The ways that we talk about politics at Yale matter. They matter not only because politicians ought to be aware of the people they serve, but also because Yale people are deeply connected with policymaking in Washington, D.C. The trouble is, Yale’s approach to (typically left-leaning) politics is largely unaware, tone-deaf and unresponsive to our country’s majority.
You would be hard-pressed to find an upperclassman here hadn’t served as a “policy intern” on Hillary Clinton’s LAW ’73 presidential campaign. During a recent visit to Yale, former campaign press secretary Brian Fallon quipped that it often felt as though the campaign’s policy shop was run by a “Yale mafia.” It may be President Donald Trump’s election that will break Yale’s tradition of, by only slight exaggeration, running D.C.
On so many different issues, Republican policy is much more straightforward than that of Democrats. Republicans’ message on immigration, for instance, is simple: People should immigrate to this country legally, and because some immigrants have spent years in line for legal citizenship, excuses made for those who came illegally are unfair. It makes sense to many, many Americans outside elite oases like Yale: If laws apply to these citizens, why shouldn’t they also apply to immigrants? You might not, as I don’t, agree with that position. But it’s an easy one to understand.
The Democratic perspective on immigration is more nuanced. Democrats argue that while, yes, some immigrants are “undocumented,” what makes more sense is “comprehensive immigration reform” with a path to citizenship. I agree with that position — as do many Yalies — but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this less emotionally appealing message must be pitched to millions of voters whose involvement with politics might be limited to switching on the nightly news occasionally or flipping through their town’s paper every morning.
A palatable pitch for Democratic policies, clearly, is a tall order. This is especially hard for Yalies, who belong to the elite by virtue of their association with this institution. And the ways in which they evaluate the issue and, in many cases, bring the issue to D.C. post-graduation, only make this task harder. We ride the Acela straight from New Haven to D.C. without getting off to understand the economically depressed cities through which we pass.
For example, Yalies and other left-leaning politicos in D.C. often dismiss Trump’s order to redouble Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests as simply inhumane. I don’t think that’s the right way to present such actions to a broader America. Instead, why not point to the many tangible benefits a strong immigrant community brings to the country in economic, not emotional, terms? In other words, what seems to be self-evidently wrong simply isn’t seen that way in other parts of the country. Maybe, frankly, that’s why Trump is our president. So our job ought to be refining the Democratic messaging to change that.
The same goes for issues like abortion. At Yale, the issue of abortion is discussed just as casually as tax policy or healthcare would be. But for a much broader section of America that, yes, includes Democrats, issues of abortion and choice are deeply emotional, deeply faith-influenced debates. The approach Yalies and young Democrats take, then, comes across as insensitive and even a little arrogant.
I understand that Yale is a university, a space that can exist as a social laboratory outside of real life. The truth is what happens at Yale matters. Americans pay attention when they see pictures of pro-choice events at Yale that reduce one of the most difficult decisions anyone should ever face to a cheeky poster. Americans pay attention when opinion pieces in the News paint those in favor of stronger enforcement of immigration laws as racist or xenophobic. Americans pay attention when Yalies struggle to imagine a Democratic party that centers around a core economic message instead of identity politics and still isn’t racist. Our freedom of expression at Yale ought to be tempered with the responsibility we do, in effect, have.
Democrats on campus don’t have to reflect the political fabric of the rest of the country. But if they want Yale to set an example for the rest of the country, and especially if they want to bring the messages we hone here to D.C., they should pay attention. In the long run, Democrats’ ability to start winning again depends on it.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .