Students Do Not Need Campus Political Parties to Be Politically Active
This fall, as thousands of new students pile into colleges and universities, they will explore the many clubs and student societies on offer. Many of them will join the youth or student wings of mainstream political parties, which will be especially prominent given the upcoming election in the United States.
Students wanting to join political parties is itself laudable. Youth turnout in American and Canadian elections is notoriously small, and students who join a party are presumably more likely to vote. However, joining a formal political party — or even voting for one — is by no means the only way to get involved in politics on campus. There are many organizations that push political agendas that offer students opportunities to change their world beyond the quadrennial horse races. Students would do better to prioritize engagement in these non-party organizations: for the investment of time, their potential for meaningful change is better than that of the traditional political parties.
Every campus has clubs advocating for specific but important causes, and several (at least in Canada) have a Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which is a group that agitates for social justice goals both mundane and controversial. Moreover, most if not all full-time post-secondary students do not need to join a club to be part of a political organization. Canadian students are automatically members of a student group called a student union or student government that is charged with providing services and representing its members to school administrators and to others. (I cannot speak first hand to the American situation, but I am pretty sure that it is similar). While many people pretend that this student government representation should be non-political, the fact is, every college and university is its own community, and decisions that affect that community are political in their own way. Relatively few student unions go all in with controversial positions (divesting finances from Israel, for example), but they all still advocate for their members on matters like tuition fees and allocation of student spaces. Those decisions affect the institution’s resources, which in turn indirectly affects the economies of the local communities (and the state or provincial budgets for public institutions). Since membership in these student societies is mandatory, every student is involved in a political organization whether they like it or not. It therefore behooves them to get engaged with their student union/government in order to shape it in a way that best suits their views.
Similarly, many graduate students are part of good-old-fashioned labor unions through their employment as teaching assistants or research assistants. (And more are to come: just last week, students at private universities in the States won the right to unionize). These unions are often locals in nationwide unions like the United Auto Workers or the Canadian Union of Public Employees, both of which are significant political forces in their respective national stages, yet these local campus unions can suffer from minimal membership engagement. With a little organizing, networking, and gumption, a few active members of a university local can potentially sway an entire nationwide union, which will have much more impact on politics than being a grunt in the College Democrats or Young Greens of the United States. True, the campus branches of the political parties send delegates to the party conventions, which theoretically decide the parties’ platforms, but in practice, the party leaders just choose policy and everyone else falls in line.
This appeal may seem targeted to my fellow progressives, but conservative students actually have many options for right-wing activism beyond the Campus Conservatives or College Republicans. Think of the pro-life student organizations that have successfully gotten attention through confrontational tactics. Think of the so-called “Men’s Rights” or “Men’s Issues” campus organizations that are intervening in debates around child custody and other matters. Think of the libertarian organizations like Students for Liberty, who can take a bit of credit for the media’s ever-popular narrative that campus anti-oppression is really a form of censorship. My opinions of these groups range from dislike to revulsion, but they certainly seem to be doing more to advance the conservative cause than the right-wing political parties themselves.
Of course, there is nothing stopping students from being involved in more than one organization. A student can be active in a PIRG and be on the executive of the Young New Democrats of Canada, for example, or attend a Students for Liberty demonstration in the morning and go to a College Republicans social in the afternoon. And many students do in fact find more than one way to express their politics. Nor am I saying that students should not make voting a priority — far from it. Every eligible student should vote, especially if they live or study in swing states this November! But they should learn about the issues from the trenches of activism, because those issues will be the ones that matter to large parts of the population. Yes, union members and anti-abortion activists are “special interest groups,” to use the common but derisive term, but the entire country (be it the U.S. or Canada) is the sum total of all of the “special interest groups.” Learning about the issues from the party platforms means hearing what the parties want you to care about — not what really matters on the ground. Being a post-secondary student means learning about yourself and the world, and the youth and campus branches of political parties inevitably promote a narrow point of view aimed at getting the leaders of their parties elected. Even if they are not as aggressive as some of the more controversial campus political organizations, they are, by definition, more partisan. Budding critical thinkers can do better.