October 29, 2006

Union of Opposites: Yale and its Right-Wing Scene

By: James Kirchick

I graduated Yale this past May, and I am feeling rather wistful as a result. I have taken leave of friends from around the country, and abandoned my humble position at the feet of great professors. Even the research I was doing on my senior thesis gives me heart pangs when I think of it. I will also miss my days at the fabled Yale Daily News, the oldest college daily paper in the country. Still, not all is lost. I will keep in touch with most of my friends and certain professors, and (as the words you are reading possibly indicate) I will continue to write for publication. For as long as it is still respectable, I will attend the annual Yale-Harvard football game and, along with thousands of other alumni, make a drunken fool of myself. But there’s one loss that I am grieving for especially. I may sound like a nerd for saying this, but here it goes: What has been hardest for me is getting over my days as a member of the Yale Political Union.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of media interest in the campus right. Numerous articles, reports, and polls have revealed a new generation of Alex P. Keatons, shaped particularly by the events of 9/11.

The last wave of conservative youth peaked in the 1980s. Many observers point to the founding of the Dartmouth Review in 1980 and the writers it spawned (Laura Ingraham, Dinesh D’Souza) as being a crucial part of the Reagan ’80s and Movement Conservatism.

Most campuses have a conspicuous conservative presence, and most campus conservatives fit into one of two stereotypes: the outspoken columnist on the school newspaper whom everyone loves to hate; and the visible, oft-quoted head of the Republican Club. These professional conservatives-in-training, molded by assiduous, off-campus right-wing foundations, tend to differ little from campus to campus. Yale certainly has these, but then it also has any number of other variations. As far as I know, no other college or university can claim as eccentric and balkanized a conservative subculture as Yale’s. A major reason has to do with the Yale Political Union (“YPU,” or, in political union parlance, simply “the PU”), and the legacy of William F. Buckley Jr., alumnus of the Yale class of 1950, who spawned the modern conservative movement with his book God and Man at Yale.

The YPU, founded in 1934, is like no other college organization in America. It bears a formal resemblance to the Oxford Union, after which it was modeled, and for that matter nearly every representative legislative body the world over. But as student organizations go, it is surely unique. The Yale Political Union boasts six parties, each a fiercely distinct clan with its own traditions and activities, that operate completely separate from the weekly Union-wide debates. As a member of the Yale Political Union, one is first and foremost a member of one of these parties. One can join the YPU as an unaffiliated member, but such cases are few and definitely frowned upon. In addition to internal party debates (which are open to all), the six parties come together each week for a union debate opened by a prominent speaker. Guests to the Union this semester, for instance, have included former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, First Things founder Father Richard Neuhaus, and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.

The parties span the political spectrum from left to right, beginning with the Liberal party. Characteristic of leftist intellectual organizations, the Liberals have undergone massive and frequent ideological shifts ever since the party was created along with the union itself in 1934. I was originally attracted to the Libs after learning that they had produced individuals like New Republic editor-at-large Peter Beinart, but was sorely disappointed when I discovered that the group has lately been composed of doctrinaire Democrats and, during my freshman year, led by a full-throated Marxist (whom I last heard had become an ardent Bush supporter after a year abroad — only in the YPU).

After the Libs come the Progressive party, or Progs, who bring drunkenness and debauchery, and not much else, to the Union. They care little for the health of the YPU and, as many on the right constantly gripe, are actuallytrying to destroy the body just for the fun of it. They show up to debates with beer cans (or, at a debate about smoking regulations keynoted by Reason writer Jacob Sullum, a working hookah) and ritually catcall speakers. For the summer “inquisition” (a twice-yearly, all-night long spectacle when parties circulate candidates for Union office) of 2005, when other parties were interviewing candidates in stoic, empty study rooms, the Progs held their candidate forums in the back of a moving U-Haul truck being driven around downtown New Haven for the entire night. The Prog inquisition prior to that was a completely naked affair in which the party’s chairman, surrounded by about a dozen other members in the buff, drunkenly interrogated bow-tied and heavily-perspiring conservatives while holding a stuffed Ram’s head by the horns over his genitalia.

Following the Progs is the Independent party, where I eventually decided to hang my hat. The IP is the largest party in the Union, currently boasting a ridiculous 150 members, (the other parties have no more than 40). Members of the IP are mainstream Democrats, mostly, with some conservatives and libertarians and political mavericks like me thrown in for good measure. Its debates are serious but fun, and its members do not take themselves too seriously.

The mood changes drastically among the union’s rightward parties. The YPU, no longer about fun times and fast friends, becomes a way of life. Though it is never spelled out to freshman recruits, the right-wing parties demand total allegiance and a full-time commitment. Anything less and you can find yourself on the outs. Three separate right-wing parties fight over a small constituency of students: thinking conservatives who are willing to devote a great deal of time to intellectual debate in the midst of an already hectic college schedule. The right-wing parties are enormously competitive with one another, and rivalries between them are often more fierce than any of their rivalries with the left side of the union.

The first of these is the Conservative party (aka the “Cons” or “CP”), which was founded in the early ’90s as a breakaway from the Independent party, which had originally formed itself as the Conservative party in 1934 but underwent some sort of ideological shift in the ’70s. Unlike more die-hard members of the Union, I found the history of the organization and its petty squabbles over party politics and ideology to be rather dull and never really acquainted myself with how the various parties formed and why some enmities have proven so durable. The Conservatives have always had a nasty reputation within the YPU for being mischievous opportunists. And for whatever reason, the Conservatives have attracted a noticeably corpulent membership in recent years, a trait that earned an entire expose in the campus tabloid Rumpus.

After the Conservatives come the Tories, who as their name implies, claim to bear the mantle of “traditional conservatism” at Yale. They are known for their tweed and bowties and good manners, though not their soft-heartedness. The Tories’ whip sheets, the weekly newsletter that all parties distribute to current and prospective members, come off as trying very hard to sound like Evelyn Waugh. While I was at Yale, the group spent several years struggling just to qualify for party status (a party needs at least 10 different individuals to sign in at 3 debates) and rumors circulated — spread, of course, by their right-wing rivals — that members were bribing random people with pizza and beer (powerful commodities at Yale) to show up at Union debates and sign in as Tories. At their debates, the Tories hang a Union Jack behind their chairman’s seat and ask guests to tell jokes “fit for the Queen’s ears.”

Last comes the Party of the Right, or, in Union parlance, the “POR.” If Yale is known as a breeding ground for intellectual conservatives, it is due to the influence of this cult-like organization. POR alumni have come to pepper conservative and libertarian think tanks and publications in New York and Washington, earning this obscure, undergraduate organization a reputation amongst the nation’s political elite. On its website, the POR boasts, “Many Party members have gone on to positions of power and importance in the Greater American Conservative Movement” (capitalization in the original). POR graduates include National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser and Manhattan Institute fellow and litigation expert Walter Olson.

The POR is reputed to have bizarre rituals about which Union members love to speculate (and some are out in the open: at every week’s Union-wide debate, the POR collectively nurses a bottle of port). There is certainly a tradition of religious conversion in the party; several members during my time at Yale, including some Jewish ones, converted to Catholicism by their graduation.

In short, the Yale Political Union is like a zoo, and its debates can have the feel of a sociological safari. There is a half-serious ruthlessness to the proceedings, with different parties at times almost warring with each other. Other times, however, peace reigns. One recent meeting ended when the guest speaker, a colorful, geriatric antiwar activist from Berkeley named Anne Fagan Ginger, leapt down from the podium and led the whole PU in a round of “We Shall Overcome” while holding hands with the chairman of the POR.

The right side of the PU has produced its fair share of eccentrics. For a time, the Conservatives boasted a female member who knitted at their debates. She is now a speechwriter for Laura Bush. A lesbian member of the POR became such a committed Catholic that she swore a vow of celibacy and has now committed herself to the fight against legalizing gay marriage. And there are of course a number of male closet cases on the right, who involve themselves heavily in their party activities, perhaps, in a bizarre way, to dull the pain of reconciling their sexual inclinations with their conservative politics. As a homosexual who came out three weeks into my freshman year, I found that whole aspect of the YPU’s right wing a major turnoff, no pun intended.

Left-leaning journalist Doug Henwood, writing some years ago in the Nation, referred to his college conservatism, particularly his POR membership, as a “youthful indiscretion.” He called the POR “the only party that achieves serious levels of weirdness.” But even his remembrance, meant to portray college conservatism as a nefarious movement training future fascists, captured the POR’s tongue-in-cheek pompousness: Though Henwood had quit the POR not long into his Yale career, he remained on their mailing list because membership in the party is “for life at least.” The POR chairman wears a medal around his neck at all YPU and party events, and POR members always refer to him as “The Chairman,” never by actual name and irrespective of the officeholder’s gender. POR members view the term “chairwoman” with active disgust, as yet another example of the leftist feminization of our culture. POR members debate philosophy and politics (and maybe, Dungeons and Dragons) every weekday night at their regular table in the Commons Dining Hall, underneath an oil painting of George H.W. Bush. The Conservatives, too, have a nightly dinner, which was recently moved in protest after their dining hall adopted an entirely organic food menu.

So bound to tradition is the POR that in his brief address to the Union, which each party chairman delivers at the beginning of debates, the chairman of the POR tells those assembled that his party will retire to Mory’s (a legendary restaurant on the Yale campus) at the end of the debate, and that “all are welcome.” This, even though for as long as anyone can remember, Mory’s closes its doors for the evening long before Union debates end.

Most indicative of the POR’s “serious levels of weirdness” is the annual “Charles the Martyr debate.” Every January, around the anniversary of his death, the POR attempts to pass a resolution calling for a minute’s silence to honor the death of this man who chose execution over renouncing his High Anglican faith. What a moment’s silence for some English king killed four centuries ago has to do with an American college extracurricular activity is a good question, and one that aggravates the other parties every year. Weeks before the actual debate takes place, party chairmen covertly conspire to stymie the POR’s attempt to shove through their motion. But by parliamentary chicanery, and by roping in as many “friends”as possible to attend the meeting, the POR manages to extend debate on the issue sometimes for over an hour, much to the embarrassment of Union officers who believe that the spectacle makes a mockery out of the Union in front of potential members, who attend the January meeting in larger numbers as it is the first debate of the new semester.

The POR is also the party that has the most visible presence outside the Union. The party puts out Yale’s only regular conservative publication, the Yale Free Press (to which I contributed articles), which happens to be as funny as it is rigorous, especially compared with the insulting tripe and DNC talking points (not mutually exclusive) that regularly fill the pages of the Yale Daily News and the Yale Herald, the campus alternative weekly. The Free Press’s media criticism, in which the paper’s staff mocks the most egregious quotes from the campus press, is too clever by half.

The POR also has front groups like the “Committee for Freedom,” which stages counter-protests in response to the frequent strikes and demonstrations put on by Yale’s unions. Even though I never considered joining the POR, its members were always happy to have me join them in chanting such ditties as “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, GESO thugs have go to go.” (GESO is Yale’s supremely obnoxious graduate student union, funded entirely by UNITE-HERE.) The POR members are so dedicated to their principles that they spend the entire evening before major strike demonstrations putting up

“HOLD ‘EM, YALE” posters across campus. During Inquisition, a POR member will hold a sword to the gullets of candidates from other parties and say things like, “Give me one reason why I should not slit your throat.” This is to illustrate the Socratic maxim that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” cited by every POR chairman during the YPU organizational meeting that kicks off each semester.

My first encounter with the YPU right-wing subculture was on my very first day at Yale. Three upperclassman entered my room as I was unpacking. “Are you interested in politics, philosophy, or debate?” they wanted to know — a question that I soon discovered had been asked of nearly every single one of my 1,200 peers in the incoming freshman class.

“Why, yes,” I responded. Ever the enthusiastic Yalie, I added, “I was president of my high school debate team.”

They quickly copied down my name and email, gave me a flyer advertising their next debate (in typical POR fashion, it was some ridiculous resolution like, “Resolved: Eat the Apple” or “Resolved: Who sheddeth the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”), and scrambled off to the next room. Though there was never a chance of me joining them, the right-wing parties always treated me with the respect and hospitality and were generally interested in my views. The exact opposite was true of the campus left.

Local wisdom has it that the YPU is composed almost entirely of two types of individuals, “hacks” and “tools.” It is much better to be a “hack,” because that is the natural state in politicking. The campaign process of meeting with the heads of other parties in order to get them to support you for Union office is commonly referred to as “hacking.” “Tools,” on the other hand, are just jerks to begin with. Though much of Union activity is carried out in jest, Union politics is serious business and has over the years damaged many a friendship and reputation.

I was not a Union ladder-climber; the only instance in which I became intimately involved in Union politics was during the second semester of my senior year when I flirted with the idea of launching a campaign for vice president, the position responsible for booking debate guests. I thought I would put the connections I had made during my time at Yale to good use and “give something back.” But I was gently talked out of this foolish idea by underclassmen explaining that I should be spending this part of my college career having fun rather than sorting out hotel and airline receipts. Moreover it would have been out of character for me to assume administrative duties. In the YPU, my role alternated between that of the earnest debater, known primarily for my spirited defenses of Israel, and the court jester. A budding comedian (I had been a writer and performer in a sketch comedy group and taken to the stage in a production of Noises Off, for example), I saw the YPU as a stage as much as a political debating club.

And that is what is so great about the YPU, and in particular its right-wingers: their sense of humor. The PU floor welcomes humorous speeches alongside those of ambitious freshmen trying to impress their elders. It is the PU’s right wing that encourages and keeps the wit and whimsy of the organization alive, as opposed to the humorless Libs or the obnoxious Progs. Indeed, one of the most painful moments during my years in the YPU was during the debate following a speech by the Prohibition party presidential candidate, in which this poor fellow described why he had committed himself to such a quixotic mission: He had known a woman, a mother of several young children, who was beaten to death by her inebriated husband. Liberal party members, in their response, poured themselves a series of cocktails and proceeded to get drunk before the entire Union. There was surely much to ridicule in a speech by such a fringe political figure, but open contempt for an invited guest who had flown all the way from Colorado to speak before the Union would have been unfathomable coming from any of the right-wing parties. The POR quietly, and respectfully, consumed their port.

Fellow Yalies are wont to paint the PU’s conservatives as bigots. Actually, these right-wingers happen to be some of the most tolerant people at Yale, especially when it comes to engaging ideas that they find disagreeable. What most sets them apart is identity politics. On a campus where racial, sexual, and religious identities seems to trump all other considerations, PU conservatives care about ideas more than anything else. That is why the right has dominated the political union on this generally liberal campus: The student left has abandoned the battlefield of ideas for the realm of activism and protest. Left-wingers deride the YPU as an irrelevant repository of a bizarre and reactionary fringe. This is a self-comforting caricature, a tonic for the left’s own lack of serious intellectual engagement.

It is also for this reason that I think the right-wing parties are so derided by “mainstream” Yale. It’s easy for the average student to poke fun at the bow-tied, intellectual conservative. The conservatives have fewer (though closer) friends; they are not members of the once-vaunted secret societies (with few exceptions, visible campus conservatives have been unofficially barred from Yale’s secret societies); they are not characters on the campus party scene, opting instead for “game nights” with their fellow party members. But, I suspect, many Yale students know, deep down, that they are missing out on something by avoiding the political union and its misfits. Amidst all of the average Yalie’s resume-whoring extra-curricular activities, hard-partying, and frantic searching for top internships and jobs, the intellectual life they had hoped to find at Yale, indeed, that they assumed would just appear the minute they walked through its ivy gates, proves ever elusive. Having become pre-professional training colleges, the modern liberal arts university is simply not what it appears to be in the movies and novels of old. Meanwhile the right-wing subculture at Yale has become the bastion of intellectual life on campus. At the PU, I always knew that getting into a debate with a Tory, Con, or a member of the POR would be more challenging than any classroom discussion. Yale students suspect that this is more or less the truth of the matter. They just wish it weren’t so.

As the POR chairman said in a recent YPU organizational meeting speech, “Getting drunk and hungover at every opportunity may be intense, but without something more, you’ll wake up one day and find yourself as empty as the keg by your head. You may find something intense in varsity sports, musical organizations, secret societies, and debating clubs, but make sure that your college experience informs your life. You need authenticity.”

I will forever remember my days in the Yale Political Union with great fondness. There really is no body like it in the world. I know that new characters will replace the old ones, but the PU will remain its lively, irascible old self. And while I will not soon be joining any secretive conservative organizations, I will, at the very least, have a greater appreciation for Charles the Martyr.

James Kirchick graduated from Yale in May 2006 and was a columnist for the Yale Daily News. He lives in Boston.