Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Slate writer in residence puts today’s politics in historical context

Slate writer Jamelle Bouie Slate writer Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine, often looks to the past to explain the present.

“My hobbyist interest in American history has centered my thinking in terms of ‘this can’t be the first time something like this has happened so what like this happened before and what lessons can we pull from it to help us explain what is happening now’,” Bouie said during Professor Pam Herd’s Policy Analysis class April 5.

Bouie spent three days on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus as the writer in residence for the La Follette School of Public Affairs, the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and University Communications. He spoke with several Journalism and La Follette School classes and two student groups.

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Bouie recalled his reporting on the riots in Baltimore in April 2015. “My immediate reaction was to start reading about Baltimore and talking to scholars who have written about Baltimore,” he said.

Eva Vasiljevic, a first-year master of public affairs student, appreciated hearing from Bouie. “Talking with him was a great opportunity for us to get insight on current issues and on his writing process,” Vasiljevic said. “He emphasized how important it is for him to put today's political topics into a historical context.”

Bouie’s path to journalism began with a blog he launched while completing bachelor degrees in political and social thought and in government. The 2008 presidential election was in full swing, and Virginia was in the midst of some important legislative elections, he said.

Bouie continued his blog after the elections and landed a fellowship at The American Prospect in 2010 before joining The Daily Beast and then Slate. In addition to politics, he writes about housing policy and other topics that broadly fall under the umbrella of racial inequality.

His undergraduate studies influence his political coverage “in a sense that I may not be as granular as some of my colleagues,” Bouie said, adding that his reporting tends to be a mixture of news and academic or historical knowledge.

“The rise of Donald Trump, for example, my approach was never ‘can Donald Trump win’,” he said. “My mind immediately went to ‘what are antecedents of this, what does this mean’ – broad ideas.”

Bouie also spoke with students in Professor Jason Fletcher’s Health Policy class and participated in a panel discussion with UW-Madison Political Science Professors Barry Burden and Katherine Cramer. La Follette School Professor Don Moynihan moderated the discussion less than 24 hours after Ted Cruz won the state’s Republican primary and Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary.

During his presentations, Bouie referenced his perspective as a black southerner who went to a public university and intertwined humor in his answers to student questions, calling the current no-compromise political environment a “garbage fire.”

Bouie admitted that when he agreed to visit campus as a writer in residence, he wasn’t aware that Wisconsin’s presidential primary was taking place at the same time. The timing proved fortuitous as students and faculty posed questions about the possibility of a contested Republican convention, Hiilary Clinton’s popularity among black voters, Bernie Sanders’ appeal among young voters, potential vice president candidates, his tweets about comics, and various other topics.

When asked about the political writers he reads, Bouie mentioned several from The American Conservative and the National Review.

“I’m left of center so I should say that I think all of these people are wrong. But it’s precisely because I think they’re wrong that I think they’re worth reading,” he said. “I’m coming from an almost fundamentally different place not just ideologically but socially as well in terms of my cultural identity.”

He continued: “It’s useful to read people who exist outside of that. Confronting the fact that you yourself are hyper-particular and not in the least bit universal is a very useful exercise to do on a regular basis. It keeps you grounded, I think.”

Funding for the writer-in-residence program is provided by the University of Wisconsin FoundationWisconsin Eye provided live-streaming and video-recording for the post-election panel discussion.