The New Face of the Campus Left | The Nation


The New Face of the Campus Left

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Not all of the major efforts to organize campus progressives are coming from the outside. The Roosevelt Institution, founded by Stanford University students in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, is billed as the nation's first progressive student think tank. Providing much of Roosevelt's steam is executive director Quinn Wilhelmi, an ambitious and ultra-enthusiastic junior who quotes Spider-Man and Henry David Thoreau in the same breath. His message--that progressive students can and should be fighting in the war of ideas--is resonating with thousands of students across the country; the Roosevelt Institution already boasts chapters at 120 campuses.

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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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In early October students from across the country met in Washington to present policy recommendations at the House office building's Cannon caucus room. Debuting their policy journal, the Roosevelt Review, students held forth on relatively mainstream topics ranging from AIDS prevention to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge crisis. At the launch of Yale's Roosevelt chapter this fall, students donned formal attire, nibbled on fancy hors d'oeuvres and watched a prerecorded video appearance from Hillary Clinton.

"This was not our parents' campus activism," Yale senior Sarah Laskow wrote of the event on CampusProgress.org. "So much the better, say the Roosevelt kids. We'd rather shine our shoes than dred our hair. We'd rather speak alongside our political leaders than shout out rhetoric from campus quads. We'd rather write policy papers than compose protest songs. The political elders have used us for our bodies and our energies. Now we want to offer them our minds. Our politics of revolution pushes not for actions but for ideas."

Wilhelmi says that the Roosevelt Institution is not an attempt to replace grassroots activism but rather to complement it. "Nothing would have happened in the '60s without the sit-ins, but nothing would have happened without the Civil Rights Act either," he says. "I hope students will do both. I hope they'll do the sit-ins and then also work toward getting a city government to pass a law." He also maintains that Roosevelt will be a "big tent" for progressive ideas. Even though the organization is courting DLC darling Hillary Clinton, it has Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and liberal philosopher Richard Rorty on its advisory board.

Some progressives are suspicious of the professionalism of the Roosevelt movement, fearing it is already marginalizing traditional left-wing activism on campuses. "Anything could happen, but at this point the pendulum seems like it's swinging toward the center-left--Roosevelt, Campus Progress--the fine, upstanding, clean-shaven young white men standing up for this new brand of progressivism," said one student organizer (speaking on condition of anonymity because "they're already too powerful"). "It's no heir to SDS."

I asked the former president of Students for a Democratic Society, Todd Gitlin, now a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, for his thoughts about the trends on the new student left. "I think there's a desire for results, a hard-bitten realism," says Gitlin. "The primary goal is not some sort of symbolic display, or some sort of posture or attitude, but results. If that's what it means, then I applaud the turn to practicality. Today the far right is in charge, and I don't think you can create the possibility of broad-based radicalism until you defeat the far right. Put the center in power and then you have the possibility--or the luxury--of radicalism."

But SDS co-founder and lifelong activist Tom Hayden is wary of organizations that emphasize efficacy over ideals. "Students are being channeled into the Democratic Party or other mainstream institutions that will never bring about social change without a challenge and pressure from idealistic and free-thinking campus activists," says Hayden. None of the issues Hayden believes are "the great moral challenges before this generation"--the Iraq War, fighting the oil companies, resisting the pressure of military recruiters, debating alternatives to corporate-led globalization--are being pushed by the groups organizing campus progressives. "The immediate need," says Hayden, "is to say no to those who would channel students into safe alternatives to these challenges."

The right has created a student movement not simply by providing infrastructure but by promoting hard-core conservative ideology on campuses. The fledgling effort to organize campus progressives has provided the much needed infrastructure. But if progressive students are encouraged to embrace pragmatic politics over bold and sweeping challenges to the status quo, could something else--something essential--be lost? After all, radical students have stood at the forefront of many critical battles in this country, propelling social change by refusing to think within the accepted boundaries of debate. What will it mean for the progressive movement in the long run if cries for a new society are replaced by calls for incremental improvement? Is the future of the progressive movement better off in the hands of young pragmatists or young visionaries?

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