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What Washington Can Learn From the Yale Political Union

How can the ethics of compromise and confrontation, as practiced in Washington, be improved?

Washington being the place that it is, Senator John McCain was happy to escape to Nantucket. Who could blame him? A week ago McCain was one of over 70 speakers participating in the third annual Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas.

After addressing the dysfunction in Washington and the civil war in Syria, the Arizona Republican was scheduled on the final day of the event to do something quite unique and unexpected. McCain, who recently published an open letter to the Russian people in which he claimed to be “more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today,” was to engage in a dialogue with Vladimir Pozner, the Russian/American journalist best known for appearing opposite Phil Donahue to represent and explain the views of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

That is not the kind of conversation you hear every day, but alas, it was a conversation that never happened. McCain’s visit was cut short, as he was dispatched back to Washington. Before he left, McCain reminded the audience how he had fought against Obamacare, but had lost. Other members of his party, on the other hand, were either unwilling or unable to grasp the concept of majority rule. And so, a shutdown loomed, the ultimate symbol of Washington dysfunction. 

This was the context in which a Yale student named John Aroutiounian took the stage to kick off the event. A former Senate Page, Aroutiounian is no stranger to the ways of Washington. But his approach to intellectual engagement is something of a foreign concept in these times of partisan brinkmanship

Aroutiounian is the Speaker of the Yale Political Union, one of the oldest collegiate debating societies in the United States. Every week the union gets together and conducts a parliamentary-style debate. Aroutiounian’s responsibility is to ensure that intellectual confrontation, “which is sometimes ugly, sometimes easily resolvable, happens every week.” If that doesn’t happen, Aroutiounian says, he has failed. 

What tends to happen every week, however, is that the students find an area of common ground, and then they are able to go home as friends. 

So how can the ethics of compromise and confrontation, as practiced in Washington, be improved? Aroutiounian presents the idea that politicians ought to be ranked based on how well they do, rather than their position on any given issue. Aroutiounian calls this the “talk-to-walk ratio.” 

Ted Cruz spent 20 hours making a speech on the Senate floor a few weeks ago. Aroutiounian would give him a low grade for what amounted to little more than a publicity stunt. 

On the other hand, Aroutiounian is not naive. The Yale Political Union, he admits, can’t really exist in real life. “You can’t have ideals and notions detached from their consequences and from public opinion,” he says. But on the other hand, the nasty situation in Washington is not sustainable either

It doesn’t have to be this way. After all, the things politicians are arguing about right now are fairly small, at least compared to 50 years ago. Communism is gone, Aroutiounian points out. Segregation is gone. And yet the volume seems to be louder than ever. 

This is the case thanks to the media, Aroutiounian says, and that is why in his talk Aroutiounian argues that we need more actual debate happening outside of the media circuit. 


Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more videos and big ideas from The Nantucket Project. 

For event highlights, click here


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