Check out the results of the 2014 survey of U.S. History and Civics knowledge of American eighth graders. After viewing the results, I concluded that our students either need to learn more or the test needs to be redesigned, because the results are fairly disappointing. Only 18% scored "proficient" in U.S. History. Does this have implications for our political future? Will these students be more easily manipulated by fear-mongering demagoguery and general emotional manipulation?
This political cartoon by Thomas Nast, from 1875, demonstrates the fear that new Catholic immigrants from Europe would be dangerous and "un-American" to schools and society. Simply replace the anti-Catholic fear and demagoguery with anti-Jewish attitudes in the Great Depression, or anti-illegal immigrants from Mexico today, and your students will understand that fear of "outsiders" is a recurring theme in our nation's history.
"People skilled in the art of critical thinking question everything. Even their own opinions." Are you modeling this "questioning" approach in the classroom? If our students learn to evaluate history, the present, and their own assumptions with improved critical thinking skills, will they be less ripe for manipulation by demagoguery? This 2009 article published in The Atlantic is still very relevant for our social studies classes today.
Teaching your students to fact-check is a powerful, and simple, way to help them become less vulnerable to demagoguery and rhetorical manipulation by either liberal or conservative politicians. "Pants on Fire" ratings are reserved for, well, it's pretty obvious, right? The fact-checkers at Politifact save this rating for outright lies.
Professional historians discuss how politicians throughout American history have used fear to influence elections and public attitudes in this PBS video. The anti-Catholic and anti-Irish "Know-Nothings" party is mentioned, along with an ad from Lyndon Johnson. Although the topic of fear-mongering is centered around the statements of Donald Trump, the conversation is generally balanced, because fear-mongering from both liberal and conservative candidates throughout history are discussed.
During the Great Depression, a voice proclaiming that America should be "restored to the Americans" became wildly popular. Described as a "home-grown demagogue," Father Coughlin gave inflammatory speeches that used the frustration and economic fear of the Depression to attack what he saw as the causes of poverty--"Godless communists" and Jewish bankers and financiers. This documentary explains Father Coughlin's ideas and how he used the radio to spread them.
With humorous graphics and pop culture references, this "In A Nutshell" video summarizes McCarthyism and the "red scare" in American history. Along with the video, Shmoop gives background information on the era, including the "House Un-American Activities Committee" and Truman's Loyalty-Security Program.
This Salon article features videos from both Republicans and Democrats, including the infamous "Willie Horton" ad from 1988, that use fear to score political points. Since manipulating voters through fear and prejudice is a characteristic of demagoguery, these videos should get your students thinking and talking about how both liberal and conservative politicians use our deepest prejudices and fears to win votes.