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Power of the Pen
With his latest book, a Villanova professor aims to get the Dems’ “party started.”

In some countries, it takes street riots and Kalashnikovs to change a nation’s politics. Matt Kerbel is hoping a book can help roll back the Republican red tide from the United States’ political map.

This past spring, Kerbel, a 48-year-old Villanova University political science professor, published Get This Party Started: How Progressives Can Fight Back and Win (Rowman & Littlefield, 224 pages), an anthology of essays from a diverse group of 13 leading liberal—he would say “progressive”—thinkers, all riffing on how the Democratic Party can win. “The term ‘liberal’ has become so effectively branded as Godless, weak and anti-American,” Kerbel writes, “that today’s liberals are wise to rally around the term ‘progressive.’”

The authors, who range from Web bloggers to political heavyweights with names you know, write about everything from closing the gender gap to campaigning online. Howard Dean wrote a jihadist foreword, characterizing the Right as “not nice people” and urging readers to “get to work.”

The book, says Kerbel, was a response to his fear after the 2004 elections that Democrats—by default, the closest the country has to a progressive movement—would spend the following four years pointing fingers of blame at each other, and then lose again. He wanted to help knit the party together.

“Despite the differences that we read about in the press,” says Kerbel, “there is far more agreement than disagreement among the insiders and grass roots folk.”

On one side are elected officials and the lobbyists, campaign managers and hangers-on who serve them; on the other, regular folks who make heavy use of the Internet to raise money and campaign. Both sides, he says, favor things like universal healthcare coverage, a living wage and a multi-lateral foreign policy.

“The commonly heard story that lefty bloggers are trying to move the party back to its McGovern days is really a huge struggle over power,” says Kerbel. “Between those who are invested in the status quo—who make alliances with powerful interest groups—and those who have never been a part of that.”

Kerbel is solidly with the “small d” Democrats, but thinks the real-world clout of the insiders is useful and should not be casually discarded.

Policy Wonk
Get This Party Started is Kerbel’s first involvement in national-level politics. A former “Deaniac,” he doesn’t count his January 2004 foray to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Dean’s primary effort that year. “I consider that private political action, the sort of thing a citizen does,” he says.

As an academic, he always approached politics in a detached and theoretical sort of way. Starting back in the 1980s, for instance, Kerbel has spoken at least annually to audiences of policy geeks on themes like “Three Honeymoons: Understanding Differences in the Outcomes of Domestic Policy Endeavors During the Carter, Reagan, and Bush Honeymoon Periods” and “Television News Frames and Informed Political Choice: A Longitudinal Analysis of U.S. Elections.”

“I’m a wonk,” he grins.

But a wonk with a pretty savvy understanding of how politics and modern communications work. A former news writer, Kerbel forsook a career in broadcasting in the 1980s after working for PBS in New York. The experience may have left him permanently scarred.

“I had an opportunity to work for CNN, but had seen enough of the media to know I wasn’t cut out to work in television news,” he recalls. “So I applied to graduate programs in political science, was admitted to the University of Michigan and have never looked back.”

Kerbel earned his Ph.D. in 1987 and has been at Villanova since 2000. He and his wife, Adrienne, a product manager for Siemens, have an 8-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. In summarizing his newsroom experience, he uses the terms “sleazy” and “nasty,” but says the reality was worse.

In 1999, Kerbel published If It Bleeds, It Leads, a look at how TV news keeps viewers with vacuous feel-good stories, sexual titillation and fear. Included was his fundamental rule for getting on television: “It’s a pretend medium. That means it’s OK to tell a reporter you’re scared even when you aren’t, as long as you keep it to four seconds.”

Bottom line: Kerbel is aware of how easily the news media—particularly broadcast media—can manipulate viewers, and wanted Democrats to be as good as Republicans at creating and controlling the message. “[Get This Party Started] drew on my background,” he concedes.

Contributors to the book include syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, who told Democrats to take some risks and stand for something; Washington Monthly editor Amy Sullivan, who advises firing the consultants who keep losing elections; and Zephyr Teachout, former director of Dean’s Internet campaign, who expounds on the Web’s superiority as a tool for involving citizens, rather than turning them into TV spectators. Former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta contributes a chapter focusing on core messages such as strengthening the middle class.

“The media narrative says progressives don’t know what we stand for,” says Kerbel. “I hope to put an end to that narrative.”

For the record, Kerbel has predicted a “Category 4-5” political storm on Election Day, with Democrats picking up 35 House seats and another six in the Senate. We’ll know soon.