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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

When it comes to students’ politics, climate change is center stage

“What do you define as the most pressing issue of our day?”

Each year, we have asked respondents one open-ended question that defines the theme of the Zeitgeist survey that year. This year — right before the turn of the decade — we asked students what they believed to be the most pressing issue of our day. The responses leaned heavily toward the climate crisis. While this answer took myriad forms – “Climate change”; “Climate change, f*cking duh”; “ummmm climate change have u heard of it??” and “The Earth is about to be one-a-spicy meatball,” among many others – “climate” was the most common term among the 535 responses. The “environment” was also written 43 times, “environmental” 39 times and “energy” seven times, suggesting similar concerns.

Gun control came in second, with “gun” used 47 times. Healthcaret was also frequently referenced, with “health” used 18 times and “healthcare” used 16.

Some answers were combinations of a few issues, such as the response, “In my personal life, healthcare. In the public sphere, […] gun control.” Other issues raised were systemic racism, political polarization, economic inequality, the faults of the capitalist system, criminal justice, indigenous people’s rights and reproductive rights. 

Some were specific to Middlebury at the time of the survey, including “Napkins at the dining hall” and “the new scan-in system.” Other responses were broad-spanning, including “unkindness,” “I just feel like our generation is f*cked,” “Learning how to connect as a society” and, for the indecisive anti-establishment, “They are all connected. Capitalism?”

At this point, it’s important to point out that this survey was issued months before the novel coronavirus came onto anyone’s radar. But the issues students outlined above have been exacerbated as the global health crisis exacerbates systemic inequality and access to public services, such as healthcare.  

As the U.S. rapidly approaches it’s next election year, political issues are at the forefront of many college voters’ minds. When asked to list the importance of 10 political topics from Politico’s list of 2020 issues as “very important,” “moderately important,” “neutral” or “not important,” respondents identified the most vital issue as “energy, environment and climate change.” 77% of respondents ranked the issue “very important,” while 95% ranked it important to some degree, backing Middlebury’s reputation as an environmentally-conscious school. The issue is also considered prominent nation-wide among youth and college-aged voters, validated at Middlebury by its strong turnout.

The other issues that exceeded a 90% response rate of moderate to very important were healthcare, gun control, immigration and abortion. However, these data were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic, which has served as a development that has reshaped U.S. healthcare policy. While healthcare fell slightly behind abortion and gun control in rankings of “very important” at the time, it is possible that more recent data would reflect an increased level of emphasis placed on healthcare.

The issue ranked least important by Middlebury students was, “support for the military,” with only 32% of students deeming it important. The penultimate concern was “marijuana and cannabis legalization,” with just over 50% of students signaling it as important.