Assume the Position: Yale Political Union

Noah Mamis ’08 was in a corner — literally and figuratively.

His inquisitors demanded that he name the three most influential philosophers in his life. He replied: “Zeno, Epicurus and Thomas Varnes,” the third being his high school Latin teacher.

The Party of the Right was dissatisfied. Under pressure from his interlocutors, Mamis improvised by changing his third choice to Descartes.

“If they had actually started asking me questions about Descartes, they would have fucked me over,” said Mamis. “Luckily they let me off the hook.”

Mamis, a member of the Independent Party, made it through the interview and was elected Speaker of the Yale Political Union the next day. He had survived YPU’s inquisition night.

An intellectual and political Iron Man for aspiring politicos, YPU inquisition runs from early evening to early morning the night before the Union holds its elections. Candidates running for YPU office present themselves on each Union party’s floor — seven in total — submitting to questions ranging from “What is the greatest contribution of the West?” to “How would you tell a five year-old that Santa isn’t real?” While the questions vary in gravity, candidates can never let their guard down; since parties decide which candidates they will endorse immediately after inquisitions end, inquisitions are a candidate’s last chance to campaign. The pressure to perform is intense.

“The rigor of inquisition night makes candidates realize how seriously the YPU takes its elected positions,” said Sam Bagg ’09, YPU director of campus relations and Independent Party member. “Candidates need to understand their responsibilities to the Union.”

Once on the floor, candidates are at the mercy of their inquisitors. Every floor is different and every party has its own methods of inquisition. The Independent Party shines a light in candidates’ faces, police interrogation-style. The Party of the Left tries to create an open, casual atmosphere for its candidates. The Progressive Party once placed candidates in the back of a U-Haul van and questioned them as someone drove the van around New Haven.

“The Progs also had a naked inquisition in the spring of ’05,” said one member of the YPU who did not wish to be named (the Progressive Party is very secretive about its inquisition processes). “The inquisitors were naked. The candidates weren’t naked.”

Traditions — both humorous and serious – define inquisition night, despite the fact that inquisition has only recently become a component of YPU elections. According to YPU President and Tory Party member April Lawson ’09, inquisition night only dates back to the 1990s, when it was incorporated as a means of acquainting all YPU members with their future leaders, albeit in a somewhat extreme fashion.

“We do inquisitions because they introduce party members to their leadership,” said Lawson. “But inquisition also has the second, probably more important, effect of binding us as a community with shared traditions.”

Still, that community does not always stay bound together, and sometimes party rivalries boil over into inquisition.

Jake McGuire ’10, a member of the Party of the Right and a candidate for Floor Leader of the Right last spring, certainly did not feel part of a community during his inquisition by his party’s rival, the Tory Party. Feeling antagonized by some of his questioners, McGuire went for broke on the Tory floor. Asked to tell a joke, he insulted the Tory chairman’s father. Asked to tell how a clip from “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” related to conservatism, he responded by saying that, like Angelina Jolie, the Tory party was aesthetically appealing but would stab you in the back. The Tories were furious.

“I could tell they were angry after I made my joke,” said McGuire. “I could hear people saying, ‘What is he doing? I can’t believe he’s doing this.’”

Peter Johnston ’09, who was Tory Party secretary during McGuire’s inquisition, said members were riled by McGuire’s failure to familiarize himself with the Tory Party’s history, not to mention McGuire’s flagrant disrespect for one of the three parties whose members he was seeking to represent as Floor Leader of the Right.

“Mr. McGuire had insulted the Party continuously,” Johnston said in an e-mail. “Why would someone run for a political office that represents an organization with which he had no acquaintance?”

McGuire later wrote a letter of apology to the Tory chairman, explaining that he hadn’t meant what he had said and that he really liked her dad. She never responded. McGuire lost the race to George Singer ’10, a member of the Tory Party who recalled feeling “very awkward” during his opponent’s floor performance.

Inquisition is strenuous, but it comes at the climax of a month-long period known as “hacking,” a special time when candidates meet with anyone who might be useful to them in winning an endorsement — usually influential members of parties and other students who have previously held YPU office. As disastrous as his performance was on the Tory floor, McGuire’s decision to abstain from hacking may have done more to hurt his chances for election.

An officer of the Union who wished to remain anonymous said that endorsement decisions in the YPU are sometimes made before inquisitions, either during hacking period or through inter-party deal-making. But members say such wheeling and dealing has been highly traditional in recent YPU history.

“In the past there was a real history of deal-making,” said Mamis. “‘We’ll endorse your candidate if you endorse ours.’ It still happens.”

Lawson denied that deal-making occurs in YPU elections, but many members remain doubtful as to how much of an effect inquisition has on determining which candidates are endorsed; some doubt it has any effect at all.

“Frankly, I think that inquisitions are a frivolous process,” said Geoff Shaw ’10, a member of the Independent Party. “We do them because we’ve always done them, because traditions are fun. The internal politics are what matters. You learn about politics by watching political animals in their natural habitat.”

Shaw paused, smiled and added, “I think that may have just sunk my Yale Political Union career.”

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