I still remember pacing around Old Campus in the middle of the night two years ago. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 had just lost the presidency. With that, the flavor of Yale politics I had subscribed to as a first year — incremental idealism — had been rejected by an electorate frustrated with elites like me. As I wandered, I took the election of Donald Trump personally. Justified or not, it felt like a referendum on my identity.
This Tuesday, I felt nothing. There was no emotion. The candidates and elections ticking across the screen of my laptop as I streamed MSNBC — Beto, Stacey, Andrew, all of them — were wholly disconnected from who I was. There was nothing about this iteration of politics that felt personal. Instead, the election reminded me of the disconnect I, along with many Yale students who were on campus two years ago, feel from Yale’s political class.
That class is made up of three camps.
First, there are the activists. The activists took the lead in stapling anti-Kavanaugh signs to bulletin boards. Following his confirmation, they spray-painted quotes from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on the doors to Yale Law School, much to the chagrin of the maintenance workers who were subsequently forced to spend hours cleaning up after them. The activists are those who celebrated the death of Senator John McCain on Twitter. Although activists at Yale are usually guided by agreeable principles, like equity and justice, their aggressively reactive, occasionally nihilistic approach to politics scares away all but the most extreme people.
Second, there are the bureaucrats: the Yale Democrats, the Clinton types. Before Trump won the presidency, I happily considered myself a member of this camp. Like many of my classmates, I believed in the long game, in the promise that the arc of America bends toward perfection through sustained and measured reform. The bureaucrats are generally good, decent people who genuinely believe in the virtues of public service, playing their part in trying to affect American politics in understated, often deeply unsexy ways. I still remember spending hours “Phonebanking With The Dems” in the months leading up to November 2016.
But over time, the bureaucrats can be numbing, even exhausting, in their scripted self-control and forced optimism. Sure, Beto O’Rourke didn’t win, they’ll tell you. But the margin between him and Ted Cruz was smaller than it normally is between Texas Democrats and Republicans! Admirably, some at Yale still, have the patience for that kind of politics. After America elected Donald Trump, I didn’t.
Finally, there are those who comprise Yale’s conservative wannabe-intelligentsia. While they may keep a lower profile than the other two camps, they are perhaps the most alienating, even repulsive. After having subscribed to the National Review and followed Jonah Goldberg on Twitter, the intelligentsia sniffly bemoans Yale’s drifting away from, say, classical philosophical texts in favor of Laurie-Santos-esque psychology. The intelligentsia sprang to defend the truly indefensible — the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90, a man who, allegations aside, has a temperament any reasonable person would find incompatible with the Supreme Court — not because they actually believed in what they were arguing but because the other two camps were so firmly against the nominee, so early. Born out of Trump’s election but assisted by everything else that exists at Yale, the intelligentsia makes up for its lack of overt presence in our public discourse with masturbatory arrogance and delusional self-satisfaction.
I cannot consider myself part of any of those three camps. Instead, as it occurred to me on Tuesday, I find myself politically homeless.
My cynicism — deliberate, but totally real — is influenced by several factors, but a big one was my tenure as opinion editor at the News this past year. I saw firsthand how ungrounded in facts and empirics the columns by the activist camp on Yale’s relationship with New Haven were. I saw how meaningless the milquetoast, get-out-the-vote columns by the bureaucrat camp were. I saw how sniveling and needlessly provocative the conservative intelligentsia’s columns on pronouns and the Christakises were. The camps’ approaches to argument, to rhetoric, to politics as they see it, are all distinct — and, from my perspective as an editor, seemed profoundly incompatible.
America and Yale both have a problem with tribalism. I learned two long years ago that trying to solve America’s ills is much more difficult than Yale’s politicos would have you think. Since then, I learned that the differences between the three camps of Yalies invested in politics are entrenched in Yale’s culture, too.
I can’t say that those differences will spontaneously reconcile themselves; enough of the phantom optimism. But I hope — I really hope — that those at Yale who care the most about politics will do better to offer a home to the rest of us. Building a broad, deep coalition of those who sincerely feel a stake in Yale’s political class is their most pressing project of the next two years.
Emil Friedman is a junior in Silliman College. His columns run every other Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .