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The New Face of the Campus Left | The Nation

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The New Face of the Campus Left

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Since the national groups have emerged, Joshua Holland, who was a YP4 fellow at USC, says campus progressives "actually get things done, which is a huge relief, because we're so used to not getting things done."

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Sam Graham-Felsen
Sam Graham-Felsen was Barack Obama's chief blogger on the 2008 campaign. He writes and speaks on technology, politics,...

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Progressives organized the most widely publicized student protest of 2005, the Princeton Frist-a-Buster. What began as a small event staged by eight students in front of the Frist Campus Center--each student took turns reading out of the campus phone book to protest Senate majority leader Bill Frist's threat to abolish the filibuster for judicial nominees--quickly grew into a nationwide phenomenon. Hundreds of students and professors, a Nobel laureate and two US senators took turns reading everything from Shakespeare to 3,500 digits of pi at Princeton, while students at thirty-five other campuses staged copycat events.

"We had a situation where the rhetoric was moderate, it was billed as nonpartisan and the people running it weren't the crazy activists but committed students who knew what they were talking about," says Princeton's Asheesh Kapur Siddique, a core organizer of the 384-hour talk marathon. "We spent hours learning the history, learning the rules, so we could talk authoritatively about it. When our peers asked us what we were doing, it was far more convincing to them."

To David Halperin, director of Campus Progress, the Frist-a-Buster was the perfect model for the kind of movement his group wants to foster--clean, polished, on-message, but also humorous and inventive. The protest wasn't initiated by the national organization, he is quick to note, but by Siddique and his co-organizers. Campus Progress embraced the idea, provided resources and publicity and served, in Halperin's words, as a "megaphone" for the activists. That's how he wants his group to work. Unlike the largely top-town model of right-wing student advocacy groups, Halperin wants Campus Progress to be pushed "by the students' agendas."

But in choosing which student activities to support, which publications to finance and which speakers to bring on tour, Campus Progress can't help pushing an ideology. Some worry that the organization, run in part by former Clinton Administration officials, is more interested in promoting a centrist agenda than a strong, progressive alternative to the campus right. Several students who attended last summer's National Student Conference--where the keynote speaker was none other than Bill Clinton--felt that truly progressive perspectives were lacking. One panel, "Stronger and Smarter National Security," featured three panelists who, despite their criticism of George W. Bush's handling of the war, advocated expanding the military presence in Iraq. The subject of withdrawing troops was not even broached.

On the day of the conference, an article titled "What Is Progressive" was prominently displayed on the Campus Progress website, reading like a Port Huron statement for the new movement. "Progressivism," wrote Cornell University senior and Campus Progress intern Andrew Garib, "is far more flexible than any one ideology. Traditionally, conservatives see the world, especially human nature, as predictable and static. Liberals are often burdened with endless optimism--a belief that all problems can be solved through implementing utopian visions." The new student politics emerging from the conference should be defined not by revolutionary idealism, Garib wrote, but by pragmatism: "See the world for what it is, accept it as ever-changing and dynamic, and choose the best course of action in line with decidedly American values."

To Ishaan Tharoor, who edits the Campus Progress-funded Yale Hippolytic, Garib's manifesto was rife with centrist ambiguity. Tharoor fears the new progressive student movement will be dominated by "a cadre of résumé-pushing College Dems" who value expediency over principle. To Tharoor that's hardly the most "pragmatic" way to contest the right-wing movement's deeply held and sharply defined views. "Their extremism can only be taken to task by our own 'politics of conviction,'" Tharoor wrote on the Campus Progress blog. "As long as we cling to the...shadows of a Clintonian past and timidly skirt the issues that truly divide our country, that politics shall never emerge."

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