Ah, the Ratty.
The gnawing hunger while you wait in line. Iceberg lettuce, “mystery meat,” and the breakfast crowd of neat and polished early risers mixing with disheveled party animals grabbing a quick meal before they crash. And, last but not least, long, heated discussions on all manner of philosophical and political topics. n It’s in keeping with this latter tradition that Zach Drew ’07 now quotes from Ayn Rand: “‘Man was forced to accept maso-chism as his ideal—under the threat that sadism was his only alternative.’” Then he adds by way of explanation, “When you start sacrificing yourself to a ridiculous degree to help people, you do more harm than good.”
Craig Auster ’08 isn’t buying it. His father is a Legal Aid lawyer, and his mother works as a vocational counselor in the South Bronx. “You’re supposed to live your life giving back to other people,” he tells Drew, who sits across from him at a wooden table in the rear of Brown’s dining hall. “You have an obligation to help the less fortunate.”
Auster’s point of view was shaped by visits as a boy to his mother’s workplace. “I was just a kid going into these methadone clinics,” he says. “You just naturally start to feel bad for these people you see whose lives have been ruined by their addictions.”
Drew is the president of the Brown College Republicans; Auster, the vice president of the College Democrats. This scene in the Ratty is not dissimilar to such election-year journalistic staples as the visit to the coffee shop or the demographically representative voter focus group quizzed in the studios of CNN or MSNBC.
In a similar vein, I asked the leaders of Brown’s student Democrats and Republicans—the president and vice president of each party—to share a meal one evening about a month before the election. I wanted to hear what their own political discussion was like and assess how closely it matched the ideas of those coffee shop and studio voters.
Students in general, and Brown students in particular, are no easier to classify than lawyers or scientists. They undoubtedly lean Democratic, but the lack of a “cool” factor to a Republican identity at Brown may explain only the GOP’s lack of campus visibility, not its lack of existence. Are students as idealistic as their predecessors like to think they were a generation ago? What’s the range of student views of President Bush’s war on terror? Where are the Vietnam-era-style antiwar demonstrations protesting the Iraq war? Does the small turnout for the few demonstrations that have taken place mean that today’s students are more conservative and less likely to challenge the status quo than their Vietnam-era predecessors?
Such questions are not easily answered, but there’s no shortage of theories. The lack of a military draft may remove some of the urgency from the Iraq war that students felt about the one in Vietnam, during which your graduation gift was often a draft notice. Besides, many more organizations and institutions now exist, both within and outside Brown, that offer avenues for putting political and public service ideas into action. Finally, let’s face it: the world is a much more competitive place than it was thirty years ago, and students may be more single-mindedly focused on their own future prospects.
So here Iam, looking for answers to some of these questions over a dinner of fixings from the pasta bar, salads, and assorted fruit juices.
And Zach Drew is bringing in Ayn Rand.
“Doing what you’re good at and doing it to the best of your ability helps advance society much more than turning yourself into a human handout,” he says.
Drew grew up in Lovell, Maine, population 1,000. Both his mother and father, who run their own construction company, were apolitical, he says. They barely ever even watched the news, satisfied with life in what Drew calls “an isolated town pretty much unaffected by the outside world. It’ll be the way it is forever.”
Drew, who also happens to preside over the campus flying club, says Ayn Rand took him away from all that. He read Rand in high school and then concluded that the Republican Party’s emphasis on laissez-faire economics and free trade best fit her teachings. Stocky and quiet-spoken, Drew is a moderate Republican and an aspiring investment banker.
His vice president in the Brown Republican Club, Pratik Chougule ’08, is far more conservative. “I’ll never understand the faith in government the left has,” he says. “Capitalism has created the greatest charity of all time, not the government.”
“And it’s created a lot of inequality,” Auster counters.
Drew again cites Ayn Rand. Rugged individualism is what’s needed in this country, he argues, not policies that give handouts that encourage people to be lazy and live off the system.
“People aren’t lazy,” Auster says. “People face barriers to achievement.”
“And a lot of those can be overcome without the government’s help,” Drew fires back.
As the evening wears on, the food becomes increasingly ignored. The subject of gay marriage comes up.
“There are fundamental differences between men and women,” Chougule says. “The idea that we can remake an institution like marriage that’s been around for thousands of years and yet still do what’s best for children is social engineering.”
“You’re bigoted,” Auster says. “You have a fundamental lack of respect for homosexuality.”
Chougule scoffs. “I’m thrilled you’re willing to call 70 percent of the people in our country bigoted,” he says. “It shows we are going to keep winning a lot of elections.”
The most passionate discussion, not surprisingly, occurs when the subject is the war in Iraq.
“Should we cut and run?” Chougule asks the Democrats. “I have yet to hear a Democratic plan for winning in Iraq.”
“How do you undo a car wreck?” counters Tor Tarantola ’08, the president of the Brown Democrats.
Hasn’t Iraq descended into violence and chaos?
“You could have said the same thing about Germany after World War II,” Chougule says. “There are countless examples of countries brutalized in war that, given American efforts, have been able to rebuild themselves.”
It soon becomes apparent that Chougule, rightly or wrongly, is the student at the table most sure of himself and his views. While the other students still seem to be groping for a worldview, he holds his with unwavering passion. Chougule is pro-life and favors invading Iran if sanctions don’t work. He opposes gay marriage and gay adoption and believes that the Geneva Conventions “shouldn’t apply to terrorists.” His idol, he says, is Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s former deputy defense secretary and now president of the World Bank.
“Wolfowitz was the one person in the administration,” Chougule says, “who really believed in the nobility of the mission in Iraq.” Others in the Bush administration, he believes, had a range of motivations—finding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, strengthening U.S. influence in the region—but Wolfowitz, according to Chougule, was driven solely by a desire to bring democracy to the Iraqi people.
Chougule’s conservatism stems from his own family’s success as U.S. immigrants. Although he grew up in affluent East Greenwich, Rhode Island, his parents were born in India. His mother immigrated when she was five years old; his father arrived after graduating from medical school. Chougule, an international relations concentrator, says his parents are not particularly political but are profoundly grateful for the high quality of life they enjoy in their adopted country.
“While I was growing up,” he says, “if my father was going through a drive-through or saw some new technological gadget, he would say, ‘Only in America.’ As I grew older, it sort of made me realize that the basic things we take for granted are really the product of ingenuity and capitalism. This country is really exceptional.”
Chougule’s certainty contrasts with Tarantola’s worries about the success of his own party in wooing younger voters. Democrats, he says, have “trouble sometimes expressing our positions on our values. We get bogged down in policy discussions.” He says there’s no leader in the party whom he considers a “political hero” (though he does say he admires Al Gore and Barack Obama).
Tarantola, like his party, still seems to be searching for an effective political voice. At the beginning of the discussion he sounds like a 1960s radical—“I am against a hegemonic American regime that tries to manufacture democracy in the Middle East with military force,” he says at one point—but later his view is more conventionally partisan—“I see the Republican Party as the party of a few Americans. I see the Democrats as the party for all Americans.”
Tarantola, a political science concentrator, hails from Sacramento, California. His father has managed a copy shop and driven a school bus and is now a leader in a labor union for California’s school employees. Tarantola’s mother is a physical therapist. Although the family discussed current events at dinner, Tarantola’s parents weren’t especially political while he was growing up.
Nonetheless, they did instill in Tarantola what he calls “progressive” values, and in 2002, with the midterm Congressional elections looming, Tarantola decided he would try to form a Democratic club at his high school. It was his first lesson in the complexity of voter attitudes. “I realized many people were passionate about progressive issues,” he explains, “but there wasn’t a conduit at the time for all that energy.” The club grew to be the largest high school Democratic group in the state.
Tarantola believes that many students think the Democrats have floundered since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a view he is working hard to change. “There’s some disappointment out there with the Democrats,” he concedes. “Instead of joining us, the students get involved in causes.” The club lists a thousand “official” members, but fewer than a hundred are regularly active (which is still better than the Republicans, whose active membership ranges from ten to thirty).
Many of the criticisms of Democrats he hears on campus come from the left. “We’ve been telling people that the Democratic Party isn’t perfect, that not everyone in it is as progressive as we are, but that ultimately we all share the same values,” he says.
Despite the upcoming midterm election, campus in October looked no different than in previous years. Yes, Rhode Island was engulfed in one of the closest U.S. Senate races in the country, a sex scandal was in the headlines, U.S. Congressmen were re-signing and facing indictment, and the war in Iraq seemed to have become a violent, unending nightmare, but students went about their business as usual. No signs favoring a particular political candidate could be seen in windows, no rallies on behalf of any political party stirred the Green, and barely any political flyers were stapled on notice boards.
Drew suggests that students who lean toward Republican Party candidates don’t get involved with campaigning on campus because they don’t think it will make much difference. Brown students are mostly Democrats, he says, and it’s hard to imagine any Republican candidate, no matter how charismatic or convincing, who could change that. The College Republicans have made a conscious decision not to register new voters on campus—“we’d just be creating more Demo-crats,” says Drew.
But appearances can be deceiving. Among the folding tables around the Green this fall were some for helping refugees in Darfur, for example, and for protesting violence against women. It may be that students are as idealistic as ever, but are channeling their idealism toward groups outside traditional electoral politics.
Chougule believes that a sizable chunk of students are conservative—not as rightward leaning as Bush, perhaps, but certainly moderate, in favor of free trade, patriotic, and happy with the overall state of affairs in the United States, even if they disagree with some of the president’s current policies. These students, Chougule speculates, may even form a silent majority. Whatever their numbers, he suggests, their views aren’t heard because their primary focus is on their studies and careers rather than on politics. On Election Day, he believes, they pull the lever for Republicans. “The number of conservatives at Brown is much higher than you think,” he says.
The Ratty is nearly empty. You can finally hear yourself talk. Drew, Auster, Chougule, and Tarantola are all pretty exhausted. Nothing has been settled; no opinions have changed. Drew ponders the significance of that. If Brown’s Republicans and Democrats can’t find much in common politically, what does that say for the national parties? What does it say for the future of our country?
Even on those questions there is little agreement. “The divide is huge,” Drew says. Chougule disagrees. “We all basically agree on the same set of values,” he says.
A standoff. We leave it at that. We bus our trays, say good night, and then go our separate ways.
Lawrence Goodman is the BAM’s senior writer.