ZELINSKY: Criticizing real Republicans

Occasionally, a columnist writes in these pages to refresh the campus’s political compass. He attempts to use the News to tack the ship of debate from reasoned discussion to hyperbole. This journalistic broadside goes down with a whimpering bang.

It looks like Yale has a new rhetorical helmsman — I might soon be out of a job. Unlike Captain Jack Sparrow’s compass that never points north, Scott Stern’s ’15 mental arrow sets unwavering new course: Republicans are crazy.

In his column “The Unnoticed Cain” Nov. 3, Stern made the outlandish claim that presidential hopeful Herman Cain “has been a major player for decades.” His proof: Cain ran for president in 2000, ran for Senate in 2004 and advocated against Clinton’s health care bill in the ’90s. QED: the Godfather of Pizza must be a key figure in the Republican Party, which party (he coyly implies) is nothing more than the collection of ill-spoken kooks and deep-dish chefs.

After contemplating this metric for what constitutes a “major player,” I feared for our national discourse. Stephen Colbert and Al Sharpton must dominate the political arena on the left. After all, they both ran for president four years apart, just like GOP standard-bearer Herman Cain.

Should you not get the irony, let me spell it out: Cain has never been nor will be a major player for Republicans. He is a media fad, a slice out of the oven about to cool.

But shoddy logic aside, Stern’s hyperbolic portrayal of the inner Republican Party raises an important question: Why do some at Yale selectively examine the loonies on the right, smearing that entire end of the political spectrum in the process? (And, don’t mistake me, I find Cain unfit for any office.)

One answer may be simple salaciousness. Herman Cain is a character, and characters make entertaining columns. Serious policy from former governors like Mitt Romney does not. Yet that easy explanation leaves some unaddressed issues on the cutting floor. After all, Stern only holds GOP candidates to the entertainment double standard. We would not expect him to make similar comments about the Democratic Party.

Another possible answer, closer to the truth: The perpetrators of “Republicans as dunces” message employ the classic straw man technique. They build up the weakest image of the right in order to knock down a house of cards. And so they focus on the Cains and the Palins to intentionally overshadow their actual opponents with brains — the Paul Ryans, the Eric Cantors, the Chris Christies.

Are there oddballs in the GOP, just as in political parties since time immemorial? Of course, and they should not be ignored. But pretending that Herman Cain represents a longtime force in conservative politics willfully bends reality into the fanciful.

This dishonest dialogue hurts our campus. If we demean Republicans, we make it harder to for a shy student to say, “I am not a registered Democrat,” when aldermanic canvassers sign them up to vote. That same student feels uncomfortable in dining halls or classes, when it appears that his friends refuse to address his ideas seriously. He either becomes apolitical or self-ostracized into the conservative echo chamber of a YPU party.

According to a News straw poll in 2008, as much as one-tenth of this campus chooses to affiliate with the GOP. That often-quiet 10 percent does not deserve belittlement. They merit treatment as political equals, and their opinions — classic federalism, limited government, et cetera — warrant serious debate, not smearing.

And so, a plea: Do not tolerate biased sloppiness in overemphasizing the GOP’s dirty laundry at the expense of actual critiques. Republicans at Yale have earned more respect than that. If you want to engage in useful debate, attack the politicians and students who advocate ideas, not the self-inflated blowfish who preen for attention.

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