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Studying the Students Can Teach Useful Lessons
W hile it’s true that college students were active in the recent election as organizers of get-out-the- vote campaigns, supporters of candidates, and especially as voters, there is much more to student political activism than electoral work.
Students are politically active on campuses across the country, not just in the bicoastal urban hotspots of traditional campus activism like New York and Berkeley. Recent media exposure has heightened the public’s awareness of the growth of conservative campus activism, so much so that one might draw the conclusion that college students are racing to be counted as members of the new Republican majority. But the truth is that most students remain uninvolved politically, with the exception of voting in presidential elections. Several factors compete with going to meetings, riding the bus to Washington for a demonstration, or sitting at an information table on the quad. There is plenty to do on campus besides political work. Not surprisingly, other organizations far outnumber political groups. The economic truth is that most students are uninvolved because they must work (and borrow money) to attend college, a condition that sharpens their sense of the value of their education while limiting their free time.
Political Research Associate’s recently published study of campus activism, Deliberate Differences, Progressive and Conservative Campus Activism in the United States, provides helpful insight into the realities of political activity on campus. While the number of activist groups is small, progressive groups outnumber conservative ones four to one. According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Center, more first-year students identify as liberal (27 percent) versus conservative (23 percent), with the remaining 50 percent labeling themselves as independent or unaffiliated.
A quick look at progressive goals and tactics on campus shows they are very similar to the work of off-campus progressive activism. Groups tend to emerge issue by issue, developing commitment and consciousness around those issues, with the goal of developing movements based on topical issues on and off campus. This holds true whether the arena is the environment, LGBT issues, anti-militarism, or anti-racist work. Coalitions and other cross-issue work are seen as added, but labor-intensive, benefits. More discussion revolves around process and decision-making than around long-term goals and strategies. There is no clear agreement on what is effective organizing. It all sounds quite familiar to seasoned community activists.
Conservative groups, on the other hand, present a very different picture when we look at their goals and strategies. The purpose of conservative student organizing seems less to build a social or political movement on campus than to develop a future generation of leadership for the Right as a whole. National conservative organizations, whose programs were created specifically to work with college students, provide extensive support and training. The Leadership Institute, Young America’s Foundation, and the Fund for American Studies are only the best known of a collection of well-funded training providers, which includes wings of established groups like Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and the Independent Women’s Forum whose directors emeritae includes Lynne Cheney.
The strategies conservative student groups use are both creative and effective, high-volume megaphoning with few actual students involved. Their style, on the other hand, is much more controversial. Students attempt to disrupt what they call the unfair liberal dominance on campus in various ways. They claim they are a silenced minority, relegated to second-class status by students and discriminated against by liberal faculty. They call for more room for conservative thought, framing it as more “diversity of thought,” co-opting liberal language. They criticize progressive ideas as unpatriotic, intellectually empty, or simply deserving of ridicule. When liberal Brian Boyko wrote a post-election opinion piece in his student newspaper the Daily Texan , for instance, he announced he was leaving the United States because he was disappointed with U.S. voters’ conservative views. The Young Conservatives of Texas Austin branch responded by creating an essay contest on the topic “Why I Want to Leave America,” offering the winner a one-way ticket to Canada.
students establish their own newspapers, often funded by the National
Collegiate Network, insisting their views are unrepresented in the
mainstream campus media. Some attempt takeovers of student governments
in order to gain control of the mainstream campus agenda as well
as to have access to the spending of student activities fees. Popular
speakers like Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter, often funded
by national organizations, tour campuses with a carefully constructed
conservative message for students. Such speakers model a style of
demonization, scapegoating, and belittling of liberal spokespeople,
like Michael Moore, that is readily copied by students with their
own on-campus targets.
Campaigns can focus on issues as well, usually in reaction to what appears to be liberal or progressive control of the topic. For example, an anti-affirmative action bake sale caught on at several campuses in the spring of 2003 while the Supreme Court was deciding on two University of Michigan cases. Students could purchase baked goods, but white students had to pay more than various groups of students of color who got deep discounts. Such sarcasm, used effectively as a backlash to a range of issues from speech codes regulating hate speech to feminist or anti-war activity, has become a hallmark of conservative campus tactics.
The conservative focus is not only on students. Conservative students have criticized liberal faculty for treating them unfairly in class. Conservative campaigns are orchestrated by national groups off-campus, such as Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, the American Council on Trustees and Alumni, co-founded by Lynne Cheney, and David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom. How issues pertaining to the Middle East are taught is a common target. For instance, the Boston- based David Project has successfully disrupted funding for a think tank at Harvard Divinity School and has recently produced a controversial documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, which attacks faculty in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Columbia University.
Campus activist groups on both the Right and the Left do share a few characteristics. All the activists we met hold a sincere belief in their political perspectives, even as they are still formulating them. But neither group is particularly interested in debate with the opposition and both pay little attention to the large mass of students in the middle, the centrists.
What other lessons did this study teach? Student activists judge their centrist counterparts harshly, and they tend to use the well-worn, and usually inaccurate, label of “apathetic” to describe such students. For their part, we found that centrist students resented the often provocative and confrontational styles of organizing, especially from the Left. The mockery and finger pointing from the Right seems to be more palatable to this group, as long as they are not themselves targets. (The designers of these campaigns capitalized on two factors: some students find such sarcasm funny and hip and, for those still developing their political ideas, a simplistic analysis is quite appealing.) Those less involved in an issue were even more uncomfortable with debate and political conflict than activists. This tended to contribute to low turn-outs to the rare formal debates that do take place. Many students lack the skills or the confidence necessary for enjoying a heated discussion and few students get a chance to learn these skills in college or elsewhere. There are confrontations, certainly, and they do get press, but rarely does it take the form of constructive dialogue. Add to this a hesitancy among faculty to provide political mentoring and the current political climate on campus hardly benefits from this sad state of affairs.
What are some implications of these findings? Conservative students are fewer in numbers than progressives, but they may be growing slowly in influence, at least in part because they are better funded and more closely advised by outside groups. Liberal organizations like People for the American Way’s Young People For program and the Center for American Progress’s Campus Progress Network are copying the Right’s strategies of national training centers and student media outlets.
These are promising projects for progressives. But more needs to happen on campuses, especially in broadcasting social change messages for mainstream students that make sense to them. Progressive campus activists need more support from their off-campus counterparts in helping to design campaigns and creating effective frames. The job of off-campus progressive activists is to provide this support in respectful, useful ways.
Pam Chamberlain is a researcher for Political Research Associates.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.