For much of my time at Yale, I’ve been confused about the political motivations of most undergraduates.
It is clear that, on the whole, Yalies are apathetic about national, local and campus politics. In the past year, columnists on this page have described students’ ignorance of issues regarding University governance, decried Yalies’ lack of involvement with the city of New Haven and written wistfully of the long-gone protest atmosphere of the 1970s. This past Friday, only 100 students gathered to protest the student income contribution — probably the second-most prominent issue on campus, after mental health. Most Yalies I know don’t follow national politics, nor do they hold opinions about foreign policy, tax reform and most other prominent policy issues.
I have no particular problem with political apathy; when individuals don’t feel an urgent need to participate in a system, it is often a sign that the system is working well. There are also many ways to improve the world that don’t involve politics, and I would be much more worried if Yalies displayed, not only anti-political, but anti-social tendencies.
Yet, Yalies’ high levels of political apathy present a sort of paradox. One might expect that a group of apathetic students would not have particularly developed political identities. If you don’t especially care about politics and aren’t very informed, why commit yourself to a specific political label? Yet, it is also clear that Yalies overwhelmingly identify as liberal: 62 percent of the class of 2018 self-identified as somewhat or very liberal in a survey from the News, with only 14 percent identifying as somewhat or very conservative. What explains Yalies’ commitment to liberalism as a political identity, given their overall political apathy?
In Judaism, we often speak of “cultural Jews”: people who might not attend synagogue very often or follow the tenets of the religion, but still identify strongly with the Jewish community and see themselves as part of the tribe, due to cultural similarities and common heritage. I suspect that a similar phenomenon is at play among Yale students — a sort of “cultural liberalism.” While Yalies might not know or care much about politics, they know that they belong to a particular political tribe. “Cultural liberals” on campus don’t need to buy into liberal principles or institutions to identify as liberal; their political identity instead signifies a set of cultural markers and a certain social upbringing.
“Cultural liberals” haven’t thought much about gun control or the separation of church and state, but they know that there’s a particular political tribe that loves guns, goes to church and listens to country music -— and that they don’t belong to that tribe. They like diversity because they grew up in communities where a respect for diversity was a prerequisite for social acceptability and a way to differentiate insiders from outsiders. They express outrage about the “war on women,” “scientific ignorance” and “privilege” to unambiguously signal their political affiliations and thereby increase their status. They rarely take any concrete political action in support of these proclaimed values; one doesn’t usually need to take action in order to belong to a cultural group.
If the previous paragraph sounds polemical, it is to vividly illustrate a pervasive phenomenon I’ve observed at Yale (and none of the above is meant to attack cultural Jews, who are wonderful). In fact, in all likelihood, conservatives are equally guilty of adopting political identities to signal cultural affiliations. Humans are tribal animals; we love separating into different groups and treating politics as a proxy for inter-tribal warfare.
So why make a big deal about a near-universal phenomenon? Because when we treat politics as a conflict between tribes, we inevitably focus on the most polarizing issues, those that most clearly delineate our political identities. It is no accident that most Yalies consider themselves more socially liberal than fiscally liberal. Both of our contemporary political tribes can claim to care about economic justice and the working class, so decrying the state of the poor is an inefficient way of marking one’s self as a liberal. On the other hand, feminism and identity politics signal membership in only one political tribe, so it is unsurprising that Yalies spend much of their time talking about these issues. When we focus on the issues that most divide us, we get a political discourse that is as polarized and unproductive as possible.
But we are in a university setting where we have an opportunity to critically examine our ideas, so I urge Yalies to hold themselves to a higher standard. Reject insignificant social issues that serve only to polarize. Don’t vote for candidates because they seem culturally similar to you. And figure out which political identity actually matches your principles and values.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.