In today’s heady political climate, we are warned that American democracy is under assault from all sides. From the far-Left we hear that Wall Street’s capitalists have captured the mechanisms of our government and bought the subservience of the major parties. From the far-Right we hear that “Comrade-in-Chief” Obama has begun a socialist assault on the American way of life. From both sides we hear the cry that “Washington is broken.” And so the radicals from both fringes hold rallies and tea parties denouncing their “evil” opponents while the rest of us are just turned off.
While the extremists rant, this “silent majority” of Americans just tune out politics. There are always plenty of excuses — there’s no difference between the parties; politicians are all just corrupt; it’s all about the money; nothing ever gets done anyway; and, of course, “it’s boring.”
While it is convenient and satisfying to blame the loud, uncompromising ideologues for the problems in American politics today, it is this silent, apathetic majority that is causing the decay of political discourse and deliberative democracy in America. The knee-jerk fans of Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann aren’t the real danger; it’s the people who are too busy voting for American Idol to make it to the polls for a national election.
By abandoning the debate, apathetic Americans forfeit the field to the corrupt and the fanatical. By removing themselves from political discourse, they deprive our democracy of their ideas and their perspectives. By condemning politics, they doom the government and the public sphere to dysfunction and decay. Democracy atrophies without the full participation of all its citizens in the political life of the nation.
Seventy-five years ago, a group of Yale students and professors noticed a similar political apathy in America, one that even then cast a pallor over our beloved University. And so in the fall of 1934, this group came together to found the Yale Political Union. For three-quarters of a century, the YPU has worked hard (granted, with varying degrees of success) to combat political disengagement and raise the level of public discourse both on campus and in the wider world.
Each week, college students are prepared to challenge the arguments of the Union’s guests — politicians, journalists, activists and leaders. They grapple with major political issues and stay up late into the night to passionately press their cause to their peers, to the surprise and pleasure of the guests.
That the Union’s guests react so favorably is at once both immensely gratifying and deeply depressing. If a Union debate is the most intellectually rigorous and politically interesting discussion that a senator or governor has ever been to, then either the YPU is doing something incredibly right or the rest of America is doing something terrifyingly wrong. I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s more than just a little bit the latter.
Politics is not something to be relegated to the halls of Congress and the first 10 minutes of the nightly news. Politics is fundamentally connected to the way we live our lives and engaging in the great public debate over the issues facing our nation is the responsibility of every citizen. That is the challenge of democracy.
At the YPU’s founding, President Franklin Roosevelt said that “This Union can be of undoubted value to nation and to the University, provided it maintains independence and voices the true thoughts of those participating … Honest debates will help in the search for truthful answers.”
The words that Roosevelt spoke about the Union then still hold meaning for all of America today. It is high time that people stopped complaining about politics and started participating in it. We should not surrender the public sphere to the crazies that can shout the loudest. We should take pride in our responsibilities as citizens and engage in debate.
Every American has something to contribute to America’s political life. And if we can explode America’s political apathy, I think we’ll all be pleasantly surprised to see a marked improvement in the outcomes of American politics.
Alexander Martone is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. He is the President of the Yale Political Union.