Michael Holmes

WKND Editors’ Note: This piece is a personal essay, based on a single reporter’s experience. It is an exploration of hearsay and rumor and should be read as such. It does not purport to make factual claims about the Party of the Right or the Yale Political Union. Instead, it explores the climate of gossip that surrounds these organizations from the perspective of an outsider.

“The records are boring!” I heard a voice to my right exclaim. I turned around.

“The records are boring. There’s a full history of the party and a racist song book,” the voice continued. “That’s it! They try to scare you, they scare you for a whole semester, and the box just has history and Nazi songs.”

I was stunned, and cannot remember if I said anything in response. The owner of the voice was gone before I could regain my thoughts, before I could ask for a name.

I had been walking home with a friend, talking about a piece I had been pursuing but which had grown frustratingly elusive. I was chasing rumors that the Party of the Right did not meet on campus because they were not registered with the Yale College Dean’s Office. A quick glance at the Student Organizations Directory on the Yale College Dean’s website appears to indicate that the POR is indeed the only party in the Yale Political Union not registered as a University-affiliated organization. I wondered if their two boxes and folder of records would provide any insights. Unsurprisingly, attempts to find out were proving to be unsuccessful. The cloud of fantastical rumors surrounding the POR led to many possible and conflicting explanations for why the party appears to be unregistered.

Then, as I was heading home, ranting a bit too loudly, I was overheard. The streetlights near Old Campus were off — an ominous addition to the already bizarre turn of events — and I could not pinpoint the specifics of their features. I could say I was approached, but that would not accurately depict the rapid pace of the interaction. Approaching someone requires forethought, deliberation, maybe an introduction. Yet, the voice power walked past me, delivered its rant and vanished. The ever-chilly wind tunnel that forms under the arches of Phelps Gate whacked me in the face, and I remembered the silly tale children are told about a gust of cold air as the presence of a ghost.

In a way, the interaction helped me realize that I had been too fixated on the POR’s sealed records. There is always the possibility that the sealed records would have nothing newsworthy. After a few weeks of contacting members of the Yale Political Union, I had a distressingly low number of sources, none of which came from the POR, and none of my prevailing questions had been definitively answered — I only had a collection of notes and articles comprised of dubious facts and sources.

Parties in the YPU — especially the POR — seem to thrive on secrecy and exclusivity. Collective distrust of members of the out-group is a binding mechanism, and rumors, although they may not all be positive or truthful, still pique the interests of those in the out-group.

“In general, the parties either don’t keep records or are very secretive about it,” said Ryley Constable ’21, a member of the Tory Party. “With the Tories, there’s a member-only policy. You can go look at the records and reach the same conclusions you would after talking with a Tory for a few minutes. But if people ask, they’ll be told it’s members-only. The POR is just a little crazier about it.”

Constable ranked the POR and the Conservative Party as the most secretive, with the Tories and the Party of the Left following. That leaves the Independent Party, the Federalist Party and the Liberal Party, all of which have open records. According to Constable, the Independent Party supposedly had a closed record of the party’s history, from its founding to about 1981. The records were leaked, and the party made the decision to keep the records open. This could be attributed to the logistics of managing the largest party in the Union — swearing more than 100 people to secrecy can be tricky.

“If you ask them any questions about their conventions, they’ll answer: ‘that’s largely unclear,’” Constable said. Parties may also engage in secrecy to preempt student criticism of alumni influence. While the POR has a concentration of famous alumni — Fareed Zakaria of CNN, Richard Brookheiser from the National Review, Peter Keisler, an Attorney General under President George W. Bush — there may be alumni that the party is less keen to draw attention to. For example, Eve Tushnet, a lesbian who took a vow of celibacy due to her sexuality and joined public campaigns against same-sex marriage.

The prevalence of secrecy, in both the POR and the Union in its entirety, have left much of the broader student body’s knowledge of the group subject to the whims of rumor, and a probabilistic gamble of what may and may not be true, depending on a person’s propensity to believe the uncanny. As a writer, I am befuddled that few people were willing to speak, especially when students with conservative leaning feel as if their ideologies are not being properly recognized. Journalism is an avenue for free speech, but if all a writer receives are rumors, and those who are aware stay quiet, the perpetuation of rumors has the potential to persist.

Instead, to arrive at a better characterization of an unfamiliar organization, I found other journalists and alumni who had written about the YPU.

“They’re such libertarian rebels,” said Doug Henwood ’75, a POR alum and author of a left-leaning newsletter Left Business Observer, “In my day, it was all the libertarians versus the traditionalists, and there was a subset of the traditionalists who were actually royalists. We were all intellectual snobs, who thought liberal discourse was banal, subject to what Nietzsche would call leveling tendencies. The kind of anti-intellectuals who dominate the scene right now would have been very foreign to us.”

Henwood was in the POR for a year. He continued to receive POR newsletters and invitations until he published a piece entitled “Partying on the Right” for The Nation. Henwood described how Yale’s campus in the 70s had an even smaller conservative-leaning faction than it does today.

“To see that become mainstream in the Reagan Administration, then to the Republican Party today, which is so utterly bonkers and extreme — it was alarming to see that niche point of view become something so powerful,” Henwood said. “I had no idea, when I was with these people in 1971, that this was going to be the way of the future. We all thought that capitalism was doomed, freedom was doomed, socialism was going to dominate everything. We were fighting this twilight struggle to preserve civilization.”

A more recent member of the YPU, James Kirchick ’06, had kinder words for the right side of the YPU in his article “Union of Opposites: Yale and its Right-Wing Scene.” He describes Yale’s right-wing YPU members as “thinking conservatives who are willing to devote a great deal of time to intellectual debate,” and credited the POR as partially responsible for Yale’s reputation as a breeding-ground for intellectual conservatives.

“Though it is never spelled out to freshman recruits, the right-wing parties demand total allegiance and full-time commitment,” Kirchick wrote. “Anything less and you find yourself on the outs.”

Sources from inside the YPU, who requested anonymity, gave varying answers as to why the POR is the only party in the YPU not registered with the dean’s office on the website. One believed the POR was removed from campus following last semester’s whip-sheet controversy, while another source cited an incident in which the POR burned a piano on campus. A third source, a sophomore member of the Federalist Party, said the POR had been meeting off campus for a while.

These conflicting impressions are evidence of the extent of the POR’s secrecy. Yet, this clandestinely and pompousness was what drew Henwood to the POR and the YPU in the early 1970s.

“I was just some jerk from suburban New Jersey, and I landed at Yale, with all of this ruling-class poshness, and I’d never seen anything like it,” Henwood said. “All of the Tory pretension, and the leather-winged chairs, and the cocktails and port, you know, fueled me. Especially at a time when everyone else at Yale was spurning those traditions, it was kind of fun to be snooty about them, especially for somebody out of nowhere like me. But eventually, it just struck me as ridiculous, and I couldn’t handle it any longer.”

What Henwood saw as ridiculous, Kirchick saw as endearing. Writing in 2006, Kirchick acknowledged that “the POR is reputed to have bizarre rituals about which Union members love to speculate,” and even detailed a few, including a former one where the POR attempted to motion for a moment of silence to honour English King Charles I who reigned four centuries ago. The other party chairmen, well aware of the frustrating tradition, attempt to prevent it every year. It is the presence of such self-indulgent, pompous wonkiness amongst the YPU’s right-wing, Kirchick suggested, “that encourages and keeps the wit and whimsy of the organization alive, as opposed to the humorless Libs.”

Rianna Turnerrianna.turner@yale.edu 

Correction, April 16: A previous version of this article misstated the Party of the Right’s records as sealed. Their contents are in fact available on Yale Orbis. Unverifiable claims about a Party of the Right alumnus have been removed, as the alumnus was not reached for comment. A misspelling of Eve Tushnet’s surname as Tushner has been amended. In addition, the Party has been meeting off campus for more than two years, not two years as the original version of this story incorrectly stated. The story has also been updated to accurately reflect the discontinuation of the Party’s tradition of proposing a motion to honor Charles I; his execution for his role in the English Civil War, not for his refusal to renounce Christianity, has been clarified. Finally, members of the Party of the Right were not asked for comment on the particulars of these allegations.