Of all the fish in Yale’s political pond, the largest is the Yale Political Union. Few organizations on campus can boast the YPU’s numbers. Few can boast its international reputation or an impressive cast of alumni that includes William F. Buckley Jr., Fareed Zakaria, Akhil Amar, and John Kerry. No other group regularly invites the likes of Al Sharpton or Rick Santorum to delight or displease a packed Woolsey Hall. Where else do libertarians and communists, conservatives and liberals meet to relish in ritual?
Yet, if you listen closely enough in between the hissing and stomping, it is undeniable: The Union is not its former self.
Membership in the debating society peaked in the mid-1980s. As more undergraduate organizations formed, the YPU saw a decline in numbers. Estimates vary, but the Union’s current membership is a fraction of the apex reached two decades ago. A Politic poll of 846 Yale undergraduates betrays a harsh reality: The YPU suffers near-universal disfavor. When asked to describe the organization in a single word, students failed to provide much creativity or diversity beyond the recurring “annoying,” “obnoxious,” “pompous,” and “pretentious” — by far the most popular responses.
Can the YPU repair its image and reverse its declining membership trend? Can the organization compete in the modern hypercompetitive, multi-extracurricular era? This is a story of institutional decline and marginalization. It is also a story of resilience.
Debate has been at the epicenter of student life at Yale since the University’s founding in 1701. Originally a central part of the academic curriculum, college debate was divided into two main literary societies, the Linonian Society and Brothers in Unity. The emergence of Skull and Bones and other senior societies diminished the role of debate groups, which by the late 19th century had disbanded altogether. A number of debate societies were established in the subsequent decades, but none lasted more than a few years.
The Yale Political Union succeeded where others had failed. Founded in 1934 in order to combat political apathy on campus, the YPU quickly emerged as one of Yale’s leading undergraduate organizations.
Drawing inspiration from the Oxford and Cambridge unions, the YPU follows parliamentary format, complete with motions and resolutions. Most distinctive is the manner in which students respond to speeches: They pound in support of statements they agree with and hiss at those they don’t. The debates often feature raucous contests between Left and Right.
Much of the Union’s conspicuity comes from the notable guests it brings to campus. This academic year alone has featured former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, libertarian law professor Richard Epstein, and social critic Camille Paglia. The format of guest events is simple. Following a 30-minute opening speech, each guest takes questions from students in the audience. Thereafter, students rotate speak either in support or opposition to the visitor’s stance, as well as answering questions, alternating between the affirmative and the negative.
For current YPU Speaker Jake Romanow ’14, this open approach to intellectual discourse distinguishes the Union from other organizations. In an interview with The Politic, Romanow praised the Union, saying that since joining as a freshman, “The YPU has given me the chance to put time and energy into building and understanding a political ideology from first principles in an environment where I can be challenged and pushed by others.”
Unlike its British counterparts, the YPU is a federation comprised of seven different parties: the Liberal Party, the Party of the Left, the Independent Party, the Federalist Party, the Conservative Party, the Tory Party, and the Party of the Right. Each party has its own traditions and history and is run by a chair or chairman.
The individual parties allow for a distinct brand of intellectual debate and engagement not possible on the Union floor. Speeches on party floors tend to last longer than the three to four minutes allotted by the YPU. More questions are asked. Outside of the debate hall, parties eat meals together, organize outings and events, and hold regular toasting sessions.
For all its benefits, the party structure has proved to be a double-edged sword. Some believe that the institutionalized divisions contribute to an unnecessarily partisan and toxic environment. Competing interpretations of party history, accusations of dubious Union election tactics, and questionable freshman recruitment are all sources of great tension. Executive board panlists can play host to vitriolic email threads that reach up to 100 posts.
Andrew Connery ’13, former board member of the Yale Debating Association, explained that the Oxford and Cambridge unions, to their merit, are not divided along party lines. “They are more focused on promoting honest debate that’s less confrontational,” he said. “That’s why they have much higher levels of participation than the YPU.”
Charges of unsavory and petty behavior are certainly not new to the Union. In his 1951 polemic, God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that most YPU proceedings were hijacked by silly power-grabbing backroom bargains. “The inordinate emphasis the Union places on its own politics, are heavy with deals, coalitions, stuffed ballot boxes, and haggling of the most fruitless and extravagant sort,” Buckley wrote. This disdain is shared by many students today who find the Union’s overly formal procedure simply too much to bear.
In the late 1990s, Communist Party National Secretary Joelle Fishman visited the YPU, only to have her speech delayed as members of the Party of the Right continually interrupted the proceedings with points of order concerning the Pledge of Allegiance. As The Yale Herald reported, the then-YPU speaker finally quieted the room after 45 minutes, only to have chaos erupt again when a Liberal Party member taunted constituents of the Right by holding a match to the American flag and asking, “Does this make you nervous?”
In the YPU’s long history of weekly evening debates, this episode stands out as a particularly disastrous public relations moment. But it is not surprising, given the YPU’s public perception. When asked to share their thoughts on the Union, students responded to the Politic poll with comments ranging from the comedic to the vindictive.
“Nobody takes them seriously because they’re all so crazy!” wrote one student. “It’s the best physical embodiment of a circle-jerk at Yale,” added another. “It pains me to think about the Yale Political Union.” “Even the Yale-Harvard blood drive inspired me more than YPU.” In light of the incident with the Communist Party’s national secretary, “The YPU frequently reminds me of a ‘Monty Python’ sketch,” seems to ring with even greater truth.
Others expressed interest in debate, just not in the Union’s forum: “I loved debate in high school. I wish the YPU weren’t so unappealing.” One suspects some comments are meant to be read with a tinge of sarcasm: “They are soooooooo coooooooooool. I love how they matter so much and are by far the most important thing in the entire world.”
The responses to the other questions corroborate the sentiment. Only 4 percent of respondents believe that YPU membership will return to the numbers seen in decades past. Sixty percent of respondents did not attend a single debate last semester; another 18 percent recorded only one visit. Of seniors surveyed, more than half claimed to have never attended a debate despite three and a half years at Yale. When asked if they were more or less active in the YPU than originally intended upon matriculating at Yale, only 7 percent said “more.” 43 percent said “less” and 49 percent answered the “same.”
The downsizing and marginalization of the institution cannot be denied. But the YPU is not solely to blame. Today, Yale offers far more extracurricular opportunities than it did in the past. Some students are less interested in philosophical discussion and more interested in political activism.
“I went to an Independent Party debate during Bulldog Days and I went to the Santorum event, but it became pretty clear to me that the YPU was more talking about politics than doing anything about it,” said Diana Rosen ’16. Rosen, an activist with Students Unite Now and a Yale Daily News columnist, concluded, “I think actually taking action is more productive than just debating it.”
Nicole Hobbs ’14, the president of the Yale College Democrats, weighed the respective merits of the YPU against those of other student groups. “The YPU is a very structured organization with a singular focus on debate,” she said. “Yale students today are looking to engage more with their extracurricular activities. They join extracurricular organizations that allow them to take ownership of different projects. While there is a place for a debating society on campus, Yale students look to join student organizations that allow them to take initiative and to work to grow an organization and expand its function. The YPU doesn’t offer this opportunity.”
Members of the Union are quick to defend their organization against its detractors. Will Jordan ’13, former chairman of the Independent Party, told The Politic, “Activism is important, but it is not the mission of the YPU. The mission of the Red Cross is not to prevent foreclosures.” He added, “What we do here is the basis for future activism.”
As Julie Aust, the Union’s current president, explained, “The YPU allows students to think about what they actually believe.” To Aust, the Union’s commitment to pure philosophical discussion is refreshing in the age of SparkNotes. “We are less interested in a nice formal argument than we are in someone trying to genuinely think through a question on the floor.”
What does this all mean for the Yale Political Union? The organization certainly suffers from a depreciating reputation. But does this spell doom for the institution? Jordan doesn’t believe so. “One can look at its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, and it clearly isn’t what it was then,” he acknowledged. “But at some points in its history, it also didn’t meet for weekly debates. Today, the YPU meets every week, as do the individual parties. While it is much smaller, the members are overall more active.”
Steven Calabresi, a professor at Northwestern Law School who served as president of the Union in the fall of 1978, exuded bullish optimism. “I made friends through the Union who have remained some of my best friends in life,” Calabresi told The Politic. Today’s Union “in some ways seems even better,” he noted, than that of his generation.
It is Monday, Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m. WLH 119 is filling up as members of the Yale Political Union pour in from dinner. Parties are congregating. In three-piece suits, members of the Party of the Right chat and sip port. The Federalists, few in number, sit with laptops open and browse through emails. An “IPster” from the Independent Party has brought popcorn for her crew. The speaker and president gauge the crowd from the front. The room is flanked by the floor leaders of the Right and Left who go over the nuts and bolts of members’ speeches.
Like a chess board, the pieces are set for the game to begin. The night is going to be a long one. Dozens of students have signed up to debate “Resolved: That It Is Better to Reign in Hell Than to Serve in Heaven.” Tonight’s Gardner-White Prize Debate is the only competition open to all students. Each speaker will have only a few minutes to make his or her case. First place will win $100 and a lifetime membership to the YPU.
After four hours of hissing, stamping, laughter, and questions, the judges announce the three winners and four honorable mentions. Another few hours later, at 3:21 a.m., President Julie Aust sends out congratulations via the panlist.
This is the Yale Political Union. It is no longer the largest organization on campus, a bragging right that now belongs to the Yale International Relations Association. It is certainly not the coolest (not so long as the Shades a capella group is singing). The Politic poll revealed that even among self-identified Union members, one in three disapproved of the YPU, and barely one in ten thought it would return to its former glory.
For a small yet devoted group of students, however, the YPU continues to hold sway.
“No one outside the Union will care about what we do or how we vote on resolutions,” Jordan explained. “Today, there are so many undergraduate organizations that you won’t find one that everyone will care about. The closest thing to a campus-wide organization is the Yale College Council, and I know people who wouldn’t consider the YCC relevant to their Yale experience.”
The YPU undoubtedly no longer has a monopoly on organized intellectual discourse at Yale. It is not the force on campus that it once was, and many students view the Union as obnoxious, outdated, or just downright weird. But as Romanow, concluded, “As the national mood shifts and politics go in and out of fashion, Yale students will never not like arguing, and Yale will always have a place for the Union.”
Cartoon by Madeleine Witt.