Last weekend, over 100 Yale students left campus in a passionate, statewide effort to work on key congressional campaigns. In a huge push for the hotly contested 2nd, 4th and 5th districts, teams of (mostly Democratic) students spent their days going door-to-door for candidates, handing out campaign literature and eagerly discussing important issues — or at least talking points — with likely voters. This is hard work, but students were universally enthusiastic, especially Democrats faced with the possibility that their party could succeed in “Taking Back Congress.” The coalition running Democratic student efforts took this name, calling students to action with the tagline “How badly do you want it?” Among the students I saw, the answer was “very.”
Such enthusiasm for politics was nowhere to be found in William F. Buckley’s last address on public affairs, delivered at Yale last week. With rhetoric both humorous and grandiose, Buckley attacked both American political parties, berating Democrats for being insufficiently liberal — a baffling claim, given his long career as a proud conservative — and dismissing Republicans as not worth the audience’s time. By the time he asserted that the only practical form of government would be for everyone to follow his suggestions, many in the room wondered if he was kidding or just insane.
Despite all this, though, his manner was weary. A certain degree of this was to be expected under the circumstances, of course, but Buckley’s fatigue was not merely due to age. It betrayed such a profound frustration with America’s current political system that he had given up on it entirely. His speech may have been delivered in jest, but the joke seemed to hint at a deeply held belief.
At first, this seems like an ironic reversal: The established conservative elder rejects the system, while the young, passionate students fight fiercely within it. To look at it this way, however, is misleading. As bitter about the Democratic Party as many students have been over the last few years, the energy surrounding this Election Day — the best chance the party has had since this generation of students became politically aware — has overwhelmed most dissatisfaction.
At times, this passion can get short-sighted and narrow. The preponderance of anti-Lieberman sentiment among many students is a testament to the hazards of momentum: One freshman told me at the beginning of the year that he felt his support of Sen. Lieberman made him unwelcome in some student groups. Hazards aside, however, this kind of energy wins campaigns.
It is also typically associated with youthful idealism, as opposed to the rational pragmatism attributed to older generations. What changes with age may just be the amount of confidence in one’s own ability to effect reform, as that confidence is replaced gradually with a willingness to compromise and admit defeat.
At the end of this trail of disillusionment stands William F. Buckley, in a cynicism that becomes an odd idealism: The system is completely broken, and we need a new one. This could have come from Don Quixote’s mouth as easily as Buckley’s. The idealism of old men is pitiful because lofty goals are difficult for them to attain and impossible for future generations to understand.
Our generation has plenty of time to accomplish our own goals, to be sure, but history and time seem to be grinding against us. At a moment when it seems possible that we may actually be empowered in national government, we should brace ourselves for at least a little disappointment. No matter who wins today’s elections, the 110th Congress will not legislate utopia.
Does this mean that we should resign ourselves to the “realist” attitude of our elders? Of course not. Disappointment may be inevitable, but passion can spark significant change. Perhaps political energy should be a little more reasoned, but the passion this election cycle has produced at Yale should excite anyone, regardless of political affiliation, who is concerned about the future of the country.
Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.