The New Campus Left-Style

The New Campus Left-Style

Loads of student activists–far-left and moderate, dredded and shiny-shoed–and their mentors responded to Sam Graham-Felsen’s “The New Face of the Campus Left” [Feb. 13].


Loads of student activists–far-left and moderate, dredded and shiny-shoed–and their mentors responded to Sam Graham-Felsen’s “The New Face of the Campus Left” [Feb. 13]. We wish we had room to print all their letters. –The Editors


Lansing, Ill.

I am a member of DePaul University’s College Democrats, on the executive board of the Student Government Association, a founding member of our chapter of the Roosevelt Institution and a staffer for Congressional candidate John Pavich. I suppose I am the new “pragmatic” face of the left on campus–a campus that is certainly dealing with a rift between leftist activist students with good hearts and good causes and a contingent of progressive students who would rather see some problems solved than simply “flier and protest.”

Yes, I would rather shine my shoes than dred my hair, as Sam Graham-Felsen says. I like shiny shoes, and I know that campus moderates are receptive to students who can present themselves and their ideas seriously. I have seen several important issues undercut by far-left students who are unable to dialogue with moderate students or the administration. Recently the SGA passed a resolution against renewing our contract with Coca-Cola because of its human rights record. It took a great deal of time to pass because of the fighting over inflammatory language the far left wanted in the resolution. I view this rift between the far left and the moderates as akin to that between Dr. King and Malcolm X. History shows which path led to the greatest progress in civil rights.

Canton, Mich.

The lefties here at Western Michigan University have done an excellent job, and not because of a large national organization. They started the Progressive Student Alliance, an umbrella group where representatives of the NAACP, the local AFSCME union, environmentalists, feminists, our GLBT group, the College Dems, College Greens, even the student-run radio station, collaborate to present one collective front. Most of our demonstrations, lectures and events are attended by the local community and city officials. Many of our groups opt for looser power structures, using consensus votes and relying on floating facilitators. Now, steering clear of hierarchy adds a lot of time to organizing, and progress is slow in coming. We never lose, though, the passion and commitment that come from a truly student-led movement. We battle the campus right, which holds regular events with big-name conservatives brought in by the Young America’s Foundation. We contrast by bringing in speakers who understand the problems we face locally and nationally. We also bring in well-known, auditorium-filling speakers. Every cause that WMU’s progressives champion is led by a core of committed grassroots organizers working to better the world one campus at a time.

Cambridge, Mass.

As concerned progressive students at the Harvard Business School, we’ve realized that our movement lacked the coordination and leadership of our counterparts in the conservative movement. So we began working this year with American Democracy Institute ( to develop tomorrow’s progressive leaders. Conservatives have been successful not merely because they happened to find talented people like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist. On the contrary, these men are successful because conservatives built institutions that helped them find, train and develop young people and gave them the tools to go out and implement the conservative agenda. To effect change, we need to understand how the system works and train people to move an agenda through that system. Organizations like Young People For, Campus Progress and ADI are all working toward that goal.

North Attleboro, Mass.

Sam Graham-Felsen suggests that two new organizations, Campus Progress and the Roosevelt Institution, will revitalize the student left. However, what alternative does Campus Progress propose? Doing nothing–to prevent “polarizing” people. For any progressive organization to remain silent in the face of such a monumental moral failure as the Iraq War–one a majority of Americans now oppose–is not only absurd but a hand-delivered gift to conservatives. What is the agenda of these well-financed organizations? As the author tells us, Campus Progress is an organization run by mainstream Democrats, and the Roosevelt Institution courts such prowar luminaries as Hillary Clinton. Morphing into trendy mini-me Republicans is not the solution for this generation. It’s part of the problem.

Washington, DC

Sam Graham-Felsen reports that progressive groups are cultivating centrist pragmatists and party loyalists rather than real activists and visionary leaders. This is too limited an analysis, as it fails to consider the role of youth-led organizations like US Student Association and the United Students Against Sweatshops in building grassroots and state-based infrastructure. These organizations focus on race and class issues and genuine youth leadership. They do not “channel students into safe alternatives,” as Tom Hayden stated; they build an authentic youth movement, with young people setting the agenda, prioritizing the issues, designing the campaigns and communicating the messages. And in most instances, these organizations are partnering with some of the nascent groups like Campus Progress to build strong generational alliances.

Campus Progress and Young People For, both highlighted in the article, are examples of innovative and emerging projects in a growing movement, but there are also a range of organizations to engage students of diverse interests, experiences and backgrounds. Although the field is still underfunded and fragmented, it is making great strides to build capacity and connectivity.
US Programs, Open Society Institute

Washington, DC

Thank you for calling attention to the efforts of Young People For and other organizations working to identify and support the next generation of progressive leaders. I disagree with Sam Graham-Felsen’s characterization of our efforts as an attempt to encourage progressive students to be pragmatists instead of visionaries. It’s wrong to suggest that students must choose between being effective and adhering to their beliefs–indeed, one of the strengths of our program is that it helps them do both. Rather than telling students what to think, Young People For equips them with organizing skills that they can use to create positive change in a wide variety of areas.

There are many types of progressives, and the progressive movement’s ideological diversity–which is one of its strengths–is reflected in our community of Young People For fellows. It is not our job to “mainstream” fellows or tell them what to believe. Instead, we provide skills and support and a network of diverse young progressives from community colleges, HBCUs, state universities, commuter campuses, conservative campuses and progressive colleges. Fellows focus their organizing efforts on issues they choose based on their experience as leaders on the front lines. Our job is to help the fellows step back from their personal organizing to connect their work to the larger progressive movement, to connect them with the dozens of youth organizing efforts across the country and to help them stay connected in the progressive movement beyond their college years.
LARA PENG, director
Young People For

Los Angeles

Bravo for the report by Sam Graham-Felsen on the growing cohesiveness of progressive activism on college campuses. There are several other groups doing effective work on campus. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has for almost a decade been mobilizing students on a variety of pro-labor fronts (see Dreier). Also, the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute has been training campus activists to work with and (after graduation) for the labor movement for a decade. Thirty years ago, Ralph Nader started the Public Interest Research Groups to recruit student progressives and train them in organizing and advocacy. PIRGs and their offshoot groups are still doing good work (although less focused on campuses), and many PIRG alums are now playing key roles in the progressive movement. As I wrote in The Nation (“The Myth of Student Apathy,” April 13, 1998), since the 1970s right-wing foundations and organizations have been pouring huge resources into promoting campus conservatism. Campus progressives have not had any comparable support from liberal funders; but it’s good to know that they recognize the importance of creating a campus movement that can be sustained beyond each four-year cycle of student activists, has a life of its own and is often more radical than mainstream liberalism.

Orinda, Calif.

Please add Democracy Matters ( to your progressive campus-based organizations. I founded DM five years ago to help eliminate the role of private wealth in politics by paying for electoral campaigns with public funds. We now have chapters on more than seventy campuses.

Santa Cruz, Calif.

Sam Graham-Felsen gets off on the wrong foot by suggesting “help has arrived” in the form of national centrist, Democratic-affiliated student advocacy groups. Yes, the student left vitally needs financial resources. Yes, the building of national coalitions is an urgent project. But these resources and efforts will have impact only to the degree that they are guided by and support the most effective left student organizers. Students are building multi-ethnic, cross-class political communities with an emphasis on participation and autonomy cognizant of how white supremacy, class privilege, religious fundamentalism and patriarchy continue to strangle democracy. These student coalitions struggle with significant organizational and philosophical questions. And these are precisely the struggles our country needs to grapple with. I hope initiatives such as Campus Progress and Young People For multiply in the years to come, but their draw and their efficacy will lie in bold affirmations of a world without empire, oil dependence and the intensified disparity in living standards of rich and poor.

Goleta, Calif.

I was struck by the near absence of any mention of College Democrats. I am president of the Campus Democrats at UC, Santa Barbara. I also participated in the AFL-CIO’s 2005 Union Summer and was a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. We struggle to change the Democratic Party, and we are involved in our communities, reaching out to voters, registering people to vote and running person-to-person grassroots campaigns.

The College Republicans at UCSB don’t do a lot except when some big-wig conservative is sent to campus. They are given tons of money ($14,000 in the fall quarter for a Ben Stein visit). UCSB College Democrats’ expenses so far this year have been under $600, with which we do get-out-the-vote projects and voter registration, sponsor a website and hold weekly meetings with free pizza. Because of UCSB Democrats, during the 2004 election cycle more than 12,000 students registered to vote, and nearly 80 percent of registered students voted.

I’m used to the College Democrats getting little or no credit from the left for activism because we are considered part of “the machine.” Regardless, Young Democrats ( will work and be active just as we have for the past seventy-four years with or without the acknowledgment of the intellectuals of the left. Once Karl Rove was chairman of the College Republicans. He is a prime example of what care and attention can create. The other side is taking very good care of its youth–ours should too.


New York City

I wish I could have included dozens more student groups in my piece, but I specifically focused on Campus Progress, Young People For and the Roosevelt Institution because these groups reflect a new development for the campus left. These groups are “big tent” multi-issue organizations attempting to promote progressivism broadly rather than harp on single issues. The right has done this on campus for thirty years, but the left has just begun. I recognize that groups like USAS and Democracy Matters have been quite successful, but as they are single-issue groups I did not focus on them.

Many have taken my pragmatist/visionary dichotomy too literally. It is entirely possible to be visionary and pragmatic simultaneously. I maintained that too much emphasis on strategy, messaging and tactics is problematic, but I also made clear that a campus left without a healthy dose of pragmatism is going nowhere. In addition, I certainly do not consider the three groups I profiled to be spineless, future DLC-types without a shred of vision. But I am concerned that these groups–like the Democrats in Congress–have avoided serious discussion of alternatives in Iraq and have not worked to organize students pushing for withdrawal of our troops.


Due to a fact-checking error in Rebecca Solnit’s “Three Who Made a Revolution” (April 3), it was stated that Betty Friedan had a five-year residency at the New York Public Library’s Allen Room. Friedan did write The Feminine Mystique over a five-year period, but she was an Allen Room resident for only two of those years.

In “The Cartoon Bomb” (Feb. 27) we noted Neal Ascherson’s criticism of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Ascherson’s piece appeared on

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy