To hear Yalies tell it, the two candidates running for the post of Ward 1 alderman are an extraordinary duo. I am told Nick Shalek is a closet neo-conservative who has been secretly recruited, financed and even bribed by the Yale Corporation. Rebecca Livengood, the sitting Ward 1 Alderwoman, is apparently not just a stooge for GESO, but also a communist. Shalek hates workers. Livengood loves cancer. And so forth.
I have listened to students say all this, and more, about one candidate or the other with a perfectly straight face. There is a distinct lack of cuddly good feeling in this year’s aldermanic election campaign — partisans on both sides and within both campaigns are breathtakingly scornful and derisive of their opponents. The contest to represent our campus on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen, which will be decided through an election on Nov. 8, has already gone thoroughly sour.
Much of the campaign’s vicious undertone has only been evident behind the scenes, but occasionally it has burst out into the open. The headlines the race has generated in the last month have hardly been the stuff of substantive debate on the issues affecting New Haven — much more has been written of late about alleged campaign violations. In articles about these infractions, and at both of the aldermanic debates, the candidates have traded thinly veiled barbs, with Shalek one moment insinuating Livengood is “tied down” to the UOC and GESO, and Livengood the next moment calling Shalek’s use of the Yale Internet server “troubling” and sniffing that “campaign finance laws exist for a reason.” And all this pales in comparison to what is being said off the record. The swift boat veterans it isn’t, but by the standards of an aldermanic race, this is a bitingly negative campaign.
From whence such scorn? To be fair, some degree of animosity is a nearly inevitable byproduct of any election campaign, at any level in any place. When ambitious politicians (or aspiring ones) compete for a single office, civility tends to take a backseat to winning. The same mentality that drives fraternity rivalry creeps into the political process — volunteers and supporters must justify the amount of time and energy they spend on a campaign, and they do so by building the candidate up and demonizing his or her opponent.
There is something else at work in this particular race, however. Waging a campaign for elective office among a constituency of a few thousand Yalies is a bit like throwing raw meat into a pack of starving hyenas; too many creatures are salivating to sink their teeth into it. While apathy about New Haven politics is admittedly widespread, there is nevertheless an energetic contingent of campus politicos eager to play “West Wing” by gossiping, sniping and spreading half-truths about the two candidates. Too many students treat this Ward 1 seat as though it’s their own private political training toy — and because we have been taught that “going negative” is the savvy move, partisans on both sides think they have to do just that.
I find this negative dynamic disturbing. Consider the broader picture. We have come to expect absurdly simplistic negative attacks in national and state-wide races — mudslinging in American politics has become par for the course. Hackneyed black-and-white TV ads with scary music and unflattering pictures of the opposing candidate are usually so over the top that I generally assume they only work on stupid people, but my comfortable confidence in this assumption is waning. What does it say that crudely simplistic political labels — “Rebecca Livencancer” is one I’ve heard several times — can thrive even in a place as brainy as Yale? Ideally, our school should be grooming principled public servants who actually want to raise the level of national debate. But what if we’re just churning out a new generation of first-rate party hacks?
I’m not going to say that I see either Rebecca Livengood or Nick Shalek as ideal candidates, but they’re both trying to accomplish good things in this community, and they deserve more credit than they’ve been getting or been giving to each other. Ben Healey, the former Ward 1 Alderman, was on the whole a master at setting a magnanimous and positive tone, and at curbing those who wished to take campus politics down into the mud. Ward 1, and America, could use more politicians like that. Shalek, Livengood and those who follow both of them should remember his example and strive to emulate it. And the rest of the chattering political class at Yale should take a deep breath and try not to engage in recreational demonizing.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.