Don’t let political realities stifle idealism

The Class of 2010 has swept onto campus, their boxes, bags and anxious parents in tow. If history is any judge, they will bring to Yale a flurry of long-distance relationships, a sudden spawning of disoriented “freshman swarms” drifting through courtyards in search of dining halls and dorm parties and a healthy dose of political idealism. Based on the experience of the last three classes, none of these is likely to last very long.


The long-distance relationships frequently terminate by the traditional Thanksgiving Day “turkey drop.” The freshman swarms will disintegrate before then, as the Class of 2010 learns its way around and then realizes that a herd of obese cattle moves with more speed and purpose than a cluster of 25 Yale frosh. The political idealism may take much longer to die. But by the time these eager ex-high-school students are donning their graduation caps, they will have given up on their dreams of better laws and better public servants.


As you roll your eyes at my rampant oversimplification: Yes, I realize this trend is far from universal. Many of you freshmen have no interest whatsoever in politics from the get-go. Many of you have other interests entirely. That’s fine. Moreover, a few of you political junkies will stick to your guns, and when you graduate will happily pursue long careers in campaigns, advocacy groups and congressional offices. Congratulations: You beat the odds.


But I’m talking about a larger trend, and it’s a disturbing one. Many of the smartest people I know at Yale have given up completely on their political ambitions. Invariably, it’s the same story: Perceptive, smart Yalies eventually find themselves confronted with too much evidence that the American political system is simply too dysfunctional for them to be satisfied working within it. And they give up on it.


The problem can be boiled down to this: The steady elevation of party above country has become so absolute that every law proposed, every speech given, every order signed must be calibrated and weighed solely in terms of partisan consequences.


I don’t have to convince the majority of the Yale Daily News’ readership that Republicans make a regular habit of this. If you still think the GOP’s approach to fighting terror — not to mention its social conservatism and pathological tax-cutting — have nothing to do with electoral politics, then you inhabit an alternate reality.


But alarming though it may be for us liberal-minded Yalies to admit, the Democrats have increasingly become ever more ruthless on their side of the aisle in subordinating policy to politics. Democrats talking about national security frequently seem more interested in besting the president on the issue than in genuinely trying to make Americans more secure. Or consider the Democratic approach to Bush’s Social Security plan; rather than offer up any kind of Democratic alternative when the president introduced his Social Security reforms in early 2005, the Democrats stayed silent and allowed the Bush plan to die on its own accord. Nancy Pelosi, the architect of this strategy, is widely praised by House Democrats for her tactical brilliance. But at what cost did this victory come? The country was robbed of what it most desperately needed: a real debate on Social Security and entitlement spending. Party won over policy. This story is par for the course in Washington today.


Smart Yalies don’t want to be party hacks. It’s boring. So long as they are forgoing the lucrative career in the private sector that many of them could have, they want to feel they’re really accomplishing something. When it looks as though government will not afford them this opportunity, and will cause them to spend years spinning their wheels, many of them throw in the towel.


That’s understandable. It also has to change if our politics is to have any hope of redemption. If the intellectually curious and the independent-minded, not just here at Yale but across the country, continue to cede the levers of power to short-sighted ideologues incapable of seeing beyond an electoral win, then the situation in Washington will continue to worsen, until something so terrible happens that politics becomes impossible to ignore. By then, it may be too late.


Roger Low is a senior in Branford College. His column regularly appears on alternate Thursdays.

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