When a group called Campus Progress launched its effort to promote progressive values on college campuses in the fall of 2004, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wondered: “Isn’t that a bit like pumping sand into the Mojave Desert?”
The assumption that America’s campuses are impenetrable bastions of liberalism–where left-leaning faculty predominate, progressive student activism flourishes and conservatism is fiercely marginalized–still rules the day. But in reality, since the 1970s the conservative movement has become the dominant political force on many American campuses. This sea change is not simply a reflection of some students’ increasingly right-wing views. Each year, conservative groups pour more than $35 million into hundreds of college campuses. They pay for right-wing speakers, underwrite scores of student papers, provide free leadership training and cushy internships, and equip thousands of new activists with talking points, discipline and missionary zeal.
Today’s campus right is unified, on-message and passionate–in other words, part of a genuine movement. By contrast, the campus left is disparate, undisciplined and segmented along ideological and issue-based lines. Student progressives have struggled for decades with not only a lack of cohesion but a dearth of resources. “We didn’t have our act together,” says Joshua Holland, a fair-trade and antiwar activist who graduated from the University of Southern California this past spring. “We tried to keep things nonhierarchical and loosely structured, but at the end of the day, there was a lot of running around in circles, and we weren’t getting anything done.”
It’s a familiar lament among the two dozen student progressives I talked with for this article. But help has arrived. After three decades of unanswered advances by the right, the progressive movement is no longer leaving students to fend for themselves. Campus Progress–a project of the Center for American Progress (CAP), one of the country’s premier think tanks–is the largest of a handful of organizations that have emerged in the past year to counter the right’s campus operations. These groups are offering resources, ideas and training designed to patch up many of the holes that have long deflated the student left. But in attempting to forge a widespread student progressive movement, they face many of the same quandaries that loom large for American progressivism as a whole: What values should define the movement? What tactics should be embraced? And perhaps most difficult of all, to what extent does striving for results mean sacrificing strong principles?
Ever since the heyday of left-wing campus activism in the late 1960s and early ’70s, progressive students have struggled with looking frivolous, reactionary or cliched to their peers. At the University of North Carolina senior Jessica Polk says students have long been “sick of what the left is doing–they want to walk to class without being handed a flier about a rally or vigil.”
Meanwhile, student conservatives have managed to balance organizational and ideological discipline with ragtag rebelliousness, positioning themselves as perpetual underdogs on oppressively liberal campuses. Armed with their version of a screw-the-man mentality, the student right’s activism is often shocking: affirmative action bake sales where white students are charged more for cookies than blacks, for instance, or immigrant hunts where students dressed in Border Patrol uniforms chase targeted “illegals” with water guns. As tasteless and offensive as such stunts might be, they make waves on campuses and garner national attention for the movement.