Two hundred and fifty years ago, this great nation’s founding fathers, fed up with the overextended hand of the mammoth British monarchy, took matters into their own hands and crafted a new government, one that sought to control factionalism while still allowing for difference of opinion. These Federalists, as they were called, had in breaking from the Tories in Britain embarked upon the unprecedented social experiment of creating their Republic.
Only God knew what was in store.
Six months ago, a group of Yale’s leading conservative voices, fed up with the bitter personal disputes and corrupted focus they saw in parts of the Yale Political Union, split from the Tory Party to create a new birth of conservatism in the YPU, one that tried to both control the factionalism that crippled Tory debates and allow for a place of true conservatism on campus. These Federalists, as their new party would be called, had in breaking from the Tories sparked what they hoped would be a new chapter in YPU history.
If all goes as these Federalists plan, there will soon be two parties in the YPU that explicitly require their members to identify as conservative. But only one, they say, will adhere to true conservative principles, instead of glorifying “frat culture,” and only one will have a constitution that protects against the kind of factional conflict that led to the Tory-Federalist split in the first place — a split they say had been a long time coming. (And only one will have the support of Karl Rove.)
They may not be a fully-established party yet, but if the Federalists succeed, it could be morning again in New Haven.
ONE NATION, UNDER GOD
When Kevin Gallagher ’11 applied for membership in the Tory Party this April, he thought he was a shoo-in. A solid conservative on his second attempt at membership, he’d made friends with half the party and prepared himself for a quiz on Tory history required of all petitioning candidate by reading not one but four books on Tory history. He aced the quiz.
When the decisions came out, though, he was the only petitioning candidate rejected.
For the would-be Federalists, Gallagher’s candidacy exposed fractures that had been brewing in the party for a few years. Here, they said, was an example of a candidate fully deserving of admission to the Party, rejected for little more than petty politics. Information surrounding the deliberations is highly classified, and members are strongly discouraged from sharing knowledge of the proceedings, but one of Gallagher’s friends told him in confidence why he’d been rejected. Gallagher, his opponents had said, was at odds with the Tories’ idea of “big tent conservatism,” a policy that tries to bring together conservatives of divergent interest.
The real reason, Gallagher said, was that he was acquainted with the minority faction in the Party, and the majority was afraid that allowing him to join and vote in the election (which was to be held within the week) would threaten their prospects of maintaining a grip on the Tory power structure.
The fight over Gallagher’s candidacy was brutal. Alice “La” Wang ’12, a former aesthetic director for the Tory Party known as the “Chairman’s Muse,” called the debate “awful.” Friendships were lost throughout the ordeal, Wang said, and rhetoric became so intensely personal, Gallagher said, that one participant allegedly left the room in tears and others nearly came to blows.
Gallagher’s case, though, was merely an exemplification of deeply ingrained political faultlines dating back years, faultlines that the Federalists allege stem from a flawed structure.
“It wasn’t such a bloodbath because of me,” Gallagher said. “It’s because people understood that this was just one example of a problem that was fundamental to this organization.”
Cyprien Sarteau ’12, the chairman of the Tories, declined to comment on the schism with the Federalists.
The Federalists’ concerns centered on what they saw as the Tories’ failure to adhere to their established principles. The party had become focused on political posturing rather than debates over ideology, said Isabel Marin ’12, the Federalist Party’s chief whip. True conservatives don’t get immoderately drunk, she said; true conservatives don’t grind and hook-up at Toad’s. In hopes that they wouldn’t be seen as too right-wing for Yale, Wang said, the Tories had abandoned the central principles of a socially conservative life.
“I don’t really have a problem with frat culture,” Wang said, “but it’s a problem when you are not willing to debate certain issues because you think that, as conservatives, we tend to be a little alienated in the Yale population. They were of the opinion that if we didn’t accept those things, we would alienate ourselves even more.”
In addition to failing to appreciate a socially conservative lifestyle, they failed to permit it; Marin said speaking about religion was often discouraged from debate, and social issues were swept under the rug so that the party could attract a more diverse group. It’s no coincidence, Gallagher suggested, that the members of Choose Life at Yale (a student group against abortion) who were in the Tory Party have since aligned with the Federalists.
There came a point, Wang said, when ideological, factional and structural tensions were simply too much for the Tories to continue moving as a cohesive party.
“We came to understand that it’s not healthy for both of our groups to continue like this,” she said. “We have to reject this fusionism and say that there is room for two conservative parties.”
For Wang and the other Federalists, jumping ship to another party on the right wouldn’t have provided a satisfactory option because they just aren’t conservative enough; Wang said if she hadn’t joined the Federalists, she wouldn’t be in the YPU at all.
Such a split is hardly unprecedented. After all, the Tory Party was birthed on April 29, 1969 — exactly 41 years before the beginning of the Federalist Party’s first yelp in this world — when a group of disaffected conservatives signed a Tory Manifesto that declared their split from the Party of the Right. When the Manifesto was discovered by the chairman of the Party of the Right, each of the undersigned was sent a letter saying that the chairman accepted their resignation, despite the fact that they had never officially resigned and members in the Party of the Right were instated for life. Perhaps ironically, lifetime membership became a central tenet of the newly-formed Tory Party.
Now, Marin said, just as the Federalists begin forming their own party, the Tories are poised to amend their constitution to make lifelong membership a little easier to revoke, and Marin said she expects that the Federalists’ lifelong ties to the Tories will soon be cut.
But all hope is not lost. When the Party of the Left abandoned the Liberal Party in 2006 to begin a new era in liberal politics at Yale, tensions ran high as the two groups tussled over members, Liberal Party chairman Stephanie Seller ’12 said. But over time, relations grew amicable and each party has since carved out its own niche on the left.
“It’s better for everybody if the parties kind of stay out of each other’s business,” Seller said.
Many moons and summers ago, in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and eighty seven, a group of America’s finest thinkers gathered in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a room sweatier than Modern Love or Christine O’Donnell, for a Constitutional Convention. This past summer, when Ms. Wang, Ms. Marin, Mr. Gallagher and their cohorts met to discuss their own party’s constitution, Independence Hall was booked. In a stroke of irony, these conservative leaders traded the sweat and armpits of State Hall for the least conservative, most modern solution possible: they met via WordPress.
It takes 46 signatures to become a petitioning party in the YPU (Gabriel Ellsworth ’11, the party’s Guardian, said he submitted the requisite signatures Thursday) and 25 members signing into Union debates over the course of a semester to become a full party (no problem, Marin said). And although they’ve already completed a draft constitution, what the Federalist Party will ultimately become remains unclear.
The 14 current members of the future (read: not yet Yale official) Federalist Party have held eight debates since the beginning of the year, including one on whether to join the Tea Party (they decided against jumping on the Express), one on Arizona’s immigration law and another on the future of China.
Marin said they’ve worked to craft a constitution that will avoid the factional conflict that led to last spring’s split with the Tories. The new constitution keeps new members from voting so the membership process doesn’t become politically motivated, and limits the power granted to any one officer so that elections aren’t so comeptitive.
In a place without clear power structures, jockeying for power can’t really happen, and Marin hopes that will allow the focus to once again return to serious, informed debate to explore the role of conservatism when dealing current, real-world concerns. It’s not reasonable to be a monarchist in a democratic society, Marin said. Their goal is to find out how to live a truly conservative lifestyle in any context, be it Yale or the American political landscape. No more squabbling, no more factions, no more scenes, no more “cool” — in the words of Lady Gaga, “just debate.”
Wang said she hopes the Federalist party will one day be host to the most thoughtful debate on campus. To that end, Gallagher said, the group has already reached out to the Party of the Left to host a joint debate in the spring.
They may not be jumping on Sarah Palin’s dogsled anytime soon, but the Federalists, despite their focus on nostalgia and conservatism, want to see true conservatism come to life in American politics again. In that sense, even if they can’t support Christine O’Donnell, Wang said the Federalists can support the Tea Party’s move toward choosing candidates based on ideology, not perceived electability.
“It’s so easy to just get into these YPU intellectual thoughts and very easy to lose touch with the American reality,” Wang said.
Even in its early days, the Federalists’ message has caught on with alumni and guests as well as students. Matt Shaffer ’10, who was the Chairman of both the Party of the Right and the Progressive Party during his tour-de-force at Yale, ended his career in the YPU as a Federalist; following his visit last month, Karl Rove wrote a letter to Ms. Wang saying he considered himself a member of the Federalist Party.
REPUBLICAN = RED = FIRE
There’s a famous German proverb which states that blood is thicker than wine.
Evidently, the Germans have never tried port wine, felt its stains on their linen bow ties or met anyone from the conservative wing of the YPU.
Past polls in the News have shown that fewer than 10 percent of students identify as conservatives, and being a minority strongly informs the way conservatives approach debate, three conservatives interviewed said.
“It seems like conservatives [at Yale] come into everything with a chip on their shoulder,” Marin said.
Yet in the YPU, conservatives and liberals play roughly equal parts. Each Union-wide debate features one speech from either side of the floor, and despite being vastly outnumbered on campus, the YPU’s right wing counts nearly as many members as the left, YPU President Conor Crawford ’12 said.
YPU members on both sides of the aisle also said conservatives at Yale are much less inclined to get involved with activism but instead to engage in debate. That’s a point on which liberals and conservatives at Yale diverge — some liberals, including Yale College Democrats President Ben Stango ’11, said conservatives would do well to create more right-wing activism on campus.
“When you have a group that only espouses ideas and doesn’t connect them with action, that’s not the kind of political group that’s valuable in American political dialogue,” Stango said.
For Wang, though, it’s not in the conservative nature to be so directly involved in the day-to-day of politics; she’d much rather delve into philosophy.
“If you ask anyone on the right, ‘would you rather be a senator or governor or would you rather be a public intellectual,’ most people would rather be a public intellectual,” Wang said. “They want to think about these issues, but they don’t really get actively involved.”
These factors, combined with the paucity of fresh conservative meat on campus, conspire to create an environment in which parties on the right must sharply distinguish themselves through strong reputations, traditions and rites that attract new members. Each has its own reputation — the Conservative Party is known for its emphasis on Great Books, the POR for the intensity of its debate, the Tory Party for its “fashionable anglophilia” and admiration for all things monarchy.
The chairman of the POR and the Conservative Party is not to be referred to by name, but instead only as the chairman of the Party of the Right; it is traditional, Gallagher said, for the chairman of the Party of the Right to demand that even his parents refer to him as the chairman of the Party of the Right.
The intensity only heightens when groups are attempting to bring in new members; while some conservative students fall neatly into one party or another, Gallagher said, the rest could feasibly fit into any of the parties.
“There are some freshmen with different temperaments who belong to one party, but for the majority of conservative freshmen, [parties] compete vigorously because it’s not obvious that these freshmen belong to one party or another,” Gallagher said.
ALL’S FAIR IN THE YPU
All the in-fighting and secrecy and tradition begs the question: why does this all matter? After all, it’s a debating society, and the party meetings always adjourn to Yorkside or Mory’s. Indeed, Stango’s primary (non-ideological) critique of the right in the YPU is that the talk, at least on the right, fails to carry over into action.
This last week, a video of two fighting conservatives, one of whom was once in the YPU, circled the intrawebs and became the meme of the week. In the video, titled “Man Gets Revenge on Ex-Girlfriend on C-SPAN 2,” panelist Todd Seavey issues a barage of highly personal attacks on former chairman of the Party of the Right (and his ex-girlfriend) Helen Rittelmeyer ’08 during the panel discussion. Rittelmeyer’s essay, perhaps unsurprisingly, praised the Party of the Right’s use of brutal political sparring in their debates, something which Seavey cites as proof of her cruelty. Seavey’s attacks on the former Party of the Right chairman reflect highly personal nature of the YPU; though the battles within the impassioned right at Yale hold little tangible impact, they mean everything emotionally.
“The same way you can read Thucydides not because you care about the Greeks. but because you care about how human nature plays itself out in politics, the same thing plays out in the YPU,” Gallagher said. “Betrayals, back-stabbing, love — it’s probably very corrupting, but it’s a microcosm of politics … The battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low.”
“It’s very pleasant to be in an environment where people share your principles,” he continued. “People who know that no one around them shares their principles have to avoid regarding people with a little bit of disdain and getting very invested in the question of their absolute political [rightness]. That’s the danger of the right.”
But for Marin, the microcosm of politics extends beyond the YPU, to Yale institutions like a cappella and the News that demand much of their members but give back fraternity and a first look at how people govern themselves.
“They really define your Yale experience in a lovely way. These organizations create a love that will aggravate political situations,” she said.
Here in this petri dish of real-world politics, friendships and romance often hold as much weight as ideological differences. If the Federalists are to succeed, they must learn to regulate these passions for the first of many times in the years to come.
“I don’t think the American founders could really foresee what America would become,” Marin said. “That’s what’s exciting.”
Correction: October 26, 2010
Due to editing errors, an earlier version of this article misstated Gabriel Ellsworth’s ’11 class year. In addition, Matt Shaffer’s ’10 name was misspelled.