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Does Democracy Work?

September 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Here is a link to a piece I wrote for On Wisconsin magazine’s great feature, “Can This Democracy Be Saved?”

Categories: Uncategorized

Back in the Saddle Again

July 16, 2014 Leave a comment

After a ridiculously long hiatus, I am back. . . not with a post but with a link.

I am delighted to announce that I will occasionally fill in as a substitute host on Madison public radio station WORT (89.9 on your FM dial). It is an honor and a pleasure to join the ranks of those contributing to public conversation about important matters on “Madison’s Public Megaphone” on the daily program “A Public Affair,” which airs from 12:00pm-1:00pm on weekdays. Thanks to the brilliant Karma Chávez for recommending me to WORT management!

My maiden voyage was yesterday, 7/15/14. the topic: polarization. My guest? The great Lew Friedland.

You can listen to the show here.

I had a ton of fun shaking off the rust – the first time I’ve hosted the news on the radio since 2000 when I worked as a political reporter and anchor for Omaha’s 50,000 AM radio blowtorch, 1110 KFAB.

Categories: Uncategorized

On Studying Things

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I used to be a reporter. From the ages of 14 to 24, I worked in radio (and occasionally television) newsrooms – first in my hometown of Marshall, MN at KMHL (1400 on your AM dial), then at the University of Nebraska (90.3, KRNU), then at CBS31/1470WMBD in Peoria, IL, and finally KFAB (the 50,000 watt blowtorch on AM radio) in Omaha, NE. I liked being a reporter. My job was to report the verifiable truth to our audience.

In 2000, I started to get interested in thinking about why news coverage looked the way it looked and whether the way we reported the news and the way politicians framed contemporary problems was good for democracy. Quickly, I realized that an answer had to involve some idea of what a good democracy would look like, evidence of what factors made up news coverage, evidence detailing how politicians framed issues, and evidence of whether any or all of that influenced public attitudes, associations, and behaviors. I took the summer and fall of 2000 to work as a press secretary on an ill-fated congressional campaign while I started to prepare for my new life. . . in the academy.

I decided to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in political science at Indiana University.

Now, I am on the faculty of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, where I also hold an affiliation in the Department of Political Science.

I love being a scholar. I love being given the freedom to think of things I would like to know and working on my own or with other smart, curious, hard-working and kind people to try and figure out the answers. I love teaching undergraduate and graduate students. The classroom is roughly analogous, at least to me, of appearing on air to convey the verifiable truth to an audience—though the give and take with students, the pouring over their papers and exams, the meeting with them outside of class and so forth is much more personally rewarding for me than airing a great story was.

Now that I have sufficiently buried the lede, let me present it. I am mystified by the continued public questioning of why we should want to know things that speak to the health of our democracy.

Two examples of what I mean. The first was the attack from Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on political science research funded by the National Science Foundation. Coburn enjoyed some success in the past year limiting what kind of political science research could be funded. The reporter in me immediately wanted to ask Senator Coburn, “Gee, what possible interest could a politician have in seeking to limit what scholars might investigate about politicians?” The researcher in me wondered about what interest the government has in limiting how much we can learn about how democracy works and how we might make it work better.

Thankfully, from my extremely biased point of view, the limitations on NSF-funding of political science research are gone for now—see this excellent recap over at the great Mischiefs of Faction blog.

Relatedly, the New York Times’ columnist Nick Kristof recently wrote a column bemoaning what he felt was a lack of engagement in the real world from scholars. While scholars can certainly do more and do better to bring what they’ve learned to a wider audience of policymakers and folks in the general public, there have been enough responses that have exposed how ridiculous his argument was—in terms of whether it was true, whether he understands what faculty do, and whether he did the requisite amount of work any journalist should want to do before making a claim in print or on the air—that I won’t directly add to the pile of stuff raising great questions about his column.

Instead, I will use his call for professors to engage more to pivot to my second example: the recent kerfuffle over the FCC’s interest in learning about what news organizations cover and whether what they cover help meet the information needs people have to function well in a democracy.

The attacks on the literature review and proposed pilot study of news once again seek to tell scholars what they should not study. Some folks like Cal Thomas think that the study is a potential precursor to government monitoring of conservative news outlets, others like Rush Limbaugh have been far more pejorative. Others still have said that we already know the answers to these questions and so there is no use pursuing them.

One of my colleagues at Wisconsin, Lew Friedland, is an author of the literature review and participant in the design of the proposed pilot study. Read his great response in today’s Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post.

To be sure, we do know a great deal about how newsrooms operate, just as we know more than a fair amount about what people know about politics. Still, as the ecology of the news environment changes (see Sue Robinson’s great work) and as investigations into what we really know and how our knowledge about current affairs and the machinations of government matters, it is clear there is more work to be done.

As scholars like the excellent Arthur Lupia begin to ask serious questions about what kind of knowledge actually helps people and scholars like Friedland investigate what kind of information is being delivered in print, online, on TV, and on the radio, we have the potential to enter a whole era of scholarship pushing forward the long tradition of research examining how differences in the kind of information presented by news organizations affects public knowledge, preferences, associations, and behaviors. It would be a mistake to say scholars shouldn’t pursue this line of inquiry just as it would be a mistake to say that the government should have no interest in supporting it.

It is important to know things. It is important to be able to explain how we know what we claim to know. Journalists do this on deadline every day. Their work is vital to the American experiment. Scholars have a longer time horizon and have the ability to provide more detailed accounts of why things happen the way they do. We need both ways of knowing.

Indeed, it is heartening to see the growth in importance of outlets like the The Monkey Cage, the new venture at the New York Times that will employ scholars like Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck, and burgeoning efforts from journalists like Ezra Klein. What isn’t so heartening is the recent cacophonous chorus of complaints claiming that knowing how politics and the media work is a bad idea.

Hey, I’m on C-SPAN

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Clearly appealing to the non-bowl-watching supermajority of the American people, C-SPAN aired this New Year’s Eve morning the panel on partisan polarization from the 2013 State of the Parties Conference at the  Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. As usual, John Green assembled a great meeting.

Me on CSPAN

Click here to watch the panel; I bat lead-off with my co-authored paper with Mike Ensley and Ted Carmines about why Americans can’t get beyond the left-right divide. The panel also includes two very interesting papers giving evidence for the idea that dislike for the other party is a driver of partisan polarization in the electorate.  The first, from David Kimball, Bryce Summary, and Eric Vorst provided evidence that partisans are systematically likely to find that the other side makes them feel angry and afraid. Alan Abramowitz showed evidence of increasing negative affect for the other party as well; his analysis of the American National Election Study data showed that people’s placement of the distance between their own ideological position and the position of their party has not changed much but that the distance between their position and the other party has grown dramatically.

Categories: Uncategorized

All the News About “the Center” That’s Fit to Print

December 3, 2013 Leave a comment

The great Thomas Edsall, the New York Times columnist and professor of journalism at Columbia University, has a nice column featuring my research with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley examining the consequences of a political system in which elected officials are divided along a single ideological dimension while the public is split across two.

He writes,

The Carmines-Ensley-Wagner analysis helps explain the roiling nature of contemporary politics, what they call “the deep-seated ideological heterogeneity” of the American electorate. The heterogeneity lying just under the surface polarization has led to two seemingly divergent developments.

The relatively narrow voting groups that fit the traditional definition of liberal and conservative are entrenched in the two-party system — conservatives strongly sharing the policy preferences of the Republican Party and liberals strongly sharing the policy preferences of the Democratic Party — and the very depth of this belief creates the gap that defines political polarization. But there is another world of disaffection aswirl here too: populists and libertarians are disconnected from both parties, often cross-pressured issue by issue, with libertarians gravitating towards the Republican Party on economics and to the Democrats on social issues, while populists are propelled in the opposite direction.

The figure that expresses the general logic behind the argument is below.

We presented the paper at the State of the Parties Conference at the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron last month. The hyperlink in the previous sentence links to all of the paper presented at the meeting. The whole conference was very interesting.

Categories: Uncategorized

Why Journalists Need Math: Knockout Edition

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Jamelle Bouie has a great post explaining why the recent media apoplexy over the “knockout game” is contributing to a panic over a growing trend that is neither growing nor a trend. As he notes,

 it’s worth emphasizing the broad picture. Overall, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2012 crime report, there were an estimated 127,577 assaults with “hands and fists” in American cities with more than 250,000 people, a 0.7 percent increase from the previous year. The “knockout game” may or may not be a new phenomenon, but with a few instances out of tens of thousands of assaults, it’s not a trend, and media outlets shouldn’t treat it as one. A few teens may describe their behavior as a game, but to hold them up as signs of a crime wave is to cherry-pick data and mislead the audience. A little incredulity, in other words, would go a long way.

It is yet another reason more journalists need to follow Matt Waite’s advice from his wonderful piece at Nieman Lab and realize that they are not inherently bad at math. Rather, they just need to spend a bit more time working to learn it.

Update: Apparently, a lawmaker in my state (Wisconsin) is considering proposing a bill to increase the penalty for perpetrators of violent crimes that are also the knockout game (h/t Megan Duncan).  This potential “solution” is in greater search of a problem than proposed solutions to voter fraud, which occurs about as frequently as alien abduction.

Hey, We’re Featured on The Dish

November 14, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s Seth Masket’s world and we’re just living in it.  Here’s Andrew Sullivan spreading the word about my work with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley examining the consequences of a political system in which elites are divided along a single ideological dimension while the public is divided along two. Some of our published work on the subject is here.

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