they plan to do to help our society and what they plan to change, not why we shouldn’t vote for their opponent. The negative campaigns are a “deterrent to voting”. It is a turn off. If all people see are candidates attacking each other, they are going to think “Why vote in the fist place?” Politicians need to focus more on what they’re cause is and not what they’re opponent is doing.

When it comes to voting for a candidate, a voter should not only listen to what he or she believes in, but they should also listen to what the other side has to say. They should know what both candidate are offering, and then they should decide what they believe is best for them and society. I strongly agree with Canaan when he says, “most adults listen to and watch what they already agree with.” This is why I’m saying that it is important to have an open mind. You should not decide who to vote because of something you think you know, make sure to get all the facts and then see what would benefit society.

Also you shouldn’t always believe everything the media says. Media plays a huge role on affecting the votes of citizens. Radio shows tell their opinion on one candidate, but then someone can say something completely different. You cannot follow everything the media says. Think about the attack ads, if you believed everything said in those ads then people will watch it and have it influence their voting. Ultimately, it is your decision, just make sure you know every angle before making the choice, make sure you know all of the facts.

I would like to thank Twentyfirst Century Conversations for doing this wonderful and insightful forum. It was very refreshing to hear what the young adults of society have to say about politics and the government. I really enjoyed being able to get my opinions out about something so important in society and to know that I along with many others, am getting a say on how politics should be and how they should help and affect us. Young people do not usually have the opportunity to say how we feel about major topics like this, so would once again like to thank Twentyfirst Century Conversations for giving us the opportunity to do so. We are the future leaders of America and its about time we get a chance to speak up and express our opinions. We are the future politicians and candidates of America, we are that difference.