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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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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?"

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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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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.

"This is the South Park generation," says Matt Singer, a junior at the University of Montana and creator of the popular left-wing blog Left in the West. "The conservative activism is fun, and it rings with the students in the same way that the left did in the '60s and early '70s."

"The right actually ends up looking cooler than the left," agrees Mani Mostofi, who recently earned his master's degree at the University of Texas. "I don't know how this is possible, but it's true!"

For progressive student activists, attention-getting victories have also been scarce. There have been isolated triumphs in the past year: successful student-led living-wage campaigns for employees at Georgetown University and Washington University of St. Louis, and the multi-campus Taco Bell boycott, which helped secure a significant raise for the fast-food chain's tomato pickers.

The most widespread disappointment has been the failure to generate a sustainable movement opposing the war in Iraq. While student mobilization in the run-up to the war was massive in scope and energy, the typical problems plaguing the campus left--ideological splits and lack of organization--have caused the movement to fade considerably. "It was really a lost cause," says Yale University junior Jared Malsin, "because there was a great deal of infighting among different factions in the movement." Some student progressives wanted to focus on the fight to keep military recruiters off campus; others were divided over whether to call for immediate withdrawal of US troops. Plus, says Malsin, "there was waning interest in fighting it because it seemed like there was so little we could actually do as students."

Frustrations abound, but the emergence of national progressive organizations on campus has given many student activists renewed hope. In its first year Campus Progress has provided progressive students with tools they've never had before: money and a sense of unity. While its $1.25 million projected budget falls well below the more than $10 million of the right-wing Young America's Foundation, Campus Progress has made an immediate impact. Wayne Huang, editor of Cornell's student progressive publication, Turn Left, has seen his paper "go through a shocking transformation in little under a year," thanks to funding from Campus Progress. On twenty-seven other campuses, formerly cash-strapped student left publications are finally competing with conservative papers, publishing regularly and printing on high-quality paper. At its virtual meeting place, CampusProgress.org, students from across the country are sharing ideas and getting advice on how to communicate their values from the likes of Senator Barack Obama. Features like "Know Your Right-Wing Speakers" and "Crib Sheet" provide concise talking points for fighting the right.

For the first time Campus Progress has given progressive students a sense that they, like the campus right, are part of a tangible movement. When 600 progressive students convened in Washington, DC, last summer for the first annual Campus Progress National Student Conference, many felt a profound sense of relief. "For so long there's been a disconnect of dialogue between progressives," says University of Kentucky junior Yuriy Bronshteyn. "There's been nothing central to look to." The mere existence of an organizational infrastructure seems miraculous to Bronshteyn, who says, "This is almost like a star that we can all see in the sky every night--it can give us the feeling that we're all fighting the same fight."

As Campus Progress works to build a national community for student progressives, Young People For (YP4) focuses on developing individual leaders. A project of People for the American Way, YP4 mirrors the right's Leadership Institute, which has trained more than 40,000 young conservatives, including movement heavyweights Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, since its inception in 1979. Providing a leadership pipeline for the left, YP4 has trained 126 students on forty campuses in its first year.

Jenny Parker, a YP4 fellow at Baylor University, wanted to organize a living-wage campaign on her campus--but had no idea how. After YP4 training in January 2005 in media outreach, coalition building and event planning, Parker says, "now we have the most organized campaign I could ever imagine." Especially helpful, she says, was YP4's guidance on framing the message. "Our audience at Baylor is very conservative and was turned off at the announcement of a living-wage campaign," Parker says. "We realized we had to spin our message a bit in order to gain support. We changed our campaign to the 1 John 3 Campaign"--a reference to a biblical passage urging aid for the poor. "Now our campaign is centered on the idea that this is our Christian obligation."

The largest Baptist university in the world has not yet passed a living wage for its workers, but Parker and her fellow activists are making headway with 1 John 3. They convinced the Student Congress to pass a resolution calling for a living wage, and have motivated 600 students to send postcards to the university president supporting the campaign.

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."

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."

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."

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.

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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