There is a view of “activists” as self-righteous do-nothings who go out in the streets and shout about American empire, moral relativism and evil in everything powerful. I must confess that I have met a few people who resemble that depiction, but most of them are paranoid and insane, and they are few and far between.
Most activists are not insane. They may engage in loud protests when they feel there is no other course of action to have their voices heard, or when large-scale civil disobedience can lead to political change (such as during the civil rights movement). But by and large their activism is local, direct and efficacious.
Activists at Yale are engaged in a striking variety of causes. Some are trying to reduce wasteful consumption and promote sustainable food within the University; others have been busy pushing Yale to divest from the genocidal regime in Sudan. Others have been hard at work getting Connecticut to implement an Earned Income Tax Credit to help the state’s working poor. Some of us have spent several years working for election reform in New Haven and Connecticut; many activists at Yale have worked tirelessly to improve Yale’s financial aid policy and ensure that all students who come to Yale are able to take full advantage of its opportunities. And yes, a large number of activists have been hard at work supporting the rights of workers to organize and to collectively bargain for decent wages, working hours and benefits.
One need not agree with any of these causes to appreciate that these are people who are working every day to accomplish things. Activists are always strategists: They set goals, then figure out how to achieve them. Often there is trial and error, and there is always frustration, but people learn through political action how to achieve political change. The caricature of an “activist” is a person who never thinks pragmatically. Successful activists are the most pragmatic people alive.
In the American two-party system, the major political parties function as coalitions. The Republican party has formed an unholy coalition of big business, ultra-religious moral conservatives and neoconservative militarists. That coalition has been kept together by a compact to support each other’s agendas when they agree and to keep quiet when they don’t. I do believe that the Democratic party needs to find a way to build a real coalition among the groups that comprise it, but to do this we don’t need to sit around and talk about it — we need political leadership. Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush ’68 built the coalition they did by organizing, cutting deals and delivering on promises. I agree that the left in America has been hurt by an inability to articulate a convincing ideology to match the right’s “small government, more freedom and family values,” whatever that means. But the language that they used to sell their “ideas” to the country was developed not by “discourse,” but in think tanks with high-paid professionals, mostly rejects from academia, who have formulated such brilliant and bogus ideas as “supply-side economics.” Undeniably, there are lessons to be learned from the right, but we have to be judicious in which lessons we choose to appropriate.
My beef with debate generally, and with the Party of the Left specifically, is the following: 1) Nobody learns how to get things done by talking about them; people learn how to get things done by trying to get things done. 2) There are already left coalition groups on campus that get people together to find common ground — the Social Justice Coalition, for one — and the Roosevelt Institution is already getting progressive kids researching important issues and generating robust policy proposals for local, state and national government. 3) There is arrogance in assuming we can better learn how to express our viewpoint by talking to other Yale students. Activists try to engage with people from a variety of backgrounds who don’t necessarily go to Yale to make sure that whatever the left does is not just “for the people,” but “of the people.” If the problem is that we can’t communicate what we believe to regular Americans, then we should talk to some regular Americans.
If the POL will generate more interesting debate within the Yale Political Union, I congratulate them. And if other activists find participating in the POL stimulating, then by all means they should get involved. Its leaders expect they will solve whatever problems they imagine exist among the left on campus or nationally; I think this is a presumption founded on exactly that lack of experience with real organizing that characterizes most people on the “debate” side of this imagined antithesis of “debate vs. activism.” In the meantime, I’m going to keep working.
Ted Fertik is a junior in Trumbull College.