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Lindsey Cormack of the Stevens Institute of Technology: “Don’t speak of politics and government as dirty or bad”

Don’t speak of politics and government as dirty or bad. Doing this gives a negative impression to our children and means those who might be great at facing our collective problems are dissuaded from entering the field. Introduce your children to their city council people. Let them know that people are doing this work for […]

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Don’t speak of politics and government as dirty or bad. Doing this gives a negative impression to our children and means those who might be great at facing our collective problems are dissuaded from entering the field. Introduce your children to their city council people. Let them know that people are doing this work for our collective good and when you disagree with their viewpoints let your children know why and how you plan to find/support someone else when an election comes around.


As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsey Cormack.

Lindsey Cormack is an assistant professor of Political Science and Director of the Diplomacy Lab at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. She maintains the digital database of all official Congress-to-constituent e-newsletters at www.dcinbox.com. Her first book, Congress and U.S. Veterans: From the GI Bill to the VA Crisis investigates the differences between legislative efforts and lip service paid to veterans by members of the US Congress. She’s working on her second book, How (and Why) to Raise a Citizen, in an effort to reinvigorate multigenerational political discussion.

Her research has been published in Legislative Studies Quarterly, Gender Studies, Energy Economics, and The Legislative Scholar as well as in popular outlets including the New York Times, The Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, ProPublica, Roll Call, The New York Post, NBC News, the LSE USCentre, and The Hill.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas in a conservative household that shunned discussions of politics as impolite. I went to the University of Kansas to compete on their debate team and pursued a political science major and a minor in African and African American studies. I was the first woman in my family to obtain an undergraduate degree and did not conceive of college as a time to select a career, but rather I choose my major and minor to fill in what I perceived as gaps in my prior educational experiences. After graduation I moved to Washington D.C. and worked for a chemical trade association before going to graduate school at NYU.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a professor until after my year working in D.C. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer as many of my friends on the Debate club would end up being. My year in D.C. offered me such a nice set of lessons in what I didn’t want to for the rest of my life. My office space was right next to a few attorneys and I was engaged to an aspiring attorney. From that vantage point I got to see a little glimpse of what a life in law might look like. For me, I knew the hours people willing to work in big law has to put in and determined that would not square with my internal constitution. Yet, the wonders of D.C. kept me interested and I wanted to learn as much as I could about Congress. After applying to 15 graduate programs around the U.S. I was delighted to be accepted to NYU. My time in graduate school exposed me to the careers of professors, practicing politicians, and other types of professionals. I had the good fortune to work with professors who showed me the best parts of their lives and I decided I wanted to try to work to create a similar sort of path for myself.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am working on a host of things that I’m drawn to. I’m looking at how men and women within Congress approached official communications differently when discussing COVID-19 with their constituents and I’m looking at which sorts of members were willing to join the Black Lives Matter movement versus those who campaigned against it. But my very favorite project right now is my second book project on How (and why) to Raise a Citizen.

This book project is borne from the experience of teaching newly eligible to vote undergraduates, who come to me largely unaware of many features of US government and how to participate in politics. The project is aimed at parents and educators who have the power to remedy this situation but are oftentimes poorly equipped with political and governmental know-how themselves. Once completed, this book will show the low status of our collective political/government knowledge, a set of historical and cultural reasons for why we have such low levels in the first place, the risks this poses for our democracy, a set of arguments for how and why parents should be the agents of change, age-appropriate examples of how to incorporate political know-how into child rearing, and a primer on the basic features of American government for parents to use in these efforts.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My biggest cheerleader and mentor has been Dr. Jonathan Nagler, with Dr. Pat Egan coming in a close second. Both of these people are professors at NYU and they ushered me into a career in academia. Jonathan guided me through graduate school and helped me navigated the tricky world of getting a job at a University. Not having anyone in my family who went to graduate school meant that there were a lot of things I simply didn’t know, and Jonathan was always there to give me a heads up on the unknowable and unsayable parts within academia. Pat showed me how to write a book and how to talk to publishers.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I’ve made plenty of mistakes and take a lesson from each. But there is no one, great stand out mistake that really makes me chuckle or continuously ponder.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Pivotal Politics by Keith Krehbiel hugely impacted my understanding of Congress and why we can’t really expect more than incremental change from the institution. His approach was to break down each of the members and to consider their viewpoints in turn, accounting for things like majority rule in the House and the filibuster in the Senate. After taking in this book, I have never again been frustrated or bewildered by Congress, but rather I’ve come to ask which members need to be on board for a piece of legislation, or how our status quo would have to change in order to generate a willingness by members to pass a new law.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Try everything twice. I know a lot of people will say you should try anything at least once, but my mantra is to give everything two tries. Everyone can have an “off” day and if we only give something a go one ‘round we might be unlucky enough to experience that thing when the person in charge is just having a bad day. Think about a bad service experience at a restaurant — that doesn’t mean the restaurant is bad, it might simply be an indication that we had a waiter who was really stressed about something going on at home. Or even dating and meeting new friends, rather that working to solidify a first impression that might be less than stellar I think it’s important to give people and things at least two chances to please or disappoint. With my students I’ll sometimes get a first assignment that is really bad, but that ought not mean I think that the whole student is not good with the material or the assignment style, but rather that maybe I got a less than stellar version. When that sort of thing happens, I always try to give honest feedback and hold the door open for that person to be more successful next time around. In fact, my criticism usually comes in the form of, “You’ll be more successful next time around if you can… such as “provide citations support the claims in your argument”.”

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think good leadership is practice and exercise in balance. I look up to leaders who take on tasks for themselves and do work on behalf of other but also know when to delegate and when to trust others to do things for themselves.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

First, I’d like to say things can oftentimes feel really dire politically, but that doesn’t mean we have to act as if we are on high alert in all situations with people. Families should be a place where we can recognize differences in thought and opinion but come together with a sense of love. We when lose opportunities to really connect and be with one another it’s easier to lose sight of the service and love that we can really provide for each other. I think part of the reason right now feel particularly tense in US politics has to do with the amount of aloneness we all experience through “social media” and a cultural primacy on stand out individuality. Social media is self to other media — it’s cobbled together as a set of individual projections in the forms of posts, tweets, or stories that promotes things like “likes” or reshares, but it is not at its core a social activity. Social activity involves collections of people doing things together and for one another, like competing on an intramural team within a greater league, a community gardening group, or as a book club, or as a PTA, or as a mutual aid society. With those sorts of collective activity receding (clubs, leagues, societies, community organization) as Robert Putnam makes clear in Bowling Alone, we have been left to create our own, individual sorts of “value” in the form of individual advertisements of ourselves on online platforms. Being less hewed to different sorts of people in mixed groups allows us to more selectively engage with people who mostly already agree with us politically, and this is pretty well knowable based on how someone presents online. We can then self-sort into groups of people based on how they present themselves singularly and we end up with friend groups and online sorts or communities that work as echo chambers for each other, rather than the sort of real reflection made possible when having to actually interact with others on something very separate from politics and then being able to value them in ways that maybe precede their political affiliation.

I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?

Sure. I was married when I was 22 and have since been married for 13 years. Each of those years I’ve known that there have been political differences between myself and my father-in-law but we sort of both relished that and enjoyed discussing politics with each other. We started a tradition of gifting one another a political book for Christmas that we enjoyed, knowing that is might present a viewpoint counter to what the other person is used to reading. We were close, so close I would tell people he felt like a second dad to me. Now 22 is a very young age and in a lot of ways my understanding of political and political discussions were shaped by my discussions with my father-in-law. Once the Trump candidacy became serious and after talking through how the things my father-in-law valued in Trump seemed to be centered on his personal bombast over any sort of good governance or policy idea our discussions became harder. Each dinner conversation we were able to have begun to wade into weirder and weirder territory and creeped into conspiracy theories. We had one very nice, jackets required dinner in NYC during the Trump years that ended with my husband banging on the table about how liking cruelty in a leader is really hard to stomach and the rest of the diners looking at our table with disbelief that we allowed ourselves to get so heated. It’s truly truly sad, but I no longer have an independent relationship with my father it law. It wasn’t all politics that led to the disintegration but having that feature of our relationship unravel first allowed any other sort of disagreement to send us that much farther apart.

In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?

These things need a balance. One the one hand we must recognize divisions and tensions, rather than hiding from them. Yet not every interaction needs to be fractious or feature politics front and center. I suggest having time with a family member that you care about and then asking. If you could set aside some dedicated time to talk through some political issues, maybe just starting with one. Having that sort of intentional conversation where you are trying to understand one another versus trying to persuade or make the other one feel bad will be more productive than falling into a verbal fight after everyone has been together for a long day or had too much to drink.

How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?

The workplace can be tricky — while we all have to work together, we don’t all have to agree on politics to do that. In some was the workplace can offer really good examples of how we can accomplish things even with and through political differences. Like in other arenas, leading with a desire to understand versus convert someone to a different position is the best way to approach differences in politics that come up in the workplace.

I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?

This is a very good point. The team aspect of politics, playing and rooting for the Democratic Blues of the Republican Reds means that we give cover to bad actors when we really could hold our elected officials to higher standards. It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of “good” in our politics when people hold these identities, but that doesn’t mean this is the place to focus our attention. Instead of demonizing parties, we would do better to focus our attentions on how to cultivate a more engaged citizenry of people concerned with what and how we do politics.

Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?

We have to recognize it. We have to teach it to our children. We have to go into each online social media space with an awareness that our attention is the product being sold to advertisers and make good decisions about what we want to put out there.

What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?

Caring less about what they say. It’s hard, but I don’t have much good guidance for thoughtful punditry consumption. If someone is making a living out of riling up others, that’s not an energy that we all need to fee d with our attention.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1.) Don’t speak of politics and government as dirty or bad. Doing this gives a negative impression to our children and means those who might be great at facing our collective problems are dissuaded from entering the field. Introduce your children to their city council people. Let them know that people are doing this work for our collective good and when you disagree with their viewpoints let your children know why and how you plan to find/support someone else when an election comes around.

2.) Be willing to ask yourself what would have to be true to change your opinion or issue position. When you think you disagree with a position ask yourself what sort of evidence you would have to confront in order to change your mind or at least start to question your original stance.

3.) Release the idea of “winning” or persuading others and embrace the idea of understanding each other, differences and all. Government is not about everyone agreeing, it’s about getting to the best consensus possible based on a huge variety of positions and people.

4.) Intentionally diversify your media diet — go out of your way to read something from a place that algorithms don’t put in front of you to read. Breaking our (and tech’s) confirmation biases is very hard work. Reading media that supports other viewpoints can be difficult, but these sorts of cross over attempts can really help provide a set of intellectual empathy for why different people hold different opinions.

5.) Be willing to be uncomfortable. This can be in the form of asking or answering questions, but don’t just brush politics aside as “impolite”, be willing to engage. The only way we will see changes we want is to try to be a part of the solution.

Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?

We can read/watch media that doesn’t conform to our preferences already. We can seek understanding over persuasion. We can have conversations with each other versus about the other side. We can be willing to do hard conversations that take preparation and time, versus fretting away our lives with small talk and online “likes”. We can move forward with a more intentional and active way to think about and do politics.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I’m tentatively optimistic. No one likes doing something that feels awful for too long. Holding disdain for others and engaging in a fractious approach to politics forever will run us into the ground. While there are plenty of elements that thrive on animosity to motivate supporters, having a politics we can be proud of will necessarily draw more people into the process and thus give us “better” or more consensus outcomes.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?

Our society is just made up of a collection of individuals. When you think about doing something positive for your community, like picking up trash, organizing a food or clothing drive, offering tutoring to children in need, assisting in voter registration efforts you are making a better more caring society, one that you will feel better about operating within.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Stacey Abrams– because she’s willing to fight uphill and it’s all paying off for her. She’s an embodiment of perseverance.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on Twitter as @DCinbox.

This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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