Howard Dean talks political activism, Tea Party

On Wednesday, former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean ’71 spoke to an audience of 150 about political activism and demographic shifts.
On Wednesday, former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean ’71 spoke to an audience of 150 about political activism and demographic shifts. Photo by Eva Galvan.

Young people, not the tea party, will be the driving force behind change and reform in the future of the United States, Howard Dean ’71 told Yale students Wednesday.

At a conversation sponsored by the Yale College Democrats Wednesday night, former presidential candidate Howard Dean ’71 discussed political activism on college campuses and shifting demographics in the United States. Speaking to an audience of about 150 students, pre-freshmen and their parents, Dean highlighted the importance of political participation for the American generation under 35 years of age.

“You have to do something political every single day,” Dean said. “Politics at its core is really about organizing people to do something for a cause that is bigger than themselves.”

In his talk, Dean covered political issues ranging from his work as the governor of Vermont to his thoughts about the tea party movement. In office, he said he discovered people who hold different political views can often find common ground and compromise. As an example, Dean cited how he was opposed to state-run gambling while in office because he believed it amounted to a tax on the poor and how he allied with the Christian coalition to block a pro-gambling bill even though he did not agree with the coaltion on social issues.

“The lesson I learned was that if you’re respectful of people who hold different beliefs and have good faith in those beliefs, you ought to listen to them,” Dean said. “You can begin the dialogue that’s necessary for real political results.”

But despite his appeals to bipartisanship and political compromise, Dean also said that it would be a mistake for people not to stand up for their beliefs.

He added that politics are in many ways an evolutionary substitute for war; the way that power has traditionally been inherited in human society was through a spear, or a gun, or some kind of other weapon. This violent history is what makes current political dialogue so heated, he said.

“Republicans, for example, are very well-disciplined on messaging,” Dean said. “The problem is that their messages often ignore the facts.” Dean added that Democrats, on the other hand, cannot put together a common party platform so easily. The Democrats’ failure to communicate a clear message to the American public contributed to their loss in the congressional elections last November, he said.

Dean also discussed changing demographics in the United States and said the shifts are the reason behind the emergence of the tea party movement. The greater population of Muslim-Americans and the first African-American president, Dean said, make members of the tea party uncomfortable with America’s increasing diversity. The tea party’s unease with diversity may correlate with the demographics of their members, who are overwhelmingly white, Christian, and over the age of 50, Dean said. “America has changed dramatically and the change is accelerating,” Dean said. “Ultimately, I think the tea party is a transitory phenomenon.”

Regardless of tea party member preferences, by the year 2050, Dean said, no one racial group will have a majority in the United States.

“You’re the first multicultural generation in America,” Dean said. “Everyone has friends of every race, every gender, every sexual orientation, and you all date each other. You’re not a tolerant generation, you’re an inclusive generation.”

In addition to being diverse, Dean said, the younger generation is politically active. In the election of 2008, for example, more people under the age of 35 voted than those over 65.

Five pre-freshmen who attended the event said they were impressed by Dean’s level of experience and glad they had the opportunity to hear him speak.

“One big point that Dean hit home for me was the need to do something political everyday,” said Tianhao He, a pre-freshman who said he has a strong interest in government. “I think that a sense of complacency is a real danger in democracies.”

Jonathan Silverstone said that he appreciated how Dean took a step back from partisanship and talked about how each generation has to recreate the political spectrum on its own. Bennett Ostdiek, on the other hand, said that the only previous exposure he had to Dean was his infamous scream during the 2004 campaign, but that he agreed with Dean’s point that democracy is something citizens earn.

“I just love being in an environment with so many intelligent people here,” said Molly Cain, a pre-freshman who attended the talk.

Howard Dean graduated from Yale with a Bachelor of Arts in political science in 1971. He also received a medical degree from Yeshiva University in 1978 and began a medical residency at the University of Vermont. He teaches “Understanding Politics and Politicians” with clinical professor of psychiatry David Berg ’71 GRD ’72.

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