A Yale Daily News poll of more than 200 randomly selected undergraduates indicates that Yale may not be as overwhelmingly liberal as popular conceptions on campus may suggest.
In the poll, 49 percent of students identified themselves as liberal, 15 percent as conservative, and 36 percent as moderate. Forty-four percent of students identified with the Democratic Party, 15 percent with the Republican, and 41 percent with third parties or as independents.
Yale President Richard Levin said he is not surprised by the results, but was interested in the fact that they seem to represent a shift to the middle or the right when compared to the affiliations of students a decade or two ago.
“I think it’s been a long time since there have been large numbers at the far end of the spectrum,” Levin said. “I think that there has probably been some shift from people regarding themselves as liberal or very liberal to moderate, and probably a steady number of conservatives.”
The poll results parallel a national trend, political science professor Adam Simon said. During the 50 years since the arrival of the post-baby boomer generation, research has shown that Americans have grown more conservative, he said.
“Studies in the 60s said college was a liberalizing experience, but that was more a function of the times,” Simon said. “Most people in the United States have become more conservative [since then].”
But Jennifer Rost ’06, president of the Yale Political Union, said she was initially surprised by the results because she expected Yale students to identify themselves as more heavily liberal.
“In general, the liberal groups on campus tend to be a bit more vocal and more active, so you can see more of their presence around,” she said.
But when Rost considered the composition of the political union, the results made more sense, she said. The largest party in the political union is Rost’s own Independent Party, which has about 100 members. The Independent Party, she said, does not have a political philosophy, but is composed of students who do not identify with the more traditionally affiliated parties such as the Liberal Party or the Party of the Right. While the second largest party in the political union is the Liberal Party, with roughly 60 members, conservative parties have a strong showing and often very active members, Rost said.
Rost attributes the greater visibility of liberal groups and individuals at Yale partly to differing philosophies of action between liberals and conservatives. Liberals, she said, are more likely to be found actively campaigning for causes.
“Certainly you see conservative groups like CLAY (Choose Life at Yale) out at Yale petitioning for causes,” she said. “But many conservative issues don’t lend themselves to petitioning.”
But Al Jiwa ’06, the former president of the Yale College Republicans, said he thinks in some ways conservatives are actually over-represented on campus. Many Yale publications are careful to put out a balance of viewpoints, he said, and therefore actually publish more conservative views than is necessarily merited by the 15 percent of conservatives reflected in the poll.
The poll results and membership in campus political groups — approximately 1,200 students on the Yale College Democrats e-mail list and 250-300 on the Yale College Republicans e-mail list — suggest that Yale conservatives are still in the minority.
“I think that in the media, the Yale media in particular, there’s a real effort to get opinions from the minority,” he said.
The University aims to ensure that all students have an outlet for their political opinions, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said in an e-mail.
“When it comes to students’ political views, our only goal is for all voices and perspectives to have opportunities to be heard,” Jiwa said.
But some students and professors said the poll numbers are difficult to interpret because the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are becoming increasingly ineffective political labels.
Simon said that labeling people as liberal or conservative is problematic because the terms can mean different things depending on the context in which they are uttered.
Alissa Stollwerk ’06, the president of the Yale College Democrats, agreed that the meaning of these labels is unclear.
“Liberal, moderate and conservative are not very easily defined markers for a lot of people,” she said. “Moderate especially is a relative term.”
Many other students said political self-definition becomes especially difficult for the 36 percent of students labeling themselves as moderate.
Aldrin Agas ’08, who considers himself ideologically moderate but is a registered Democrat, defines “moderate” as not strictly adhering to the values of conservatism or liberalism.
“I think that people label themselves as moderate because they can’t strictly define themselves as Republican or Democrat,” he said.
To Agas and many other self-identified moderates, the term moderate does not necessarily translate to being centrist. Instead, it connotes holding a varied body of issue-specific views that does not correspond to one of the traditional sides of political debate.
Lisa Freinkman ’07 describes herself as moderate because she agrees with liberals on social policy and conservatives on economics.
“It’s definitely possible to share views with both conservatives and liberals,” she said.
Melissa Campos ’08 said she derived her definition of moderate from Sweden’s Moderate Party. Rather than having a specific ideological stance, Campos said, the Moderate Party comes down on the side of an issue that “makes sense for the people at the time.” Campos said her own views are equally pragmatic. For example, her stance on abortion cannot be defined as either pro-life or pro-choice, but as case-specific, she said. Like Agas, Campos is a registered Democrat, but she does not vote strictly along party lines.
“I think that the two major parties are so distinct that there’s no middle ground for anyone right now,” she said. “There’s no party out there that represents this 36 percent.”
Opinions vary as to why such a significant portion of Yalies label themselves as moderate.
Professor Simon said the large proportion of moderate students is part of a long-standing American tradition of centrism.
“Americans overwhelmingly tend to think of themselves as moderate,” he said. “We live in a two-party culture where you don’t have fringe, extreme parties, so people don’t have any kind of anchor to form an extreme ideology.”
Agas suggested that recent political history may play a role. Yale undergraduates, he said, grew up under President Clinton, a moderate whose beliefs influenced their own.
Others suggest that students may label themselves as moderate for more immediate reasons. Stollwerk said that at Yale, being conservative can be so unpopular that choosing the label of moderate can help conservative students diffuse some resistance to their views.
“People who are moderate and right leaning could self-identify as moderate because it sounds so much nicer at Yale than conservative,” she said. “Moderate could be a way of saying, ‘I’m not conservative, but I vote for some Republicans.'”
The same, said Stollwerk, may be true of moderate students more likely to lean to the left. Some left-leaning students may reject the label of liberal to avoid being associated with far-left activists, she said.
Freinkman suggested many students may take up the label moderate because they do not have definite opinions on either side.
“I guess people who don’t feel very strongly about an issue are more likely to label themselves moderate,” she said.
Political science professor David Mayhew said while the high number of moderates at Yale is consistent with national trends, the number of students who do not identify with either of the two major parties is surprisingly high. When compared to an October 2005 national Gallup Poll, Yale students’ lack of major party identification is slightly higher than the response nationally. According to the poll, 30 percent of Americans identify as Democrats, 32 percent as Republicans, and 37 percent as independents.
Mayhew interpreted students’ reluctance to affiliate with a major party as a possible reaction to recent conflict between Republicans and Democrats.
“The lack of identification with parties is interesting,” he said. “It may suggest that people are getting turned off by the squabbling in D.C. between the parties.”
Freinkman said she is frustrated with the state of U.S. politics.
“In national politics, both conservatives and liberals are failing so miserably that it’s very hard to identify with either side,” she said. “The Republicans are not doing well, but the Democrats have nothing better to offer. For that reason, people might really be tempted to reexamine their political affiliations.”
The poll also asked Yale students to identify the source of their political beliefs. Forty-two percent of those polled said that the main source of their views is their parents, 8 percent said it is classes, 4 percent said it is the media, and 46 percent said it is other sources.
The high correlation with parental beliefs is supported by many findings in political science research, Simon said.
“Most people think that at the time you become exposed to the political world, you are between the ages of 9 and 13, so you copy your parents,” he said. “By the time you get to college, people are more set in their beliefs than you would expect.”
Mayhew said it is equally unsurprising that 46 percent of students did not attribute their beliefs to any of the listed sources.
“In general, people are capable of assembling their own views, so I’m not surprised that they won’t enlist to that they’ve been influenced by outside forces,” he said. “After all, they’re capable of thinking. If thinking were put on the list as an option then probably a lot of people would have chosen it.”