As far as I could tell, the only students who remained seated for the duration of Bill Clinton's keynote address at the Campus Progress National Student Conference this week were two Nation interns and the handful of comrades at their table. Virtually everyone else in the crowd of more than 600 self-identified progressive student leaders rose to their feet in wild applause. Not once, but four times.
For the first time ever, campus progressives convened, conversed, and organized at their own national conference--something right-wing groups like Young America's Foundation have done annually since the 1970s. "This conference is twenty-five years overdue," David Halperin, director of Campus Progress announced to the packed audience at the Washington Convention Center. "It's time to strengthen the progressive movement and win the battle of ideas."
But when Clinton spoke, rather than laying out a vision for what this new progressive movement might look like, he spent much of his speech urging students not to be afraid of moving to the center. "We have to talk to so-called Red America," he said. "We've got to be strong, have good ideas, and there can be no person we do not see." During the question and answer session, students asked Clinton about Sudan, international aid, the power of the Internet, and his favorite political movies. No one asked him about his welfare policies or the war in Iraq.
In an earlier panel titled "Challenge for the Next Generation: Winning the Battle of Ideas," students reacted most positively to Paul Begala. They cheered loudly when Begala related a story of how Robert Novak had accused him of taking political cues from Marx. "I don't know nothing about Karl Marx," Begala shouted proudly. "I studied Jesus Christ." Much of the dialogue centered on "toughness" and Begala's call to "show some cojones on national security" was met with major applause. Until The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel (who arrived late due to travel delays) appeared, the topic of the war itself hadn't been broached at all.
In the second half of the day, students broke off into smaller seminars. The one I attended, "Stronger and Smarter National Security" (sense a trend?), featured three panelists who, while all critical of Bush's management of the war, also all advocated expanding the military and wouldn't even approach the issue of withdrawal.
Other forums, such as "Rediscovering our Populist Roots" offered a more diverse spectrum of opinion. But for the most part, critical dialogue was in short supply, and the promotion of strategic tactics--rather than strong principles--seemed to rule the day. Instead of identifying the values with which to forge a movement, the speakers at the conference seemed obsessed over the forging itself.
It would be unfair to retroactively rename the event the Campus Centrists National Student Conference, but the lack of a radical student presence was impossible to ignore for an event that billed itself as progressive. Virtually every student I spoke with considered Clinton a genuine "progressive," and his message of finding common ground with ideological opponents seemed to have resonated profoundly.
And, while I didn't find any fair trade or living wage activists, there was a large presence of students mobilizing around genocide in Sudan, a movement that has received critical support from Campus Progress. Yet, without minimizing the importance of student action on Darfur (students after all, have been among the only ones to address this ongoing crisis), it is worth mentioning that there is little partisan debate over this issue. Republican student activists, especially Evangelicals, have also been very active in this movement, making Sudan the ideal vehicle for the kind of bipartisan consensus-building Clinton had spoken about. Meanwhile, the question of what to do about Iraq--an issue progressives and conservatives seemingly are at odds over--was scrupulously avoided throughout the conference.
After a long day of speeches and seminars--some slower and more wonkish than others--Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), the conference's closing speaker, breathed passion into the crowd. Pacing away from the microphone, Lewis told the audience how he faced arrests, violence, and near-death in his time in the civil rights movement. "I got in trouble but it was good trouble and it was necessary trouble. You can't be afraid to get in trouble," Lewis bellowed. "You must find a way to get in the way." As far as I could tell, Lewis was the first and only speaker to promote direct action over savvy politicking.
The next day, I spoke with editors and writers of the CAP-funded publications, who stayed in DC for a journalism training program. Interestingly, these students--many of whom comprise the core of the Campus Progress community--seemed substantially to the left of the general population at the conference. Several were deeply critical of the course that the conference took, but all were nonetheless extremely grateful that an institution like Campus Progress had finally emerged to offer financial and structural support to progressive students. Everyone agreed on one thing: that if a student movement were to emerge, the students themselves should play a vital role in defining it.
For all of its limitations, the conference left students, from Young Democrats to radical activists, energized and teeming with hope. Almost everyone I spoke with left the conference believing that a real, thriving, broad-based progressive student movement--whatever that might come to mean--was overdue, necessary, and most importantly, possible.