On the New Student Politics

On the New Student Politics

. . . [P]assions without truth, truths without passion; heroes without heroic deeds, history without events; development, whose sole driving force seems to be the calendar, wearying with constant repetition of the same tensions and relaxations; antagonisms that periodically seem to work themselves up to a climax only to lose their sharpness and fall away without being able to resolve themselves; pretentiously paraded exertions and philistine terror at the danger of the world’s coming to an end, and at the same time the pettiest intrigues and court comedies played by the world redeemers. . .
—Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoléon
by Daniel Koffler

On the morning of November 3, 2004, the city of New Haven, Connecticut, looked like a town in mourning. Wards 1 and 2, which include all of Yale University’s on-campus housing, had voted overwhelmingly in favor of John Kerry for president. Much of the rest of the country had not. Except for the occasional, exultant Bush supporter, the pedestrians on the campus or the nearby streets stared intently at their feet, avoiding not just conversation but eye contact. Every now and then, I saw a young man or woman slouched in a corner, sobbing.

An editorial in the Yale Daily News characterized the morning-after emotions of those of us who had supported Kerry as “disappointment, anger, and anxiety,” but those words are far too mild to describe what we were feeling. Every presidential election is the first in which the current generation of college students is eligible to vote. Many of us were emotionally invested in the outcome of the campaign in a way that we had been for no other cause in our lives. The silliest prefabricated media analysis of the election was the notion of a “failed” youth vote. Young people most certainly did vote in higher numbers than they had in the recent past, just not in numbers high enough to offset the increased turnout of the Republican base. And that was a failure common to every pro-Democratic constituency.

Most of that day remains a melancholy blur, but one experience left a vivid impression. In the afternoon, I attended a section for a literature course. My teaching assistant didn’t try to teach; instead, he picked up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, which we were reading, waved it around, and began a tirade on literature and American politics. The gist of his rant was that studying literature was pointless in a world in which fiction is accepted as reality on so widespread a scale—in other words, the result of the election invalidated literature as a subject of study, and those who had voted for that result were simple-minded dupes. At that moment, I wanted to be a Republican, so that I could feel at an instinctual level the inappropriateness of this response—to devote a literature class to denouncing a legitimate political cause that roughly half the country bel...