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Assessing the body politic

BY KIRSTEN JACOBSEN | MAY 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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I just have to say “politics,” and 95 percent of my readers will move on to the next article.

But it’s the remaining 5 percent — those who we’d suspect of actually caring — who are partly at fault for perpetuating political apathy.

When was the last time you heard “College Republicans” without “Professor Lewin said …” in the same sentence? What have the University Democrats been doing since the 2010 elections? Are the members even on the radar? (Full disclosure: Hello, my name is Kirsten, and I am a UDem.) Instead of fostering active engagement, these campus groups are content to chatter, swaddled in partisan pseudo-enmity.

As the 5 percent know, there are student political groups on campus that cater to all ends of the spectrum: According to OrgSync, the UI has 13 bodies that qualify as “political.” (For comparison’s sake, there are more than three times as many fraternity and sorority groups as there are political ones. Shock.)

That again reinforces former College Republicans President Natalie Ginty’s candid point statement to me over Facebook: “In the end, college kids are college kids and unless they have a personal investment for their careers, they usually aren’t gonna get involved.” True.

But Ginty also noted that at the group’s first meeting of the year, with big-ticket former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Iowa state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, there were some 70 interested students in attendance. Similarly, at the first UDems’ meeting, it was standing-room only. What happened between August and May to dwindle each club down to roughly 15 committed members each?

The answer, it would seem, is nothing. And that is precisely the problem. While it is great that students have these avenues through which they can meet like-minded students, advocate for politicians or policy, and hold events or lectures, these roads have been sorely under-utilized.

Democrats have contented themselves with lamenting budget decisions put forth by state and federal legislators, and they show up at meetings simply to express collective outrage. Republican students have done a little better, drawing myriad right-wing candidates to the staunchly liberal UI over the last several months. (The kicker, of course: In Iowa, it’s hard to avoid Republican candidates, coming to preach the good word.)

Yet Yale’s College Democrats, for instance, lobby at the Connecticut Statehouse, hold rallies, write group opinion editorials for local papers, and bring in experts to hold panel talks on hot-button Democrat issues.

The Harvard Republican Club, formed in 1888, has stayed active long into its old age. While it also hosts a slew of Republican candidates, its members actively campaign for local politicians, hold debates and sponsor panel discussions, attend regional conservative conferences, and hold the annual prestigious Lincoln Day Dinner.

Here, the biggest problem in student politics isn’t whose party is correct, whose version of marriage is purest, or what branch of government is overreaching. The problem with political groups on the UI campus is that — by and large — they are thoroughly impotent.

True, there have been a few select members of student organizations that submit personal op-eds to the DI (though I’d estimate that the majority had to do with a certain e-mail kerfuffle). And the UDems did work hard prior to Nov. 2, 2010. But panel discussions, guest lectures, advocacy days, and lobbying are all far-off dreams.

“In the end, it is just a club. We realize that people have school, work, family, friends, and many other obligations than a political group,” Ginty wrote. “It’s about providing the opportunity.”

Given the lack of anything even amounting to decisive action, politically minded UI groups would do well to end the charade and simply make an umbrella organization that caters to these students.

We’ll call it POLiTICOs, or “People Of Liberal Interests That Include Conservative Opposites” — everyone’s happy. It would likely be a great hit among politically active students, who love nothing more than a good debate and a meeting that leaves them feeling mutually empty.

While our 13 campus groups aren’t up to Ivy League standards, all could stand to add more to the local political discussion, take on bigger advocacy roles, and attract more dedicated students. For the 5 percent who made it this far, I hope next year’s bunch strive to do more than just sit in a comfortable club of like-minded ideologues.


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