I first became actively involved in politics when I arrived at college almost two years ago, even though I had been following the events of this country for several years before. Joining my university’s College Democrats was a perfect way to participate in what was widely acknowledged as the most important election in recent memory. The first meeting that I went to – largely for incoming freshman – we packed a lecture room at the Wharton School’s Steinberg-Dietrich Hall with probably close to 200 eager students. Throughout the fall, there continued to be large enthusiasm on campus for the upcoming elections. I did phonebanking and canvassing for the Kerry/Edwards campaign, along with doing volunteer work on Joe Hoeffel’s Senate campaign. We held an on-campus rally for John Kerry in late September (I took the photo at the top of the crowd at the rally). I had the chance to see both Kerry and Edwards, as well as Howard Dean, Terry McAuliffe, and Bill Clinton. Vanessa Kerry paid a visit to one of our meetings. These were heady times indeed, and even though the election didn’t come out our way, we increased on-campus voter turnout by 200% (this doesn’t include students who lived off-campus), and we turned out an 80% majority for the Democratic ticket.
Once the election finished, though, there was a dramatic drop-off in participation. For the most part, 2005 came and went, and things only started picking up towards the end of last year, when we had Patrick Murphy come to a couple of our meetings and we held a fundraiser for our organization. Atrios and Booman were there, as well as MyDD’s Chris Bowers, and frankly, I was surprised by the student turnout for an event that was not so much a campaign event as it was a social gathering.
The main question I pose is this: how can we ensure that young Americans – including those who are Democrats – stay involved in the political process? It’s a shame that our biggest events are when national elections come around every two years. In 2004, we literally found out Kerry would be having a rally on-campus three days before it happened – and we drew probably 500 people for an impromptu meeting outside of the highrise dormitories. However, it’s a good meeting for us when we get more than one percent of our membership – or 20 students – to come to our weekly meetings. This is not meant as a critique of how my chapter is run (they do an excellent job on what appears to be a largely politically apathetic campus), but it’s meant to question how we get more young Americans to care about the direction this country is moving in.
In the past couple of days, the College Democrats of America have been holding their annual convention in St. Louis. Many of the party’s luminaries – Dean, Wesley Clark, and Nancy Pelosi, to name a few – spoke to the gathering. What struck me was these remarks by Pelosi:
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Now more than ever, the Democratic Party needs the energy of its younger members, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Saturday during a speech to college-age Democrats.
In a speech to approximately 400 at the College Democrats National Convention at Saint Louis University, the California congresswoman noted that John Kennedy was just above the minimum age for office when he was elected to the Senate, and that Martin Luther King Jr. was in his 20s when he began delivering speeches that changed the world.
Indeed, it’s one thing to say that the Democratic Party needs the youth vote to come out in force for the 2006 elections. However, as I’ve mentioned above, it is extremely difficult to get students to justify spending an hour or two of their time on a weeknight to come to meetings with academics and other obligations. 400 students, to me, shows just how much of a failure CDA is to begin with. That’s 20% of the Penn Democrats’ membership – and that’s only one university. I would venture to guess that the only people who showed up were the leaders of the various chapters of the College Democrats. The organization may exist, but it is largely nonexistent for all intents and purposes.
I’m going to use the Penn Democrats again as an example. We receive virtually no funding from the national organization (College Republicans, on the other hand, are funded by their national organization). The school doesn’t give us money, as we are a partisan organization. In the end, it comes down to us raising a little money from alumni and the parents of current students. For the most part, our fundraiser in April was a test run to see if it would be more successful. We need the money – to help out on local congressional races such as Patrick Murphy’s and Lois Murphy’s races, we have to take a train both ways – which costs up to $20-30 for just one trip. Count in expenses for food, and it’s no wonder students prefer to party or do academic work instead of essentially paying to do volunteer work. In addition, CDA utterly fails to utilize the Internet for doing outreach, as evidenced by their pittance of a blog. I see campaign groups for various candidates for positions within CDA on the popular college networking website Facebook, but I don’t care who runs or what they say they will be doing – because in the end, it’s a popularity contest that won’t make a damn difference in how the individual chapters operate. If this is how I feel – someone who actively participates in my chapter and who is acutely aware of political happenings in America – what does that say of the average young American?
A couple months ago, I proposed that a hybrid website that combines the social networking aspects of Facebook and the political community blogginess of Daily Kos would help bring in more American youth to the political process. But perhaps the more relevant question is this: how do we fix a broken Democratic Party for those coming of age in the present? It’s one thing for Wesley Clark to have a Facebook profile. It’s a completely different thing to utilize the latent energy that my generation has and turn that into a positive force for Democratic politics that has not been seen in decades.