Last Wednesday, the College Democrats and College Republicans joined for a debate on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. The event was the second of a series, following a recent debate on gun control.
These events are part of a larger push to alter the political discourse on campus.
“There are a lot of politically active people on campus — this is a great place to be if you’re interested in politics,” said College Democrats President Emily Wagman ’13. “But what we’re doing now is trying to foster a real, bipartisan debate that I don’t think we’ve had between the two groups.”
Prior to these debates, the primary collaborative effort between the College Democrats and Republicans has been MiddVote, the bipartisan voter registration event that takes place before elections.
Building on this election-based effort, the debates function to maintain political engagement even in the face of the “post-election hangover” tendency. Incoming College Democrats President Matthew Hall ’14 believes that keeping debate alive between election seasons remains an important goal of his club.
“It’s crucial that we are active during this transition period because there is another election coming up in a year and a half and that’s when it becomes important,” he said.
Professor of Political Science Matt Dickinson noted that student activism remains alive and well among students.
“There is quite a vibrant interest in politics, and among a smaller group there’s significant participation,” said Dickinson. “I had several students who were phone-banking and driving to New Hampshire to campaign during the last election.”
Elias Gilman ’15 — who debated for the College Republicans on Wednesday -— and Wagman noted a decline in participation and membership of both political clubs in recent years. Hall agreed that students seem involved on the surface but remain hesitant to delve deeper.
“I think people are politically engaged or aware, but the question is how do you translate awareness to activism,” Hall said. “You walk around this campus and you see people with Obama/Biden stickers on their computers or on their bumpers, and yet they’re not at the meetings. The question is, how do we engage people in democratic politics?”
Associate Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson believes that students of this generation attribute more of their activist efforts to “causes and issues” rather than politics.
“Maybe people feel that politics generally is a ‘dirty business’ but that activism on behalf of a cause is purer, more accessible and more fulfilling,” he said. “It may just be a reorientation of people’s activism, not necessarily a decline.”
According to Hall, the College Democrats are hoping to work with this interest group-oriented political culture through collaboration with cause-based groups. “We share a lot of values and opinions with these groups as Democrats, and yet there’s been little to no coordination between us in terms of political action or even meetings and discussions,” he said. “That’s something we’re trying to change for next year.”
Amidst a liberal-leaning playing field of interest groups and activism, the College Republicans often fight an uphill battle. Gilman views the uneven dynamic as an obstacle to fostering well-balanced political debate, but believes it can make debate stronger in the end.
“It can be really stifling. But it does make you better — you have to be,” he said. “You have to have your facts and you have to think through your argument before you get into any discussion.”
Former Republican Governor of Vermont Jim Douglas graduated from Middlebury College in 1972 and currently acts as an executive in residence at the College, teaching a course on Vermont politics during winter term.
Douglas explained that when he attended the college, during the Vietnam War, the issues at the forefront of students’ minds were different, but that “the complexion of the campus is about the same.”
As a member of the minority who went on to become a Republican Governor of Vermont, Douglas also recognized the implications of being a Republican on campus.
“You are who you are,” Douglas said. “You have a set of beliefs and they probably are going to be sustained through whatever adversity there might be. I understood my minority status, but I didn’t feel any personal pressure or problems. I had friends that were hippies, with hair down to their waists, and war protestors, but we all seemed to get along.”
In the face of lopsided demographics, however, Dickinson believes that respect for other students’ political views has also been valued and upheld.
“Although the sentiment is overwhelmingly liberal, students are very receptive to conservative viewpoints,” Dickinson said. “I may have fewer conservatives [in my classes] but when they speak, the other side listens.”
The discrepancy does not, however, come without a decided effort.
“The hardest thing I have to do is make sure my conservatives feel that their views are valued and that their causes and the people they want to see are equally valued,” added Dickinson.
In general, students involved in the College Democrats and Republicans affirm the need for polite discourse.
“Passion is good, partisanship is good,” said Hall. “Vitriol and meanness aren’t helpful. As hot-button issues gain steam on campus, people have to be careful not to fall into that trap. You don’t want to let the issues you have with somebody on policy become the issues you have with that person personally.”
With recent debates and a future emphasis on collaboration, both College Democrats and Republicans seek a real and open debate on campus.
Gilman is optimistic about the College Republicans’ role on campus.
“The biggest challenge for us is to say to conservatives on campus, ‘it’s ok to say no, I don’t exactly agree with divestment. It’s ok to get into a heated argument in the dorm room. Don’t fail to have the conversation because you think it will blow back on your social life negatively.’”