Before I got to Yale, I spent a little too much time sifting through old Yale Daily News articles. I noticed a recurring column published in the Yale Daily News Opinion section was by the concerned Yale Political Union member-turned cautioning contributor. The piece usually protested the Union’s decline, raised questions about whether it was actually happening and what to do about it. I recently decided to write one of those op-eds, but have now begun to wonder: are these pieces a part of the solution or a symptom of larger, latent problems within the Union?

In 2017, Adam Krok wrote “The Yale Political Dis-Union,” skewering the YPU for failing to live up to the idea of the agora. Instead of well-thought-out arguments, we get low-substance speeches. Instead of an attentive audience, everyone is doing homework and drinking (or at least the Party of the Right is). For Krok, the Union was a valuable public speaking forum but one poisoned by dogmatism and vanity. This year, Michael Garman wrote “State of the Union,” which pointed out that guest quality had declined, along with student speech quality. Disappointing events featuring comedian Tim Young, American conservative editor Helen Andrews, podcaster Dasha Nekrasova and fringe presidential candidate Marianne Williamson lend credence to his argument. Nora Moreau wrote “Leaving the Union” when the Yale Socialists disaffiliated on why continued membership was antithetical to their efforts to “provide greater support to leftist causes both on campus and off.” The parties’ desire for action couldn’t square with the Union’s focus on debate and discourse over actual, tangible political activity. To the point where the party, one with a near 90-year history, had to leave the body. 

While the YPU regularly catches flack on the editorial pages, there have been its occasional defenders. In 2021, Jeff Cieslikowski wrote “The YPU’s persisting niche,” arguing that the YPU’s decline was “a product of an ever-changing Yale,” one with more avenues for students to be politically involved but would survive. The Unions project is unique and has its place, although it may never reach the primacy it once had. Moreau’s “Leaving the Union” was paired with In Defense of the Union” by Milan Vivanco, lauding the YPU as, while flawed, being “one of the few places on campus where people from both the left and the right meet each week to debate thoughtfully about the most pressing issues of the moment.” Again, the core purpose of the Union — to be a forum for debate across ideological divides, even if it has its struggles.

After joining the YPU, I felt the pull to write an editorial on the Union. I was concerned by the emphasis on rhetoric instead of substance, like Krok and Garman, and the need for more substantive political action, like Moreau, albeit less so. But on the other hand, I’m still impressed by the Union’s continued prominence even in light of the multitude of political organizations pointed out by Cieslikowski, and its mission, as pointed out by Vivanco, seems nominally still alive. Now, I have the bona fides to join in this grand conversation. I’ve given some speeches, won the First-Year Prize debate, placed in the Gardner-White debate, joined a party’s standing committee, participated in an inquisition and voted in a YPU election. However, my initial enthusiasm for writing an editorial has been replaced by skepticism of its purpose. To be frank, these articles don’t seem to change anything. It is alarming that I can see the same issues pointed out by Krok and Moreau. Cieslikowski’s perspective is persuasive, and Vivanco’s article makes good points, but neither has ended the conversation, as evidenced by Garman and my decision to write this piece today.

The YPU member editorial is becoming an extension of the tradition of complaining about the Union. They are less part of real effort to induce change in the Union in response to changing circumstances, and more the result of the YPU’s love for prestige and persistent anxiety over its own. It is a combination of the constant internal hand wringing over YPU’s decline in status and the desire to have these conversations validated and seen in the closest thing to legacy media we have on campus. There’s a reason these end up in the Yale Daily News, after all.

I picked up on the constant anxiety over Union’s survival when I first arrived at Yale. The whole enterprise has the general air of an organization on edge, secured for the moment by the faithful in each party but concerned about the future. The days of a packed Woolsey Hall may be more myth than legend, as Cieslikowski pointed out, and it may be a little bit irrational to try to bring them back. Nevertheless, I would count myself among those union members who think it possible, or at the bare minimum, worth trying. I think modifications to the debate structure allowing for more actual debate, the schedule to allow the Union to be more selective with its guests, and an increased focus on the social, non-debate elements of membership would dramatically improve the Union.

But if we are serious about making changes to the YPU, whether it’s clamoring for the glory of the Fareed Zakaria days or modifying it to fit better a more modern Yale environment, we need to familiarize ourselves with the ideas of the past and put them in conversation with each other consistently. Otherwise, as classes file in and out of Yale College, serious reform will only exist in the heads of starry-eyed first years and on Yale Daily News broadsheets. These editorials can be a crucial part of this ongoing conversation, a way to interface with the ideas of the past. But they cannot become just another formality, another way to complain, another extension of the Union’s persistent anxieties over its own stature.

MILES KIRKPATRICK is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact him at