Poli-Sci Blogging Has Come Far, and Has Far to go
Seth Masket is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2004. Masket's areas of research and expertise focuses on American political parties at the local, state and national level. Masket has published two books and has a weekly on-line column with Pacific Standard and is a founder and regular contributor to Vox.com's Mischiefs of Faction blog.
It has been five years since the founding staff of the Mischiefs of Faction posted its inaugural blog post. I’d like to take this opportunity to talk a bit about how the role of political science blogging has changed since 2012.
Our inaugural post was published on a free Blogger account. Most posts at that time were seen by a few hundred people, occasionally breaking into the thousands. Most of our peer academic blogs were also largely self-published, self-edited efforts.
The overall goal of these efforts was to affect the way politics was discussed. Our primary target was political journalists. We sought to explain, to the extent we understood it, how politics was unfolding in real time, and to bring in our own research and that of others to inform perceptions about politics. We sought to push back a bit on quick conventional wisdom analysis and offer a more informed and nuanced perspective. We wanted to influence the journalists who covered politics and at least have them consider our perspectives.
We succeeded, although not quite the way we expected. We changed the media not so much by convincing reporters we were right, but by joining them.
Within the past five years, Vox took us under their umbrella, along with Polyarchy. The Monkey Cage joined the Washington Post. Jonathan Bernstein is now a regular at Bloomberg View. Brendan Nyhan started writing for the New York Times. Pacific Standard, FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and other publications now regularly feature articles from political scientists alongside those from journalists. There are still plenty of high-quality independent academic blogs out there, but a number of us have joined up with those we sought to influence.
I view this as an overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, positive development. Coverage of political events, at least at the national level, is, to my eye, better than it was a few years ago. Academic blogging and data journalism haven’t replaced traditional interview-style reporting, but they’ve complemented it. We’re approaching questions from a broader range of perspectives than we used to.
One of the reasons I got into blogging a decade ago was that I was bothered by the chasm between journalism and academia. We were talking about similar events, but we were barely communicating with each other, and academics mostly ended up talking to themselves. Many of us who focus on party nomination politics didn’t do very well in our early analysis of the Democratic presidential contest in 2004, for example. We dismissed Howard Dean at first, then sought to rationalize his popularity, then missed the fact that John Kerry was somehow winning the nomination. Journalists didn’t really bother to mock us for this for the simple reason that they didn’t know or care that we were talking about it.
It was a very different story in 2016, obviously. Many of us, me included, got the GOP nomination process spectacularly wrong, and journalists rightly called us out for it. Now, many of them got it wrong too, which spared us some harsher retribution, but it was good and useful that our failures were noticed. It’s good for the development of new theories and the refinement of old ones when a hypothesis fails publicly, even if it bruises the ego.
And generally I’m pleased to see that so many political scientists are choosing to engage publicly via blogging and social media. It wasn’t too long ago that this was considered a pretty nerdy and potentially career-damaging pursuit. Today it’s not only tolerated but encouraged. Last week, I met a junior faculty member who put her Twitter analytics statistics into her third-year review.
While I see these developments as quite positive, there are certainly some areas for caution going forward.
First, even as some political scientists work more closely with political journalists, we should remember that we do not have the same jobs. We use different tools and work toward different goals on different time frames. Blogging, tweeting, and other forms of social engagement can be a great supplement to scholarship, but they are not a substitute for it. I may be as interested as any political journalist in a particular special election or dramatic moment in a state legislature, but they’re better suited to covering the event in the moment, while my main focus should be in the systematic study of politics and understanding whether the event in question is typical or an outlier.
Second, academia was already a mean enough profession before we got social media involved. Journal rejections and conference feedback could be arbitrary and cruel, but at least they usually weren’t personal. Blog comments can be brutal (if you read them). Twitter is vicious. Writing up scholarship in a public forum can certainly get it more attention than it would get sitting in a journal, but it can also expose you to insulting or even threatening emails and other communications. If you’re anything other than a white, Christian, heterosexual man in his late 20s to late 40s, you will likely be attacked for that at some point, regardless of how poignant your writing is.
This is particularly vexing because we need those voices representing the scholarly community online. It’s easy for extrovertish white guys like me to just tell others to engage online and tough it out, but that’s obviously not always great advice, and it’s particularly irresponsible to expect junior faculty to have to endure that as a condition of professional advancement.
Now, these concerns obviously affect more than just academics. Reporters probably face greater threats of harassment and actual violence than we do, as last week’s events reminded us. It’s great that political science is taken more seriously than it used to be, thanks in part to the public engagement by a growing group of scholars and the editors willing to take a chance on printing our words. But relevance, unfortunately, comes with risk. Whatever we’re aiming for, we’re not quite there yet.