It was November 3, 2004, and while much of the movement to unseat Bush was licking its wounds, Jared Malsin, Marissa Levendis and four other friends and fellow activists from Yale were already plotting to re-enter the fray. Throughout the fall, the six students had worked to galvanize their campus into action, helping to send 250 students to canvass and register votes in swing states–and they were exhausted. But Levendis, a veteran campus organizer, felt that she had witnessed something extraordinary. “It was a huge effort for us, and when we lost we were devastated,” says Levendis. “But we got tons of students skipping classes, kids you never thought would get involved, and we mobilized them. We knew we had to keep the movement going.”
The goal was to get young people back on the ground for the 2006 midterms. But to sustain the grassroots energy, the students, labor and antiwar activists knew they had to do something more than replace the Anybody But Bush movement with an Anybody But the Republicans movement. Within days, SNAP–Students for a New American Politics, which claims to be the nation’s only entirely student-run political action committee–was born.
Two years later SNAP has emerged as one of the more innovative and influential progressive organizations on American campuses. Beyond the assistance it is providing in the November elections, SNAP is playing an important role in shaping the future of the progressive movement. With its grassroots approach to electoral politics, SNAP is not only bridging the often-stark ideological divide between radical activists and pragmatic College Democrats on campus; it is providing a model for how to bring genuine political power to students.
SNAP’s first act was to develop a set of principles that includes support for the right of everyone “to organize to ensure the recognition of their work,” “open and accountable government,” universal access to “quality, affordable health care” and “honest engagement and dialogue with the world about common values.” Over the next several months, SNAP founders pored over profiles and records of candidates to find those whose positions closely matched the principles. The group also hosted scores of fundraisers with supporters including Geraldine Ferraro and Barney Frank, and reached out to UNITE HERE and local labor chapters as well. Within months, SNAP had raised $50,000.
Ultimately, the students selected fifteen candidates, including Senate hopefuls Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Congressional candidates including Patricia Madrid of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. SNAP’s choices were principled yet prudent: It deliberately chose not to endorse highly touted centrist campaigns, yet it also refused to spend money on quixotic, unwinnable progressive ones. And instead of simply pouring the money it raised directly into candidates’ war chests, SNAP funded twenty students–selected from varied socioeconomic backgrounds–to work full-time on campaigns during the summer. This provided crucial aid in the ’06 races while cultivating young progressive leaders for long-term engagement. Unlike that of most PACs, SNAP’s strategy insures that even if a candidate loses, the progressive movement gains.
Now that they’ve completed their summer internships, SNAP members are taking their organizing experience back to their campuses, starting SNAP campus chapters (there are currently eight) and recruiting students to canvass in the run-up to the elections. Back at Yale, SNAP’s founders have already mobilized as many students as they did in 2004, and they predict they will double that total by election day. While the previous electoral movement felt like a rat race between competing progressive and Democratic organizations on campus, SNAP has united disparate groups across the ideological spectrum. “We’re so much more organized and coordinated now,” says Malsin. “We know we’ve all got a shared stake here.”
SNAP’s commitment, intellectual seriousness and willingness to forgo immediate gratification have drawn praise from many of the political strategists and candidates they’ve worked with. Sherrod Brown says he marveled at their “energy and passion,” calling their work “vital to sustaining and strengthening the grassroots progressive movement.”
After the elections SNAP will continue to fundraise and expand to more schools across the country. Malsin hopes it will eventually grow into “something like a national youth caucus–a unified progressive youth voice with power.” A year ago SNAP couldn’t get anyone to return phone calls; today campaigns across the country are begging the group for endorsements. “They want us,” says Malsin. “We set out to build power, and now we’ve got it.” SNAP believes that by 2008, its endorsement of a presidential candidate will be “a significant thing in politics.”
SNAP has developed great momentum thus far, but it remains to be seen if the organization can be sustained, or even survive, once the founders graduate next spring. Wary of SNAP’s becoming too “professionalized” and losing its student voice, the founders refuse to consider using its funds to stay on as nonstudent staffers. They would rather see SNAP continue to pour all its funds into getting interns on the ground–even if, as Malsin says, it means continuing to “run the operation out of dorm rooms and printing fliers and invitations off students’ printers.”
SNAP’s founders have laid out an impressive infrastructure and are working hard to recruit new leadership. If their vigor and vision can be replicated over the long haul, SNAP may grow into a potent political voice for student concerns. “We want leaders who are actually going to listen to student demands,” Malsin says, “who are going to take us seriously when we take to the streets and maybe even march with us.”