When I arrived at Yale as a freshman three years ago, I came armed with a strong sense of my own identity as a political liberal. In dinner-table conversations, my family generally approached politics from a decidedly left-of-center orientation, and, while I was too young to vote in 2004, I was disappointed when John Kerry ’66 came up short that November.
So it was a surprise, not to mention a source of amusement, to realize after only a few months here that I had earned a semi-serious reputation as “the conservative” in my group of friends. Partly this was because I would often play devil’s advocate in our conversations. I was afraid that in the absence of a rigorous articulation of conservative positions, all of us, myself included, would slip into a posture of unquestioning complacency regarding our politics, with the result that our opinions would come to resemble received thinking more than vibrant, robust positions resilient to critical examination. And partly my new reputation was a fluke, the result of a small number of supposedly conservative positions that I then held — foremost among them, support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq — as well as several friends whose combination of highly liberal politics and outspoken bluntness apparently made me look “conservative” by comparison.
But it was more than just a fluke. It was also a reflection of the political makeup of Yale’s undergraduate student body. According to a story published in the News last Wednesday (“Poll: Obama by a landslide,” 10/29/08), a recent survey e-mailed to the entire undergraduate population found that 81 percent of students plan to vote for Democrat Barack Obama for president today, compared to just 12 percent who will be backing his Republican rival, John McCain.
Of course, that article was something of a dog-bites-man story: Anyone who has engaged in dining hall conversation about politics at Yale or watched campus political dialogue unfold on the pages of this paper knows that the vast majority of Yalies are, if not unambiguously liberal, then at least distinctly toward the left end of the spectrum on issues ranging from U.S. foreign policy and the environment to labor law and civil rights.
I am a proud member of this vast majority, and yet I find its existence to be depressing and unhealthy. Even when I succeed in articulating conservative positions, I still fail to give life to them, for a simple reason: I am not a conservative, and I cannot make conservative arguments with the same eloquence and force of belief that a conservative can. Neither can the vast majority of that vast majority of Yale students who are liberal.
Insofar as we want and expect every political conversation we have here to represent a genuine opportunity for self-improvement, this lack of conservative champions is a problem. That is, it is a problem insofar as we hope every such conversation will offer us at least the possibility not to be convinced that we are right but rather to be told that we are wrong; that way we can either strengthen and reinforce our own convictions or modify our beliefs in light of the convictions of others. The dearth of conservative voices stultifies political discussion and, in many cases, reduces it to the reverberations of an echo chamber.
The situation that results is profoundly illiberal, in the sense that it prevents the creation of a true marketplace of ideas. Or, more to the point, it sets up that marketplace within the left and not across the spectrum from left to right. Only in a place that suffers from such a cramping of the political discussion could I ever, even as a joke, be labeled a conservative.
Yale, it seems to me, needs more conservatives. That is, it needs more people who, in settings less formal than the debates of the Yale Political Union, can broaden our horizons and lead us to grapple with ideas we would prefer to dismiss. Lest I be accused of perpetuating caricatures, let me say that I do not think most liberal Yale students are closed-minded. On the contrary, I believe them to be quite open-minded and intellectually curious, but the problem is that right now there is very little in the way of serious conservative discourse to which to be open. To remedy that shortcoming, the admissions office should establish a system of affirmative action for political conservatives.
I am not talking about asking applicants to check a box that gauges their political orientation, and I by no means believe that political orientation should become the dominant, or even a major, factor in considering an application. Rather, admissions officers should look for a diversity of political outlooks in candidates in the same way they look for a diversity of areas of academic interest, since an entire class of people who think the same way is obviously undesirable. Administrators like to say they could fill the freshman class three times over with qualified applicants, so why not dip into those second and third classes and give a small boost to some of the equally qualified conservatives — in other words, people who, over the course of their high school careers, have demonstrated some general, heartfelt, genuine inclination to see the world in a conservative way — who currently don’t make the cut for what we are told are arbitrary reasons?
The most obvious objection to this idea, of course, is that such a scheme would diminish the meritocratic nature of admissions and “discriminate” against the liberal majority. But “discrimination” of this kind is inherent in any program of affirmative action, as is the trade-off of diminished meritocracy. My proposed system is philosophically akin to systems of affirmative action along racial or socioeconomic lines in that both aim to cultivate a healthy multiplicity of viewpoints. Given the essential boringness of much political discourse at Yale, a little discrimination seems to me a small price to pay for making Yale just slightly closer to the microcosm of the country that it strives to be.
Cullen Macbeth is a senior in Berkeley College and a former managing editor of the News.