Studying the Students Can Teach Useful Lessons


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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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

Columbia Unbecoming,

which attacks faculty in
the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Columbia

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.