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Our “apolitical” Stanford


“Why are we so neutral at Stanford?” That’s something we hear so very often. Indeed, for members of the Stanford community interested in politics, our supposed culture of neutrality is a common bugbear. Both on campus and off it, I keep on hearing the same things: “Stanford is apolitical,” “Students don’t bother expressing their opinions,” “Stanford doesn’t really care about politics.” But if you really consider the matter, we aren’t as apolitical as we like to think. The very real culture of campus neutrality, however, means that the options that the University offers – otherwise so varied and useful – are unfortunately restricted. We do have options, however, to build a more intellectually lively political culture at Stanford – and it’s in our interest to do so.

The first point I’d like to make is that there is fertile ground for political discourse at Stanford. We all have political opinions, and we’ve all had to take a stand – sometimes at the ballot box, sometimes in the public sphere and sometimes to ourselves. We’ve had these massive debates before, and we may have them again.

Think about the various components of the university community for a moment: The faculty tilt liberal, the Hoover Institution employs some of the brightest minds across the spectrum but is most famous for its conservative streak, and there are plenty of outspoken liberals and leftists among the student body (STATIC, for one). Admittedly, right-wing politics at Stanford are a little different: Conservatives especially seem to be quieter than their liberal compatriots, as Alli Rath pointed out last year. But nonetheless, both inside the classroom and out, there are lively arguments going on behind the scenes, and they are rarely as nasty as people seem to fear.

Why, then, do we not hear these arguments?

To a certain degree, Stanford’s political culture suffers from a lack of coordination. Politicians and policy hands are frequently seen speaking on campus, and attendance is often very solid: Al Gore filled Memorial Auditorium, and even people who don’t run for president can command a crowd. But at least among the undergraduate body, except for the rare times that an Al Gore comes to campus, you rarely hear about these major events – mostly because the vast majority of students are not even aware that these events exist. After all, not everybody has time to go through a hundred different email lists in order to find the events that they want to see.

But we can’t simply chalk up this political culture to listservs. There are ways to make events more public and easier to attend, and Stanford students have proven time and time again that they will go to events if they think that said events will be interesting, but bringing speakers to campus is not the only way that we can test our assumptions and develop our beliefs. To a large extent, people seem reluctant to share their views to a larger crowd of their peers. Stanford has no direct analogue to the Yale Political Union in terms of both scope and importance.

I’m going to go out on a limb here: People tend to care about things if they believe that these things matter, and I think that many Stanford students don’t think that debating politics matters. Maybe it’s because we’re in California, and so our votes “don’t matter” – even though a Republican was governor of California just three years ago, and a California Republican is currently House Majority Leader. Maybe it’s a sense of cynicism or confidence (depending on whom you ask) – the idea that things won’t really change. Worse yet, there even seems to be a certain belief, unspoken but nevertheless held, that to care about politics at this age automatically brands you as “that guy,” the person who starts arguments about political issues with no direct import to people’s lives when there are more pressing matters at hand, like that problem set or that essay or movie night.

I have a problem set due soon, essays on the horizon and movie nights on my calendar that I’ve so far had to miss for various non-political reasons. I understand that feeling; in many ways, I even agree with it. But I don’t think that Stanford’s lukewarm political culture is a matter of competing interests so much as it is a very real sense of apathy. That’s especially true for international relations: Outside of students that actively study it, there rarely seems to be any sort of interest at all in the issues that our country faces abroad.

Political education and political discourse serve both our interests and those of the country whose leaders we vote for. It seems like a failure of our own duty to democracy to not make informed decisions. I don’t mean to say that you can’t take part in politics without openly expressing your views. But intellectually grounded expression forces us to think, and thinking is what gives our votes meaning. Our own thoughts and philosophies suffer if we live in a culture where public expression of our views often seems declasse. As paradoxical as it sounds, political debate would matter more if more people showed up.

This campus is a big world, and there are a lot of things to do. But our resources shouldn’t be seen as distractions – rather, Stanford’s strengths and intellectual firepower across the entire political spectrum are assets that we can leverage. We need to make talking politics cool, and new creations such as the Stanford Political Journal are a good start.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’

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Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.