Zhemin Shao, Contributing Photographer

Like many other student organizations, the Yale Political Union has held activities in a virtual format in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The YPU, which consists of seven parties ranging across the political spectrum, has hosted a range of debates and social events this semester. In addition to a weekly unionwide debate, each YPU party holds their own debates and organizes other social events. With all of these meetings now occurring over Zoom, YPU President Jeff Cieslikowski ’22 and three party leaders offered their views on the YPU’s activities, engagement and recruiting in this unique term.

“I think fewer people will ask questions in an online setting and want to engage. They’ll put their cameras off and they’ll listen, but they may not be as focused as they would be at a regular YPU debate,” Cieslikowski said. “But again, that’s the nature of Zoom.”

Cieslikowski noted that in keeping with the YPU tradition of “tapping” and “hissing” — where attendees bang on the tables to indicate agreement with a speaker and hiss to indicate disapproval — students now type “tap” and “hiss” in the Zoom chat. He added that the side conversations in the chat that have emerged from this have helped to foster engagement, but can also distract from the speaker.

Party of the Left Chair Daniel Inojosa ’23 expressed a similar view, indicating that the side conversations can be a challenge to manage.

“We try to avoid too much cross-talk in the chat,” Inojosa said. “That can diminish the quality of the debate a little bit.”

Inojosa also emphasized a challenge in scheduling events that accommodate members across many different time zones. For example, Inojosa noted, some inductees of the POL were in China, prompting the group to move events later into the evening.

In addition to political debates, each party has also hosted their own social events to keep members engaged. Inojosa said that the POL has alternated between in-person, socially distanced events and Zoom events. The virtual social events have included games and movie screenings.

“The atmosphere of a physical room filled with friends can never compare to a Zoom call,” Skylar Cobbett ’22, chairman of the Independent Party, wrote in an email to the News.

Nevertheless, the Independent Party has also organized a variety of virtual social events — including trivia nights, debate watch parties and game nights. These activities have helped to keep the party excited and engaged throughout the semester, Cobbett wrote. Additionally, he added that the Independent Party was able to translate their semesterly trip to New York into a virtual format by hosting discussions with guests from around the world.

Despite efforts to maintain YPU engagement, Cieslikowski said that attendance at unionwide debates has decreased this semester.

“I don’t blame people for not wanting to come to this all the time,” Cieslikowski said. “When you want to decompress after a long day of school and work, the last thing you want to do is sit on your laptop for two hours and listen to people talk.”

Cieslikowski said that most YPU debates have seen a turnout of between 40 and 50 students, compared to a membership list of over 250. In previous years, between 60 and 80 students typically attended the debates.

Within parties, however, attendance has been less of an issue. Both Inojosa and Cobbett said that turnout has remained strong for party events. Karlaes Morales ’23, chief whip of the Federalist Party, made a distinction between party debates and social events.

“We’ve managed to have a pretty solid attendance for most of our debates, although social events on Zoom have been a dud for the most part, as expected,” Morales wrote in an email to the News.

In terms of recruitment this semester, there were significant differences across parties. 

Morales wrote that recruiting new members to the Federalist Party was the biggest challenge of the term, since connecting with potential members is more difficult over a virtual platform.

Cobbett echoed Morales’ statements. According to him, it has been “more difficult than normal” to recruit first years into the Independent Party, though he is proud of the work his board has done in recruiting a class of “invested and dedicated members.”

The Party of the Left, however, has had a different experience with recruitment. Inojosa said that the party enjoyed a “very robust recruit season.” The inductees included a significant international cohort, which Inojosa said has provided a diverse set of perspectives on leftism.

For the YPU as a whole, Cieslikowski said that recruitment went smoothly. He noted that the class of 2024 had 60 recruits, a similar number of recruits to prior classes.

“Recruit[ing] went just as well as we could have hoped, finding new members to join and share their ideas with us to make sure that the institution is maintained and able to flourish when all this ends,” Cieslikowski said.

Cieslikowski added that YPU membership requirements were relaxed this semester, in light of time zone differences and other situations that have made it harder for students to attend debates. In previous years, potential members were required to attend two YPU debates and stay for four speeches. This year, however, the only requirement for membership for students looking to join a particular party was an endorsement from their party chair. Students who did not join a specific party required an endorsement from either Cieslikowski or YPU Speaker McKinsey Crozier ’22.

Despite the various struggles, the YPU has still been able to pursue some long-term projects, in addition to regular programming. One such project was the intercollegiate debate series, a set of debates the YPU organized that brought together political unions from nine schools across the country — including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford universities.

“This is something that, you know, in a time of diminished opportunities, we found one,” Cieslikowski said. “And I think this was a tremendous chance for us to hear from different students from across the country, and something that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. … My hope is that we’ve started to build a relationship with these schools, so in the future we could have a Harvard-Yale debate the night before The Game.”

The YPU was founded in 1934.

Zhemin Shao | zhemin.shao@yale.edu

Zhemin Shao covers the University's endowment, finances and donations. He previously covered the Office of Career Strategy. Originally from Seattle, WA, he is a sophomore in Silliman College.