Political impotence: how polarizing partisanship breeds apathy at Yale

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” On the surface, at least, it seems that Yalies are holding up their end of the bleeding-heart bargain. From opposing the war in Iraq to debating the merits of organized religion, Yale’s liberals can take cover under the protection of the “liberal academic elite” umbrella — at times without casting a critical eye towards their own chosen ideologies.

But, at a university where the de facto politics can feel like liberal until proven guilty, the extreme — and occasionally under-considered — position of some of our most vocal liberals may actually be turning students away from the left. Recent events — notably the University’s clashes with organized labor — have widened the rift between the moderate and activist sides of Yale’s left.

“The dialogue people engage in should be a give-and-take, where a consensus is reached somewhere in between,” Iris Ma ’06 said. “With extreme liberals, just as with extreme conservatives, sometimes it seems as if this compromise doesn’t happen. Sometimes extreme liberals fail to recognize what a reasonable response to a situation may be. Some extreme responses, such as strikes and sit-ins, are expected to be reserved for extreme problems.”

After entering Yale’s relatively liberal climate — and encountering the extreme groups whose protests occasionally disrupt campus life — students may be driven to reassess their views, regardless of what they may have believed at home.

“Coming from Indiana, which is a pretty red state, and where most of my friends were politically and socially conservative, it seemed pretty clear to me that I was a liberal,” said Kobi Libii ’07. “I assumed that the difference was not about particular beliefs but about how beliefs were formed; if conservatism was faith and religion and blind acceptance, liberalism was thought and debate and reason. But, being here, I’ve realized that there’s as much ignorant blind liberalism as ignorant blind conservatism.”

While moderate liberals may feel some pressure from the extreme left, campus Republicans face the most open political opposition, which was especially evident during the hotly contested 2004 presidential election.

“My views were not popular on campus,” Yale College Republican Alexander Yergin ’07 said. “Some people responded with dirty looks, but I had a very triumphant moment after the election when I walked around campus wearing a Bush-Cheney hat.”

Even liberal students can feel alienated by the gung-ho attitude of some of their peers.

“In Indiana, I remember sitting around the lunch table when we began bombing Iraq and my friends would scream at me because I had doubts about our sacred president,” Libii said. “Coming here, I thought I would encounter reasoned beliefs and reasoned critique, but instead, during the election, there was a knee jerk reaction against the presidency and the war in Iraq. People would go around saying ‘Bush is so evil,’ without an explanation why.”

Liberals aren’t the only ones frustrated with the political zealots on their side of the spectrum.

“I used to be very religious,” Jean Lopez ’08, a self-declared moderate, said. “I grew up in Georgia, right in the middle of the Bible belt, and I went to a Christian school and I grew up being told that liberals and Democrats are evil, and Yale changed that when I got here. The problem is that Republicans and Democrats are not evil, they just disagree, but when you go start saying ‘evil’ rather than wrong and right I have a problem with that.”

Last spring, Yale Students for Christ member Adam Meredith ’08 shook up the campus with a campaign of Cross Campus tabling and bright yellow T-shirts, worn by Christian students who wanted to literally wear their religion on their sleeves. Though the YSC is not an avowedly political organization, the Christian community split over the issue, as some groups felt the effort was too divisive.

“The campaign did a really good job of dividing the Christian community at Yale — that’s really been the only lasting effect,” Battell Chapel student deacon Tyler Guth ’08.

Others, however, felt the campaign was simply an extension of their freedom of speech.

“I can see why people would feel it was offensive, but at the same time I don’t feel we were up in peoples’ faces or overbearing,” Yale Students for Christ member Sandisiwe Mnkandla ’08 said. “On the most part, it was, ‘Would you like to talk?’ I don’t feel it was intrusive.”

But despite the visibility of student groups at either end of the political spectrum, the student body’s overall position may be more moderate than Yale’s traditionally leftist image might imply.

“Certainly, the majority of activist groups on campus are liberal-leaning, though there are a few conservative activist groups,” Yale Political Union president Roger Low ’07 said. “Most Yalies are somewhere in the middle, but by their nature tend to be less outspoken, and so tend to make less of a splash.”

It is no wonder that some students may feel the pressures of liberal conformity: A Washington Post study conducted in 2005 reveals that 87 percent of faculty at elite institutions identify themselves as liberal.

But activist Jared Malsin ’07 suggests that the student body may be more moderate than their professors.

“To a certain extent, Yale professors are more liberal than the students,” Malsin said. “Actually the culture of this place is much more conservative than people think. I actually think the voices that are the loudest are from the militant center. There is a fetishism of centrism that is perceived as the liberal elite academic position.”

True to the fundamental tenants of liberal intellectual curiosity, the winning belief seems to be the desire for political discussion and debate. But the perceived ostracizing nature of some of the extreme groups makes many students unwilling to open up to radical positions. Conservative students are such a rare breed that the few remaining feel marginalized, if not outright demonized.

“I’d say there are two conservative groups on campus: the athletes, who aren’t very political, and the vocal conservatives who are such a minority and so heavily labeled as being crazy Christian right anti-gay, anti-baby-killing wackos that they are unfortunately ignored,” Stafford Palmieri ’08 said. “This reputation is a microcosm of the conservative movement in the U.S. — it has been so radicalized by its opponents that every conservative is automatically clumped into that far, far right category without a second thought when there are actually a wide and diverse set of conservative beliefs.”

But this perceived lack of tolerance in Yale’s liberal community may actually be turning students more towards the center.

“I don’t think I’ve become more conservative,” said Libii. “But I’ve become more sympathetic to people who have conservative beliefs, especially religious conservatives. There is such a blatant disrespect for people of faith that’s really unfair. The dismissal of a whole group of people is hypocritical, it is for some of the same reasons that people critique religious conservatives.”

Rather than subscribe to the oft-criticized — and increasingly blurred — categories of Democrat or Republican, many students have chosen alternative political definitions.

“I’m getting away from assigning myself stances like [liberal and conservative], largely as a result of being here,” Libii said.

Though this shift would likely trouble most campaigning politicians whose success depends on the two-party system, it at least suggests an attempt on the part of students to determine what it is they really care about.

“Yale is incredibly political — but also issues-based,” Palmieri said. “There are so many movements on campus saving a specific kind of tree, or a species of strange rainbow one-eyed poisonous frog from the tiny island of Wanallalappoo off the coast of South America, that oftentimes the bigger issues are lost.”

In the end, this is not the tumultuous campus political climate of the 1960s. Though many students may identify as liberal when asked, personal and academic concerns often override political ones for the average undergraduate. Groups that some might label extreme may be the squeaky wheels that get the grease, or they may just be the only people left who have the time or the enthusiasm for serious activism.

“I wish that Yale students were more politically active,” Malsin said. “Financial pressures are a big problem: Tuition consistently outpaces inflation, so people are concerned with how to get a job and how to pay off loans, and these pressures are demobilizing. You cannot spend as much time on activism as maybe you would otherwise.”

Other students say that it is not time nor the money that prevents them from taking political action at Yale. Instead, it is the exclusive and occasionally off-putting nature of the extremists that dissuades otherwise willing and able activists.

“Political activism on campus is dominated by extreme liberals and conservatives,” Julie Andress ’07 said. “And unless you uncompromisingly agree with their views, becoming politically active on campus can be daunting.”

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