Regardless of who wins on Nov. 4, one thing is for sure: America is on the cusp of a new political era, according to three Yale professors who spoke at a panel on the presidential election Wednesday night.
Hosted by new student organization Yale Votes, the panel included law professor Akhil Reed Amar, Graduate School Dean and history professor Jon Butler and political science and African-American studies professor Khalilah Brown-Dean, who discussed the significance of the upcoming presidential election from historical, legal and political perspectives.
Taking place just 27 days before Election Day, the panel is part of Yale Votes’ effort to ensure that Yale students are engaged in the political process. To an audience that packed Sudler Hall, Amar, Butler and Brown-Dean offered their insight on the election, touching on topics that ran the gamut from the shifting of the dominant political party in America to the influence of the evangelical vote on the outcome of an election.
The first of the three panelists to speak, Amar began by quoting a line from Sen. Joe Biden in the vice-presidential debate last Thursday, “The past is prologue.”
“If we want to figure out where we are, it’s useful to look at where we’ve been,” he said.
He went on to mention four major political shifts in American history, claiming that this election could mark the beginning of another. Although he did not venture a guess on the victor, Amar drew laughs from the audience when he quipped, “Here’s a prediction: This election is going to be won by a senator.”
Whereas Amar focused on the history of America’s political parties, Dean-Brown began by speaking about the democratic process and enfranchising voters.
“The significance of this election is greater than any one candidate, and certainly greater than any one party,” she said.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the 2008 election is that it is forcing society to engage in conversations it was previously afraid to, Dean-Brown told the audience members.
“If Barack Obama becomes president, it doesn’t mean that race is no longer an issue, and if Sarah Palin becomes vice president, it doesn’t mean there is no longer a gender bias,” Dean-Brown said. “It shows that there is potential for people to overcome identity politics.”
Butler, on the other hand, expressed his disappointment that neither campaign has elevated the discussion of public issues as the election has neared.
“[This election] hasn’t demonstrated the kind of thoughtful, analytical, serious approach to policy that one might expect in democracy,” he said.
Touching on his academic specialty in religious studies, Butler claimed that in the past the evangelical vote has determined the outcome of an election, citing the close race between President George W. Bush ’68 and Sen. John Kerry ’66 in 2004. He ended by posing a question to the audience: “To what extent will the religion factor be drowned in the voting booth by economics? When [people] choose, what do they choose? Do they choose God, or their pocketbook?”
Immediately following the panelists’ discussion, students had the opportunity to ask questions; about six inquired about issues such as voter ID requirements and the electoral college. Perhaps the most captivating moment of the night came when Amar spoke frankly about his presidential preference.
“It’s very important that the president is smart, and I think that Barack Obama is smart,” Amar said. “He was born into a family with no name, no wealth, no political power, and he was a scholarship kid at the greatest universities in the world; it would’ve been nice if he’d come here for a year, but no one’s perfect.”
A student in his “Constitutional Law” class who attended the talk said he appreciated Amar’s candor.
“He’s pretty open about his views in class, but it was interesting to hear a slightly more honest opinion,” Gabe Friedman ’10 said. “It was compelling to hear him come out and actually say it.”
Other audience members interviewed said they found the panel enjoyable for its novel take on the election.
“I thought this panel was a very intellectual and analytical look at the election, which is completely absent in most political discourse today,” Amarto Bhattacharrya ’12 said. Devon Martinez ’10 said she found it “refreshing to hear such sophisticated and respectable minds of Yale professors engage in such an important dialogue.”
Upcoming panels hosted by Yale Votes, to be held later this month, will focus on specific issues such as the environment, foreign policy and economics.