Season 5 - Episode 542
How can citizens, in this political environment, approach politics from a healthy viewpoint and form opinions about complex issues? David Corey, professor of political science and director of the Baylor in Washington program, tackles these topics and more in this Baylor Connections. Dr. Corey examines healthy ways to view the role of politics and shares steps that allow people to better consider their own opinions, and those of others— promoting civil discourse and understanding.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith. And today we are talking about civil and productive dialogue around the midterm elections with Dr. David Corey. Dr. Corey serves as director of the Baylor in Washington program, and is professor of political science at Baylor. He joined the Baylor faculty in 2002 and became a part of the Baylor in Washington program in 2015, later taking on the role of director. He's a two-time recipient at Baylor's Outstanding Teaching Award in 2008 and 2018, and was twice recognized by the Baylor student government as faculty member of the year. The Baylor in Washington program extends Baylor's campus into our nation's capital, providing students with opportunities to serve in Washington, expanding Baylor's research and mission into important conversations, and providing a model for charitable discourse through conversations and programming designed to bridge political, ideological and theological divides. Well, I think people listening might know we certainly need some of that, Dr. Corey. And I thank you for taking the time to talk about these topics and more with us today.
David Corey:Derek, it's always great to talk to you. Thank you for having me.
Derek Smith:Great to visit with you. And you mentioned as we were getting started that you're on a research sabbatical right now. Where are some of the places, if we were to take a look at your calendar or get to follow you around, what are some of the things we might get to find you doing or places you're going during that?
David Corey:Oh, that's a fun question. I just got back from Washington. I live in Waco. I was in Washington over the past few days giving a talk on Anglicanism, the public square. I happen to be an Anglican, that's my denomination. Before that, yes, I was leading a panel in Washington on the topic of the fragility of the young generation for Baylor in Washington. And next week I'm up to Boston to give lectures at two different schools up there, one on politics and friendship, and another on how Americans understand what politics is.
Derek Smith:That's exciting. Well, we look forward to seeing the fruits of that as you work. And what will the fruits of some of this time be for you?
David Corey:Well, I'm writing a book. And so these trips to give talks are fruitful in so far as I can convince people to let me speak on things I'm writing about, rather than other things. And I am writing a book about how Americans understand politics, what it is, and I look at some rival ways I think we conceptualize what it is, but the main point of the book is to convince my readers that politics is not well understood as a form of war. In other words, war without weapons, but that essentially politics is about friends and enemies and trying to win total victory over your enemies. I'm trying to convince readers that that's not a healthy way to understand what politics is, and it's really unsustainable.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm.. How difficult of a challenge is that? I think when we think about the way it's portrayed in media, social media, otherwise, that's very prevalent these days.
David Corey:It is everywhere. And sometimes I do lose heart when I have conversations with people and I'm just not able to persuade them to back off and to think about political association in longer term, more healthy ways. I don't think I can convince everyone, and that's always a humbling insight for a teacher, but I think about most of the very important things, your best power is to persuade one-on-one. Like, we're having this conversation here, people are listening in, but I can see you and you can see me. And that's a really fruitful way to have political discourse. It's worse when we don't see each other and don't know each other. And that's why, of course, you know what I'm going to say, is that's why social media is such a bad forum for talking about political differences.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. David Corey. And Dr. Corey, you are on sabbatical, not so much in the classroom at this very moment in time, but you've spent many, many times, election cycles or otherwise, with your students. How teachable of an opportunity is each election for you with your students, and do you find there's more good or bad to share in class example-wise?
David Corey:Oh, thanks for the question. My answer may shock you and your listeners, I rarely speak directly to an election, even in an election year, I take a higher ground than that. And my field, though, my PhD is in political science, my specialty is political philosophy. And so we're talking about typically in class more fundamental problems than policy questions, and therefore questions about who to elect. But one thing I do stress is the challenges to our mind, I would call them epistemic challenges, to knowing what the right answer is on any policy question, and therefore knowing who to elect. I don't know if it would surprise you if I said I have a PhD in this subject and I've been teaching for 25 years, and I do not feel prepared to make decisions about most contests in the electoral domain, I don't know enough. And maybe that could be sobering for other citizens, if a professional in the field feels ill-equipped to make rational decisions between possibilities, then perhaps we all ought to admit a certain degree of intellectual modesty and humility. And the reason I say I don't know is that what we do teach in my class are the kinds of goods, and often competing goods, that we're trying to advance in politics. And so the problem is, "And I have an idea that I think is good and I'm going to try to make the nation support it." The real problem is how do I balance the pursuit of this good against the valid pursuit of other goods that I and others also care about? And how do I know what policy gets that balance just right so that we don't have undue burdens on other goods that we're also trying to pursue? And that is almost a God-like question, that's a question that mere mortals have very hard time, if you're going to be intellectually honest, you have a very hard time answering.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. David Corey. And Dr. Corey, let's talk about civility in politics, and also approaches like the one that you just discussed. Now, I think we could talk about it from a one-on-one, maybe a Republican talking with a Democrat family member or vice versa, or simply us individually analyzing our own approaches. But for you, what are some qualities that construct someone who is constructive in their own approach to the way they address either maybe potentially divisive political issues, or simply talking to others about them?
David Corey:Well, maybe I could just build on what I just said. Because I think if I build on it will supply some insight into civility.
David Corey:Civility is hard, if it's even possible, if we think that politics is essentially a war, because kindness to the enemy is counterproductive, and what you want is to defeat the other person, not understand them. So getting past the view that politics is war, that politics is actually some kind of effort at cooperation that's going to require mutual understanding and some degree of compromise puts you on your other foot, which is you then say, "Well, I guess then I do have to understand the people who don't support the kind of policies I support, so I can understand what it is that motivates them, and then how we could maybe blend our interests." So admitting a relative degree of ignorance about the complexity of public policy and political judgment, then once we admit this relative degree of ignorance, we realize that we need to talk to people to make up for what we don't understand. So conversations with people, stop being, "I'm trying to tell you what's right," but rather, "I'm trying to solicit from you why it is you are so animated for this particular policy. What good does it do?" And why do you think that good is so important right now to advance vis à vis other goods that, and usually I don't know that myself, so I have to ask. And that completely changes the topic, or the tenor I should say, of political conversations because you realize that you need to know what the other person knows, and so you have to solicit it from them and you have to listen. That's a totally different kind of conversation, but it's premised upon politics being a form of cooperation, not a form of war, and admitting that we don't know everything about how to balance the goods that our polity has to balance. Does that help?
Derek Smith:That does, absolutely. And let me ask you this, from the sense that you talked about humility, and if that's a hard line for people to imagine themselves getting to sometimes in political conversations, how much are we, I don't know, impacted, or maybe even for lack of a better term, how much are we being discipled by certainty, by certitude?
David Corey:It's everywhere and it's worse than ever, but I don't think those forces will ever go away because I think they're tied to human nature. Basically not knowing is not a handsome or great posture to be in. What we want to be is knowers. And most of the way we navigate the world is as knowers. And even if we don't completely know, we have to act on hunches as if they're true. So most of our daily life we're acting as knowers. And then we come to politics and it seems embarrassing to not be a knower. And we have to be able to get over that embarrassment. And it's hard when on the talk radio shows, and on even network TV, and on the opinion pages of the paper, and even in your neighborhood, everybody's posturing as a knower, and they don't want to seem to not know, because that looks like weakness. And I don't think that's just because we've increasingly started to view politics as war, it's also just human nature that you want to posture as strong. So it's very difficult, and most people need to have the idea given to them before they'll even try to pursue it, the idea that it's okay not to know everything, and you might learn more if you'd admit you don't know some things, then you'd start to ask questions about what you don't know, and you'd listen and learn. We're drenched in everything that is the opposite of what I'm trying to say here. And that's why, I mean, I don't know if your listeners are going to get angry and maybe serve me poison or something, but I'm trying to say the exact opposite of what we're typically doing in politics, which is approaching it like sports, or like it's football, and I've got my guys and you've got your guys. That's not how you do politics well, that's not how you reach thoughtful, deliberative conclusions that are responsible to the various goods we have to try to orient ourselves towards. You can't do it by thinking it's winner take all.
Derek Smith:What you were describing in a lot of ways almost sounds like a discipline, because how intoxicating is outrage, or that certitude, the outrage of feeling like you and your side are right, the other is wrong, or that war analogy, whether you want to call it intoxicating or just human nature, how much does that run counter to the discipline you're talking about?
David Corey:I think it is intoxicating, and it is in human nature. I think you chose the exact right word. I think probably chemically in our brains, things are firing off and we're feeling good that we have truth, and that we are in a circle of friends who agree about the truth. That's like a drug. And there is an opposite effect, you're in a group of friends and they all agree on something, then you say, "Yeah, but I don't understand it." That's the bad person at the party, that's cold water. And yet I think it's incredibly healthy. So I think you're right to say it's a discipline. And the root word of discipline is to study, to be a student of, a disciple, a student of. I actually think we need leaders who aren't posturers as great, wise knowers, but who are willing to admit how complicated political questions are. And we don't have a lot of leaders like that, nor do we don't have a lot of venues or fora where you can see people doing that kind of hard thinking, because we're always posturing, and especially our politicians are posturing to win elections. And to do that, they've got to make people angry, and that helps them fill their, wait for the metaphor, their war chest, because people will give money if they're angry and they fear, they fear that the country's going so badly they want to do their part. So there's so many incentives, Derek, to make politics a kind of war, but I think these have to be resisted, they're not healthy for us as a people.
Derek Smith:Let me ask you this too, as we building on that, as Christians, as people of faith, what are some ways, maybe when you talk to your students in class, that that can infuse the way we approach what you're talking about?
David Corey:Oh man, that's such a great question. You're basically asking me to say something in the domain of what we call political theology, what does our Christian belief or our Jewish belief imply about what we think is going on in politics. My own view on that, it is a controversial subject, is that we have come to endow political ends, the goals of politics, we've come to endow them with not only too much certainty, but really too much meaning. There are things that transcend the world, and there are things that transcend politics. And if you think about our scriptures, how much does Christ expect politics to accomplish? And what does Christ expect politics to accomplish? And I think both conservatives and progressives, the two extremes in our polity, have both saddled politics with an almost salvific mission, whether that mission be for social justice or for biblical purity and piety. We're looking to politics to do salvific work. And I don't think there's a lot of ground in scripture for politics as salvific. In fact, I mean, it does occur to me that Christ says that His kingdom is not of this world, and that the dominations and powers are not what he's redeeming, He's redeeming souls voluntarily. So I think backing off and realizing, and having a more modest view, not only of what we know, but also of what politics can really accomplish would be a step in the right direction.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. David Corey, Professor of Political Science and Director of Baylor's Baylor in Washington program. And so, Dr. Corey, you talked about recognizing what we don't know, or that we don't have a complete understanding on a subject. So let's make it practical here a little bit for people, what are some healthy ways to try to develop an understanding, not whether that's how other people feel, or even your own understanding on a subject that, like you said, are often a whole lot more complex than they may be portrayed or appear at first blush?
David Corey:Well, I have thought through that a little bit, and I do guide my students as best I can on how to reach better understanding of a political issue. Not that think we're ever completely in a state of expertise or knowledge, but one of the first things I ask them to do is, I ask students to just plot out what the prominent, possible positions are on an issue. If you take immigration for example, what are the various positions people take on immigration? A lot of times students who don't want to do this because they think their own position is so infallible that it doesn't matter what other people think, they just need to worry about their own. But once you've got the other positions staked out, and if you don't know what they are, by the way, you have to ask your friends what their positions are, which is you're already getting in conversation. Then I ask students, what good is animating each of those positions? Each of those positions are staked out for pursuing some good, maybe it's humanitarianism, maybe it's economic security, maybe it's safety, but what is the good that's animating it? And once you have that in your view, you not only have a list of possible positions, you have a list of the goods that are animating them. And then I ask the students, which of those goods is most important? And almost always, of course they disagree. And there you're getting at, let's see how much deeper that is than just the policy conversation. Now we understand that there are legitimate goods at stake here, and that we disagree on how to balance them. So I ask the students, find out why people balance the goods differently from the way you do, ask them why they make the balance that way. Now we're getting a little bit philosophical here, but it's not impossible to do, why do you value humanitarianism so much even over your own safety? You can ask people that. And typically what you get are good reasons, that different people have had different formative experiences, and they can take certain things for granted and they can't take other things for granted, and that there are legitimate reasons to disagree over how to value goods. And then I think you're very close to something I call understanding. It's not that you have a policy answer, but you understand how complicated it is and why people disagree. Then the last thing I always ask is, is there any empirical data that might help you rethink how you would balance the goods? Like on immigration, how many people actually came in last year? Where from? Under what conditions? How about compared to two years ago? How about compared to 10 years ago? How about compared to England? And I'm often shocked to find that the students who have the strongest position, they know exactly what policy is, are utterly ignorant of the empirical data that ought to be informing your judgment, and cannot answer the most basic questions about empirical data. So I try to lead them through those steps.
Derek Smith:You talk about one of those steps was looking for the good that might animate even a position that you disagree with.
Derek Smith:Well, what are some good reasons, perhaps some moral reasons, or just simply some ascribing good motives to the people who hold them, is that challenging as you work with students, or are there moments where you kind of see breakthroughs in that area?
David Corey:I do, but again, it's a humbling thing for the student, because they identify with their posture of knowledge. I do have a snarky line that I say sometimes to the students, that you're not entitled to equate the truth with the point at which you got tired of thinking. And that sometimes can be a sobering moment. It's easier to dismiss your enemies as people who hate, or as people who are ignorant, or as people who are evil, then to actually understand what good motivates them. And I've learned that people are not motivated by evil. And even when they're showing signs of hate, they're not motivated by hate, they're motivated by having one of their goods offended. And so, yeah, it is hard, and I continue to say it happens best one-on-one, because there's going to be some embarrassment. And it can go both ways, my students embarrass me, but you've got to be able to smile and say, "Thank you. I'm grateful that you showed me I didn't know what I thought I knew there." And you've got to be able to be humble and a great sense of humor about it. And if you've got that, and if no one's watching, you can talk to each other and try to understand, right?
Derek Smith:Yep. You talk about this, there's a lot of one-on-one interaction here that you're talking about that runs counter to so much of the way I think a lot of people, sometimes myself included, can transmit information. You mentioned that the truth, how did you word it exactly, the truth does not lie at the point where you get tired of thinking about a subject?
Derek Smith:Probably when you and I get done with this interview, we're going to open up our email inboxes and see a few more that have come in, our phones might buzz, there's going to be a lot of messages on TV. There's a lot of messages coming at us these days. There's probably a lot of people who think, "Well, boy, I might like to actually spend time thinking about this, but when do I have the time?" Do you have any thoughts on countering, trying to put some deep thought as where we can in a society that is really trying to bombard us, excuse me, with a lot of fluff?
David Corey:Well, since you're still interested in civility, I'm going to tie it back to that, none of us has enough time to be well enough informed to make political decisions. We actually don't know as much as we think, and we don't have enough time to learn it, we're too busy. But there's a shortcut, which is asking people we know what they think and listening to what animates their desires, their policy preferences. So the fact that we don't have time as citizens to do research, I think redoubles our need to communicate with fellow citizens about political issues, and to do so in a way that's listening, not in a way that's just simply trying to win. So yeah, I would really stress the truth of your claim that we don't have time. And we just don't, this is one of the great burdens of democracy, is that the people have to make decisions and they're all doing something else, we don't have time
Derek Smith:For you, knowing that we don't have time, is that freeing or constricting or both?
David Corey:Yeah, it's definitely both, because election day comes and I've got to vote. And it's very humbling, and it constricts my confidence when I have to pull one lever and not another, and I haven't concluded my researches so to speak. But it's also freeing because we are all in the same condition, and we venture a guess, and we elect a person. And then what's going to come in after that is evidence, experience, and data, we're going to see how it works. We're going to see, "Well, what does this policy actually do?" And it's freeing in the sense that since we don't know all the answers, we're now free to observe what happens, and to make the best sense of it that we can, again in conversation with each other.
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. Well, hopefully we can all put that into practices as best we can. And Dr. Corey, as you enjoy your research sabbatical, we'll look forward to seeing the fruits of that in the months ahead. And safe travels as you continue to visit with other universities.
David Corey:Derek, thanks. And thanks for your great program. Keep up all the good work.
Derek Smith:Well, thank you so much, appreciate that. Dr. David Corey, Professor of Political Science and Director of Baylor in Washington, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this in other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.