We are less than a month from the 2018 midterms. In a country which sees elections as the focal point of political activity, that means we are approaching a relative crest of attention paid towards politics.
The Republican and Democratic parties, themselves being the de facto receptacles for right and left-leaning politics respectively, will see the most benefit from the upwelling of consciousness. After all, in both the concrete reality of who gets to run candidates and in the minds of most Americans when they think about what is politically possible, they are the only games in town. Most smaller political groups, though they tend to abhor the big two parties for a number of reasons, would give their right arm for the kind of attention and legitimacy someone bearing the Republican or Democrat label gets just by showing up.
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So what does this extraordinary hegemony look like on the ground? How do campus groups like College Democrats or College Republicans utilize their monopoly on being taken seriously?
First, let’s examine the relationship of these groups to their respective parties. All College Republicans chapters operate as independent 527 groups, not officially under the umbrella of the Republican Party. Nevertheless, their mission remains, as explicitly stated in their constitution, “To aid in the election of Republican candidates at all levels of government.”
By contrast, College Democrats is actually a wing of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Their recent events are somewhat reflective of these relationships. While College Republicans host some events like Tucker Carlson watch parties or talks by Heritage Foundation speakers, which are more ideological than institutionally focused, both they and College Democrats spend the vast majority of their time hosting events centered around official party candidates or operatives.
Next, let’s consider what these groups actually do, in their own words. College Republicans, in their pitch to new students, said that they are a group that allows “… like-minded students to get to know each other … ” and “… have the opportunity to volunteer with the Republican Party of Wisconsin.” They envision themselves as an ideological island surrounded on all sides by “… one of the most liberal cities in the nation.” Though College Democrats doesn’t have the same fortress mentality, their organizational intentions are similar. They say they are a place to “… meet like-minded, progressive individuals” and “… get connected with internships in the area and back home.” One area in which they differ is action — College Democrats do make voter registration and “get-out-the-vote” operations a cornerstone of their organization.
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So, the answer to the question of what the campus divisions of the major parties are doing with their social capital is, well, not much. They mostly exist as social clubs for those still in school, and as a direct pipeline into the party apparatchik for those leaving it. As far as anyone on the outside can tell, the campus organizations do not exert even a small amount of influence on the party officials running the show. They do not push their party ideologically in any significant way — the best they can hope for is grooming someone for leadership who might shake things up down the road.
Even the Dems, who, to their credit actually engage in something that could loosely be called political action, clearly do what is suited for the statewide party and not the campus or the city. They have no direct interface with the labor movement. In a city with some of the worst racial segregation in the country, they are conspicuously absent from local anti-racist coalitions like Derail the Jail or Counselors Not Cops. Vital on-the-ground political organizing is being done by groups like Freedom, Inc., International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative and others — all groups whose organizational resources pale in comparison to even county-level Democratic party groups. Speaking strictly in terms of organization, the Republicans might have an excuse to sit on their laurels in Madison — they control the federal and local government, after all. The Democrats have no such excuse.
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What College Democrats and College Republicans do is remind people who are neither on campus nor in the party hierarchy that the purpose of these institutions is to get their people elected, not to interact with and answer to regular people. Getting people with the correct letter next to their name elected has never been enough. If you’re not building a political base and working with the people in your community, and instead you’re just coasting off of your own inherited prestige, then why even bother? The University of Wisconsin is home to excited, smart students who could push political organizing out of the ivory tower and into the lives of regular people. If energized students are serious about political change, they should either work to change the nature of the existing party organizations, or they should look elsewhere.
Sam Palmer ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in biology.