If there is a first rule of democracy, it should be this: strengthen your soul before resorting to politics. Simply put, mutual recognition of equality is fundamental to democratic politics. That equality is predicated on strength — the resolve to stand up for one’s values and the restraint to not impose them on others. Strength then minimizes our interference in the lives of others, making politics a last resort. But where every personal grievance rises to political temperatures, it is a sign we are not in control of our lives and cannot accept the disappointments endemic to democracy.
Politicians claim to fight for “the soul of the nation,” not realizing how empty our souls really are. All too often at Yale, one hears the platitude “that’s valid,” meant to reassure someone that their political “take” is legitimate. Out of fragility disguised as kindness, we’ve silently agreed to never question each other’s perspective, even when our democracy depends on it. For a nation cannot long survive the weakness of its citizens. We lack political strength.
Democracy asks more of its citizens than any other political form because equality resists the human vices of submission and domination. Rather than simply redistribute talents and fortunes, equality requires cultivating a character that respects one’s own claim to authority over their own life, alongside the private liberty of others. Like the neo-Gothic residential colleges that abound at Yale, our souls should be castles, with ramparts strong to repel offense and dominions sufficient with what lies within their gates. These souls would be content to live as equals.
But our actions show we are not equal, that we have submitted.
Yalies lack the conviction required of democratic citizenship and for good reason. A lifetime of striving for perfect test scores and straight A’s has stunted our capacity to decide what to value and do with our lives. Delaying our moral development even further, we submit to the soul-crushing expectations of institutional gatekeepers of the Harvard Medical School, Goldman Sachs and Facebook for financial security and professional accolades. Better resembling highly competent children than responsible adults, our politics are the projection of fragile egos.
Our egos are like tumbleweeds. Weak like twigs, we crumble in fear of our surroundings. We find endless threats in abstract systems and structures, then crave outside authorities to quell them. Yale’s administrative bloat reflects our surrender of authority and agency, as does petitioning the same administration to give us back our lives. Capricious like the wind, we blow whichever way the Yale administration and social pressures force us, conforming to ever-changing COVID-19 directives and politically correct fads. We are reactive creatures, afraid of committing to a life of our own.
Tumbleweeds do not make good citizens. They make passive subjects worthy of a dictator, not equals to be trusted with public power. If our opponents are truly our enemies, why would we spare them? How can we expect to obey laws we dislike if we view them as existential threats? The fact is where we only see danger, democracy can never flourish.
Strength should be a precondition for democracy, not a partisan talking point. Despite its claim to strength, the New Right is fragile like Yale’s supposed Left. Insecurities pervade all our politics, demanding safe spaces and border walls, Faucism and Trumpism alike. Whether you call it strength of soul or personal responsibility, democracy needs all its citizens to obey the laws they disapprove of and withstand the urge to legislate their will down each others’ throats. This strength is not found in the partisanship that labels opponents “snowflakes” or “Nazis” and blames them for delegitimizing elections. Strength lies in carving out a space of authority for one’s own life.
Though Yalies are actually complicit in our weakness, our souls still yearn to be free. Fortunately, Yale offers an edifying liberal arts education, if one looks in the right places. We can absorb wisdom in the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library and from Yale’s professors in their office hours. We can appreciate good-hearted competition in athletics, Greek life and the Yale Political Union. We can deepen our souls by contemplating in courtyards, playing common room pianos and staring into Yale University Art Gallery canvases. But we must proceed knowing that we didn’t come to Yale for a party or “problem-solving skills,” but to strengthen our souls.
If just a few of us muster the courage to confront our hollowness, break from the crowd and seek self-formation from these institutions, we will begin to have an inner life that transcends fitting in and being successful. Only after this soul-searching will we have made a life worth defending with conviction. And only then are we ready to respect our political opponents as fellow Americans.
Ethan Dodd is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.