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Resolved: The Yale Political Union Is Doomed — DIMITRI HALIKIAS —

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 others 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, multi8

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 allows 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 9

The Politic - Spring 2013 I  
The Politic - Spring 2013 I