At Yale, we learn to write, code, conduct scientific experiments — even think. But when we believe in something, when we want a law to change or a political candidate to get elected, our education rarely gives us the skills to reach our goals. In politics, theory and philosophy only go so far. We want the skills to make our aspirations real.
Yale is home to world-class professors and thinkers in political theory and philosophy, but the experts in the practice of politics, by definition, are not professors. Instead of working at universities, they’re in the field, serving as campaign managers, data analysts, pollsters, ad-makers and legislative strategists.
Our Yale education prepares us to think deeply about political institutions from historical and theoretical perspectives, but it doesn’t give us the skills to practice politics. Nobody’s teaching us how to win.
Winning is not just about beating an opponent. And it doesn’t have to be soulless or crude. The practice of politics can be a tremendous tool for effecting meaningful change in the world. Political practitioners use campaign messaging, targeting strategies and polling numbers to change customs, public discourse and even the law. Practice turns politics from a theoretical exercise into one that is open to all, one with consequences that extend beyond academia.
Students at Yale care about these real-world consequences. Contrary to the stereotype of the apathetic millennial, it is hard to find a student at Yale who isn’t passionate about some social or political cause. And many act on their beliefs, making phone calls with the Yale College Democrats or Republicans, debating policy on the floor of the Yale Political Union, protesting an administration policy or even just defending their views in a dining hall.
Though it’s important, defending our ideologies is not all there is to politics. But often, that is how it feels at Yale. Even when we manage to escape our own ideological circles, it can feel close to impossible to work with those who have opposing viewpoints. Differences in backgrounds, values and vocabulary can make genuine dialogue feel not just undesirable, but almost unthinkable. While Yalies on opposite sides of the political spectrum might disagree on a lot, we all share one common value: Everyone likes to win.
That’s why we’ve launched the Yale Politics Initiative, a new program through the Department of Political Science, with the support of the Block and Strickler Funds. Our aim is to expose students to talented, experienced political operatives and to inspire more careers in politics and public service.
In the coming months, five professional winners are coming to campus to teach small, select groups of Yale students as part of “Off the Record,” our new master class series in political practice. Joel Benenson, former President Barack Obama’s chief pollster, will walk students through the intricacies behind Obama’s landmark victories in 2008 and 2012. Patti Solis Doyle, the architect of Hillary Clinton’s political evolution, will teach you how to spot the perfect candidate. And Frank Luntz, a top conservative messaging consultant who coined the terms “climate change” and “death tax,” will show you how to use language to influence political behavior.
These noncredit, one-time-only master classes will give students intimate exposure to practitioners of real-world politics. The speakers will engage deeply with students — these classes will not be lectures, they’ll be interactive workshops designed to leave participants with new skills and a deeper understanding of each speaker’s work. Students will even have the opportunity to present work that the speakers will critique, like a mock messaging strategy for a potential 2020 presidential contender.
We’re not necessarily bringing these practitioners to Yale because we agree with them, and they’re not coming to debate their beliefs. We want them to teach the gritty specifics of the work necessary to put theory and ideology into practice. They’re not coming to tell war stories or just to recount their own successes. This is their chance to teach you how to win.
Paul Gross and Michael Michaelson are sophomores in Hopper College and co-directors of the Yale Politics Initiative. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .