The New Deal coalition is broken; Democrats are losing support among Hispanics, blacks and blue-collar whites. Asian immigrants are leaning right. Southern whites left the coalition in the ’60s. Repeating the same tired message will not win them back. Organizing efforts will fail without values to back them up. If the Left wants to take back Congress and the presidency, we need a new vision of America, linking values to policies.
That’s why we decided to form the Party of the Left and why we are debating topics such as “Resolved: Interest group politics are harming the American Left.” Do students on the left believe in seeking elective office? Do we mind letting the right wing hold them for us? Do we believe we can win them without a vision? The Left cannot just offer policy grab bags. We need to synthesize a compelling vision that relates policy preferences to universal values. We believe that as students we can take a small, but valuable, step in this direction by engaging our disagreements and testing our views of what it means to be on the Left.
Students have been arguing about the relative merits of formal political discourse — represented by the YPU — and political action aimed at bringing about immediate policy change or heightened awareness — represented by diverse student activist groups. This question is often characterized as “activism vs. debate,” but those terms are misleading; activism often aims to provoke debate. Even the most policy-oriented activism requires argument and persuasion. On the other hand, many people see “debate” as a competitive sport, where participants take either side of a proposition, with the goal of “making a good case” rather than persuading people of the truth. The YPU is not the Yale Debate Association, but rather a public forum where students attempt to persuade audiences of their peers about political truth. It is the only such forum on campus and is currently dominated by the Right.
I was involved in YHHAP, the anti-globalization protest in Quebec, Clean Water Action and the Howard Dean campaign. I was also president of the Yale Political Union. I think the division between discourse and direct action at Yale is harmful to both.
First, activism aimed at raising awareness on campus is not opposed to the goals of the YPU, but deeply consonant with them. Dan Weeks ’06 of Students For Clean Elections used our forum to persuade the majority of YPU members, even some right-wingers, to favor public financing of elections for American democracy. Anyone who feels passionately about an issue should realize that having it debated at the YPU is one of the best ways to get fellow students talking about it.
The real controversy exists between those who seek to form ideas through persuading and being persuaded by their peers, and those who are focused on those immediate effects on policy, which Ted Fertik ’07 calls “actual political change” (“Students form Party of the Left,” 3/28). This implies that these two forms of political impact — opinion formation and policy change — are mutually exclusive. Many people do both simultaneously. Learning to give good speeches in front of large audiences is a powerful skill for an activist. But more importantly, let’s not forget where John Kerry ’66, Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, Howard Dean ’71 and George W. Bush ’68 went to school, or that Kerry was president of the YPU and chairman of the Liberal Party. At a school where so many of us will go on to hold positions of power in society, persuading fellow students becomes a form of “actual political change.” Whether we think it is right or wrong, what happens here matters.
Those who admit all of this in principle must contend with limited time. The activities are not mutually exclusive, but the communities seem to be. As long as the direct-action community sees the political discourse community as irrelevant to their aims, they will not devote limited time to the slow and frustrating process of testing ideas against skeptical auditoriums. The ideas of the debate halls will not be complicated by the opinions on the streets. Both communities will suffer. But the real loser will be the American Left.
Developing a new vision of the left-wing values will mean significant time, disagreement and conflict. This vision will not emerge overnight but over years. It will require a patient commitment to facing our internal fault lines and seeing what values can unite a revitalized Left. The POL believes it’s time for the Left to give up easy answers and engage in honest self-criticism. The only question is whether the Yale direct action community will walk with us along this path.
Silas Kulkarni is a senior in Silliman College. He is the founding chair of the Party of the Left and former president of the YPU.