The Future of the Party?
As a spring noreaster darkened the backdrop of the annual College Democrats of New York State Convention on Sunday, April 15, the mood inside was buoyant. "It's a great day to be a Democrat!" summed up one participant.
Indeed, many aspects of this year's conference seem to the group's members to augur a new day for the Democratic Party. "The biggest thing to happen for us," said Scott Nichol, legislative affairs director of the University of Buffalo College Democrats, "is that since we took back control of Congress, and we took the governorship of this state...we had the leaders in position who supported our views.... What we wanted started to get done." Nichol cited a modest but successful campaign his chapter undertook this past year to increase student financial aid.
"We have all these resources to draw on that weren't even there five years ago," enthuses Josh Bolotsky, president of College Democrats of New York. Indeed, the Drum Major Institute and Twenty-First Century Democrats, who sent representatives to the conference this year, have enhanced their student outreach programs, of late and Young People For, Living Liberally and Campus Progress all sprang to life in recent years.
Two key themes shaping this year's conference were the cultivation of leadership among students and the importance of social networking. "One of the brilliant parts of the conservative movement has been viewing students not just as mere pieces of data but as collaborators and future authors of the movement," said Bolotsky. "Look at Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Rick Santorum; they all came from College Republicans." Moreover, after young Republicans are tapped to advance through the ranks, institutions like the Heritage Foundation provide an atmosphere where social bonds between bright young minds are reinforced. "It wasn't as if [they] met each other in a bar one day and said 'Hey, we work really well together!' That's not how it worked. It worked because they knew each other through being in the same circles."
With this in mind, the College Democrats of New York invited Justin Krebs, founder of Living Liberally, to stress to attendees the importance of social settings like dining halls in establishing community among like-minded politicos, and to outline ways to re-create similar social communities after graduation. Krebs advises students to have a "culturally identifying side to your politics, so that you're not just going out and canvassing, you're going and hanging out with people because they share your progressive views--they're liberals, too. Whatever you're doing, you can be doing liberally."
One of the attendees who took Krebs's message to heart is Shamil Rodriguez, president of the College Democrats of St. John's University. Describing St. John's as "traditionally a conservative campus," he "wouldn't say people are apathetic, because everyone has an interest, but when it comes to being apolitical, [College Democrats are] definitely swinging momentum in our favor in terms of our campus presence." Adds his classmate Stephen Holland, "People care, but they don't necessarily know the right way to go about doing something about what they care about." By connecting with motivated but politically unsophisticated students on a social level and providing the kind of leadership that can foster measurable change in areas with broad appeal, such as healthcare and student financial aid, College Democrats hope to find allies in students who normally wouldn't identify with a political group.
Also invited to speak was Dan Maffei, a former College Democrat who ran a competitive upstate campaign in 2006 against James Walsh, an entrenched incumbent Congressman, "to basically restore democracy to my part of the world." Maffei staffed his campaign with students from Le Moyne College and Syracuse University to help mobilize moderate and progressive students who "might be interested in voting [in the 25th District] as opposed to wherever they would normally vote, or more likely not vote at all, because too many students don't vote." Despite his defeat, he looks forward to running again, and fielded questions from students wondering how to navigate a career path in politics.
College Democrats as a whole see a need for the progressive establishment to remodel the infrastructure to better incorporate young leaders, and to recognize and honor their achievements like the Princeton Filibuster and the College Democrats of New York's own Fox News demonstration--two examples of actions that did manage to attract national attention.
In the immediate future, the College Democrats of New York have coordinated with Empire State Pride and Soulforce to plan a New York Marriage Ride, which will take place from July 14 to 27, serendipitously dovetailing with the College Democrats of America National Convention in South Carolina. Gay marriage resonates particularly strongly with College Democrats of New York. As part of a younger demographic that grew up familiar with gay and transgender issues, College Democrats consider themselves more likely to view marriage equality within a civil rights framework.
Time will tell if this next generation of Democrats will succeed in re-energizing the party, but they appear off to a strong start.