Political Persuasion

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By Hattie Bernstein

Anyone who thinks politics is about mudslinging, manipulation and money should take a class or have a conversation with Civic Scholar Dean Spiliotes, who teaches in the School of Arts and Sciences.

"My general philosophy is that it's the interaction between institutional design and political behavior," he says, defining politics with a question. "You have to ask, 'What is this institution’s strength? Why did it evolve?'"

A frequent contributor to New Hampshire Public Radio's "The Exchange," Spiliotes taught presidential politics at Dartmouth College and was a full-time blogger for two years before being named the SNHU Civic Scholar in 2009.

Over the years, Spiliotes has also become a familiar voice on public radio.

"Dean and I both started looking at New Hampshire politics in 1995," says Laura Knoy, host of New Hampshire Public Radio's "The Exchange" since it began 15 years ago. "Over the years, he's kept us on track, focusing on what the candidate is saying, why he’s saying it and why it really matters."

A Proclivity for Politics

Spiliotes, who grew up in Blue Point, N.Y., credits his older brother for sparking his interest in politics.

The two watched the national conventions on TV, and politics was often the topic of conversation around the family dinner table.

"It became a lifelong interest," Spiliotes says.

He was elected class president in junior high and served on the student council in high school. After his sophomore year, he spent two summers as an intern in a political science program at Georgetown University.

By the time he was a freshman in college, Spiliotes was well on his way to a career on Capitol Hill, launched with an internship in the office of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), whose staff included press secretaries Tim Russert and Mike McCurry.

"I'd be in the gallery watching the debates, listening, soaking up the process," Spiliotes says.

Picking a Path
After college, Spiliotes returned to Capitol Hill as a legislative aide for a large law firm.

"At the end, I had a decision to make. Should I be a journalist? Work on the Hill? Or go to graduate school? I decided to take another crack at academia," he says.

Graduate study at the University of Chicago, where Spiliotes earned his master's degree and doctorate, became the "gateway" to his future.

In Class: A Bias-Free Zone

In the classroom, Spiliotes shows his students how to analyze politics using tools rather than emotions.

"They understand how the machine works," he says.

Indeed, students often tell him they have no idea where he stands on issues, or which candidates he favors.

It's an approach that puts students, and anyone else who engages in a conversation about politics with Spiliotes, at ease.

Observes Knoy, "You never get a sense when he’s talking politics that he’s passing judgment."

Over the years, Spiliotes says his students have gone on to work "in every political walk of life," another tribute to his ability to teach students how, not what, to think.

At the same time, Spiliotes is stretching the boundaries of higher education.

"It's a learning experience for me," he says, making reference to classes he taught at Dartmouth and St. Anselm colleges. "I started with the traditional liberal arts model, great ideas. But the students coming here are much more diverse. They’re going in a lot of different directions. Rather than bend to the traditional model, what I do is help them with what they want, help them make sense of what they need to learn."

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