The New Face of the Campus Left
Halperin insists that Campus Progress is eager to bring students across the left's spectrum into the fold. If the ideological diversity of the students at the conference was limited, he chalks that up to the fact that Campus Progress recruited a large portion of the attendees from the DC-based progressive organizations where many work as interns. The 2006 conference, he vows, will reflect a broader outreach.
"My biggest concern from the beginning about CAP getting involved in the campus biz is that we would look like the McDonald's or Microsoft of progressive organizing--that it would be sort of corporate-style, clean, gleaming and neat, and not the kind of messy, grassroots, crunchy or angry version of what campus organizing is supposed to look like," Halperin says. "We've tried very hard, without compromising what we stand for, to make sure that we are serious about progressive values, and that we believe in inclusion."
Campus Progress has funded several student papers with strong left-wing content, like the University of Texas Issue, which recently featured an interview with a member of the radical Landless Workers Movement in Brazil. Thus far, Campus Progress has not engaged in any editorial oversight. "Anytime CAP is associated with something far left, it's going to hurt us," Halperin says, "but if we're censoring students, it's also going to be a problem." He acknowledges that "we'd have a problem if students were writing editorials in support of the Iraqi insurgency or calling for the elimination of the state of Israel."
How, I asked, would Campus Progress respond if students requested radical intellectual Noam Chomsky as a speaker? After all, right-wing groups like Young America's Foundation almost exclusively fund speakers from the radical end of the right's spectrum. "Well, I don't think Chomsky would do business with us," Halperin replied. "But let's say we planned to bring Al Gore to campuses, and students said, 'How about bringing Ralph Nader to debate him?' If that's what they wanted, we'd do it."
Campus Progress began this past fall to offer student activism grants, some of which will promote causes that extend beyond the mainstream aims of the Frist-a-Buster--like the $1,000 given to students organizing a living-wage campaign at Vanderbilt University. According to director Iara Peng, YP4 also wants to emphasize bottom-up initiatives. "There was no way we could design this program from the top down and tell students what to do," says Peng. "We made a deliberate choice to break out of the right-wing model and allow students to define us."
On each campus, YP4 chooses three fellows (often with differing ideologies) who collectively agree on an activism project. YP4-sponsored activities have included living-wage and anti-Wal-Mart activism. Notably missing from the list of YP4 efforts--not to mention those sponsored by Campus Progress--is antiwar activism, arguably the core cause of the day among progressives. According to Peng, students from only one campus, Southern Methodist University, have expressed any interest in Iraq-related organizing. But even there, it didn't happen; the Southern Methodist students "decided instead to do coalition-building with progressive organizations."
"That was the only interest we received on forty campuses," Peng said. "That is not to say fellows are not organizing on Iraq--just not through the program."
In part, that's no doubt because of the group's philosophy. "We look for issues that will not polarize people but work toward common ground," Peng says. "We're not here to totally fight the right on campuses; in some ways we're here to work together toward our collective visions. If a Republican wants to work with us and work toward a better world, great."