Blogging prof turns expert eye on politics
By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, isn’t your typical blogger.
He’s every inch the bespectacled, professorial type, a Bay Stater who came to Middlebury in 1992 by way of Harvard. And his Web site, “Presidential Power,” reflects that same academic slant. Absent are the flashy ads, graphics, and daily polls — but present in large doses is crisp, thoughtful political analysis.
While that staid approach to election commentary seems to be in the minority among Web sites and blogs tracking the election in its last few days, Dickinson’s blog is growing in popularity among a small cohort of dedicated readers — and first and foremost, among his students.
That, Dickinson said, is his audience. The blog has its roots in a series of e-mails that Dickinson began sending to his students over a year ago. Every fall, the political scientist teaches a class at the college on the American presidency, and he noticed last year that his students had taken a strong interest in the upcoming election. He also noticed, though, that “they weren’t getting the full story.”
“The media coverage, the stuff that they talked about when they came into class, was — inaccurate is too strong a word, but it was misleading,” Dickinson said. That semester, he began e-mailing his students almost every night, commenting on a story in the day’s news that he felt deserved a second look.
Soon, his students were forwarding Dickinson’s e-mails on to parents, friends and other relatives. Before Dickinson knew what had happened, his political e-mails were going out to a diverse and vast list of readers. From there, the leap to blogging — a medium that he said has played en even larger role in this election than in the 2004 race — was a logical choice.
Keeping in the tradition of those early e-mails, Dickinson still routinely plucks a story for the daily news to dissect not as a reporter, but as a political scientist.
“Journalists are on a deadline,” he said. In an election marked by a deluge of political coverage, it’s not that these deadline-strapped journalists are missing stories.
“There’s just so much information out there. Generally speaking, they get everything,” he said. “It’s the perspective that’s lost. They sort of overreact to day-to-day changes. They’re really focused on the trees of the campaign, and they miss the forest.”
He pointed to the recent presidential and vice presidential debates as an example. The debates were obviously newsworthy events, Dickinson said. But contrary to the hubbub and speculation in most media outlets, the debates did not shift voter support for or against either candidate.
The same went for media coverage of “momentum” during the primaries, Dickinson said. That word was bandied about regularly by journalists trying to explain why candidates won some races and lost others — but “momentum,” Dickinson warned, “is a very abstract and not very useful concept.”
Dickinson, who himself worked as a journalist as a young man, is careful to say that he’s not criticizing reporters, per se. He’s simply eager to help his students analyze the day’s news through not just the lens of the journalist, but also that of the historian and political scientist.
And what, exactly, is this particular political scientist looking at in the last days of the presidential campaign?
According to Dickinson, elections are driven by the “fundamentals” — which in this case are the economy and change, both factors that favor Democrats.
In focusing on day-to-day events, Dickinson said, journalists create the perception that the race is in flux — that one day a candidate is up, only to fall behind again the next. A few major campaign events have certainly come down the pipeline in the last few months — Sarah Palin’s rise to the national stage being one, and the fiscal credit meltdown another — but Dickinson said that the race has been relatively stable for the last two months.
“The media misses that stability sometimes,” he said.
Dickinson’s also interested in the historical importance of the race.
“The thing we always ask ourselves is, ‘Is this just more of the same, or is this representing a fundamental shift in the public opinion?’” he said.
The potential is there for this election to be historical, he went on, citing the interest among young voters, and the inclusion of both an African American and a woman among the candidates who could rise to office. He’s reluctant to label this race revolutionary, though, explaining that the country won’t know until Nov. 5 whether or not there’s been a fundamental, widespread shift in voter sentiment.
This sort of cautiousness is a trademark of Dickinson’s analysis, and if his blog feels like the odd man out in a highly polarized, partisan blogosphere, that aloofness is by design. After all, his blog is not just a counter to the rushed, day-to-day coverage of the election. “Presidential Power” is also a stubbornly nonpartisan, inclusive forum for political discussion.
“Most blogs are the equivalent of online devotional services,” Dickinson said — places, he explained, where online readers can “discuss the day’s events in the sanctity and comfort of your own like-minded group.”
“That’s very comforting and reassuring,” he went on, “but it’s like having a conversation in a vast echo chamber.”
In theory, blogs and the Internet could be great tools for democracy. To Dickinson’s eye, though, the vast majority of blogs only contribute to the polarization of the political debate. If you dare to disagree with an opinion espoused on many of these sites, Dickinson said, “you’re instantly categorized as a troll, and you’re pounced on.” Dickinson, on the other hand, has promised his students that they won’t be “drummed out” of his corner of the blogosphere should they object to his arguments.
(This is not to say that Dickinson’s view of blogging is all doom-and-gloom. Bloggers keep the mainstream media on their toes, he said, and frequently act as “fact checkers” on the stories of the day.)
Dickinson’s blog does not boast the same terrific numbers as some of the major players in the so-called “blogosphere” — that online society of keyboard-tapping writers. On the Web’s most trafficked blogs, daily comments routinely ratchet up into the hundreds. On a good day, or a particularly nerve-touching post, Dickinson’s posts might prompt half a dozen responses.
The feedback from his readers has been positive, though.
“I think (my readers) trust me to tell them what I see is happening as objectively as possible,” Dickinson said.
In this sense, his is no vast echo chamber. What Dickinson’s blog resembles, more than anything else, is the classroom it grew out of. The professor at his digital blackboard keeps the discussion moving forward, delivering his lectures with the sort of friendly, reassuring confidence that comes with experience and education.
And, Dickinson said, if his students continue to show up at this virtual classroom come Nov. 5, the end of the campaign should in no way necessarily signal the end of the blogging venture. With plenty of issues to tackle — not least of which is the tricky transition to the presidency facing the election’s winner — Dickinson, for one, said class could well stay in session.
Log on to Dickinson’s blog at blogs.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower.