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Pollster says key to closing political gap is to listen to those on the other side

Tom Coyne

Pollster Frank Luntz conducts a focus group with 16 Culver Academies students. (Photo by Andrew Crowell)


Frank Luntz, a noted pollster and political consultant, told Culver Academies students the key to shrinking the political division in this country is listening and to trying to empathize with people they disagree with.

He told students at an all-school meeting to begin by asking a simple question: Why?

“Why do people feel this way? Why are people either comfortable or afraid of the future? Why do you think American democracy or capitalism or whatever it is, is either working or not?” asked Luntz, who spoke at Eppley Auditorium on Friday as part of the Class of 1962 Enrichment Series.

Luntz said he’s afraid that Americans are losing the “ability for curiosity.”

“We’re losing the ability to hear things we disagree with. We want to make a statement. I want you to make a difference,” he said. “This is the core of democracy. This is the core of freedom of speech. To be able to challenge and to make a difference. To change the way people think.”

He said if people don’t stop hating those they disagree with, things will continue to grow worse.

He recommended students surround themselves with people they disagree with and find out why they think as they do. He also suggested using words that build empathy and trust. “I hear you. I want to understand. Why do you feel that way? Ask questions. That’s how you communicate,” he said.

The hourlong all-school meeting was a lively affair with Luntz, a Ph.D., who teaches at West Point and the University of Southern California, repeatedly asking the audience to give their opinions through applause or a show of hands. The vast majority of people indicated they were voting against a candidate rather than voting for someone.

Students asked Luntz some challenging questions. When asked what he’s optimistic about, Luntz initially said he wasn’t optimistic about anything. But he later said he was optimistic after interacting with the students, calling them “amazing.”

He said what he’s most concerned about is that the divided political scene will turn young voters away.

Hardman Novak '26 asks Frank Luntz a question during an all-school meeting. (Photo by Andrew Crowell)


“I’m concerned that you’re going to get turned off. I’m worried that you’re going to turn away from democracy and economic freedom. I’m worried that you’re going to look at these two candidates and say, ‘There’s no one there for me,’ and I can understand that,” he said.

Luntz told the students that he thought the choice of candidates between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump was “dreadful.”

But he urged the students not to turn away from politics.

“You can’t give up. I will live through another few elections. You guys are going to live through 20 general elections. You have to fight to be heard. You have to fight to be listened to,” he said.

After asking how many students in the crowd were from outside the United States, Luntz told the students they were fortunate to attend a school with such a diverse student population with classmates from around the United States and around the world.

“Do you realize how lucky you are to be sitting next to somebody who is not from America? he asked. “All across the country, kids only sit next to people who just look like them and sound like them and think like them. … I want to be with people who don’t think like me, who don’t look like me, who don’t sound like me. That’s how I learn.”

Before the all-school meeting, Luntz conducted an hourlong focus group at the Legion Memorial Building involving 16 students. He asked students questions such as the word they think of when he says “United States.” Most responded with words, such as “freedom,” liberty” and “opportunities.”

Two students responded: “Tribalism” and “hypocrisy.”

Luntz asked the student who replied tribalism why he gave that answer?

“People identify with their beliefs and it becomes part of their identity and they forget the end goal of politics, which is to find compromises and find solutions,” he said. “With tribalism we kind of forget that end goal and we want to stay with our party beliefs rather than trying to solve things.”

A CGA student asks pollster Frank Luntz a question during the all-school meeting. (Photo by Andrew Crowell)


When one student started talking about “cognitive bias,” Luntz stopped him.

“Wait a minute. You are talking about cognitive biases. That is why this place is special. The average American could not define cognitive bias,” he said.

The student said he learned about it in Literature of Behavioral Economics, a class that encourages students to reconsider what they think they know.

“I’m impressed,” Luntz said.

Students talked about how too many Americans interact only with people who agree with them and that causes people to view politics as us vs. them.

“We all collectively want change but we’re not willing to work with the other side with people of different views in order to create that change,” a Culver Girls Academy student said.

Luntz also asked students in the focus group: “If there’s one thing that keeps you up at night, it is what?”

Students responded with answers such as “The possibility of losing our Constitution,” “We’re not able to have civil discussions about politics,” and “The Israeli-Hamas conflict.”

Luntz also asked if the nation’s leaders were at Culver today, what would they tell them.

“To retire,” a cadet said. “They’re too old.”

“Be able to listen to each other and have a civil conversation,” a CGA student said.

Luntz said he’d take what he heard from the Culver students and pass it along to people in power, telling them, “They’re screwing up.”

“These are the people you think you’re representing properly, and they think you’re doing a lousy job,” he said. “What I use this for is to bring about change. To put the mirror up to them and say, ‘You are failing the people you claim you are representing.’ Then, hopefully, we do bring about change.”


Pollster Frank Luntz told Culver Academies students the key to shrinking political division is listening and to trying to empathize with people they disagree with.  (Photo by Andrew Crowell)



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