Today, I return to a Yale whose politics has changed enormously in the short seven-and-a-half years since I graduated (I’m here for a Saybrook Master’s Tea to discuss my new book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party).
When I left campus in 2000, there was a great deal of political activity. Unlike now, however, a relatively small amount of it was directed toward electoral politics. The hottest causes that spring to mind were World Bank and IMF reform, opposition to sweatshops and getting Yale to take action against the climate crisis. What wasn’t high on the agenda for most students was the upcoming presidential election between Al Gore and George Bush.
Relatively few students went off to knock on doors in a swing state, get involved in a campaign on campus or even take jobs in electoral politics. For even the most politically minded of us, it seemed like there were more important battles to fight than those at the ballot box.
The progressives, who, then as now, contributed the lion’s share of campus political activity, were particularly disenchanted with the electoral game. While it’s hard to imagine right now, the average progressive of the 2000 era really didn’t see huge differences between Clinton-Gore and the Republicans.
Mainly, that was because we just as often saw Clinton as an opponent as a friend. Clinton was a main target of our effort to reform the World Bank and the IMF — he was their biggest backer. Clinton’s record on labor issues was similarly weak: He had championed loosening international labor and environmental standards through his advocacy of, for instance, unfettered trade with China. We also saw union membership decline during his administration at a rate second only to that of Ronald Reagan among post-World War II presidents. Finally, we saw Clinton doing little to actually implement solutions to the emerging climate crisis.
And when Clinton and the Democrats weren’t fighting us, they were ignoring us. Neither party was doing much to recruit young people, especially compared to today’s impressive youth outreach efforts. Even if we voted Democratic in the end, few people stirred themselves to do much more.
Of course, things changed almost as soon as President Bush took office and it became clear that elections really do have major consequences. By the time 2004 rolled around, Yalies (and students around the country) were volunteering and organizing in droves for both Democrats and Republicans.
There’s even more enthusiasm now for electoral politics — and higher participation. In part, that’s because most candidates have clued into the idea that young people vote and volunteer and can make a big difference to a campaign. But it’s also because one candidate in particular, Barack Obama, has inspired young people with his promises to achieve real change by “bringing people together to get things done” and heal America’s supposedly crippling partisan divisions. Indeed, in the ultimate sign that it resonates, everyone from Hillary Clinton to Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney has taken to parroting it.
What’s somewhat ironic about this message of change through conciliation is that it’s awfully similar to the message Bill Clinton ran on in 1992. What’s also similar is that in 1992, Clinton helped inspire the highest rate of youth voter turnout since the Vietnam era. But by 1996, youth turnout had dropped to a mere 41 percent, the lowest level in modern history.
The problem with such a conciliatory message is that while it’s inspiring in speeches, it’s often deeply disheartening in practice. Clinton took conciliation to such an extreme that it became a fear of confrontation. As a result, he was unwilling to stand up and fight for the agenda he’d run on: Whether it was his economic stimulus package, his pledge to achieve universal health care or his environmental agenda, he capitulated as soon as Republicans and corporate lobbyists showed any signs of real opposition. Those surrenders left his enemies emboldened, his friends betrayed and Americans, young people included, feeling as apathetic about politics as they had felt inspired just a few years earlier.
Unfortunately, Obama (as well as some of his opponents) have in the past shown similar signs that they also confuse conciliation with capitulation. Obama, for instance, voted for George Bush’s 2005 oil subsidy-larded energy bill, voted to let credit card companies raise interest rates over 30 percent, and for Bush’s Nafta-expansion plan, and told progressives to “trim their sails,” or scale back their goals. But I’m happy to report that more recently, Obama seems to have recognized that achieving real change and tackling the entrenched interests responsible for preventing change may require a bit of a fight. It’s why in Iowa, for instance, he combined visionary optimism with specific criticisms of his opponents, showing a facility for political combat that he’d rarely displayed before.
But this isn’t just about the candidates. It’s also about us. If young people want the next president and Congress to do more than make nice inside the Beltway, we’re going to have to demand it. In the same way that students of my era went too far away from electoral politics, it’s vital that students of today also pay attention to cultivating a powerful progressive movement that can provide that pressure and accountability.
Because in the end, real change will require not just electoral victory and hope, but millions of people fighting to achieve it.
Glenn Hurowitz, a member of the Yale College class of 2000, is the president of the Democratic Courage political action committee and the author of the new book “Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party,” which he will be discussing at a Saybrook Master’s Tea at 4 p.m. today.