Bryan interviews people he knows: political scientist Joshua Scacco

Intro

Who’s ready for Election Day to arrive? Way back in 2015, plenty were lamenting that election coverage was subject to a sort of “holiday creep,” starting earlier every four years. Of course, no matter how early Target puts up Christmas signage, we can always expect some nice gifts when Santa rolls around at the end of December: taking a temperature of the political climate a month out from the presidential election, a lot of Americans feel they’ll be getting a massive lump of coal, regardless of whether they decide to open the red or blue box.

An early memory I have of my first job as a television news producer is pulling audio off a Beta tape for an update on the Pennsylvania budget. Then-Gov. Ed Rendell was discussing the budget process, which was always something of a months-long nightmare during his two terms in office – he didn’t get along well with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, par for the course in a state that James Carville once famously described as “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle” (not “Pennsyltucky,” as he’s often misquoted).

At any rate, I remember Rendell offering his rendition on another well-recognized expression, this one tailored to the budget battle. He said (this memory is eight years old, so it’s by no means verbatim), “You know, politics is a lot like making sausage – it should ultimately taste good, but you don’t want to see how it’s made.”

While I’ve taken a political stance elsewhere, and that’s not the point of this blog, it’s safe to say many would argue that regardless of how it’s made, the ingredients, the packaging, or the sales pitch, the sausage unfortunately isn’t going to ultimately taste good this year.


Who is he?

In keeping with the loose analogy, my guest in this piece is to politics what an expert food critic is to sausage. Joshua Scacco, PhD, is a professor of media theory and politics at Purdue University. In addition to teaching, he researches topics in political communication, media and politics, online news, and presidential addresses, and focuses on the interplay of presidential communication and emergent media. You may have read or seen Scacco on Vox, CNBC, or in The Boston Globe, among other outlets.

Scacco (well, I call him Josh) and I met way back in 2000, at Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Josh always had a brilliant mind and a penchant for politics, and he and I were involved in a number of political activities and clubs during our time in high school. One indelible memory I’ll always have is finding out the World Trade Center was “struck by a helicopter” (at least, that’s what I was told on my way to class), and we watched the devastation unfold on the television in Mr. Mulholland’s American Cultures classroom in 10th grade on Sept. 11, 2011.

Josh and I conducted this interview before the first couple presidential debates and the whirlwind of weekend news coverage concerning some rather lurid hot mic comments from one of the candidates that surfaced on Friday. I hope this conversation is more substantive and edifying than the 24-hour news cycle.


Bryan interviews political scientist Joshua Scacco

Note: This interview is transcribed verbatim, but with grammatical and punctuation edits according to my own personal style guidelines.

The Republican Party has nominated a reality-TV based candidate antithetical to the position of the party since the Reagan administration, but striking a chord with disaffected portions of the electorate.

Bryan
It seems like the word “unprecedented” continues to come up over the course of this election. What makes the 2016 contest unique – if it is at all?

Joshua
A few things make this contest unique: One, a woman is heading a major party ticket, meaning gender dynamics and how we think about more masculine notions of the presidency are front-and-center; and two, the Republican Party has nominated a reality-TV based candidate antithetical to the position of the party since the Reagan administration, but striking a chord with disaffected portions of the electorate.

Bryan
The 2016 presidential candidates appear to have something of a symbiotic relationship; indeed, many consider each candidate unelectable if it wasn’t for their rival on the other side of the aisle. Why have the American people selected two candidates who are so unpalatable?

Joshua
Primary voters are a small (and unrepresentative) portion of the overall electorate, meaning they sometimes choose candidates not considered palatable to the rest of the public.

My thought is that because both candidates are unpopular, individuals – because of social desirability – may not admit publicly that they are supporting one of the two major party candidates.

Bryan
This is the first election in my lifetime that I’ve heard a multitude of people claim abstaining from voting is a better option than casting a vote for either candidate. In a one-person, one-vote system, is this a politically tenable option?

Joshua
I will be quite interested in seeing the “ballot drop-off” at the top of the ballot this year. My thought is that because both candidates are unpopular, individuals – because of social desirability – may not admit publicly that they are supporting one of the two major party candidates. I would be surprised if the ballot drop-off at the top of each ticket is noticeable.

Bryan
How much faith should we place in polling?

Joshua
Quite a bit. Good polls can genuinely gauge the mood of the electorate. However, there is always sampling error involved, in addition to the weighting pollsters do to approximate the “likely” voters who will show up on Election Day. This provides natural variation in polls. But reputable pollsters have methods to ensure that the results are a representative cross-section of the public.

Bryan
Conservatism has long held hands with evangelical Christianity. We’re seeing prominent Christians like James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, stand in Trump’s corner; others, like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, reject him. Could this be the election that severs evangelicalism from conservatism?

Joshua
Another interesting development that could happen. However, the polls suggest that evangelicals are lining up behind Trump in numbers similar to past Republican nominees.

Bryan
It’s interesting – and a bit funny, in hindsight – that you and I were in the Young Republicans Club together in high school. That was half a lifetime ago. How have your political views changed since then – and is there a core set of beliefs, standards, or values that you’ve held to??

I abide by particular ideals in a democracy – dialogue, fairness, equality, mutual respect for others, appreciation for alternative viewpoints and tolerance.

Joshua
I consider myself an Independent in the truest sense of the term. I abide by particular ideals in a democracy – dialogue, fairness, equality, mutual respect for others, appreciation for alternative viewpoints and tolerance. I assess candidates for office based on these standards.

My research training teaches me to always be skeptical, and to trust, but verify. Because of this, my ways of assessing candidates may be a little bit different than how a partisan will assess candidates.

Bryan
Is it difficult to balance your political proclivities with your obligations as a professor when you’re teaching journalism and political science?

Joshua
It is actually surprisingly easy to balance my personal beliefs and professional obligations. I respect the attitudes and beliefs of my students. I also assess candidates based on the aforementioned values I discussed and am up-front with my students about how I come to the decisions I do.

As a practice, I do not tell students who I plan to vote for or support so as to make all students feel comfortable. I try to create an atmosphere where all viewpoints can be expressed. However, opinion expression does not mean that opinions are not then interrogated by others. I actively encourage my students to challenge concepts and ideas, even when I express them.


For great insight – and some excellent witticisms – follow Joshua Scacco on Twitter (especially during the debates).

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