IS THERE A POLITICIAN IN THE HOUSE?
Students greet national elections with a collective yawn
BY JEREMY CAPLAN '97
If politics were a religion, Princeton would be an atheist's dream. The presidential election is just behind us, but throughout the fall, the silence of students' political voices was deafening. What was once a charged political stage has become a campus where eating-club concerns loom larger than public issues, where students' academic and extracurricular commitments preempt political activism.
Then: October 1960-Nixon-Kennedy campaign kicks into high gear. Princeton campus abuzz with political debate. Campaign slogans plastered across dorms, bumper stickers and signs abound.
Now: October 1996-Dole-Clinton is a dud on campus. One bumper sticker reportedly spotted in a bathroom in Holder Hall, but no one remembers who saw it. In dining halls and dorms across campus, the freshman-class election is more hotly debated than the national election.
On a campus where a burst water pipe is big news, it's not surprising that students infrequently concern themselves with current events. "It's very easy here to take for granted that everything will take care of itself," said Stephen Vella '97, senior news editor at The Daily Princetonian. "We're not confronted with the day-to-day issues that working people have to deal with."
Many students are dimly aware of the election. "The only indication I've seen that there's an election going on (outside of the newspapers) was a guy registering voters outside a dining hall," said Jeffrey Ernst '97. "It's conceivable that someone who never leaves Princeton's campus would have no idea that this is an election year."
Then: October 1971-A week-long fall break begins for the express purpose of allowing students to work for political campaigns at the approach of election day.
Now: October 1996-Some seniors grind away at their theses, others rumble off on Student Volunteers Council or Outdoor Action projects. Still others plan vacations to Jamaica. Working for a campaign over fall break ranks just behind helping the folks rake leaves on the list of favored fall-break pursuits.
In Whig-Clio's Columns magazine, Michael Desai '99 recently penned a piece titled "Princeton's Political Atmosphere: Sleeping Tigers?", lamenting the difficulties of engaging in political activity on campus. The sponsor of that publication, Whig-Clio, has failed to stimulate interest in the campaign, as have other political groups on campus. "Leaders of student organizations, the College Democrats and Republicans in particular, bear much of the responsibility for campaign apathy on campus," said Paul Sedra '97, president of Princeton's Middle-East Alliance. "They've reached out only to their members, preached to the converted, and failed to galvanize the broader student body."
According to Jeffrey Siegel '98, president of the College Democrats, there have been outreach activities. "Most of the efforts by the College Democrats have been dedicated to increasing voter registration. We've got about a thousand students registered. Outside of that, there is no easy way to get students to be more politically active. It's always going to be an uphill battle to motivate students. They are just turned off to politics."
Colin Campbell '98, president of the College Republicans, agrees. "It's difficult to inspire students to be active politically," he says. "But students do have an interest in politics; it just happens to be a passive interest. It's not that they're not interested in the issues; they're just not interested in going out and ringing doorbells or holding up signs."
Siegel, who researched the history of activism on campus in a freshman seminar, finds this year's apathy to be no surprise. "Princeton's activist traditions are only evident in times when the nation needs activism. Students don't protest for the sake of protest. Historically, when there's some issue that threatens to disrupt the nation as a whole, students tend to act in an organized way to protest particular policies. Otherwise, they're silent."
Sedra and Siegel also say that Princeton's idyllic location may dampen political motivation. "We are isolated here, far from the battlegrounds where campaigns are most fierce," Sedra said. Adds Siegel, "If we staged a rally on Nassau Street, who would care? If you have a protest in Harvard Square, New Haven, or any big city, you'll get a response. Here students walk around feeling like the whole world is perfect."
Whether or not students are blind to political issues, they do seem too busy to get involved in day-to-day politics. Perhaps students have enough to manage balancing their theses and their sports and club activities without hitting the campaign trail. Once the votes are totaled and winners declared, it will be interesting to see how many students actually voted. If the level of political activism is any indication, you can bet on a record low turnout.
Jeremy Caplan is a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School and a member of the College Democrats and Whig-Clio.