With eye to the Beltway, campus politics grow up

There’s much of me that wants to hate Yale’s Roosevelt Institution: “the nation’s first student think tank … for a new generation of progressive politics,” as its Web site boasts. The group’s published articles about the “cultural imperialism” of education in Papua New Guinea, opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a “Manhattan project” for solar energy all too closely resemble the cant of blind multiculturalists and the drivel of impractical environmentalists. Not to mention that Roosevelt’s very raison d’etre — lobbying Beltway policymakers to adopt the ideas of college students — smacks of self-promotion and the conceit of youth.

But as much as I’d like to, I can’t quite bring myself to dismiss the Roosevelt Institution as the latest fad in petty campus politics. Much to its credit, the Roosevelt Institution has mobilized thousands of college students across the nation. It promises to become a formidable vehicle for the ideas of an educated and energetic group. Monday’s much-hyped “gala event” — complete with a lavish white tent and hors d’oeuvres in the Berkeley College courtyard, a jazz band, a pre-recorded “video appearance” by Hillary Clinton and speeches by Representative Rosa DeLauro and Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg — was a testament to the palpable energy of the organizers and guests.

Yet where Roosevelt falters is with its transparent facade of “non-partisanship” and supposedly “non-ideological” commitment to create “innovative and pragmatic ideas.” When your kick-off event bills Clinton, DeLauro and Greenberg as keynote speakers, it’s obvious that you have staked out partisan ground. When 4,000 printed fliers advertise a “New Progressive Politics,” it’s obvious that there is ideology involved. And that’s fine. But to deny this partisan or ideological bent is naive at best, and at worse, intellectually dishonest.

Considering the political makeup of college campuses, it’s no surprise that a think tank of college students would fall on the left of the spectrum. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or shameful with being a “liberal.” Yet, for some reason, self-described “progressives” won’t touch the word “liberal” with a 10-foot pole anymore. Instead of denying their essential identity, progressive students and organizations like the Roosevelt Institute should embrace it.

At Monday night’s event, the speeches of Clinton, DeLauro and Greenberg certainly didn’t lack in partisan barbs. All three took the opportunity for the tried-and-true tactic of Bush-bashing in front of an audience that wouldn’t mind. DeLauro claimed that progressives had the “moral high ground in the last elections” and went through the usual litany of complaints about the Bush administration: the budget deficit, the quagmire in Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, Medicaid cuts, No Child Left Behind and of course, the ever-popular campus issue of drilling in ANWR. As for Greenberg, he might as well have been speaking at a DNC strategy briefing. He dwelled on the Democratic Party’s failures to win back American voters with “new ideas.” That is of course true, but strangely enough, he didn’t mention what any of these new ideas might be.

The only thing even faintly resembling an “idea” to make an appearance at the event was “big government.” And as Democrats are wont to do these days, they cited Hurricane Katrina as the clarion call to expand the federal government. Clinton asked about the response to Katrina, “Is this what we want of our government?” Her answer for the audience was blunt: “Think big.” DeLauro denounced how FEMA had been “hollowed out.” Greenberg cited polling numbers as a mandate for Democrats to reinvigorate federalism as never before.

“Big government” of course isn’t any new idea. In fact, it’s not much of an idea at all, but rather a vague ideological belief. Nevertheless, that is all the three big gurus trotted out at the event could come up with. And perhaps that’s why I’m not willing to dismiss the Roosevelt Institution — at least not yet.

There is something impressive about harnessing the minds of college students as a driving force for new modes of thinking about public policy. Judging from the genuine dedication and intelligence of Roosevelt’s students — contrasted with the general lack of coherent thought and surplus of vitriol on the left — if anyone can come up with new ideas for the liberal, er, “progressive,” cause, it might very well be them.

But for all of its promise, the concept of a “student think tank” approaches vain conceit. Case in point: Because tickets to the “gala” event were supposedly in such high demand, organizers set up a “waitlist” and promised an “overflow simulcast” in the Law School auditorium. The turnout on Monday night was fairly impressive, but it didn’t come close to justifying a wait list, much less 500 more seats at the Law School. Though we Yalies are apt to think we have all the answers, we must not forget that most of our learning is yet to come, and that we are students, not policymakers. Hopefully the aspiring college Roosevelts won’t forget that.

Despite the pitfalls of self-importance and the stale paradigms and vicious rants of the current “progressive movement,” the Roosevelt Institution has the ability to transcend the sad legacy of campus politics. Indeed, if the predominant form of campus politics has evolved from the simian antics of megaphones and “die-ins” to ideas and civil debate, we on the right can’t help but applaud these students for claiming their rightful place as thinking adults.



Keith Urbahn is a senior in Saybrook College. This is his last regular column.

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