In Conversation with Professor Paul C. Light: On America's Political Polarization

While we typically interview outstanding undergraduates for our profile section, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to speak with Professor Paul C. Light, NYU’s Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service. Read on to find out what he thinks about today’s political climate.


Name: Paul C. Light

School: Wagner School of Public Service, NYU

Hometown: New York City

Favorite President: “John F. Kennedy was my favorite president as a child.”


HC NYU: Tell me a little bit of yourself.

PCL: I was born and raised in the Midwest - in the Great Plains. I’ve always had an interest in public policy and innovation - social justice, veteran’s affairs, public policy issues regarding equality and access to opportunities.


HC NYU: How did you become interested in your area of expertise?

PCL: Well, you know, I was of a generation called to service by presidents like John F. Kennedy. And my generation was very active during the Vietnam War and during the early years of the Environmental Movement. So, as an undergraduate looking at these issues, I became very interested in how our political and social processes work. I studied it as an undergraduate, and then went on to get my PhD in political science. I like to teach: I liked teaching and participating in [my] classes as an undergraduate, and it just felt very comfortable. So, I got my PhD, and I got my first job at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and eventually ended up here.


HC NYU: What do you think about today’s political climate?

PCL: It’s a very harsh, divisive political climate. It’s a very harsh, divisive time in politics - [that] is a better way of putting it. It’s disheartening, it’s a little bit frightening, and I’m troubled for our future. And I hope we can reset our political process to be inclusive of different views and different approaches to solving public problems without so much hatred and anger. I’m worried about it. I don’t know whether we’re at a moment in history where we could make a turn towards authoritarianism, [or] whether we still have a chance to reverse course and restore some measure of respect and civility. I’m hopeful that we have that opportunity still ahead of us, and I’m relying on you and others in your generation to help us make the turn towards a more hopeful politics.


HC NYU: You mentioned that it is currently a divisive time in politics. What are some reasons that we currently see political polarization amongst our citizens?

PCL: I think part of it is economic. Many Americans feel that they have been abandoned by our economy. Our economy has been changing dramatically over the last twenty years, and many jobs that used to support the middle class and working Americans are disappearing. And many Americans are scared. The economy has been brutal, and people have suffered great distress during the recession that took hold in 2008. And I think they’re worried and scared about eventual recovery, and are therefore sensitive to advertising and messages that say that other people are stealing their opportunities.


I know what that feels like, from where I grew up and from when I grew up, and I understand the fear. But, it’s being translated now in our political process into blame [towards] other people who might be “stealing” their jobs, be it immigrants, blue states or red states, or international corporations. We’re kind of feeding into this fear, and it’s translated into anger and hatred for people, corporations, [and] other nations that might be trying to “steal” our prosperity. And that’s what I think is driving this.


HC NYU: What do you think we should do to bridge that gap?

PCL: Well, I think we have to restore a sense of empathy into this country, as opposed to blame. We’ve talked a lot about it in this class that we take together and that we work in together. I think we’ve allowed ourselves to be divided, and our fears exploited, whether it’s been by the Russians, or this party or that party, or this wing, or group, or class, or whatever. I think we have to step back and say, “we are responsible for creating a future for our children and for all of our people.” And, try to back away from the intense conflicts that we saw in Charlottesville, and in other parts of the country, and restore a sense of common purpose for the future.


HC NYU: Speaking about having a common purpose for the future, what are your thoughts on America’s political future?

PCL: We’re at one of those watershed moments where we need to come to some agreement that we have brought goals to help our children and their children to secure a hopeful future, whether that’s dealing with international problems, such as global climate change, access to education and healthcare...this basic notion that we’ve long had that this country has basic principles of justice and equality of access. Those agreements are being strained to the breaking point right now through impetuous rhetoric, frivolous controversy - [by] people who’ve become pretty skilled in exploiting our vulnerability to create anger.

And I think we’re at risk right now. We all need to take a step back and think carefully about how we live together and how we confront the great challenges that we have.


HC NYU: Kind of switching topics a little bit, what do you love most about teaching?

PCL: I love my students. I find such energy and joy in seeing and interacting with you. I’m so affirmed by your commitment to changing this world. I love my undergraduate teaching because I can see the possibility that you can do a better job dealing with the problems we face than my generation.

So, when I was young, we believed that everything was possible, but we sometimes got distracted. And, we didn’t participate as much as we should have. So, I’m hopeful when I go to class and I see your engagement and your talents.


You've got so much going on and so much pressure. There’s so much uncertainty surrounding you. I respect your commitment, and I want to help in every way possible. I mean, you’re our future, and I do so love the enthusiasm, and I worry about whether or not we’re giving you what you need. It’s our job here at this university to help you face into the future, and address these issues of division and hatred and isolation. I hope we’re doing a good job of it. It’s up to you all to demand that we do a good job of it, [and] to force us to keep the promises that we’ve made to you.


HC NYU: That’s so encouraging to hear! Do you have any words of advice to current NYU students?

PCL: I think the most important advice to my students is to believe in the possible. Have faith that you can make a difference in this world and find the skills to do it. There’s no right path for any one student. Some of you will find impact in the laboratory as you experiment with new products and so forth. Others will find it through their communities, through the engagement of people and need. And, still others will find it in their own personal journey. Have faith that it’s possible.


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