Washington and Lee has a stagnant political climate

We lack the social activism, passion in politics and effective political discourse needed to propel our school forward.

Judy Park

One of the most frequent questions I get asked while giving tours for prospective students is about the political climate on campus. I’ve had more than a year to ponder over this question, and I think I finally have the answer.

I came into Washington and Lee with the assumption that the school would be dominantly conservative, a supposition that I think most people share. I think this is a fair assumption for outsiders, considering that this university is the namesake of Robert E. Lee.

I lean Democrat, but I wasn’t discouraged by the thought of attending an institution that had essentially held opposite ideals as I did. Besides the fact that I come from a red state, I was eager to engage in intellectual discourse with people on the other side of the aisle.

I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that the student body of Washington and Lee was not as conservative as I had previously imagined, and actually presented itself as a balanced moderate, with voices heard on both sides. I was further surprised to see that the College Republicans and Democrats frequently held joint events, proving the level of tolerance on campus.

I was very enthusiastic about joining the College Democrats and participating in social activism, something that I consider very important in my life. My favorite event was the first joint debate of the 2018-2019 school year, which tackled domestic issues like  gun control, immigration and Planned Parenthood. Held in the Center for Global Learning, the audience filled the atrium, spilled into the hallways and even pushed some students upstairs.

The following debates did not manage to attract nearly the same amount of spotlight. The audience participation dwindled, a trend that I could already observe within my short time here. After being a member of this community for over a year now and witnessing continuous low turnout for political events and meetings, it is clear that my expectations turned out to be unrealistic for the current campus.

What I perceived as political tolerance and civic engagement was actually a stagnant political campus resulting from toxic levels of political apathy. It is toxic in the sense that while students recognize that there are systemic issues present on campus, originating from both the school’s own culture as well as national and global tendencies, there is very little done to actually combat them. 

Students here are brilliant. There’s no doubt about that. We are ambitious individuals with high levels of achievement. However, we lack the social activism, passion in politics and effective political discourse needed to propel our school forward.

Lucas Flood, ’21, who has written for the Spectator and is the former vice president of College Republicans, agrees with this.

“I have been a little disappointed by the lack of open conversations on campus, particularly in regards to the largely negative and dismissive responses to publications by various student newspapers,” he said. “Instead of having informative conversations about the topics discussed in publications, many students simply ignore the arguments made on partisan lines.”

This political apathy and lack of tolerance accurately reflects the current situation in American politics, as both hate crimes and party polarization are on the rise. It seems that there is more arguing than productive conversation taking place. 

As critical as I may seem, I think that it is important that we remain optimistic. I believe that there is potential for us to change our situation, especially on the campus level. This will not, however, be possible without individual efforts.

I want to encourage all students to be more active within our university, not just within our social scene. This can be done by joining clubs or committees, showing up to talks and panels, going to events hosted by different organizations or even speaking with a school official.

I hope that our campus lives up to our own standards and we strive to not be unmindful of the future.