Are Students Red or Blue?

Are Students Red or Blue?

The war rages on to win hearts and minds on colleges campuses.


In recent weeks, conservative pundits have set their sights on an old, familiar target: the college campus.

Fifty years ago, a 25-year-old William F. Buckley sparked the right-wing crusade against universities with his 1951 polemic God and Man at Yale, decrying professors who attempted to convert the student populace into “atheistic socialists.” In the wake of a November 17 New York Times report on a national survey showing that Democratic professors outnumber Republicans 7 to 1 in the humanities and social sciences, conservative outrage was rekindled.

“Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations,” the Washington Post‘s George Will wrote. The Boston Globe‘s Jeff Jacoby declared, “Today campus leftism is not merely prevalent. It is radical, aggressive, and deeply intolerant.”

Yet commentators like Will and Jacoby conveniently ignore the aggressive efforts of conservative message machines to promote their own ideological agenda on American campuses.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute–whose first president was Buckley himself–spends $9 million publishing periodicals and $1 million supporting right-wing student newspapers annually. Alums of the ISI’s Collegiate Network include National Review‘s Rich Lowry, the Hoover Institution’s Dinesh D’Souza, and the ever-vitriolic Ann Coulter. Another organization, the Leadership Institute, has trained over 40,000 young conservatives since 1979.

Young America’s Foundation subsidizes hundreds of campus lectures with speakers ranging from Mike Wilson, director of Michael Moore Hates America, to David Horowitz, who speaks frequently on such subjects as “The Racism of the Left.” Club 100, a branch of YAF, encourages students to spread conservative dogma with a points-based incentive program. Forty points are awarded to any student who “Organize[s] a Young America’s Foundation speaking event”; twenty points are given for “Recruit[ing] five or more students” to a YAF conference. The payoff? Score 100 points and win a free weekend retreat to Ronald Reagan’s ranch.

In total, a dozen right-wing message machines spend roughly $38 million annually on college campuses. So it’s no surprise that the College Republican National Committee has more than tripled its membership since 1999, now boasting more than 1,300 chapters nationwide. Yet even though the number of young voters who went for Bush increased 18.7 percent from 2000, the 18-29-year-old vote was the only demographic to go for Kerry in the 2004 election.

Is the longstanding tradition of progressivism on campuses under siege? David Halperin, director of the fledgling Campus Progress Network (CPN), thinks the conservative outreach on campuses calls for action. Halperin, a former speechwriter for President Clinton and Howard Dean, wrote in a September Boston Globe op-ed, “Instead of relaxing under the myth that liberal values rule our campuses, progressive students should assert themselves, communicating what they stand for with a compelling message…. A national effort to work with students on the substance, intellectual foundation, and communication of progressive ideas is needed.”

While the right has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past three decades promoting ideas and values with a far-reaching message machine, the left has only recently started to take the promotion of ideas and values more seriously. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded in 2003 and the parent organization of the CPN, is filling the vacuum. “It is critical that Campus Progress cuts through the distortions and disinformation at the core of the conservative message apparatus,” says Halperin. “We want students to understand that progressive values are what helped build this country, and that a positive future for the country really lies in a progressive vision.”

The challenge is emulating the right’s strategy without resorting to those very tactics of distortion and division. Ben Hubbard, a 24-year-old graduate of Cornell University and the campus programs director of the CPN, believes progressives can use “wedge issues” in a different way: “We shouldn’t use them in the way that conservatives do, namely, to tear the country apart. We need to pick issues that really show whose side conservatives are on. Issues like prescription drugs, Wal-Mart, the minimum wage. It’s time progressives rediscover their inner Teddy Roosevelt and embrace a form of economic populism that demonstrates whose side they’re on.” According to Halperin, “The best thing we can do is present the truth–clearly and boldly. If we can do that well, we will win the battle of ideas.”

The battle begins next semester. Already lined up to speak are Gayle Smith, a senior fellow at CAP and director of African Affairs at the National Security Council under President Clinton; former Clinton chief of staff and CAP president John Podesta; and Donna Brazile. As CPN progresses, Halperin aims to add big-name speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and Al Franken to the lecture circuit. In addition to funding progressive speakers, CPN will arm students with fact sheets and talking points that will help students to effectively counter and discredit the arguments of conservative speakers on campus.

While conservatives subsidize a network of more than eighty student newspapers across the country, many progressive publications on campus struggle to stay afloat. Although the CPN already backs progressive papers at the University of Texas, Princeton and Yale, it lacks the tremendous resources of the right. So instead of attempting to equal the right’s influence in that sphere, the CPN will focus on the Internet. “Rather than just copy the right’s model outright,” says Hubbard, “we want to take it to another level by getting our affiliated publications online and sharing content. [We want to] establish a network of student bloggers–arguably the new front in opinion journalism. Internet communications is a progressive strength. We want to exploit that.”

The CPN’s website– –will officially launch in February 2005. In addition to featuring student journalism and blogs, Halperin hopes the site will become a thriving online community, featuring live chats, video and audio features, issue briefs, reading lists, activism opportunities and job information. In July 2005, 500 students will converge on Washington for the first annual Campus Progress Conference. “Our goal is to bring diverse groups of students into the progressive fold by making them feel like they are part of a larger movement…not only committed activists and organizers but also students who are interested in progressive issues and ideas who don’t necessarily consider themselves activists or partisan Democrats,” Hubbard explains.

Beyond promoting the progressive message on campuses, the CPN hopes to do something else the right has done so well: develop future leaders. “This is about identifying, cultivating, and elevating these progressives into positions that will help generate bold and innovative progressive ideas for years to come,” says Halperin. While students may dabble with progressive ideas in their college years, Halperin explains, many become more conservative with age. The CPN hopes to instill progressive values that will last for life: “Often Democratic leanings are not so deep. Progressives may do a good job of bringing students to their side for a few years, but not in a sustained way, as conservatives do,” he says. “We might teach them slogans, but to really show them why progressivism has made the country a great country is something we can do a lot better at.”

As Hubbard says, “Today’s young voters could be the core of a progressive majority in the not-so-distant future.”

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