Democracy in Action? How to Help ESL Students Understand the 2016 Election

Democracy in Action? How to Help ESL Students Understand the 2016 Election

In less than a month from now, everything will have calmed down.

Now we have a new president and members of congress, and  soon the dust will finally settle after one of the most extraordinary, unusual, bruising, contentious and frankly unbelievable political encounters of recent times.

10 Ideas to Help ESL Students Understand the 2016 Election

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    Provide International Context

    Introduce this topic to your students, asking first how elections work back in their countries. One good way of doing this is to set out a questionnaire which your students will use to quiz each other. Possible questions include:

    • Who rules your country? Is it a president, prime minister, king…?
    • Do you have elections? How often?
    • Who can vote? From how old? What about convicted criminals?
    • How many terms can leaders serve?
    • Has there ever been a revolution in your country?
    • Where you live, are politicians trusted? Is there corruption?
    • Would you change something about the elections in your country?

    One note of warning: some nations do not hold elections, and contrary to the popular western belief, not everyone in those countries is clamoring for a vote. Asking a Saudi or Chinese student these questions will be quite revealing, but please try to avoid putting them on the spot; they’re not responsible for how their governments work, any more than you are. I’ve spoken to students who believe that single-party politics is the only way to get anything done, and that democracy will lead only to anarchy.

  2. 2

    This One Is Weird

    The first point to make about the 2016 presidential election is that it’s highly unusual. There are many reasons for, including:

    • For the first time, a presidential candidate of a major party is a woman (though there have been past female vice-presidential candidates from the Democratic and Green parties)
    • One of the candidates has never held an elected office, and is decidedly not a ‘professional politician’.
    • Both candidates, however, are remarkably unpopular
    • There are as many as two ‘alternative’ candidates, from the Libertarian and Green parties (first time since 2000 there has been a third party candidate, and first time since 1948 there have been two)
    • Senior members of one party (Republicans) have publicly stated their support for their party’s opponent (Democrat) candidate
    • Before the elections have even begun, one candidate has publicly complained that he believes the election will be rigged
  3. 3

    We Have to Talk About Donald

    Unless your students have been deliberately hiding from all this, they will hardly need you to introduce Donald Trump. His name is now globally known, has been transliterated into various languages, and emblazons buildings on every continent. His candidacy is genuinely fascinating as a sudden, unexpected blip in the American political landscape, and your students need to understand just how much of an earthquake this has been. From a field of seventeen potential Republican candidates, Trump emerged as the front-runner, and then the winner. Much of his success, inarguably, has come from the giant amount of free media coverage he’s been given by the major news networks; his own campaign has struggled for donations, and without his colorful personality, it’s unlikely he’d have gained sufficient name and brand recognition to triumph in the primaries. These are all points worth making. Then, open things up and let your students have their say about this controversial, divisive character. Here’s some potentially helpful vocabulary:

    Mogul, Tycoon, Billionaire, Developer, Businessman
    Unorthodox, Unconventional, Novel, Outspoken, Brash, Populist
    Isolationist, Xenophobic, Islamophobic, ‘America First’
    Polarizing, Divisive
    Conservative, Republican, Right-Wing, GOP
    Tumultuous, Surprising, Rollercoaster, Unexpected, Unpredictable

    Try to include discussion of Trump’s contentious business past, including the many lawsuits filed against him, and the scandal surrounding Trump University. This is not, your student should be able to see, a traditional presidential candidate.

    Then, broaden the discussion (time permitting) and try to discover how Trump was chosen to lead the Republican party in this crucial election. Find articles, interviews and TV news items which touch on the disaffection and hopelessness of many in the working classes, and the polarization of politics which takes place when one side feels left behind. Trump’s supporters are tired of Washington, often want more local control over education and other policy areas, and resent federal interference; connect these beliefs and paint a picture of the angry, disenfranchised sections of American society. These are the voters who believe that, in Trump, they have found a new and highly visible spokesperson.

  4. 4

    One Country, Two Parties (Basically)

    In the present media climate, your students would be forgiven for believing that there are only two candidates (Clinton and Trump), from the two main parties (Democrat and Republican). In fact, Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson from the Libertarian Party are also running, though neither can hope to win a single state. This was also true of previous third-party candidates (Ralph Nader’s Green Party in 2000, Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1992 and 1996) and others who have run as independent candidates down the years. The only third-party candidate since World War Two to win any states was George Wallace in 1968, though both Nixon and Humphrey won three times as many votes as Wallace did.

    Your Chinese students might get a kick out of knowing that thirteen presidential elections, from 1900 to 1948, featured a socialist third- or fourth-party candidate, though in their best year they garnered less than a million votes.

    Explore the issue of political parties with your students. What would it mean if there were only one party? Would this simply make things more efficient, or would important viewpoints be lost? Take a look at Holland and other countries with mixed-ideology coalition governments - do they seem like a good idea, or are they a recipe for conflict?

  5. 5

    Primary Colors

    Briefly track how the two candidates got to this point, with emphasis on those early-voting primary states, New Hampshire and Iowa. You could mention how the campaigns of Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and others stuttered and were then suspended due to insufficient support, and contrast this with Bernie Sanders’ long battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination. Show a clip from the nominating convention - the balloon drop is fun - or a section from a major speech.

  6. 6

    Into Battle

    More so than in any other country, American presidential elections are a long and tortuous process. Part of this is the result of the predictable election cycle; the timetable is laid down in a constitutional amendment (the 20th, from 1933). Contrast this with Britain, where elections can be called with only 5-6 weeks’ notice, and where electioneering and campaigning are very muted for the rest of the cycle.

    The battle between the two candidates is a great opportunity for vocabulary and idioms:

    Exhausting, bruising, exacting
    No holds barred; gloves are off; toe-to-toe; a fight to the death
    Low blows; personal attacks; mud-slinging
    Gaffs, mis-steps, PR failures
    Attack and counter-attack

    Each candidate attempts to persuade the voters that they are the most qualified and experienced for the job, while simultaneously maintaining that their opponent is unfit to lead or lacks the proper credentials. This can easily devolve into unseemly mud-slinging and personal attacks. Ask your students to skim some headlines and find how the candidates are attacking each other’s records, achievements, trustworthiness, health situation, family history, business acumen, and the like.

  7. 7

    The Electoral College System

    Don’t glaze over - I’ll be brief. US presidential elections are indirect, so that we vote for a set of representatives who then pass on our votes for the president. The number of electors in each state is decided by population, from three for Alaska, to thirty-eight for Texas and fifty-five for California. So, right now, there are 538 electors in total from all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

    A successful presidential candidate must therefore win 270 electoral votes. Once he or she has apparently secured that number, the election can be ‘called’, usually by one or more media outlets.

    Criticism of the electoral system began immediately after its inception. Some see it as unfair toward third-party candidates, who receive nothing from each state electoral delegation unless they win; it’s an example of there being ‘no silver medal for coming second’. The system also skews the focus and financial power of the campaigns towards the ‘swing states’, those which are large and politically febrile (Florida, Ohio, Michigan); these means ignoring the ‘safe states’, whose people have little chance to interact with the candidate or have their voices heard.

  8. 8

    Famously Close Finishes

    Some of your students may be aware that the 2000 election produced a remarkably close finish, with the two candidates only 5 electoral votes apart; surprisingly, the losing candidate, Al Gore, had 543,895 more votes than the Republican candidate who was declared the winner, George W. Bush. This is the power of the electoral college system, and another reason some call for its reform. The closest ever result was Kennedy’s win over Richard Nixon in 1960, with a margin of just 112,827 votes, or 0.16% of all the votes cast.

    Ask your students to predict the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Show a map of the available electoral votes, or have them guess the split in the popular vote. If there is time, ask your students to predict how different the two presidents would be, the policies they might enact, and the way the world will view their presidency.

  9. 9

    Inauguration Day

    Take a look at one or more famous inauguration speeches - Kennedy (1961) with his famous, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (1865) with its rousing, beseeching, hopeful final paragraph, are fine examples. They should also be familiar with the Oath of Office:

    I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

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    Reading and watching the news to keep track of the election, and reading polls to see which way things appear to be heading, are good ways to stay current. Analyzing the two candidates’ speeches and gauging media reaction to the latest extraordinary statements from Donald Trump will help give your students a flavor of this unusual election cycle. Finally, you can hold you own presidential election in the classroom to put many of these concepts into practice.

Long before the election takes place, the candidates are natural ambassadors for the United States on the global stage.

Neither is flawless, and in many cases the suspicion and disrespect of the world’s media is somewhat justified. But that election is in danger of being remembered as a circus, with accusations, hearsay, half-truth and conspiracy theory given more airtime and focus than policy and fact. Our students should be aware of these biases.

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