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Politics, porn, and polarization: a look back at Whig-Clio’s rise and fall

A large white building with pillars, photographed from the ground.
Veena Krishnaraj / The Daily Princetonian

On and off Princeton’s campus, Whig-Clio is recognized as a political force in the history of debating societies. Today, the society prides itself as “the oldest college and literary debating club in the United States.” Notable alumni include James Madison Class of 1771 and Woodrow Wilson Class of 1879.

Originally founded as two separate societies, The American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society, the joint American Whig-Cliosophic Society were forced to merge in the 1920s. The development of the Woodrow Wilson School (now known as the School of Public and International Affairs) and the eating clubs began to replace Whig-Clio’s influence on politics and social life on campus. In 1941, Whig Hall and the society’s assets were transferred to the University, creating the structure of today’s Whig-Clio. What followed is decades of turbulent campus organization politics. 

While the club boasts itself as the premier political organization on campus, often bringing popular speakers, hosting parliamentary debates, and holding councils on national and international affairs, it has struggled to sustain its membership over the years. In 1981, the club had 1,500 members. Now, it has around 300 members — a sharp decline from Whig-Clio’s glory days. Over the past decades, Whig-Clio faced many challenges: dramatic membership loss, a global pandemic, and controversy over one of its most notable alumni, Ted Cruz ’92 (R-Texas). Nevertheless, the club has remained tenacious in their fight to maintain campus relevancy. 

A class of its own

Whig-Clio has a storied history, dating back to America’s founding. The societies were sites for government planning. Two notable alumni of Whig and Clio, Madison and William Paterson Class of 1763, presented plans of government to the Confederation of the Colonies. Paterson wrote the New Jersey Plan, which supported a unicameral legislature and equal votes of states. Madison wrote the Virginia Plan, featuring three branches of government, the format we are familiar with today. Whig-Clio members were also present during the Continental Congress, which held sessions in Nassau Hall. 

Over the next few centuries, Whig-Clio positioned itself as the dominant organization on campus. They hosted their own classes, taught their own curriculum, had their own libraries, and awarded member exclusive diplomas to graduating members. Additionally, Whig-Clio would regularly host debates with other colleges, such as Yale and Harvard, which drew in large crowds regularly and provided students a place to fulfill their political and intellectual thirst. 

The 1980s: porn films and future politicians

In 1980, Whig-Clio had 1,100 members, and membership peaked in subsequent years at about 1,500. “There would be hundreds of people who would come [to events],” recalled Jordan Katz ’81, who was president of Whig-Clio in his senior year. “We were the largest student extracurricular organization.” By the 1980s, Whig-Clio had reached record-highs for membership, though not for its commitment to the society’s formidable reputation. Instead, Whig-Clio was known for its debates about porn.

To Katz, the reason for Whig-Clio’s dominance is clear. “We were providing a service that everybody wanted, which was to be able to go to the movies,” he said. At the time, Whig-Clio membership had offered the additional benefit of a Film Society which showed free movies on Friday and Saturday nights. This was likely the motivator for the hundreds of people Katz recalled seeing regularly. Whig-Clio created the Film Society as an extension of its literary branch, but not all members supported its existence as a subsidiary of the society. Most importantly, members, and the wider campus, disagreed on what kind of movies Whig-Clio should be allowed to show.

In 1983, Whig-Clio was engulfed in debate over a scheduled Friday night showing of the pornographic film “Debbie Does Dallas.” The choice provoked sharp criticism, both from members of Whig-Clio and the Women’s Center, which called for the showing to be canceled. Conversely, other members of Whig-Clio were enraged at the threat of cancellation, casting criticism as an attempt to censor the society. While the movie was eventually canceled, students opposed to the decision formed the Coalition Opposing Censorship, lambasting both Whig-Clio and the Women’s Center as “denying us our choice.” 

The debate didn’t end there. 1983 and 1985 issues of The Daily Princetonian noted showings of several pornographic or X-rated films by Whig-Clio in the past, including “Last Tango in Paris,” “Deepthroat,” and “Emmanuel.” Another controversy followed in 1985 over an additional showing of “The Opening of Misty Beethoven,” leading to a second Whig-Clio debate on the showing of pornography on campus and a resolution banning the showing of X-rated films in the future.

The pornography debate was an intense and divisive issue for Whig-Clio. Even with X-rated films banned, many members still found the Film Society to be a distraction from the traditional aims of the society. In 1985, Steven Schoenfeld ’87 ran for president of Whig-Clio with the promise that he would eliminate the Film Society as part of the club’s programs. “We’re tired of being thought of as a film society when we run one of the best debate programs in the country,” Schoenfeld was quoted as saying at the time. He won the election and, in June of 1986, Whig-Clio’s film program came to an end.

While some members were thrilled to see Whig-Clio refocus on politics and debate, many members were less enthusiastic. “The movies are the only reason for membership,” one student told the ‘Prince’ at the time. 

But Schoenfeld was adamant that reduced membership was not a negative, insisting that “a small committed membership is better than a larger, more apathetic one.” Whig-Clio’s membership sank to approximately 100, according to estimates in 1990. 

The 1990s: shifting and refocusing 

Those who remained in Whig-Clio were the types of members Schoenfeld had hoped to attract a few years prior. Noah Steinberg ’90, a member of the Whig Party at the time, described himself as “intensely” involved in the club during his first three years at Princeton. “I looked at it as an opportunity to be part of a Princeton tradition … to be with people and focus on a lot of stuff that I was interested in,” he told the ‘Prince.’

This version of Whig-Clio that Steinberg experienced was what Schoenfeld tried to create when he disbanded the film program in 1986. It was a Whig-Clio that traded campus popularity for its traditional aims as a literary, political, and debate society.

The 2000s: a further decline

Nevertheless, Schoenfeld’s decision to ax the film program continued to have grave repercussions. Whig-Clio was losing its hold on campus life. In 2002, there were 200 active members. The political society struggled to keep those members involved, with many paying their dues and later dropping out of the society. The society’s dedication was also blamed on its commitment to “political neutrality,” something ‘Prince’ columnist Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky ’04 claimed was “driving the society into irrelevance.” 

Another student columnist, however, sought to reinvigorate Whig-Clio’s presence on campus. In an article titled “Give Back Whig Hall,” Jason Sheltzer ’08 argued that the University should transfer Whig Hall back to the Whig-Clio Society in order to attract more members. “If Princeton were to return ownership of Whig Hall to Whig-Clio, then the Society could reestablish itself in its original role as not just the center of political debate on campus, but also as the hub of a student’s social life as well,” said Sheltzer. 

Present day: an insurrection and a global pandemic

By the 2020s, Whig-Clio was faced with a global pandemic that slowed down the club’s growth.  “COVID killed not just Whig, but a lot of organizations on campus … and also destroyed some institutional history,” said Whig-Clio Secretary Santhosh Nadarajah ’25. Today, Whig-Clio has between 200 and 300 members. 

But Whig-Clio President Won-Jae Chang ’24 sees it differently. “People were stuck at home and [Whig-Clio] was a nice community to find,” with Zoom making meetings super accessible, he said. Whig-Clio especially gave students an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the Biden-Trump electoral race. 

More than three years removed from that election, both Nadarajah and Chang say they don’t feel as though the intense political polarization that ensued has affected the club in a negative way. Because of Whig-Clio, Nadarajah “[has found] friends who range from socialists to conservatives” and says that he gets along with all of them. He said this is “in stark contrast to the national environment, where you see people attacking each other on social media all the time.” 

While the interior of the club was somewhat sheltered from the intense political drama that followed the 2020 U.S. presidential election, one of their most esteemed alumni was at the center. Ted Cruz ’92 (R-Texas), former member of Whig-Clio and recipient of the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service (JMA), alleged voter fraud and formally objected to the certification of votes in Arizona. The January 6th insurrection just hours afterwards made Cruz's actions instantly controversial. Members of Whig-Clio called for Cruz’s award to be rescinded. A vote of the membership to rescind the award passed 37–32 in favor of rescinding the award, but the Board of Trustees later reversed the decision because “there [was] no basis for a new group of students to evaluate actions after the JMA is given and subsequently to revoke the award.”

When asked how this affected the club, Chang seemed unperturbed. “I’m not sure it affected our club as a whole,” he said. However it did bring a lot of new attention to Whig-Clio. “Ted Cruz tweeted about us, Robbie George tweeted about us. We became much more well known,” he added.

Where does Whig-Clio go from here?

“I’ve thought about [joining Whig-Clio], but I haven’t actually tried to apply or anything or look super into it,” said Angie Rodriguez ’26. “They always have relevant [debate] topics,” she later added, echoing the recent efforts of Whig-Clio leadership.

When talking about Princeton as a political campus, Nadarajah said “compared to some of our peer institutions like Stanford and Yale and Harvard, I would say we are definitely at the lower end [of political involvement and] of enthusiasm for politics.” This is something he claims Whig-Clio is actively trying to change. “I think that’s the type of change that’s going to take some time,” Nadarajah said. 

When she heard the name Whig-Clio, Claire Filipowicz ’27 first thought of “the building.” 

“It’s the debate thing, right?” she asked. 

To remedy this, Chang said the club is “trying to avoid [niche politics] and offer varying levels of political involvement.” The most recent Whig-Clio debate this year focused on “hookup culture” at Princeton, which is something everyone, regardless of their political knowledge, could have a say in. Another debate focused on the bioethics of CRISPR babies. The goal is to find topics that are “somewhat politically adjacent, but don’t just orient themselves towards people who are in the sphere of politics majors,” said Nadarajah.

“It’s a struggle between increasing membership and increasing the intensity of politics in Whig-Clio,” said Chang. “The more intense we get about specific niche politics things, the more inaccessible it becomes to the public.”

Both Chang and Nadarajah said they feel membership is on the rise again, with their broader topics attracting a wider, more diverse crowd. During Nadarajah's first year, only about 10 people applied to be officers, but this year they had over 70 applications. With the recent addition of the first-year officer program, they have seen an increase in first-year involvement with the club. Club membership is on the rise again, but only time will tell the club’s future. 

Katie Thiers is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’

Charlotte Young is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’

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