It's Time to Look to the Campus

News & Politics

For the first time in my life, I am being lumped together with conservative evangelical Christians. Too many of them voted on Nov. 2 and not enough of us college-aged kids did. Now, we're both being held responsible for the defeat of the Democratic Party during this year's presidential election.

But in several closely contested battleground states, the youth vote made all the difference. According to the Associated Press, 64 percent of voters aged 18-29 went to the polls in Pennsylvania. They selected John Kerry by a margin of nearly 20 percentage points. The same is true for several other blue-going battleground states, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin. No other age group overwhelmingly rejected the conservative policies of George W. Bush as reliably as youth.

Instead of blaming my generation, the left should consider sharpening their strategies for recruiting America's youth. If the Democratic Party wants to rebuild its political infrastructure, nurturing a vibrant and organized progressive movement among students should be a major priority.

I should emphasize "organized." Conservatives have understood the value of investing in students for a long time. As much bellyaching as the GOP does about "bias" on college campuses, conservative student activists are incredibly well-supported and financed. For example, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) funnels nearly $1,000,000 a year to conservative campus newspapers across the country and spends an additional $40,000 on summer fellowships for promising student leaders.

These investments have paid off. Former ISI fellows have gone on to become presidents of major public policy organizations and senior advisors in several Republican administrations – Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor, Richard Allen, for example, was an ISI graduate.

Key to conservative success has been their willingness to make long-term investments. Instead of recruiting students to do grunt work, conservative organizations mold promising youth into effective leaders.

Progressives could steal a page from this book. And, to their credit they are trying. There are fledgling progressive efforts to reach out to young people in an organized fashion. The largest union in the country, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), held a Student Solidarity Summit during its last convention to recruit students to be labor organizers. While there is nothing wrong with this objective, it misses the mark if the goal is to build a strong progressive movement.

Unions need more than organizers. They require sympathetic policymakers and allies in the mainstream media to win their campaigns. Therefore, the labor movement would do well to train policy wonks and talking heads, not just future staffers.

There are a number of reasons to focus on building the intellectual capacity of young activists. Most students, even those who don't become particularly politically engaged, shape their world views at college. Despite the stereotype of overly "liberal" campuses, most youth are more influenced by the ideas of their peers than teachers. Articulate, well-educated advocates among the student population are needed to infuse the next generation with an understanding of progressive politics and social justice. And we need training if we're going to pass along a progressive vision for the future.

Conservatives on campus are great at synthesizing complex ideas into easily understood concepts. Republicans at the University of Virginia organized a bake sale to protest affirmative action policies. They sold cookies for $1 to white students and then discounted them for people of color. Sure, this grossly oversimplifies the issue, but it is an effective way to communicate their message: they believe that affirmative action policies are unfair.

These bake sales took place at several colleges across the country. And how did liberal students respond? Instead of finding a clever way to reframe the issue, the argued against free speech and demanded that the practice be banned. This created sympathy for the Republican activists and added to the perception that progressives are unwilling to listen to anyone who disagrees with them.

If progressive students had the kind of support and infrastructure that conservatives did, we'd dominate the campus wars. There are a variety of ways to strengthen the student left. A network of blogs could monitor various conservative efforts on college campuses and develop plans to counter them. Taking a cue from the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, students could pressure college administrations to stop investing their endowments into companies that give money to over-the-top conservatives, like Coors Brewing Company or Sinclair Broadcasting. Finally, progressive organizations could establish a network for student interns, providing financial support for summer programs.

Many organizations which have been supporting Kerry seem genuinely committed to a long-term struggle to rebuild progressive power in the United States. The millions of dollars being spent by George Soros, and various other organizations represent a capital infusion for the future of American liberalism. However, unless these groups invest in student activists, they will deprive themselves of a critical resource.

If the left would like to come back from the wilderness and actually govern at some point in the future, it will need a strong stock of leaders to carry the banner. By preparing young people for careers in political organizing, journalism, and public policy, the left automatically builds a lasting infrastructure for the future.

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