University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Interview: Anthony Gierzynski

U.S. elections are sick, says political scientist Anthony Gierzynski. Part of the cure, he says, is to focus on candidates' policies, rather than, in the case of 2008 election, "non-issues like Obama’s preacher, his lapel pin and Sarah Palin’s wardrobe." (Photo: Jon Reidel)

Anthony Gierzynski, professor of political science, recently published his third book Saving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy (Cambia Press, 2011), in which he offers a full diagnosis of the problems besetting American elections based on research and data on elections, the mass media, political parties and public opinion. He also offers a host of prescriptions for each diagnosis. In September, Gierzynski presented a paper at the American Political Science Association titled, “Harry Potter and the Millenials: The Boy-Who-Lived and the Politics of a Muggle Generation,” which he plans to turn into his fourth book next year. UVM Today sat down with Gierzynski to talk about his latest work.  

UVM Today: Your new book borrows from medicine’s approach; you diagnose the problems with elections and then provide prescriptions for them. How did you come up with this idea?

Anthony Gierzynski: The book came out of discussions with students about a list of things that needed to be changed with elections. They liked the metaphor of it being Dr. Gierzynski’s prescription for healthier elections and wanted a picture of me on the cover with a stethoscope. Some of it came out of my consulting work on campaign finance cases like Randall v. Sorrell that made it to the Supreme Court. It got me thinking about how we know what is a good reform and a bad reform. Nobody has ever assessed that. That’s why I thought, “Well, what do doctors do? They diagnose the problem and then they prescribe things.” So what we need to do is take a step back and look at what’s wrong, and that should tell us what will work and what won’t.

Do you really think elections in the United States are getting sicker? If so, what’s the cure?

Yes, I definitely think they are getting sicker. In 2008, the media focused on non-issues like Obama’s preacher, his lapel pin and Sarah Palin’s wardrobe. Can we really say that people voted for Obama because they supported his policies? If you ask the public, it’s pretty clear they did not have a clear grasp of what he was going to do. He came across to me as quite the pragmatist, not an ideologue, but Republicans attacked him for being an ideologue as a campaign tactic. If you look at a lot of his campaign promises we shouldn’t be completely surprised with what we got. A lot of liberals are discontented right now, but his agenda was never a socialist agenda like Republicans or Fox News wanted to paint it.

But there is a cure. You can blame politicians or the media, but the current condition of U.S. elections could resolve political conflict by giving legitimacy to the policy positions politicians take. Legitimacy in a democracy is derived from popular support via elections with politicians presenting their plans for governing to the public. Only 4-in-10 voters showed up in the 2010 election, so no clear message about what the public wanted was sent to those who ultimately won. So they’re all yelling and arguing with each other over their principles, and no one can claim they got elected because of their policies. If the press would say ,“Yes, they got elected, they were supported because of their policies,” that would allow one side much more leverage in bargaining. If we had elections that were really policy-based, partisan types of elections as I argue in the book, then that message would be clear and concise.

Why do people increasingly choose entertainment over news?

Entertainment is fine, but if you are totally avoiding informing yourself because you are cynical and you think it doesn’t matter when it actually does matter, you are disenfranchising yourself. It’s a vicious downward cycle. In many ways we’re a product of our culture, and so it’s hard to rise above cultural expectations when it comes to things like politics. There’s been a major shift in our culture in what we consider to be information and knowledge. We’re overwhelmed with trivia and fragmented perspectives on reality, so we really don’t see how things work together. The people who can make these connections are the ones who read the news because it provides the background and the context needed to understand issues. Our for-profit media is just giving us what we want. We’ve come to rely on it as the main institution between the public and government. We need journalists to interpret for us, but we’ve had a shrinking journalistic workforce. Media covers murder trials for weeks and gets obsessed with manufactured stories like the debt ceiling, which is really disruptive. They eventually destroy their own product.

I would actually argue that good journalism is a public good. Market forces provide entertainment, not information. Countries where citizens are much more informed, engaged, and involved than the U.S. have publicly subsidized media, resulting in a greater diversity of coverage and more media freedom. Corporate media likes to say, “Look at how many choices people have and how much coverage we have,” but they totally ignore the content, which is incredibly lacking. There’s no substance. They can talk forever, and nobody’s going to learn anything. And if there is anything to learn, you’ll be distracted two minutes later by another ridiculous story to take your mind off the core issues.

So how do serious news organizations compete with ones that are gaining viewers and making a profit in spite of their content?

Unfortunately, we’re going in the opposite direction of some of the things I prescribe. For example, cutting back on public funding as opposed to increasing it for public media is the wrong way to go. There’s this notion that markets are going to create competition that will produce the best good, but it’s really producing the most desired good, and that’s entertainment not information. Competition does not provide good information even for high-level niche markets like the New York Times. My students have done studies where they look at the Times 20 years ago and compare it to today’s paper. What they see now is a ton of photos, an inch-and-a-half cut off from the width of the paper, more news briefs, fewer stories of length, entire sections wiped out, and a cut back in the number of journalists in the newsroom. You’ve got to get more public funding, because the corporate model is producing drivel. This would help build good public broadcasting and support good journalists, but like I said in the eigth chapter, if you build it will they come? That’s where the public will have to change.

Do you think they will? Do they have enough time to properly inform themselves on the issues?

People don’t need to know everything that’s going on in order for democracy to function. If we send a clear message about what governing philosophy we want to take hold, then we don’t have to constantly follow all the details. You shouldn’t have to be a political junkie to be a good citizen, and our current political system demands it. That’s unfortunate because it disenfranchises many people who don’t have the time and knowledge base, so they are overwhelmed by a system that needs to be simplified. The public’s understanding of health care is so poor because the media coverage was so poor that people just took this kind of summary judgment rather than understanding the details of how it actually works. Who has the time? Instead, you should choose a governing philosophy – either that government should be more involved in health care or less involved – then the message is clear to those who are elected and you let them go to it. That enhances democracy and your control and influence.

You say in your book that, “The habit of thinking about elections as an exercise in individual expression disempowers citizens and leads them to serial disillusionment.” That’s a pretty strong statement.

People have to visualize political activity in aggregates as opposed to individualism because you are powerless as an individual. Man with the Plan (1996 movie about Fred Tuttle) aside, one vote doesn’t really matter. What matters is if you work with people with similar views and philosophies and you organize and support; that’s how you influence a system. Our culture is full of lessons that individuals can do everything. All of our movies have heroic individuals saving the day where everyone else is a spectator. Well in a democracy you can’t be a spectator and wait for a hero. That’s part of the reason for the disillusionment with Obama. People thought, “Our individual hero has finally arrived,” so they voted for him and maybe contributed 20 bucks; but they’re still spectators. And then they are disappointed he didn’t get everything done despite not really ever understanding what he was going to do, so they start projecting their own policies on him. We have a system of checks and balances so that one individual isn’t elected to be a dictator to do everything they want to do. Not only do they have to work within the confines of the other branches of government, but also within the confines of a political culture that includes a public that is fickle and sometimes irrational.    

Your paper on Harry Potter is one of the top 10 most downloaded papers on the Social Science Research Network website. How did you come up with the idea and why do you think it’s receiving so much attention?

I've always had an interest in how people come to believe what they do with regard to politics. I also have a fascination with media effects, specifically entertainment media. Several years back I started a research seminar called “Film, TV and Public Opinion” (POLS 237) and after a few semesters of running projects on Star Wars, The Simpsons and South Park, I came up with the idea of investigating the impact of the Harry Potter series. I made it the focus of my spring 2009 seminar, and my students and I came up with a research plan and a survey. I contacted colleagues around the country at other universities and roped them into running the surveys in their classrooms in addition to the ones we ran in a number of UVM classes. The results supported the hypotheses so I expanded the sample in the fall of 2009 with the help of some independent study students and added qualitative data with in-depth interviews conducted by my 2010 POLS 237 class and a student writing an honors thesis.

Results of that survey showed that Harry Potter fans are more accepting of differences; more opposed to the use of violence and deadly force; more likely to believe the Bush Administration will be viewed negatively by historians; more likely to have voted for Barack Obama, more skeptical than cynical; and more likely to participate in politics. Why is that?

The Millennial Generation fans of Harry Potter read the series during their formative years, politically, before their own views about politics were solidified. That fact, plus passive learning theory and the effect that Harry Potter had on whether someone became a reader, all led us to expect that the political content of Harry Potter – and there is a lot of political content on issues such tolerance, diversity, torture, the use of deadly force, and authoritarianism – could contribute to the formation of political views of fans. As you can see from the paper, we found Harry Potter fans to be different from non-fans on measures of all these perspectives.