Conservatives at Yale have little to look forward to these days. Feeling stigmatized and silenced, some are searching for a community of peers, and not finding what they are looking for in Yale’s debating societies. Will these closet conservatives find their safe haven, or will they remain a silent minority?
On the eve of the inauguration, three young women are lounging in their fourth-floor Saybrook suite after dinner. As they sink into their couches, the conversation turns to politics. A stuffed elephant sits on a fireplace mantle above their heads.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”907″ ]
“It’s just a coincidence,” says one of the students, giggling about the toy.
The students said they sometimes struggle to identify themselves politically. “Conservative” does not cut it. The term is at once too expansive and too easy for others to pigeonhole.
“Maybe I’m a progressive conservative?” one suggests, and they all laugh at the contradiction.
They hesitate to label themselves “conservative” for another reason. On this campus, the term is loaded. At times, they feel uneasy talking about their conservative viewpoints among their friends.
“If you’re open about it, you’re going to be attacked,” one says, “but you want to have friends.”
“I bite my tongue a lot,” another adds.
The students asked to remain anonymous because they do not want their political views publicized.
Conservatives, without a doubt, form a much smaller community on this campus than they did a few decades ago. A recent News poll of 322 undergraduates found that while 67 percent of students describe themselves as liberal and 21 percent as moderate, only 12 percent of students call themselves conservative.
The conservative contingency in the faculty may be just as small, if not smaller. Professors said they could only name a handful of politically conservative colleagues.
“Among the faculty, there just isn’t any presence,” international studies lecturer Charles Hill said.
But conservatism at Yale is far from dead.
A conservative voice of a certain kind currently makes itself heard in editorials, debating societies and the monthly Yale Free Press. A small coterie of conservative undergraduates is trying to provide a voice for those who are “quieter and kind of ashamed,” in the words of Jeremy Schiffres ’11, a Conservative Party member. Yet some claim this group’s insularity and pomp scares off closet conservatives. As President Barack Obama’s administration gives the spotlight back to the liberals, alienated conservatives are looking for a welcoming, supportive community.
But they are not finding it at Yale.
How times have changed.
Fifty years ago, Yale was different. The University was all-male and, until the 1950s, all white. Students hailed from the Northeast Corridor, attended private high schools, and wore jackets and ties to dinner every evening.
Alumni from past decades describe the campus as overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, perhaps even more so than the rest of the country. In his 1936 bid for re-election, Franklin D. Roosevelt carried 46 out of 48 states, including Connecticut. But according to a straw poll by the News, he lost Yale.
Retired Yale administrator Sam Chauncey ’57 said that after World War II, self-described Democrats were a rarity on campus. Yale historian and Larned Professor Emeritus of History Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 concurred, saying Yale faculty and administrators were openly Republican up through the 1950s.
It was during this era, after all, that William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 became the chairman of the News.
Little did Elis know that conservatism was on its way out. By the 1960s, Yale had transformed into a liberal campus. Under the presidency of Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale broadened its base of students, recruiting from a range of socioeconomic and minority groups. Anti-war demonstrations and civil rights protests soon rocked this campus. President John F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at the 1962 commencement ceremonies.
While conservatism saw a resurgence in the 1980s, making this campus more moderate politically, it never returned to its full glory. The euphoric celebrations over President Barack Obama’s victory are evidence of the campus’ strong liberal bent.
With conservatism in its most serious trough since the heady ’60s, Yale’s conservative students feel silenced.
At least one group, however, refuses to quiet down.
Bang bang bang.
With a few swift taps of a gavel, the Yale Political Union debate is underway.
Students gathered in William L. Harkness Hall on Wednesday evening for the annual YPU Gardner-White Prize debate. The winner of the debate — selected from 43 entrants by a panel of student judges — will receive free lifetime membership in the Union. The topic of the night is “Resolved: Tear down the White Picket Fence,” a referendum on the dominant American culture of the past 50 years.
This is not a typical meeting for the Union. At this event the students stand and sit in unorganized clusters. Anyone who has attended a YPU debate can tell you that they usually feature a prominent speaker in addition to student speakers and, perhaps even more noticeably, students seat themselves along party lines; right-leaning parties sit on the right side of auditoriums, left-leaning parties sit on the left.
On the right side, one is apt to see bow ties, cravats, and bottles of port and sherry. In the YPU, conservatives make themselves distinctive with a unique personal style.
“You can always spot the conservative students,” said political science professor and Branford Master Steven Smith. He added that he thinks conservative students in particular take pride in being a showy minority.
“There is nothing more boring than being another liberal on campus,” he said. “People don’t want to be forced into a mold.”
Through such exhibitionism, the parties loudly present themselves as the face of conservatism.
For these students, party membership shapes their social lives. When not attending YPU events, Party of the Right members hang out, throw parties, get into arguments and generally do “a lot of raising hell,” member Will Wilson ’09 said. Members of these groups either control or exert some kind of influence over almost every other conservative organization on campus, including the Yale College Republicans and Choose Life at Yale. Jordan Zimmerman ’12, a new member of the Independent Party, said she thinks the parties provide a backbone for conservative students on campus.
“A supportive community does exist in the form of a few parties in the YPU,” she insisted.
Yet despite being tied together by a common reverence for tradition, the three conservative parties, the Conservative Party, Tory Party and Party of the Right, are not quite one big, happy family.
Matthew Shaffer ’10, who said he left the Party of the Right last fall, sees tremendous factionalism within the YPU, which produces divisiveness among conservatives.
“There is no unified conservatism at Yale,” he said. “The level of rancor between and within the various parties is absolutely outrageous.”
But YPU President David Manners-Weber ’10 said reports of hostility are exaggerated.
“Stories about conservative infighting in the Union are largely overwrought,” he said.
Although right-leaning party leaders claim to welcome different points of view, many members said a degree of insularity is valued because it fosters productive debates. Some said heterogeneity, while potentially valuable too, can prove disruptive in small groups.
Tory Party member Matt Gerkin ’10 pointed out that his party requires all members to be conservative.
“If you don’t share something in common while debating, it is difficult to get beyond that,” he said.
“There’s sort of a philosophy about keeping the party pure,” Wilson said about the Party of the Right.
Ironically, the right-leaning parties of the YPU adhere to tradition in order to be different. They indulge in formalities and revel in old-fashioned ways. Inevitably, most liberal students are turned off by this behavior.
But they are not the only ones.
Failing to connect?
“It was the most self-serving, masturbatory display I had ever seen, and I swore I would never go back to another one ever again,” Michael Eggleston ’10 said.
Eggleston, a conservative, attended his first YPU debate as a freshman and was immediately repulsed, saying he never realized what “pompous windbag” truly meant before attending the event.
A number of conservative students expressed criticism about the brand of conservatism practiced in the YPU. Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed Eggleston’s view.
“I believe the YPU caters to conservatives … the kind I aspire never to be,” the student said. “I, along with my like-minded peers, refrain from such affiliations.”
Students said they think the parties’ deliberate flamboyance drives away those seeking a welcoming community. Others said YPU conservatives, through their insularity and idiosyncrasies, create a barrier between themselves and the rest of the student body.
Lauren Blas ’09 said although she appreciates their provocative debates, she finds the parties’ methods a little theatrical for her taste.
“I think that in some ways they become a caricature of conservatism,” she said. “They put on a good show, but that’s not the kind of thing that I would particularly like to engage in.”
Liberal Party Chairman David Porter ’10 was more blunt. Porter, who describes himself as “far to the left,” explained that conservatives face great obstacles because liberalism dominates academia.
“Conservatism is not doing very well at Yale, and I don’t think it’s likely to recover anytime soon,” he said. “And as long as Yale’s conservatives confine themselves to places like the YPU, nobody is likely to think that what they do matters.”
But perhaps it would be too harsh to say these groups are failing to connect with the rest of the conservative community. Matt Gerken ’10, a member of the Tory Party, said his party is not necessarily on a mission to reach out to all conservative students in the first place. The Tory Party does not have proselytizing intentions, he said, though it tries to make a broad range of students feel welcome.
The Silent Minority
Some students claim that “conservative” is still a dirty word on this campus, and a new forum for dialogue could help to change this.
Yale College Republicans President Thomas Abell ’10, who hails from Mississippi, said he never thought of himself as politically conservative until he arrived at Yale, an environment in which the political center lies much further left than at home. Feeling that conservatism was stigmatized on Yale’s campus, he raised the issue with the dean of student affairs last year.
“There is definitely animosity here,” he told the News. “Some of us are sensitive about that sort of thing.”
Aside from the YPU and its affiliated groups, conservatives lack a supportive body on campus.
Some students suggested that a conservative publication could fill this void. But a conservative publication of sorts does exist. The Yale Free Press, founded in 1983, currently advertises itself on its blog as “the magazine of Yale University’s cadre of alienated conservatives.” But students generally regard the Free Press as a far-right or even libertarian publication rather than one that appeals to the entire conservative community.
Shaffer, who assumed the editorship of the publication last fall, said he is working on broadening its scope. He cited the August issue of the Yale Free Press, in which an editorial supporting Barack Obama appears alongside ones supporting John McCain and Bob Barr, as an example of his work to expand the audience of the publication. But he admitted recent issues have not been effective at drawing a wider audience.
“I’m trying to bring back the good ol’ days,” Shaffer said. “I want to welcome back the silent and embarrassed minority that exists underground.”
Zimmerman said she cannot think of any other group that would offer a support system for conservatives, aside from the YPU parties.
“Do we need more groups? I don’t think so,” Zimmerman said.
She said she fears that a new group could turn into a society that is “blockheaded and stubborn about their views.”
“I personally wouldn’t want that,” she said.
Currently, a small contingency of Elis remain in relative obscurity on this campus, reticent and isolated. For at least the next few years that a liberal president is in office, it looks like they will keep their heads down and bite their tongues. Blas, sitting in the Publick Cup, considers the difficult times ahead.
“Oh well,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee, “things have to get bad before they get any better.”