Episode 12: Restoring Confidence in Government

We have a special guest in studio today, Dr. Ravi Roy - a professor of Political Science and in the Master of Public Administration program. We talk about the political discourse in our current climate and how that affects the way people feel about government.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everybody, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined as always by the president of Southern Utah University, Scott L Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: One of my favorite things about working in Higher Education is that you get to rub shoulders with some truly outstanding academic minds. Brilliant people that are far smarter than I am, not only about their subject, but probably about everything else too. [All laugh] And our guest in-studio today certainly fits that description, and I'm going to let you introduce him.

Wyatt: Yes, I knew you weren't talking about me. [Laughter] I knew you were talking about Dr. Roy. So we have as our guest Dr. Ravi Roy. Dr. Roy had the opportunity on our campus to deliver an A.P.E.X. lecture as an outstanding and distinguished faculty member on rebuilding public trust, and that speech can be found on our website undersuu.edu/apex. And we have two things in common. We've both lived in Cedar City, and we've both lived in Australia. [Laughter]

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: So, why don't you tell us a little bit about your…where you've been in your career. You're part of our Political Science Department and teach in the Master of Public Administration program…

Dr. Ravi Roy: Thank you. Well after that introduction, I'm blushing. [Laughter] So as you know, Scott, my father taught Political Science for fifty years, so I kind of walked into a family business. [All laugh] And as I shared in the A.P.E.X. talk that I gave, my father was a left-wing, very progressive professor in the 1960s. More toward the Martin Luther King back in the day. And so I kind of took a little bit of a different road, a little more moderate right than he did in some ways. And so my colleague Dan Swanson always said, "Do you think you took that road to kind of 'stick it to the old man?'" And I said, "No…I think maybe…but I think it had more to do with we were allowed to think, and encouraged to think independently and I think that's more what it comes from." And so in my own teaching career, I've really tried to encourage a diversity of opinion, a diversity of thought, and a dynamic and constant discussion. For my own career, I took my PhD almost 20 years ago now when I think about it, and started teaching political science [and] public administration. That led me to my first tenure track job here about fourteen years ago. And then we left and went back to L.A., then to Australia for a few years where we were in tenure, and then just couldn't stay away, Scott, and came back to Cedar and we're happiest for it. [All laugh] So that's kind of been my…

Wyatt: So you've done a lot of research and teaching, writing about discourse. Civil discourse in America, where we're headed, how we found our way here, and maybe some solutions to that, but why don't you first give us your observation?

Roy: Yeah, so I am deeply concerned on a personal level with where we are in the state of the Republic in the 21st century. And it turns out, as you well know as a historian buff yourself, that these were concerns that go all the way back to the Founding and even before that. And so it was no accident that I drew on Madison a couple of times during my A.P.E.X talk about the concern about factionalism and the propensity that we as human beings have to put our passions and our emotions to work in the way that we relate to one another and the way that we discourse with one another. But that has a negative effect too, potentially, if we don't temper that and recognize our own biases and our own limitations, our own limitations of self-awareness. When we start to simply surround ourselves in the echo chamber, whether this is academically or socially or whatever, and refuse to let other ideas, including those we disagree with, allow us to engage with them. And I always share with my students that I want to introduce them to diversity of ideas. Not because I want to change them—I don't want to force them to change their ideas—but rather, if they end up engaging with different ideas with fidelity and they come to the conclusion that they're still right, maybe even with stronger conviction, they hold on to what they originally believe, but at least now…at least they've gone through baptism by fire. At least they've been able to sort of flush them out and understand why it is that they think the way they do rather than, "just because."

Wyatt: Yeah. So it sometimes feels that today in our discourse, I know more what political parties are against than I know what they're for. And how does that shape the way we feel about our government today?

Roy: That's an excellent question. I think it's reflective of the general cynicism that exists within the Republic. And it's interesting because the data shows that generally speaking, not just here but in other industrial democracies, people still have a lot of faith in democratic systems on an abstract level. Democratic processes…but like I mention also in my A.P.E.X. speech, we're not alone here in America with utter contempt for the result of what those democratic processes create. [Laughter] Which is the irony. But that has its own danger, because if we don't like the result, then ultimately, we resort to the kind of politics that we have now that it's just expedient to simply paint the other side as so unacceptable and so intolerable in the most vitriolic language that "you have no choice but to vote for me." And then of course they get elected, and now that venom is very much a part of the current of the political environment. And then we wonder why they can't get anything done. And then we…of course, we come back and say, "See, we told you government can't get anything done." I quoted P.J. O'Rourke, the satirist, in my talk…if you look at how the different parties regard each other—the people within them, people on the right would look at democrats and say, "Democrats think that government can make you smarter, taller, better looking, richer, and remove the crab grass in your front lawn." Well obviously, that's not a very charitable characterization of how democrats…what their position is. On the other hand, he says, "Republicans think that government can't do much at all and then get elected to prove it." [All laugh]

And so the truth of the matter is, there are a lot of republicans who believe that government can do a lot of good and they do dedicate their life to that cause. I think some of the best ones we've had are right here in Utah, which is why I dedicated the entire talk to Senator Bob Bennett. Because he embodies to me, his career, someone who believed in the value of listening to diversity of opinion, championing important causes like civil rights, willing to take a stand against party when necessary, abiding with party when it made sense, building consensus and cohesion not only within the state of Utah but his leadership across the country, and when he felt that the party and the country was moving in the wrong direction, had the guts to say something about it. And it cost him dearly. And when he was questioned later on about whether it was worth it, he said something I'll never forget. According to Salt Lake City Tribune on the interview, "Some things are more important than political party." And I wish a lot more people on both sides of the political fence felt that way. When Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan used to go head to head on policy issues—and I mean it got mean at times—but it was never personal. And they always regarded themselves, each other, as good friends. Two Irishmen who just had that grit that were just going to go political task when they needed to over policy issues that they deeply believed, and then found comprise. I mean, they ended up saving entitlements together. Neither one got exactly what they wanted, but Medicare was saved despite all the fear mongering that when the republicans came into presidency that it was all going to…it didn't. It was saved. And they did it together, and tough political fights are not a bad thing. But when it becomes personal and we start attacking people, that's where the problem comes in.

Meredith: Yeah, if you're unwilling or unable to go to dinner with someone after that fight, then it's a problem.

Roy: Exactly.

Wyatt: So, we start out with…if I…let's see if we're following this flow right. So we start out with an increasing negative rhetoric, and not negative about the issues as much as the people. And as that continues to grow, our ability to work together to try to see each other's perspective continues to drop. And then, once a person gets elected based on this kind of a personal, cynical kind of approach, our expectations go up, but they're never quite met. And so cynicism breeds more cynicism breeds more cynicism, and personal insults continue to grow and eventually we lose the ability the come together and we become more fractured as a society. Is that fair?

Roy: That's fair. Yeah, that's fair. And I think the larger issue behind all of this is recognizing our own limitations as human beings. About our own expectations and how those exceptions work. For example, I talked about in one of the groups after the A.P.E.X. talk, let's just take 9/11 for example. It was amazing to me in some ways how the country gelled together with a broad consensus of coming together, and that was beautiful to see out of a horrific tragedy. On the other hand, it didn't take long for the speculation to start pointing fingers over whose fault this was. Those on the right were blaming Bill Clinton. "They should have known because of what happened at the World Trade Center with the individual bomber a few years back with the bombing of the ship in Yemen. They should have known and this was all…and had Al Gore been there, we would have been in really bad shape." And then I don't think the left gave George W. Bush enough credit for, here was a guy that was blindsided out of nowhere, and had to come up with something kind of on the quick of how to address it. And both sides I think we're uncharitable. And then we ended up with a legislation call the Patriot Act, which I haven't read so I don't want to critique it, but I will critique the process in which it was adopted. And that's the fact that nobody…very few people as I understand actually read it when they passed it.

Wyatt: So you're not the only one who hasn't read it? [All laugh] The people who voted for it hadn't read it either. 

Roy: And that's concerning. On the other hand, imagine government where the people are saying, "Government was asleep at the wheel, why didn't they protect us?" And the decisive action that was taken…I'm not going to say that it was effective or efficient, I'm not going to make a normative judgment on it—I'll let history decide that. But if you think about it, every other industrial democracy had a ministry of home affairs or an internal ministry or whatever, and we just, because of our suspicion of going back to the Founding, we never had it. And we get an Office of Homeland Security within a few weeks? And then congress wants to rise up a Department of Homeland Security, we have a brand new department…

Meredith: So an enormous expenditure?

Roy: An enormous expenditure, an enormous bureaucracy. TSA (Transportation Security Administration). Now it looks like, "Ok, at least government's paying attention." And how do we respond to that? "Oh, my rights are being trampled." "Oh, look at the lines at TSA…look at how incompetent those TSA officers are." So it's like, on the other hand, we have to look at ourselves and say, "Wait a minute, are we being fair?" And what about our own expectations? Now, I'm not saying that all of these government agencies are working perfectly or anything like that. What I'm saying is these agencies were developed out of pressure from us. And then we're the ones that complain about the job that they're doing, but how much of the solution are we contributing? I mean, it's easy to burn down a barn. A barn raising takes a community.

Wyatt: We had a lot of revolutionaries at the beginning of this country that couldn't find a way to help build a country. They…they're some of our great, revolutionary individuals, and are the names we know well, but they couldn't build anything. You said something interesting earlier about how the greater our dependence on government becomes and the more and more we expect from them, the less satisfied we naturally are. Would you comment about that?

Roy: Yeah. I think, again, it has to do with our polyphrenic or schizophrenia about our own expectations. I think there are some paradoxes built into the way we look at many things. Politics is perhaps among the most salient. Our reaction to political figures and their policies is largely emotional. If—I'm going to use the most uncharitable language, not because I believe this language, but just to illustrate the point—those on the left call the current administration extreme, populist, if not fascist right wing leadership. Those on the more extreme right were looking at [the] Bernie Sanders campaign and calling that…calling him a communist. Now, once you give those labels within the context of the American discourse, you can't have a conversation across left and right if you're using those labels to characterize those with whom you disagree. But if you look at an issue, like for example, free trade and globalization, policy-wise at least as they were talking about it within the course of the campaign, using the language of…using that harsh language and rhetoric, there is no hair's difference between a right wing populist fascist, and a left wing communist. They are exactly…and so it's hardly any surprise that those that were disappointed with the failure of the Bernie campaign, Bernie Sanders' campaign, voted for Trump. I mean, the simple truth is, he would not have been elected if there hadn't been people who jumped partisan lines and voted for him.

Wyatt: From the left to the right? 

Roy: Yes.

Wyatt: As if they touch as a circle, rather than a line?

Roy: On that issue, yeah. Issue by issue, yeah. I mean, I'm not trying to in any way downplay the racist rhetoric that exists on one side versus the other side, or the xenophobic rhetoric, but I'm saying, if we're just looking at policy and we're willing to have a discussion about policy, that's a very different kind of conversation.

Wyatt: Well, and there are other things that are feeding into this. I was intrigued by your comment about isolation. Individual isolation and community isolation…would you say something about that briefly?

Roy: Absolutely.  So one of the things I show in my class is a fourth of July cartoon that was in the 1800s of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. And you can see the dynamic discourse of people handing out flyers and having conversations and it's a really enlivened cartoon. And then I juxtapose that to a town center that is, instead of a public square, it's a parking lot. It's got beautiful buildings, it's got a beautiful bell tower, it looks a lot like the motif of…well it's actually a more Italian style…but it's kind of more indicative of what we have today. But the spaces have very different meanings. In one, it's about public ownership, where free and open discourse can occur. And in the other one, I took a picture of one of the signs they have on one of the columns there on one of the buildings that says, "No excessive staring, no conversation above this…no smoking, no this, no that."

Wyatt: No skateboarding. [All laugh]

Roy: No skateboarding. It's a controlled space for a purpose of commerce. And so you can see that the meaning of space has changed. And one has moved from the citizen, which is empowered—every citizen is empowered, every citizen is equal—to the consumer, which empowerment is different as a consumer. It has to do with my pocketbook or the credit that I have, maybe not even the cash I have anymore. And so I have different rights and a different role as a consumer in that space. But what's even more concerning now is we don't even have that. What we have now is Amazon. Where now, I just sit from the comfort of my home and I don't even go out to shop. And I just sit in my home and I order something and it comes. So I don't even have the opportunity to go out as a consumer, let alone as a citizen, to engage in a public space. Shopping malls are closing…this is problematic.

Wyatt: Back in the mid-nineteenth century, one of the biggest events in a town would be a speech. Political speeches were these…people would…like Edward Everett who ran as a vice president candidate in the 1860 election but had been the president of Harvard and was the guy that delivered the two hour speech at Gettysburg. Imagine that? People actually sat and listened to someone give a speech for two hours. And he was famous all over the country. We had all these people that would go out and give speeches, we had lyceums where people would come tougher and have speeches. And today, we sit in our basements and listen to the talk radio and instead of going out to plays as much as we used to, we stay home and watch it on television or Netflix and as you said, we're staying home to do our shopping instead of going to malls and circulating with other people. It does seem like we're becoming more isolated as individuals. And our discussion and engagement is more isolated. Is that part of what you're saying?

Roy: I think that's exactly true. And I think that that's the heart of a lot of this.

Wyatt: We have disagreements, and we haven't developed a way of talking those through. We haven't developed the relationships with other sides. And the political rhetoric continues to make relationships worse and worse and worse. Because how do you sit down with somebody and negotiate when you've just spent the last nine months in an election process saying that they're one step beyond the devil. The evil incarnate. And it's really interesting Steve from your side that as a musician, you're not even getting together with the band to record.

Meredith: No. The last several albums I've been involved in, I have done entirely…I haven't met the drummer that played or I haven't met whoever it was that played on my album because I didn't…it was financially expedient not to do so. It was far easier for me to just send them tracks and say, "Hey, will you play from letter A to letter C, will you just play to here?" And it's a good way to make music financially, but it's not the same experience as spending a bunch of time in the studio with people and bouncing ideas off one another. And the anonymity of being at home and in front of a computer screen calling somebody the devil versus being in the room and calling them those same names has…I think that's done a great deal to increase the level of vitriol. The hyperbole that we use in that expression that that distance allows us is problematic, as you said.

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, and we don't even walk as much. One of the things I try to do is walk to work every day so that I can walk through campus and say hi to people and visit on my way in and my way out, as opposed to driving to a parking lot and then sneaking into my building as efficiently as I can.

Roy: Yeah.

Wyatt: But one of our goals as a university…Southern Utah University has clearly stated, as many universities have in their mission statement and strategic plan, that one of our goals is to prepare students for the democracy in which we give them. And we're striving to do that, aren't we?

Roy: Absolutely. And I always try to remind people that we're not a pure democracy. We're not meant to be a pure democracy. We're a republic with some democratic institutions to…

Wyatt: It's a form of democracy.

Roy: It's a form of democracy. But it's a…the ultimate aim is liberty. And the democracy part is the means to that end. And we have to be careful because the democracy part…if that gets too emphasized above all else, then we can end up in a passion driven, individualistic, centric political discourse. So I always try to emphasize that we have to worry about the Republic and the stability of the Republic. You know, a lot of our ideas of liberty and freedom and values were borrowed from the French and we institutionalized them in our Constitution. On the other hand, they've had five republics, five constitutions, [and] we've had one. And that's both humbling and something we should be proud of at the same time. IT's precious, but it's fragile. And to give in to the passions that go along with completive democracy and processes, I think we have to, again, come back and ask, "What is this all for? What is the ultimate aim here?" There cannot be a stable republic without a broad consensus. One of the points that I made very strongly in my A.P.E.X. talk was a lot of this has to do with the erosion of the middle class. We've seen the rise of the middle class in many of the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, and China and developing countries, while simultaneously we have watched the erosion of the middle class in industrial countries, not the least of which in this one. We simply cannot have a bourgeois democratic republic if you do not have a bourgeois middle class that has the idea that one generation does better than the other. It builds stability into it, it builds a sense of commitment, and a sense of certainty and stability. And globalization has not treated all countries fairly. And one of the reason why you see the rise of populism in this country—and populism in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but again tempered—is because of this uncertainty. The middle class very understandably insecure. Globalization…the inability the government to protect us from things like terrorism. International global terrorism that originates from abroad. The inability of our government nation-state to protect us from financial crises that originate, again, abroad. Or within and then move abroad and vice versa. But just the idea that we are not protected. This has also created a large cynicism about what government can and can't do. But again, I just come back to it. Government effectiveness in a democracy, [a] democratic republic, depends upon the mandate of the people. And when that mandate and that trust is not forthcoming, then government will be impotent. It relies on the mandate of the people. If that mandate isn't there, because people's trust isn't there, then how can it claim…how can it make bold initiatives? How can it do good things? A healthy dose of cynicism is a good thing and has kept us free to be sure. Our separation of powers is testimony to that, but on the other hand, our government is not paralyzed. Paralyzed because two sides aren't willing to talk to each other to compromise and build a broad consensus. Paralyzed because we don't have a lot of faith in government. And then we're surprised when government can't do what we expect it to do.

Wyatt: So one of the main solutions and our opportunity here at a university, and opportunities for people everywhere, is to find a way to bring back discourse, to become less isolated in our conversations, to be less critical of people and focus more on ideas, and just build back some respect one for another. I look forward to the time when I hear…when I get into an election cycle and hear candidates who say, "I'm not going to criticize the other party or my opponent—those in the other party—because if I get elected, I'm going to need to work with them and I want to start out with a good relationship, rather than destroy it." [Laughter]

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring President Scott L Wyatt of Southern Utah University. We've been delighted and honored to have as our guest in-studio today Dr. Ravi Roy, a professor of Political Science at Southern Utah University. Thanks so much for listening, we'll be back again soon. Bye bye.