I’ll give it to you real quick: the state of political discourse on campus? It sucks. If you ask anyone his or her opinion you’ll get one of three answers: (1) “What do you mean ‘political discourse?’” followed by “Oh, um… I don’t really know.” (2) “Insofar as it exists it sucks.” (3) “Despite personal misgivings, I am honor-bound in my capacity as a leader of a politically inclined group to withhold excessive criticism.” The answers speak sadly for themselves–people are even surprisingly forthcoming with (3), albeit off the record. What follows is an explication of this sorry state followed by a description of better times/places and finally a modicum of speculation on ways to improve. Before that, to answer those who responded with (1), by “political discourse” I mean the sum of discussions and debates, public and private but mostly public, regarding any political topic from current policy implementation to age-old political theory. The fact that you’re more or less unaware of such a corpus is a testament to its deficiency.
HOW IT SUCKS
The history of college kids shouting about politics is colorful and storied. On one end of the spectrum it’s the stuff of lock-ins, radicals, and riots, and on the other it’s pride-and-glory debates. And yet, for the Princeton kid who wants to shout about politics, the conventional wisdom seems to be “start a new campus publication.” Of course, everyone knows this is an awful idea–the last thing this campus needs is another political magazine. The market is already saturated, bloated, and sagging under its own weight: among the current publications are the Tory, Princeton Progressive Nation, American Foreign Policy, a new Libertarian newsletter, intermittent babble on the Prince’s op-ed page, and Cornerstone, “Princeton’s premier, non-partisan philosophical magazine.” It was with good reason that “your idea for a new campus publication” topped the Nass 100 this year.
A priori, this glut of print wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world–but as anyone who lives in a room with a door knows, most of the articles in most of these publications are crap. That is not, however, the fundamental problem. When it comes to having a coherent debate–across campus and over the course of time–print is one of the worst media possible. If compelling, substantial, important issues are to be discussed, we might hope that, for example, the Tory and Princeton Progressive Nation would array themselves against each other and duke it out. This hasn’t happened yet and is unlikely to, partly because the magazines are published monthly. Even if the staff of each publication read the other one diligently and came up with direct and cogent responses, it would take a full three months to pump out a simple exchange of position, response, rejoinder.
Moreover, this sort of efficiency has proven too demanding for the various editorial staffs. At best, we are presented with a fiery article one month, followed a month later in the opposite publication by an article half-way answering, half-way straw-manning its predecessor. Worse yet, the debates that start in print stay in print. Written argument should intend to whip up the masses into the debate halls where they can have the full brawl–but where are the debate halls?
In terms of debate, you might hope that College Republicans and College Democrats would meet against each other frequently. As it stands, the only debate these two groups have with any regularity is the annual “backwards” debate, where each side argues for the opposite’s professed beliefs. In such a farce, if one side ends up looking bad they can blame it on the other’s views, not their own talents. Accountability is zilch. It would be fine if this was one comical debate among many serious debates each year, but it’s a good year (or an election year) when these two groups face off on any other occasion at all. Are they afraid of being proven wrong? The fact of the matter is, important issues are important precisely because they excite strong passions and involve principles to stand or fall by. I hope that the lack of head-to-head debate is only for want of better organization, not due to a cowardice in the character of Princetonians.
It is therefore a bit reassuring to know that some people pick single issues and decide, by golly, that they will form a student group to get out the good word. Examples abound, including PAWS and Princeton Pro-Life. Unfortunately, single-issue groups are a useless ingredient in forming a coherent, multi-faceted discourse. On our campus at least, these groups don’t interact much at all and are often hard to oppose–who’s for animal cruelty or against sustainability, after all? And even factions that should by all rights be at each other’s throats–pro-life and pro-choice, for instance–have surprisingly little to say to each other. The Tory tirelessly takes upon itself the task of rebuking all liberal organizations whether they deserve it or not, but it’s a good day for the Tory if the rebuked groups so much as bat an eyelid.
This model sucks as much as print. Imagine if everyone interested in any remotely political issue started his own group. First, there would inevitably be some issues left out–too many important problems do warrant discussion but wouldn’t hold together a student group. Far worse, though, is the picture of fragmentation this paints. Vying for precious attention, each group must convince the world that its pet issue is a matter of life, death, and the decline of moral society. This fragmentation is antithetical to a productive and substantive discussion, grossly missing the forest for the trees.
One last mainstay of hope could be the umbrella organizations. Unfortunately, College Democrats and Republicans are social groups at best. The most recent event they held was a giant game of beirut where you were supposed to wear red if you support McCain, blue for Obama, and white if undecided. Damn. Just… damn. Whig-Clio effectively ceased to exist decades ago (see below). P-Votes only wants you to vote–they don’t care who you vote for or where you got your reasons. Not that they should, but with such an absence of leadership I’d look anywhere.
In brief, the local political landscape is awash with fragmented student groups and magazines, each shouting at the same time about disparate issues, shouting out at no one in particular, creating so much white noise and so little to show for it. The unifying groups are impotent and the university certainly isn’t going to impose any top-down initiative to bring debate under one roof. The situation not only sucks–prospects for improvement look bleak.
HOW IT DOESN’T SUCK ELSEWHERE AND DIDN’T ALWAYS SUCK HERE
Perhaps you are skeptical–maybe, you say, college kids shouting about politics is always this way: fragmented and incoherent. Those pride-and-glory debates in fine pursuit of truth are a fantasy of Hollywood. With no evidence but our own situation I’d agree with you. But actually, our neighbors up at Yale have a fantastic political forum, and even on our own campus, once upon a time, there was an institution worth its weight. These merit further consideration.
For all their faults, one cannot scorn Yale for the Yale Political Union. (Also knows as just the Union, also the YPU.) A consortium of seven “parties,” each with its own structure, officers, and ideology, the YPU is a debate society that meets roughly once a week. The debates are held in Yale’s equivalent of McCosh 50, with a YPU banner decking the podium. They usually kick off with a guest speaker laying down his stance on the issue of the evening. For instance, at the debate “Resolved: Abolish the Death Penalty,” the opening address was given by the VP of Amnesty International. (The debates are always titled in this manner–”Resolved: [Imperative Clause].” Other debates have included “Resolved: Reject Modern Feminism” and “Resolved: Provide City Services to Undocumented Immigrants.”) After the opening speaker declares his position the debate proceeds according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Anyone belonging to any of the seven parties may speak. YPU officers–elected biannually by and from the seven parties–moderate. Following a span of debate the Union members present vote whether or not to pass the “resolution.”
While only members of one of the seven parties may speak at debates, it is very easy to join. At times as many as one thousand undergraduates have belonged to a party and there is surely something for everyone: the Party of the Right, the Party of the Left, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the Independent Party, the Tory Party, and the Progressive Party. Moreover, each party is a social group and intellectual machine in its own right–parties have their own debates, websites, publications, traditions, and, for lack of a better word, parties.
The Union was founded in 1934 with the help of a professor and future Yale president. Being a YPU member grants one membership privileges at sister debating societies across the pond at Oxford and Cambridge. Past members of the YPU–and not just passive members, but officers and leaders–include Senator John Kerry and the late William F. Buckley Jr.
Perhaps the quality of the YPU most germane to this article is its intellectual bent. The protests and lobbying on Yale’s campus–and there are enough of both–remain the tasks of more vulgar groups. The battle of ideas, robust and on-going, is reserved for the Union floor. Time is devoted to subjects theoretical and specific, and the diversity of the parties ensures that a gamut of opinions are voiced and vetted. FDR (as in, the president) thought this aspect of the Union was pretty cool. In his own words: “This Union can be of undoubted value to Nation and to the University […] Honest debates will help in the search for truthful answers.”
Thus, if I found a genie that only granted wishes about student organizations on Princeton’s campus, I would wish for a Princeton Political Union, sprung fully formed, of similar vitality and draw.
I was surprised, then, to learn that a very similar organization used to exist right here, minutes from my own dorm–none other than Whig-Clio. Unfortunately, the spirit and society that once there abided has long since retired, leaving only the shells of these bodies political. Today Whig-Clio is administered by the university, mostly a nominal umbrella for groups like Mock Trial, Model Congress, and the Debate Team. Student officers are elected from these groups but their responsibilities are minimal–the most Whig-Clio does as an organization is co-sponsor a speaker brought in by some other group. And while members of the affiliated groups are automatically members of Whig-Clio, it is impossible for anyone not a member of an affiliated group to join. Effectively the institution has ceased to exist.
This was not always the case. Way back when this country was just a twinkle in its mother’s eye, one James Madison (as in, the president), then an undergraduate, revived two secret societies at Princeton: the American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society. From their founding in 1769 they grew quickly. Very much separate and very much rivals, the Hall’s membership rose over the next decade or so, and soon became the main focus of Princeton life. Indeed, history is unequivocal: during much of the nineteenth century it mattered more that one was a member of Whig or Clio than a student at Princeton University.
Both societies maintained their own libraries, developed their own curricula, enforced their own codes of conduct, and, of course, debated. Topics ranged through the issues of the day, from slavery and secession to tariffs and unions. The goal of the institutions was to sharpen the rhetorical and mental acuity of future leaders. (This was back when speeches on the Congressional floors were spectacles to see and jewels to hear. The banality of C-SPAN today is a sad fall from grace.) As Woodrow Wilson–himself an ardent member of Whig Hall–told students, most extracurricular activities do not “count for very much” in the world beyond college, but one faculty that is not “temporary” is public speaking. The Parthenon knock-offs currently taking up space and photographs behind Nassau Hall were once venerated indeed.
Well into the twentieth century the societies remained relevant. Less than one hundred years ago the ribbons on Princeton diplomas were pink or blue according to whether the students were members of Whig or Clio. Sadly, Whig and Clio, as they were, needed more energy than most modern extracurricular activities, and when such groups as the Prince, Triangle, and eating clubs all sprouted up and vied for attention (within five years of each other, in the late 1870s) membership in the Halls began to dwindle. In 1934–the same year the YPU was founded–the university subsumed both organizations under the banner of Whig-Clio and took up their financial management and administration. Even the death throes of the societies weren’t entirely worthless: as recently as decades ago there were weekly cocktail parties at Whig-Clio, followed by debates. The latter, I am told, were rather lively, thanks largely to the former.
At any rate, the long decline has bottomed out, and the institutions once devoted to turning fractious boys into articulate men are long gone. If nothing else, take heart that they did once exist.
HOW IT MIGHT STOP SUCKING, MAYBE
When I tell freshmen about the sad decline of Whig and Clio there’s often some sparkling ambition in their eyes to take over Whig-Clio and return it to its previous glory. I’ve thought about this too, but the odds are against it. Whig-Clio leaders are invariably involved in one of the subsidiary groups first and have little interest in Whig-Clio for its own sake. Also, there’s something to be said for letting the dead rest in peace. Whig-Clio has little to offer at present–no point in reanimating a long-decayed corpse.
So what, then? One possibility is to charter up a Princeton Political Union, modeled on Yale’s. No simple task, this would take hours and hours of dedicated busywork as well as visionary leadership. Such a Union would need a core of dedicated members–fifty or more–and certainly many more who stay moderately involved. It is a sad possibility that Princeton students simply lack the energy. There are already a million student groups vying for the same membership and only so many hours in the day.
One reason to take hope is that many students are aware of the absent discourse. Small discontent, admittedly, but widespread–many, many people answer with (2) and a roll of the eyes. If galvanized, hitherto private frustration might spill into the public domain, and if a well-prepared forum stands at the ready, this ire could serve as the necessary momentum to get the ball rolling. To have a political discourse we need more students meeting face to face and trying to tear each other’s views limb from limb–polite but vehement, sincerely seeking the truth. I do not believe that the change will come from the current array of campus political figures. The ideal reformer is a dark horse with good connections, charismatic but dogmatic too–not a demagogue, but a philosopher king. Step forward, whoever you are.