Power, Politics and People: A Talk with Wayne Lesperance

As the son of a servicemember, Wayne Lesperance was exposed to the weight political decisions have on people’s lives at a young age. That experience would inspire a life’s work examining politics and power that has led him to his current work as a political science professor.

Born in Puerto Rico, where he lived until the age of 6, Lesperance experienced a different language and culture in his early years. His family then moved to Virginia Beach, where he came to appreciate the life of people who serve while living in what he refers to as a “Navy town.”

“Neighbors’ dads were deployed to hot spots around the world to deal with threats to the peace and to protect American interests,” Lesperance said. “Daily I’d look up and see U.S. Navy jets flying overhead as the pilots trained to deploy. And, of course, there was the ever present challenge of the Cold War and all that implied for all of us – especially military families. This all created a curiosity in me about our political leaders, decisions to support the military and public policy.”

In high school, Lesperance participated in programs like Model United Nations and attended Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings with his father and grandfather. Going onto college, he would work on political campaigns, thus cementing his desire to formally study politics.

In college he was pushed by his professors toward graduate work, inspiring him to start a life as an academic.

Wayne Lesperance

“I never wanted to stop learning,” Lesperance said. “Being in an academic setting allows me to never stop being a student. I am constantly reading, thinking, learning to better my own understanding of the political world. I get to share that knowledge in a classroom setting physically and virtually, which is very rewarding to me.”

Lesperance is also the director of NEC’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), a vehicle by which the school is able to involve students and the surrounding New Hampshire community in the political process. Through events that introduce students to presidential candidates ahead of the nation’s first primary and the work of the NEC Polling Institute, Lesperance and the CCE are playing an important role in New Hampshire and national politics.

“I often tell prospective students and their parents that over their four years at NEC they will get to meet the next President of the United States,” Lesperance said. “We are truly where the road to the White House begins. Since 1999, NEC has been a regular stop for presidential candidates, their surrogates, national media, issue advocates, and others associated with New Hampshire’s first in the nation presidential primary.”

We recently caught up with Lesperance to learn more about New England College’s role in the promoting engagement in the democratic process and what the future looks like for NEC’s place in the political landscape.

You’ve spoken in the past about paradigm shifts. As evidenced by what has happened around the 2016 election, a shift has occurred in this country in terms of how a significant portion of the general public feels about “establishment” candidates. What do you make of that shift and is this something that will last or fade in the years to come?

There is a significant amount of polling data that’s been warning us that voters are frustrated and angry. For progressives, there is frustration that President Obama has been unable to move forward a progressive agenda on issues like income inequality, climate change and wages. Republicans are better characterized as being angry, I’d say. They are angry at being out of the White House for the last two terms, but they are also angry at members of their own party for not being more effective against President Obama. That frustration and anger has led to successful efforts by Sen. Sanders and Mr. Trump. It appears at this point that the establishment will weather the frustration on the democratic side. But, for Republicans, all signs point to a real upheaval of the establishment with the increasingly likely nomination of Mr. Trump. Will it last? Hard to say at this point. It is quite the remarkable set of events this cycle.

As director of NEC’s Center for Civic Engagement, you are in control of a unique vehicle for connecting students to the political process. Tell us a little bit more about your work with the CCE and its ability to get young people involved.

NEC students organize town hall meetings with the candidates, introduce them to the audience, and often are able to meet privately with the candidates. We also organize an event called the New Hampshire Primary Student Convention, which brings together 1,000 students from across the country for three days of political conventioneering with presidential candidates just days before the New Hampshire Primary.

Our approach is to develop citizen scholars – students whose learning in the classroom is heavily supplemented by experiential learning.

The Center for Civic Engagement’s efforts are focused on the Presidential primary. But, we also have a polling institute that conducts political polls on all types of races ranging from the presidential to gubernatorial to congressional. Our students also bring speakers to campus and promote discussions focused on the issues of the day.

An article from the Washington Post noted last year that we often hear about millennials being disengaged and disillusioned with the political system, but technology and particularly social media are playing an important role in getting this age group engaged on political issues. What do you think of this? And in your work, does the CCE or NEC Polling Institute use social media in its effort to increase engagement?

It depends on how we measure engagement. Young voters vote least. It’s an unfortunate reality. But, they engage in other ways. Young people are eager to volunteer their time to support efforts in the community. The data tells us that young people are willing to roll their sleeves up and help with a local cause. Our challenge is to get them to connect that community service to their civic responsibility and encourage greater participation in the electoral process.

Social media has played an important role for students who are interested in politics, the media, and causes that matter to them. They are able to connect with leading voices in all of these areas and to comment back to them. It’s breathtaking to see how quickly a tweet or post or Snapchat video can go viral carrying a message or call to action.

Speaking of the NEC Polling Institute, the group has looked at our political landscape through a lot of different lenses. Can you tell us a little about what led to the creation of the Polling Institute and why the research it conducts is significant?

The NEC Poll was created in response to a need we had here in New Hampshire. At the time there was one polling outfit associated with the University of New Hampshire. A number of political operatives from both parties began to express concerns that there wasn’t another polling outfit to confirm or contest those results. We began our polling efforts to provide that voice. In past election cycles the NEC Poll has been featured in local, regional and national news outlets. It was also praised by noted pollster Nate Silver for its accuracy.

In early 2016, NEC hosted presidential town hall meetings with every major candidate in the lead up to the New Hampshire primary. What do events like that do to captivate the students’ attention and inspire them to get involved in politics?

It’s easy to sit back and let politics happen. Most Americans have next to no ability to connect directly with a campaign or a candidate for President. At NEC, our students not only get to experience the presidential campaign cycle, they get to be part of it! Imagine being able to ask Donald Trump why he’s running for President? Imagine pushing Bernie Sanders to explain how he will pay for his free college plan? These questions and more were asked of every major candidate running for President by NEC students. It’s quite rewarding to speak with them after the town halls and hearing their excitement or to see them calling their parents or friends and bragging that they just got to hang out with a presidential candidate. It’s pretty cool!

What opportunities, if any, do you see for online students to get involved in the efforts of the CCE and the Polling Institute? In what way can they engage politically through NEC?

Going forward we will be able to stream all of our events live and invite online students to join a virtual audience – asking questions on their own. We are all NEC, after all. So, we’d love to have online students joining us as well!

How do you envision NEC’s role as an advocate for active participation in the democratic process growing in the future?

We continue to focus on preparing citizen scholars and promoting active citizenship among all members of our community – including students. I expect we will continue to host Presidential candidates in town hall meetings and at our student convention. We will host gubernatorial and congressional debates. I am also excited to begin work on hosting our very own Presidential debate too. But, we are also working on expanding internship opportunities, guest speaker programs, and study-away efforts in places like Washington, D.C., where students will have additional opportunities to engage the democratic process.

Through the first few primary and the caucus states of 2016, we saw results outside of the margin of error for many polls. What is it about this election that is making predictions difficult for pollsters? Could it lead different statistical models or methods of gathering data in the future?

I don’t think the issue this cycle has been the statistical models as much as it has been the analysis of the data. We’ve had a lot of pundits underestimate the frustration and anger in the electorate and underestimate candidates like Trump who have tapped into that anger. For example, Mr. Trump has led in national polling and in the early states since the mid-summer. Pundits, however, regularly discounted the data claiming to know better. Based on the early states’ results their analysis was wrong … not the numbers.

You’ve co-authored two books about power politics, one focusing on the Persian Gulf and another looking specifically at 21st century politics. What do you mean by power politics and what is it that inspired you to write about those policies?

Power, fundamentally, is about how decisions are made. Who makes them, who wins or loses, and the decisions themselves are all shaped by actors that are wielding power more or less effectively. What I’ve written about takes particular areas – the Persian Gulf region – or organizations like the UN and NATO and seeks to understand their roles in wielding power. In a forthcoming book, I have a chapter that focuses on the origins of the Islamic State. That chapter is all about a power vacuum leading to the formation of the IS. I am fascinated by how decisions are made whether on the global stage or in a local election. How power is wielded to make those decisions is of particular interest to me.

Looking ahead, are there any events coming up on the CCE or NEC Polling Institute’s calendar that you’re looking forward to?

We are currently working to organize a debate series focused on our upcoming U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and Governor’s races. NEC students will once again be at the forefront of those efforts! That will be very exciting.

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