Eighteen Years of Blogging
It occurs to me that I started blogging almost exactly 18 years ago. Indeed, my first post on the original iteration of PoliBlog was on February 15, 2003, so my blogiversary is tomorrow. I solo blogged for a long time, although I first posted here at OTB as a guest blogger in 2006. I cannot remember when I made the move to shut PoliBlog down permanently, but I am pretty sure my main blog home has been OTB for at least a decade (so the bulk of my blogging career, so to speak). A semi-functional version of PoliBlog still exists, with the last post being 11/8/08, but the site continued after that point in time as I tried to figure out what to do with it and in so doing screwed up the database, so there are some lost years in there.*
At any rate, the arrival of the anniversary coupled with a variety of recent discussions here at OTB and thoughts about this enterprise leads me to be a bit retrospective (and introspective) on this Sunday.
Why? I ask myself on occasion (and I will admit that earlier this week was one of those occasions), why do you do this? I think that the most fundamental answer is: because the words are in my head and they want to get out. A corollary to that is that I know that there is an audience that is willing to read said words. That combination is irresistible on some level. It is easier to write if you know there will be readers. My first book might never have happened save I was offered a contract to write it. Knowing that it would be published, and hence have readers, was a very helpful motivator (it wasn’t the money, as any academic author will tell you). I might have written it sooner had the opportunity presented itself earlier and there is a good chance it never would have been written if I thought it would never get published.
Along those lines, I frequently ask myself how many more books would I have written if I spent blogging time on book writing? But, of course, the two things are profoundly different. And that difference leads to looking at my original motivation and what I would consider my more matured motivation for continuing to engage.
(I have at least three books that I hope to write some day).
In the Beginning. When I started in 2003 I was driven by the above (I thought I had things to say and was seeking an audience) and the fact that I thought the commentary space on politics was overly dominated by historians and lawyers. Back when I used to watch a ton of politics-oriented television (so much–waayy too much!), it irked me that on shows like Meet the Press there was an endless parade of historians on to explain contemporary politics. This irked me not necessarily because of the quality of historians, but because understanding twenty-first-century politics needed more than anecdotes about Lincoln or FDR. I also object to a political “analysis” that focuses heavily, if not exclusively, on leaders and their personal styles. Politics is far more than great (or not-so-great) man history.
And, in general, blogging was more satisfying than yelling at the television or exchanging e-mails with friends about the news (meaning mostly James Joyner).
We were also in the early years of the War on Terror and were gearing up for the Iraq War, so there was a lot to talk about (more on that below).
I had pretensions, to a degree at least, of working in punditry. I tried my hand at newspaper columns, for example, writing around 85 of them over a six-year period for Alabama newspapers, mostly for the Mobile Press-Register. That itch faded over time.
How? (Part I). So this transitions into how I approached blogging in the early goings. I was more pundity than I am now. I was (believe it or not) more snarky. I was, for a while, very self-consciously conservative and I was as my personal zenith of partisanship.
Of course, it was a journey of finding a voice. I wanted to be, and think I largely was, a reasonable conservative (after some flirtations with being a bit bombastic at times, at least for me).
Early on I adopted the tagline “a rough draft of my thoughts” which was intended to capture the notion that I was open to changing my mind, which is an essential element of the “science” part of “political science.” It was also a nod to the fact that blogging is often inherently of the moment. Even at my most pundit-like, I wanted the political science to be more important than the partisan politics. Although I am sure that that partisan sometimes shown through more at times.
Blogging started as an outlet (and it remains such) and is driven by the notion that I think I have something to say that might be useful to others. That is the ego of writing, I suppose, and it certainly is a driving force of my vocation as a university professor. But, writing also has a way of changing the writers, especially writing that comes with a comment box and the ability of others to link to and comment on those writings in real-time.
So, blogging has been part of my own intellectual growth. I have written in defense of things that needed defending as well as those which I was wrong to defend. The most egregious of that latter category was that I was in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I should have known better, based on my own professional knowledge of how these things tend to go. I consider it one of my professional failures that I did not see the problem from the beginning. I allowed a combination of zeal for the notion of broader democratization and misplaced trust in the Bush administration to cloud my judgment. That is likely an entire essay by itself. But it is an example of how engaging in public discourse can force an intellectually honest person to confront their own misapprehensions.
Blogging also led to a reassessment of the relationship between my profession and my personal partisan views. If my earlier blogging was my most partisan, it was also my most “conservative” (it definitely was my most pro-Republican).
A Digression into Professional Biography. Let me note that I started blogging when I was 34 years of age. That I have changed my mind on a host of things in almost two decades ought to be to my credit. I say that not an assessment, per se, that all I think now is all correct, but rather proof that I can be influenced by contemplation, argumentation, and evidence (although, by definition, I think I am more right now than I was then, although in some areas I simply less certain than I was then on a host of issues).
I have always been fascinated by politics. My first politics-related memory is missing my afternoon cartoons because my mother was watching the Watergate hearings. My truly formative political memories are gas lines and the Iran hostage crisis. I paid attention to the news from an early age. I was the nerd who listened to “All Things Considered” on his portable radio while doing homework as early as fourth grade. I was greeted by “Morning Edition” when my clock radio woke me in the morning starting in elementary school. I also was fascinated by other countries and would read the encyclopedia for funsies.
In college, I majored in political science (after a brief flirtation with economics). I was (not surprisingly given that I started at UCI in 1986) interested in US foreign policy as it pertained to the Cold War, but was also cultivated an interest in Latin America. Those two topics intersected in Central America. This transformed into an interest in why some states fall to revolutionary violence (as happened in Nicaragua and Iran in 1979). I wrote a paper that won an award on El Salvador’s guerrilla war that really started me down the academic path. My senior thesis was on revolutions in modern states and look at Poland (the rise of Solidarity and the move away from Soviet-era communism).
I went to grad school thinking I would study revolutions but eventually came to approach the question from the opposite direction: rather than asking how states fall to political violence, I became interested in the question of how states resisted falling. In a nutshell: Colombia had been an extremely violent country, but also had not succumbed to collapse (and was arguably one of the more democratic states in the region for much of the twentieth century). This led to studying democratic institutions, especially (but not exclusively) electoral rules and their consequences.
In grad school, we had to test in three fields. I chose Comparative Politics (my main area), Public Policy, and Political Theory. I consciously did not choose American Politics.
Part of this choice was because that which I wanted to study did not fit well into the American subfield. But I was also cognizant that I was choosing to study political phenomena apart from my personal political preferences. In simple terms: it would be easier to be objective and scientific about other places. In my mind, I had a rooting interest in US politics that I simply didn’t have elsewhere, so I avoided American politics as an area of study. I sort of put my partisan preferences in a box that I considered apart from my professional study of politics.
Over time, however, American politics did take on more professional centrality. Most of my early teaching was in the areas of American and Texas Politics. I scrupulously worked to be neutral in class when I taught. I also was less critical of standard narratives about American politics (including those in the academy) at that time.
The need to teach American politics course accelerated with my first tenure track position. My employment in 1998 in what at the time a very small department (when James and I started together at that time there were two and a third of us) meant having to teach a myriad of classes, some of which were in American politics (which I ended up doing from a comparative point of view). I also started several (eventually incomplete) projects on party primaries in the United States. My scholarship was focused mostly on Colombia in those days (and that topic remains important). However, my work on A Different Democracy (that I started on in 2010 and published in 2014) really crystalized a lot of thoughts about American democracy.
Work on that book (coupled with blogging, truth be told) had really started me to question some of the standard narratives of American politics (such as the efficacy of the Framers’ design of the US Constitution or even the degree to which that design was an purposive as many presuppose).
Blogging also, rather obviously, has had me focused on American government and politics since that is the news environment in which we all live and because, quite frankly, I never found much of an audience for writings on Colombian politics.
I bring this up because some recent conversations on the site suggested to me that some readers may be conflating my partisan preferences in American elections with my political science and analysis. While these things are linked, I would point out a couple of things.
First, and let me be as clear as I can here: being correct about my understanding of politics is the goal, not serving a partisan goal. This is especially true as it pertains to anything I would seek to formally publish or even represent on this site as being derived from political science. My views on the effects of electoral systems are based on decades of study and I didn’t engage in that study for partisan reasons (or to support partisan conclusions), but I engaged (and continue to engage) in that study to understand the effects of electoral rules on a polity. Indeed, my basic views of the effects of electoral institutions were the same when my partisan preferences were different (although I definitely understand electoral rules better now than I did 18 years ago).
Second, my main advocacy is for democracy and the quality thereof, not for a party or specific policy outcomes. Even more than that, I advocate for a better understanding of how democracy works and how design affects outcomes. Yes, I have policy preferences, but on balance, that is not what I write about. I have been more explicitly pro-Democrat and anti-Republican of late, especially the last five-ish years because I think that Trump and his allies in the GOP are a real threat to democracy.
Indeed, I think it is rare that I advocate for specific policy outcomes, but frequently write about the design flaws, as I see them, of our system. I rarely write about tax policy or health care, for example. When it comes to real recommendations and analyses I try to stay in my lane (although I am sure I have deviated from that at times). And, of course, some posts are just information items or topics I want to highlight.
Third, as per the above, I kind of divorced my personal politics from my political science early in my career. This has changed partly for reasons noted in the previous paragraphs. I have also become more critical of the Republican Party starting with serious problems linked to the War on Terror (especially torture and the surveillance state), the Bush administration’s bungling of Katrina, and especially the disasters that Iraq and Afghanistan ended up being. No doubt there is a lengthy essay on these issues that perhaps I will write at some point.
At my core, I am in favor of good governance and values tend to be of the classically liberal variety. These guideposts have been true my entire life, although my views as to how they can be fulfilled in the US context have changed over time.
I don’t think (although I could be mistaken) that I never directly argued that people should vote a certain way in a presidential election until Trump ran in 2016 and that was out of allegiance to democracy, not to the Democratic Party. The same could be said of 2020 and into the future, until (if?) the GOP sheds its current foray into illiberalism and opposition to democracy.
How? (Part II). So, where am I now with all of this? Well, clearly, there are plenty of words that seek to be free, and, thankfully, there are eyeballs out there willing to consume said words (so, thank you to the readers, especially ones who have gotten this far is in this lengthy navel-gazing exercise).
In some ways I am exactly where I was 18 years ago: this is an outlet for that which buzzes around in my brain. And even more than at that point in time this is (most weirdly) a way to relax. My days over the last almost five years have been consumed with being an administrator more than a professor. For various reasons, I have not taught now in over a year and haven’t taught an undergraduate since May of 2016, so this helps as an outlet.
Another way that things haven’t changed, I still like the notion that this place is a rough draft of my thoughts.
But, quite a while ago I jettisoned the notion of being a pundit, per se. I have long looked at this as a way to try and apply political science insights to ongoing politics to readers who might not otherwise get that perspective. Hence my ongoing (and perhaps at times pedantic) forays into discussions of institutions and reform. I honestly want to bring about a better understanding of politics to the general population in a way that is not possible in purely academic publication venues. And while I do take on advocacy on certain outcomes, I am mostly concerned about understanding (by which I mean comprehension, not empathy).
Granted, I am sometimes can be argumentative (and, I am sure, to the point of being annoying). But, to be fair, I am a professor by training and clearly, I would not be writing this stuff if I didn’t think I was correct! And, perhaps we can understand that sometimes is it legitimately annoying to be told I am wrong about something about which I have devoted decades of study and my interlocutor has a view formed very likely with less time and energy dedicated to their position.
But, I also learn in the process. It is another reason I keep at this. I honestly don’t know how long this will last. Quite frankly, I never would have thought it would have lasted this long. And, indeed, OTB is only one of a handful of old-school blogs that have been in continuous operation since that early first wave of blogging. I do know that it is quite likely that if I am still at it in 2039 that I will have further evolved in my views on a host of items (although at that point I expect I will be even more cantankerous).
I will conclude with a note on partisan advocacy. At the moment, and for reasons noted above, I am willing to be pretty overt on this topic. But my goal is to be political analyst not to be a partisan advocate.
Having said that, I clearly do not take a singularly scientific tone, and I will admit that means some level of mixing between objective analysis and my own normative preferences. However, I still have a hard time talking about these topics in stark, Manichean ways and hence my problems with blanket statements of “good” and “evil.” It isn’t that I don’t think good and evil exist, it is just that they are not useful categories for explanation and comprehension. They are, rather obviously, terms of normative evaluation (i.e., about value, and not about fact). So while I would acknowledge that the Nazis were evil, knowing that does not explain that how they came to power.
All of this is to say that if what people are looking at from me are purely (or even primarily) normative assessments, that isn’t what I am trying to do here. My main goal is to increase the general comprehension of how politics works based on my own comparative perspectives and multi-decade career studying these topics. And while there are normative judgments along the way, such as a clear preference for democracy and increased representativeness in American politics as well as how the Trump administration failed us in these areas, I am primarily motivated by explication.
I will admit that the form of a blog, especially in its instant reaction to the news kind of way, can still lead me down a more pundit pathway (like yesterday’s almost live-blogging of the impeachment process).
Well, time to quit, as this has gotten ridiculously long (even if there is more to say).
Onward and upward.
*Poking around the Wayback Machine shows a combination of cross-post from OTB and some PoliBlog-specific posts, mostly on Colombia, at least as late as December 2013 (at one point I thought I would reinvigorate the site with Colombia-specific content, but simply did not have the time).