“Malaise” has become the watchword of this political season. Young people, so energetic in 2008, have grown subdued four years later. Voters on both sides are disenchanted, let down by the president and skeptical of his opponent.
I had always thought that Yale, in particular, would remain immune from apathy. After all, we’re highly educated, which usually correlates with political engagement. But, by all accounts, some Yalies are suffering bouts of ambivalence toward the upcoming election.
This past weekend, a friend — normally a smart and thoughtful woman in all respects — asked me why she should vote come November. The question took me by surprise. I launched into the standard, non-partisan spiel: Voting is a natural right, denied to a majority of the world’s population. Exercising that right for its own sake is important, even if the choices are unappetizing. (Yada yada.)
After our exchange, I started talking to others. Did they, too, consider staying at home this election? A shockingly high percentage of my friends had not registered to vote.
Strangely, these (mostly liberal) Yalies view the election as extremely important. Some have drunk the media Kool-Aid, convinced that Governor Mitt Romney’s policy priority is restricting abortion. Others think that Congressman Paul Ryan wants to kill Grandma. For them, the situation is dire. They support Obama. So why won’t they go to the polls?
The answer lies in our own education. In this election, particularly in the debates, the candidates rely on unrealistic policy promises. They are presumptuous. But in them, we see ourselves and our delusions of policy grandeur. And so Yalies choose to ignore the election entirely, preserving their academic self-worth in the process.
Popular majors teach students that they can fix complex problems with simple solutions. At its inception in 2011, Global Affairs touted the capstone projects, in which students could actually combat pressing international problems. Deliver a presentation and cure AIDS. To get into Ethics, Politics and Economics, applicants come up with concentrations that tackle buzzwords (“security,” “sustainability”) with little more than a thesis. The emphasis in these majors: solve the sexy problems on the front page of the New York Times magazine in a 30-page paper.
Of course, these majors address important issues. But in their attempt to sell themselves, the departments aspire to grandiosity and undermine the complexity of the issues they study. Students think they understand energy policy after a seminar. We say, “I study global health,” or “my focus is on terrorism” as if we are professionals in the field.
But how does this tie into the election malaise? When Yalies watch the debate, they hear outstanding and precise policy predictions — suspiciously similar to their majors. Mitt Romney will create twelve million new jobs. Not eleven. Not ten. Twelve million, on the nose. Barack Obama will reduce the deficit by four trillion dollars just by saying so. The two campaigns reject modesty and predict the future with a familiar certainty.
We can see the emptiness of these promises and forecasts. Our complex world does not boil down to talking points. Neither candidate can control the monthly unemployment numbers. But both Obama and Romney sure pretend they can.
And so, in this election, Yalies see themselves. We see our projects and majors in a new light. We see the brashness of our thinking. We see the chutzpah in assuming that an undergrad can understand — let alone solve — the world’s problems via PowerPoint.
By ignoring the election, some of us ignore the limits and flaws of our studies. We safeguard the image of ourselves as budding policy makers, ready to step into an NGO or the Executive Office after graduation.
Pay attention over the next few weeks. Vote. The country will benefit — you will too. It might, though, be just a little uncomfortable.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.