Aaron Burr’s grave lies just a short walk from the center of campus, through the Fitz-Randolph Gates. Nassau Hall, now the seat of the administration, once housed the Continental Congress, tour guides like to point out. “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” remains the University’s informal motto, coined by former president Woodrow Wilson. But the school has long since ceased to be an incubator of civic duty (the three Supreme Court justices educated in the 70s and 80s and Ted Cruz being notable exceptions). And ever since World War II, alumni employed by the CIA and the Foreign Service have taken “in the service of all nations” to mean the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Latin America and elsewhere.
It is election season, but here you would never know it. Today, it is far more likely to overhear conversations about the next “killer app” than about the best ways to serve the Republic. Outward political expression is mostly limited to the occasional “Ready for Hillary” or “Bernie” sticker peeking out from the back of a laptop or water bottle. And since Sunday Funday has not yet started, the Drumpf and Cruz tank-tops have remained, fortunately, hidden in people’s closets. Princeton students are historically allergic to political excitement. Even the conservative David Brooks, visiting campus during the 2000 elections, was surprised to find “not even one Bush or Gore poster.” Sixteen years later, campus is similarly devoid of Clinton, Sanders, Drumpf, or any other candidate’s posters.
Princeton students, though, still talk about the elections. Lonely on Valentine’s Day, I went for a quick burrito at Qdoba, one of the few vegetarian-friendly establishments in town, where I overheard a conversation between a number of students sporting the down winter jackets with the patch on the arm that cost around a month’s rent, or maybe more, in Brooklyn. It was hypocritical, announced one of the Canada Goose-clad individuals, for members of a particularly expensive eating club to support Bernie Sanders. And while I agreed with her that there was something contradictory about Upper-East side residents supporting the senator from Vermont, I couldn’t help but think that it was at least a little laudable (or naïve, depending on your outlook) that owners of multi-million dollar apartments were signing up for a self-described socialist’s political revolution. After all, class treachery is not an easy thing do.
Admittedly, when it comes to giving the fullest account of Princeton’s political scene, I am not the most reliable narrator (full disclosure: I’m an editor for the Princeton Progressive, the university’s left-wing publication). And I find it difficult to get along with conservatives, and Republicans more generally — I’m sure it’s mutual. From what I know of campus politics, most of the campaigning this year has been limited to the small but committed Princeton for Bernie group who phone-banked for Sanders during the Iowa Caucus this month. The College Democrats, from what I’ve gleaned from lurking on their listserv, lean towards Clinton. The campus Right, perhaps too embarrassed to publicly campaign for any of the Republican Party candidates, appear preoccupied with defending Woodrow Wilson’s legacy and opposing the Black Justice League’s campaign against discrimination and racism on campus.
This year, the week of Princeton’s peculiar practice of bicker coincided with the Iowa Caucus. So as voters in the Hawkeye State braved the cold to choose their party’s nominee for the November election, Princeton students interviewed, mingled, and did whatever it is the various bicker clubs require that they do to gain admittance. And in the lead-up to the New Hampshire primaries, Princeton’s “future leaders of tomorrow” seemed more concerned with who would get to eat with them in their mansions than with who would occupy the White House in 2016. But the coincidence of bicker and the start of the primary season may not be as contradictory as it might appear at first glance. Both selection processes involve the pretense of egalitarianism and democracy, and both are, in some sense, rigged from the beginning.
The lack of visible political expression on campus might also have something to do with the anti-establishment, populist cadences that have dominated this year’s election. The messages of the Drumpf and Sanders campaigns fit poorly at a place like Princeton that almost unthinkingly venerates tradition and celebrates its historic role as a training ground for the elite. And while Sanders’ support among voters under 30 in both Iowa and Hampshire may have exceeded 80 percent, his screeds against Wall Street excesses probably fail to resonate at a school where around 60 percent of employed recent graduates are in either finance or consulting, and where students’ parents are themselves employed in those fields. Princeton’s students are not Drumpf’s target demographic. Members of the school’s debate team are not shy about celebrating Ted Cruz (though they should be), but the far-right candidate is, by nearly all accounts, widely despised.
The Saturday night after Bernie Sanders’s historic victory in the New Hampshire primary, one of my roommates went to the bathroom and returned with a staff-like column of Keystone Light cans taped together by orange duct tape. Earlier that night, we had heard the rattling of something outside, and now the mystery was solved. It takes a somewhat significant investment of time to drain two dozen beer cans and tape them together meticulously and evenly enough to create an aluminum walking stick, but some people, presumably members of one of the fraternities in the area, had decided to do it. In “The Organization Kid,” Brooks attributes Princeton students’ lack of political engagement and civic mindedness to their overloaded schedules and habitual hoop-jumping. But that is too simple of an explanation. Students, it seems, are just preoccupied with other, more pressing activities than campaigning for the next president.