Tending to the Political Machine

The IOP does little to energize politics on campus

The morticians are already poking at the carcass of Harvard’s political firmament, recently pronounced dead by a council of alumni of the Class of 1967. The coronary report seems to indicate a deadly tonic of apathy, greed, self-interest, and postmodern irony. But perhaps the biggest threat to Harvard’s political vibrancy isn’t lurking in the hallways of Bain Capital Group or in the sinister transmissions of Stephen Colbert. Perhaps the cause of death was not murder, but suicide. The guilty party? A group nominally committed to “engaging young people in politics and public service:” the insidiously-named Institute of Politics (IOP).

On its face, the IOP purports to support exactly what the misty-eyed memoirists of the activist Sixties want Harvard students to be doing. In the style of the civic-minded academy, it implores Harvard students to “examine critically and think creatively about politics and public issues.” The entire circus operates under the spiritual aegis of President John F. Kennedy ’40, who, one imagines, looks down with rolled-up sleeves and a winning smile upon the IOP’s noble young activists.

Marketing, however, can’t gloss over the truth forever. What transpires down at the end of JFK Street is not the catalysis of idealism but rather a sort of cotillion for political nerds. It absorbs every freshman looking to exercise their obligations as a citizen and churns out a mixture of political technicians, professional hand-shakers, and disillusioned burnouts.

There’s an inherent structural problem with the IOP: It doesn’t know whether it’s an arm of Harvard or a student group. Instead, it uneasily straddles the two, and what results is a group where the adults hold the power and the students brown their noses getting as close to it as possible. In the absence of any real deed to the organization, the undergraduates of the IOP end up as neutered mandarins attending to the details of something outside their control, and lapping up the adornments of power they gain by proximity. There’s a reason The Crimson isn’t an organ of the Harvard Gazette: students are capable enough of expressing themselves without supervision, and, just like politics, journalism isn’t an affair which can be exercised by proxy.

Worse, the IOP inculcates a worrisome catechism of centrism in its followers. The maxim of political involvement IOP-style is to mold yourself into just the right mixture of sensible sentiments and professional suavity. Of the nineteen members of the IOP’s Student Advisory Council, for example, only four choose to identify as “liberal” or “conservative” on their Facebook profiles. Nine, apparently, have no political views whatsoever.

And having a corral for the political set on JFK street means Harvard mirrors a problem endemic to the nation: the consigning of civic duties to a self-contained class of “political people.” This flies in the face of the very notion of democratic society: that we are all political people. Political mobility is a sentiment which needs to boil through everyone who comes to Harvard College, a trade school of citizenship.

Should Harvard, then, simply dissolve the IOP? Hardly. The IOP’s component groups—especially those farthest from its administrative core—produce meaningful work, especially when engaged on the streets and in communities. And the fiscal and networking apparatus of the IOP’s adults serves a function in helping independently motivated students with its grant-writing and publishing programs.

But the era of the IOP as a catch-all excuse for politics on campus needs to end if the political patient is to come off the table with a new lease on life. Unfortunately, for now, it seems that the “Institute” side is handily outweighing the “Politics” one.

Garrett G. D. Nelson ’09 is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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