Has Trump really changed everything? This is the question that three professors and a former member of the Congress tried to answer at a panel celebrating the launch of Cornell’s new Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.
Speaking in Klarman Hall on Wednesday, the four panelists discussed political polarization, the dwindling of trust in institutions and the need to bridge gaps to find common ground.
Rising economic inequality, changing demographics and echo chambers in online communication “created a large group of people who feel left out and unheard,” according to one of the panelists, Prof. Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, developmental sociology. By the time the 2016 election rolled around, those people, he said, “were in need of a champion, and here comes Trump.”
Eloundou-Enyegue said that people on the political left often turn to the law, courts and the press to address their grievances.
But, “from the perspective of the right, these institutions are precisely the problem, because they are controlled and dominated by the cultural elites, so these are the institutions you should try to dismantle,” Eloundou-Enyegue said.
The other panelists agreed that national institutions were being weakened, and warned against the deepening of partisan divides.
“The unwillingness of most Republicans to challenge Trump really undermines any congressional effort to stand up for its own prerogatives,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of political science at George Washington University. “This extreme partisanship — ‘your team’s for it therefore my team must be against it’ — really undermines Congress’ legislative authority, and certainly its oversight powers.”
Prof. Kaushik Basu, economics, agreed with Binder about the problems caused by increasing political division. He also pointed out that President Trump’s “short-termism” could have severe long-term consequences on the world economy and threaten the United States’ position as the world’s strongest economy.
“Economic mistakes get corrected,” Basu, who is the current president of the International Economic Association and former chief economist of the World Bank, said. “[but] divisiveness of society, closeness of mind, making the other feel distant and far away, the spreading of hate: that disturbs me.”
Aside from extreme partisanship, panelists also expressed their concern at the increasing public distrust of science and academia. Basu urged academics to continue explaining their research despite this distrust.
However, said Eloundou-Enyegue, “there’s a little bit of arrogance in academia which seems to start with the presumption that we know what is going on, and … if people would just be wise and patient enough to listen, then everything would be fine.”
Instead, he said, academics should “start a conversation, in which you acknowledge what people feel and see and hear around them, and then you can sit together and think about how to make the situation better.”
Bearing this mission in mind, Prof. Douglas Kriner, government,who’s the faculty director of the newly established institute and the panel moderator, said that in the realm of political science, he sees the IOPGA as helping students and faculty bring their research to the outside world.
According to Kriner, the institute can bring policymakers to campus and help students and faculty interested in policy-relevant research “make that translational step” in turning their research conducted in Ithaca into something impactful for the entire world to know.
Steve Israel, former congressman for New York and director of the IOPGA, compared the institute to the members’ balcony — a place in the Capitol Building closed to the public and the press where, when congressional debates got “a little too heated,” members of Congress could “just walk out to that balcony and sit down like people and talk about … not what separated us but what brought us together,” Israel said.
Israel’s vision for the IOPGA, he said, was a replica of the balcony, where people with different political views could “deepen discourse” and “raise understanding.” He said that members of Congress often want to understand research, but often get confused by the jargon and complexity of findings that academics present at Congressional hearings.
“When I was in Congress, academics would come testify, but because I wasn’t an academic, I wasn’t really absorbing [their testimonies],” he said.
Israel hopes that IOPGA can “help academics frame a narrative that will be impactful for policymakers and help policymakers establish relationships with faculty based on trust so they can translate academic products into real action and meaningful legislation.”