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.

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.


  1. August 31, 2016 at 6:40 pm —

    I would add to this another reason for more students to get involved in government or campus political orgs: to keep an eye on the kinds of people who are naturally attracted to them.

    Low participation in student government by the student body at large usually means that the most passionate (read: ideological) students are often the ones left in charge of them, usually with little to no oversight when it comes to the decisions they make regarding allocation of resources or support for institutional or public policies. This often results in organisations that are significantly more radical than the constituents they claim to represent, which is a failure of democracy even if you tend to agree with the radical end of things.

    In fact, interest can be so low that many student government officials run unopposed for their positions, even when these come with significant insitutional power. I became the president of my own faculty’s graduate student society one year simply because no one else wanted to do it. At least in my case, low participation by students and even the rest of the executive council meant that in most situations the official position of the organisation was whatever I felt like doing. This included speaking for the organisation at faculty council meetings and with the dean, and deciding how the organisation would respond to a months-long labour strike by the T.A. union.

    • August 31, 2016 at 6:47 pm —

      (A strike which–along the same lines–was initiated through an in-person vote in which only a very small number of students actually participated).

      • September 5, 2016 at 12:05 am —

        Did you not have policy guidance and rules? Was literally no-one interested in what you did?

        If I’d tried any of that people would have have noticed and been volubly upset. Even with my portfolio, I was limited to advocating agreed positions when I dealt with people outside the student council. We had collective responsibility, so even if I lost a vote I had to push the agreed outcome like I meant it (realistically, if I was opposed I’d usually find someone who wanted the thing to do the work on it… having someone who thinks an idea is stupid manage the implementation usually fails).

        • September 5, 2016 at 8:52 am —

          For the most part, no. The way the organisation was set up mostly left me with broad leeway to respond to specific issues as they came up, as long as they didn’t involve spending money.

          The one thing I actually took to the general meeting as a courtesy (adopting a logo to use for an official stamp to allow us to approve posters) was such a complete disaster I’m glad I never tried it with anything else. Objections over the design of the stamp as insufficiently inclusive/representative (it was the initials of the organisation with a lyre to represent the music faculty), meant it was the only policy I was completely unable to push through during my tenure.

  2. September 4, 2016 at 11:57 pm —

    Oversight is important, but it’s also useful to be involved at some level with any kind of volunteer social organisation. Politics, fine, if that’s what you’re into, but realistically any group will have both interior and exterior politics. Join the kayak club by all means, then discover that someone has to organise stuff, and someone has to deal with outside politics to get stuff like tables at clubs day and all the rest.

    When I was studying in Aotearoa we had a bunch of engineering students decide to take over the student union, which they did by the simple expedient of running a collective (one candidate per position) and promoting their plan heavily in the engineering school. With 1500-odd engineering students and needing about 500 votes over 10000 students they won everything handily. 6 months later they had all resigned, because they discovered that there was actual work involved in running an organisation with a $3M turnover and $20M+ in assets. I don’t know what they expected, but I very much doubt it was dealing with the student bar manager (full time paid position), the academic council (they provided one rep on a board of ~15) and the hotly contested “which club gets which locker” cage fight (~12 hours of meetings over two days one week after classes start – just time for clubs to justify their claims of member numbers… and just when engineering lecturers have started actually imposing the workload that famously leads engineers to wonder why people make such a fuss about med student workloads).

    The politics-of-outside by and large did not affect student politics, we had more involvement from Campus Crusade for Christ (I kid you not about the name) than any political party. Even in Australia where there’s much more “young liberal / young labor” official party goings-on, those groups often get hammered by the marxist party du jour and only rarely can combine to outvote the environmentalist factions (who TBH rarely vote en bloc anyway). But many elected politicians have history in student politics (although not always with the party part – we have an NSW senator who was notoriously a Maoist at uni – the far right media bring it up regularly (Australian media is dominated by Murdoch, that famous former Australian-now-Merkin))

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