When she first stepped onto campus, Jennifer Barnes ’06 was bombarded with evidence of political activism. During her first three months at Yale, hundreds of students protested the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy of the U.S. military; made the trek to anti-war protests in New York and Washington, D.C.; or were arrested when Yale’s unions stopped traffic on College and Elm streets in protest against the University.
“I was definitely surprised when I first got here with the level of activism on campus,” she said. “I got used to seeing people with banners and making statements everywhere. The war in Iraq has really brought those opposing sides to battle and into view.”
A recent study by the Higher Education Research Institute, reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, found that this year’s college freshmen say politics is more relevant to their lives than it has been in recent years. The survey also showed a rise of conservatism among college students. And even at relatively liberal Yale, students see signs of a political shift.
With the ongoing war on terrorism and the approach of the 2004 elections, some students said they have noticed a heightened discourse on war. Debates have been staged, petitions have been signed, and demonstrations have been followed by counter-demonstrations. At college campuses across the nation, students have marched, rallied and picketed their way into public view. But, some have observed, this increase in liberal political activism has been matched by on the conservative side.
In the fall of 1966 — as protests against the Vietnam war were on the rise — the Institute asked its first group of college freshmen if following politics was a “very important” or “essential” goal. Over 60 percent of students said it was.
In the fall of 2000, the percentage of freshmen responding similarly hit an all-time low of 28.1 percent. But this fall, for the second consecutive year, that percentage is on the rise: 32.9 percent of freshmen now report the same interest in politics.
Even if those 4.8 percentage points seem thin when spread over an entire student body of potential protesters, there are little things that show change — the e-mail distribution list for the Yale Coalition for Peace, for example. The anti-war group has seen an increase in the number of people who have signed up for its e-mail distribution list — from 100 names at the end of last year to over 900 now, said Saqib Bhatti ’04, a member of the organization.
“Our membership this year has shot through the roof,” he said.
Current events have also inspired pre-existing activist groups to widen their focus. Nikki McArthur ’05 recalled when the unions held a vigil to mourn the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I’ve seen groups on both the right and the left co-opting the war onto causes that existed already,” said McArthur, chairman of the Party of the Right. “Recently, a lot of the activism has been kind of stale. — Now, certainly because we are of the age when we and our friends could be going off to war, politics and activism are on a lot of people’s minds.”
Controversy on campus surrounded a “die-in” staged by the Yale Coalition for Peace. Several spectators taunted the demonstrators. One walked through the middle of the bodies, stepping on one of the demonstrators’ heads as he did so, Bhatti said.
“One person said, ‘Where were you guys after Sept. 11?’ which was ironic because the group was founded after Sept. 11, and the first meeting we held was a memorial to mourn the victims,” he said.
Bhatti said activism on the right has been largely nonexistent. But recently, attention on campus has centered around the emergence of what is becoming known as a pro-war activist group, the Yale College Students for Democracy.
Founder Matt Louchheim ’04 said the group as a whole has no official stance on the war in Iraq.
“A lot of the members of the organization believe that force can be legitimate as a last resort. We understand that Saddam Hussein has been deceiving and defying the international community and that he is guilty of deplorable human rights abuses. Do we want to go to war? Absolutely not. But we understand that war can be justified,” Louchheim said.
Louchheim said the group will hold lectures, panels, campaigns and rallies with the hope of filling a void in campus activism.
“It’s not a well-represented view in terms of activism at Yale,” he said. “We think there needs to be a certain balance to the rhetoric on campus.”
A conservative conscience
Yale’s reputation for a liberal student body often reaches students before they reach campus. Greg Ablavsky ’05, chairman of the Liberal Party, was not surprised by the leftists he found here, but by what he found on the other side of the aisle.
“What surprised me was the existence of a determined conservative clique on the right,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that there would be this counter-reaction to Yale liberalism.”
The Institute’s study found that more of this year’s freshmen called themselves conservative compared to last year’s freshmen, who were surveyed before the Sept. 11 attacks. Forty-five percent of students — an all-time high — expressed support for increasing federal military spending. The number of students who labeled their politics conservative increased from 19.1 percent to 20.0 percent, while the number of self-labeled liberals decreased from 29.9 percent to 27.8 percent.
This finding did not surprise Dave O’Leary ’06.
“I think the default for college students is to be liberal — it seems so appealing on the surface,” he said. “Conservative views sound more unpalatable at first, but the more people start thinking about them, the more reasonable they seem.”
Ted Lefebvre ’05, the chief whip for the Yale Political Union’s Conservative Party, said only five freshmen joined the Conservative Party last year. This year, that number tripled to about 15.
“Conservatives have done a very good job of making Sept. 11 a battle cry and a reason to rally around the flag,” Ablavsky said. “They have used it as a justification for the suppression of all sorts of anti-conservative agendas.”
On both ends of the political spectrum, members of the YPU discuss the increasing conservative dominance — at least in numbers — of the YPU.
“There’s been this conservative upsurge across the nation, which has led to the conglomeration of conservatives at many colleges and in the YPU,” said Bill Strom ’05, vice-chairman of the Liberal Party.
O’Leary said he was not expecting a large conservative contingent at Yale, but his knowledge about the strength of the Yale conservatives influenced his decision to come to Yale.
“I knew I would be in the minority, but I knew it was a strong minority,” he said.
The liberal lament
But the upsurge in conservatism may not just be a result of an impending war.
“A lot of students have been turned off by ‘the left,’” Louchheim said. “I think students find it degrading when students play dead in a war memorial or when people talk about human rights abuses when Saddam Hussein is the most ruthless dictator in the world. It’s been a wake-up call.”
Strom said that the sheer number of liberals on campus can prevent the development of a single liberal identity.
“There’s so much liberalness on college campuses in general that the same sort of cohesiveness is not needed. There’s not the same opportunity for liberals to get together and develop a cohesive liberal conscience,” Strom said.
Ablavsky said he was not sure liberalism had decreased, but perhaps just faded from view or been upstaged by conservatism.
“People are leftist still, but perhaps more complacent in it,” he said. “They are less content to speak out for it, and more complacent to go to the ballot box every once in a while.”