November 17, 2017

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He Said What? Making Sense of the Presidential Campaign

Marc 2Every day seems to bring a new “I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened” moment in the election campaigns—and not only here in the United States. Donald Trump whips crowds into frenzies with “USA, USA” chants as protesters (often people of color) are manhandled and assaulted, Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party slightly modifies her father’s extreme racial nationalism to become a serious candidate to lead France, and just this month, in three German state elections, another extreme right political party made striking gains. In a time of such extreme divisions and heated politics, what can a school library offer? Context.

We adults are prisoners of the news cycle, and politicians are experts at grabbing free air time by being outrageous at just the right moment. (To be fair, this is exactly what the Vietnam War protesters learned to do in the 1960s—timing events to make the 6:00 news.) Yet perhaps one of the most important roles a library plays in any community is that it can surround these moments with backstories, history, insight, and perspective. Since many young people will be only peripherally aware of exactly who said what last night, we have a bit of space to address the larger issues.

In many parts of the world, we seem to be in the midst of a populist revolt—on the right and on the left. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened in the early 20th century; as the Gilded Age (which we once considered the epitome of American income inequality) came to an end, populism flourished in our country and threatened to split the Democratic Party. From the People’s Party (1892–1896) to the high-water mark of American socialism, when Eugene V. Debs won more than 900,000 votes from farmers, workers, and others in the 1912 Presidential election—populism gained momentum with those losing out to the changing economy.

Turn-of-the-19th-century populism faded, in part, because Southern populist leaders decided to make poor whites feel better by belittling, segregating, oppressing, and, often, terrorizing African Americans. That strategy was effective at securing local power but left the existing two-party system intact. (Still, the 1924 Democratic Convention was so split between supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and fans of the Catholic New Yorker Al Smith, that it took 16 days and 130 ballots to select a presidential candidate.) There was also an anti-Semitic tinge to much of the Populist rhetoric—so the people seen as rising were often rising against those seen as outsiders. Back then it was Jews, African Americans, and bankers; today it is Muslims, Hispanics, and China. One recent analysis of rising death rates among white Americans suggests that whites no longer feel secure about their status in this country and are having trouble accepting the change.

Today, in both America and Europe, populists have been on the ascendant, preaching an Us vs Them rhetoric—catching the anger, the frustration, and the sense of loss experienced by significant segments of the population. A display of books on populism and its leaders—Ben Tillman, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene V. Debs, Father Coughlin, and Huey Long—is one way to cast a light on current events. Post the The New York Times article on the 1924 convention cited above to suggest a possible parallel to a potentially splintered and brokered Republican convention this year. A recent analysis of support for Donald Trump shows that it correlates with geographic areas that favored George Wallace in his 1968 presidential bid. A display might show previous moments when someone with a divisive message gained popularity.

Then there is the media; a decade’s worth of reality TV has captured viewers’ attention, while interest in actual voting fades. The politician who knows how to run a campaign in the age of social media has the same kind of advantage that Adolf Hitler did in Germany, who understood the (new) power of radio and film and rallies to create an unthinking mass movement. A display on media and politics could get young people to think about messages, how they are manufactured, shared, and used—and how to see through them.

Populism, how it speaks to voters and its dangers; the media, how the blare of sound bites and slogans takes the place of discussions of ideas and policies; Us vs Them rhetoric—from Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches to a shelves full of dystopian novels—these are ideas and themes covered in a multitude of books and resources in the library and worth exploring with students.

It’s not the role of the library to take a political stance. But when our nation, and indeed many nations, is involved in crucial conflicts about who we are, what we believe in, and how we go about selecting our leaders, we have a responsibility to provide young people with context. We need to offer tools—as Paul Fleischman offered in Eyes Wide Open—to see through the noise, the lies, the catchy slogans, and the insults. We need to demonstrate that we believe in thinking, examining, and asking questions of everything—including the most popular demagogic rhetoric—no matter who employs it.

 

Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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Comments

  1. Stephanie Fearn says:

    It is interesting to note that in Britain, journalists and politicians are turning to the librarians at the House of Commons to find unbiased information which supports neither side in the debate about the EU referendum: to leave or not. It is highly emotive, and both sides are using information in a highly biased manner. But the librarians of the Houses of Parliament have a reputation which rises above it all. It’s just such a shame that with austerity the United Kingdom has lost one third of its library staff: such an easy target for local authorities!

  2. marc aronson says:

    Just back from the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna and I heard about the layoffs at British libraries there. Terrible — and, as you say, just when access to information is so important.