Political Q & A with Alison Dagnes

Dagnes-Feature-ImageAre you having fun with this election?

This is the most interesting election I’ve ever seen. It’s possible it’s the most interesting election I’m ever going to see. …It is a mixed bag because the rhetoric has gotten so mean, and the hatred against not only opposing thought but also against the government and against the media, that makes me very very sad, because I am a firm patriot in that I love the American government, I love the political system. As a student of government and history, note that it certainly isn’t perfect, but it has the capability to change. In the past 240 years, we have changed, mostly for the better. The language I’m hearing now is that we want to unchange some of the better things that we’ve done and that makes me authentically sad.

What inspired this interest in politics?

I grew up in DC, and I like to say they put something in the water.

How did you find your niche?

When I was in college, my favorite government professor said that I should do an internship. The class I was taking at the time was a politics and media class. With his help, I found an internship at CSPAN and I loved it. After college, I then went back to CSPAN and was a producer there for five years. It’s really important for me as a professor to always encourage students to do more, because my professor encouraged me to do more and that’s why I am where I am. When I was at CSPAN, I was very good at my job, but I didn’t love it. … I wanted to do more with learning about the government and teaching about government, which is why I went back to graduate school and got my doctorate from UMASS Amherst. When I got to grad school, they wanted me to pick what I wanted to do; look at the institutions of government or look at the behavior, and the behavior stuff was always just much more interesting to me. And so, because I worked at CSPAN I focused on the media.

Is the media covering this election differently?

Yes. I can’t keep up with all of the developments and what is happening. A couple of things are happening at once. First of all, there’s so much more media now. There’s a real generational difference in the kind of news information reception that’s going on. Cable news… they’ve got to figure out a way to get to the younger audience and they’re doing that by a lot of streaming services and a lot of online content. There is just the greatest Variety article about Jeff Zucker at CNN that talks about how he turned CNN around. CNN was dying—it was about to go completely under, and Jeff Zucker came in and really turned it around. First thing he did was emphasize online and electronic communication. And interesting ways to do that, and he changed the model of CNN. Now they’re very successful, they’re right behind FOX, which nobody thought would happen.

Now there’s also a way, because of Trump’s campaign, there’s a real difference in the way politicians are using the media. It was estimated that whoever the candidates were for president were going to each raise and spend a billion dollars apiece. Hilary’s on track for that. Donald Trump is not. There’s a bunch of things about that, but the more interesting one about media coverage is that he got, I think it was estimated at $2-$3 billion in free media coverage during the primaries. This is all of the media coverage of the news covering him and his tweets. That’s totally different. Twitter was only born in 2010 so we’ve had exactly one presidential election that Twitter was around. There’s a real reach straight to the people from the candidates that’s very different. I think this is all good but the downside of it is we now live in a time that’s almost devoid of fact. Facts mean less these days. That’s an actual problem.

In class, how do you steer your students to what the facts are?

In my classes on D2L I have 25 external links to not only the New York Times and the Washington Post, but also the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. I also have polling sites, but the real polling sites— PEW Research Center, Gallop, RealClear Politics—so go there. …Go ahead, have whatever truth you want, but there’s a cost to that.

People can make statements on social media that aren’t true, and sources will provide the facts. But where does that put the public?

What’s most disheartening about this age is that a lot of the public just doesn’t care when presented with an actual fact. Here is a FACT. There’s a phenomenon that’s called confirmation bias and that’s the idea that you are much more likely to accept and absorb information that agrees with your worldview than anything that disagrees with your worldview. So when I hear something bad, if I’m a Democrat and I hear something bad about the Clinton Foundation, I’m less likely to believe it than if I’m a Republican. I will also look at the source and if it comes from FOX News I am more likely to dismiss it right out of hand.

What does this do for young voters? Is it a positive? A negative?

The good side is they’re getting more news than before, even if it’s a trending topic. The bad side is that they do discount a lot of the information that they get because there’s just so much of it that they can pick and choose what to believe. That makes it harder for me because I’m not a party activist. My job is to teach them. If they are coming in predisposed to disbelieving me, then that makes my job harder. In the Political Science Department, we never ever proselytize from the front because what’s important to us is having a conversation that allows Democracy to flourish. That’s the goal.

How is this election different from the last?

It’s interesting. There’s much more knowledge about the election than in the past, but there’s also a more palatable feeling of disgust and disillusionment and distrust. The students I have now, they distrust the political parties, they distrust the government, they distrust the media. Part of that is because everybody who they’ve seen as a politician since they were born campaigns on “The government’s terrible, elect me.” If you repeat something enough, people are going to believe it. …Donald Trump has been around in the public’s eye for thirty years. Everybody’s known about Donald Trump since the 1980s, mostly because he’s very rich, very brash, and in the last 10 years had his own TV show. Everyone knows Hilary Clinton, because she’s been in the public eye for thirty years, and her husband was president, and he had this big cheating scandal. So they know exactly who’s running for president. They don’t like either one of them, and there’s a lot of sadness that comes with that.

You’re quoted a lot. Is there a certain topic that gets you jazzed?

I wrote a book about political comedy and I love talking about political comedy because that’s one where you’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’ve edited two books about political sex scandals. I know a lot about those and find those interesting from a behavioral standpoint, but there’s such a personal cost to talking about someone’s private life that it’s less fun for me to talk about it, because I really feel that I’m not a person to judge someone else. …They’re all fun to do because I like having the conversations about it, but if I really were to talk at large, the thinking I really want to emphasize is that the American political system is good, Americans are good, we just gotta kind of remember that, and it gets better from there.