Monday, November 07, 2005

Class Act

Waldo Jaquith, Norm Leahy, and I were the guest speakers tonight for Larry Sabato's class on campaigns and elections at the University of Virginia. But it was not Larry Sabato who introduced us and led the class. With tonight the eve of the Virginia statewide elections, Mr. Sabato was much in demand elsewhere, responding to questions from TV reporters in Richmond and other cities. In his place, his deputy at the Center for Politics, Ken Stroupe, conducted the discussion.

The three of us were invited to discuss the internet and bloggers and their impact on politics. Waldo, Norm, and I disagreed on little; if anything, our perspectives were remarkably the same, with a few nuances along the edges.

We tried to address the future of blogging, and all of us pretty much agreed that it is not possible to say where political bloggers will be in even just a few years. Norm suggested that we've already "jumped the shark" while Waldo related a self-deprecating story about his days as a teenage teacher of senior citizens. He was teaching this group about computers and the internet about ten years ago, and he told them "we can look at this WWW thing, but the real future is in Gopher. Believe me, in a few years, all you'll be doing is gophering." So much for Waldo's prescience.

Much of the discussion circled around the relationship of bloggers to the mainstream media: how are we like journalists, how are we unlike them? What do bloggers bring to the table that traditional journalists do not? Will newspapers be replaced by blogs?

We also talked about whether, and how, bloggers influence politics. Norm suggested that the biggest impact comes in intra-party discussions, trying to convince people to support one candidate over another in nomination contests, rather than in general elections. He pointed out that, judging from bloggers and commments on blogs in the weeks preceding the June Republican primary, Sean Connaughton and Steve Baril were going to win the GOP nominations for, respectively, lieutenant governor and attorney general. As we now know, both were blown out of the water by their opponents, Bill Bolling and Bob McDonnell.

Norm also said that blogs are a "grass-tops" phenomenon, read by party activists, campaign consultants, political journalists, and candidates. Blogs are not an outreach tool to bring average voters into a campaign's tent. He said there are about 7,000 people in Virginia who regularly read the state's political blogs.

The students of the class were engaged and engaging. They seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say -- and, in fact, in what we have previously written. One student proved that she did her homework when she asked about a specific posting of mine that referred to a bill introduced by Congressman Mike Pence, which would offer bloggers a legal shield for keeping their sources confidential. (She even noted the title of the blog post, "A Very Nice Man.")

Another student wanted to know what newspapers we read. (My answer: I subscribe to the Washington Post, which arrives in my front yard between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. -- Waldo pointed out that I'm awake to hear it hit the lawn with a thud -- and the Daily Progress, which arrives around 7:00 a.m., and I buy the Washington Times at the store, though I'd subscribe if it had home delivery in Charlottesville.)

I always enjoy speaking to college classes. Years ago I was a regular guest lecturer for Mark Rozell's classes for the Washington Semester Program at the American University. (Mark is now at George Mason University.) I even spoke to that class -- which was made up of college students from around the country who came to Washington to intern on Capitol Hill and at various think tanks around town -- on the very morning that Bill Clinton wagged his finger at the camera and said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Talk about making internships sexy!

In those days, I was invited to talk about libertarianism and the Libertarian Party. Since I'm no longer active in the LP, invitations to speak about that party dried up, just as invitations to speak about nuclear weapons policy stopped coming when the Cold War ended, and invitations to give lectures or debate about South Africa disappeared when apartheid went the way of the dodo. (I've got to find myself a more permanent, long-lived topic of expertise.)

When I started this blog just before Christmas last year, I hardly expected that within eleven months I would be invited to speak at a prestigious university about blogging. That idea was simply unimaginable to me. Of course, in a decade, blogging may be as passé as civil defense against nuclear war and South African disinvestment.

After we left the class, I suggested to Waldo that we could turn this into a road show of sorts. We've already been guests on WINA-AM's "Charlottesville Live" program and now Larry Sabato's class. Still, in order to sell something like that, we've got to have more conflict to present. We're just too damn friendly to each other.

Now I must reluctantly get some sleep. My Election Day wake-up call is coming at 4:00 a.m., and a long day will begin. The question is, who will be getting a wake-up call the day after the election?

No comments: