The Future of College Democrats — and the Future of American Politics
This past weekend in Washington D.C., the College Democrats of America hosted their annual convention.
The conference was held at University of the District of Columbia — strategically selected as a two-year/four-year program to highlight President Obama’s community college initiative. Hundreds of student leaders and organizers gathered together to talk about the important problems facing students, and the problems we will face in the future. The relationships built and grown will impact the future of American politics, and hopefully, beyond.
However — before, during and after the conference — there was and has been a frustrating tension between DNC staff, CDA leaders and CDA membership. The specifics of what unfolded are not the focus of this article, but if you care to learn more, go here or here.
The image of the students against the party is unsettling and disappointing. However, it’s an obstacle we can overcome — and should.
In fact, this difficult moment gives us the opportunity to dive deeper into the circumstances that led us here — allowing us to develop a better approach towards youth political activism, one that takes into account past successes and modern innovations.
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In 1965, John Lewis was not a Democrat. He was a rebellious and optimistic 25-year-old recent college grad who saw society systematically denying him, his friends, and family opportunities to constructively contribute to society. He — along with millions of like-minded individuals — sought to change that.
In 2015, John Lewis is a Democrat. He is better known as Congressman Lewis — a widely revered 15-term U.S. Congressman. From marching with Martin Luther King to speaking on the House floor, Lewis epitomizes the blending of establishment politics and grassroots advocacy — where the inside meets the outside.
This inside-outside game — this balance that the Democratic Party works to strike with advocacy and grassroots organizing — is admirable. It tells us that we have learned both the lessons and the urgency of the civil rights movement. But building a party that embraces the sort of external agitation that drove the Civil Rights movement takes more than admiration — it requires the untangling of a vast web of contradictions centered around the relationship between the party and the grassroots.
Whether or not the Democratic Party can fully embrace the radical element that defined the civil rights movement (and all successful organizing) — will be the critical factor in our success or failure over the next decade and beyond.
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What does this have to do with College Democrats? I think quite a bit — because youth engagement is at the core of the contradictions that have yet to be worked out completely.
While the DNC’s efforts to engage college students through CDA have likely been in good faith, the harsh truth is that they need to put CDA at the top of their agenda. And they need to do it now.
Young people are fed up with the failures of Washington. Many see establishment politics as the problem, and choose to engage through other means. The perception of party politics as a symbol of division drives many young people from either engaging in, or developing an intellectual curiosity for the inner workings of American politics.
Herein lies the obstacle — and the opportunity — for Democrats: talking with young people, using us as a resource to build and strengthen relationships with college campuses and youth networks throughout America. Rather than an organization to be managed, CDA should be viewed as a golden opportunity to co-create the party’s youth outreach arm with the future leaders of the party. The byproduct will be a generational leadership flow, because empowering youth leaders will build continuity for the party itself.
The entire Democratic coalition should use the events of CDA 2015 to reflect very seriously on the role of youth in the party, and the direction of the party in general. We should build the work of College Democrats chapters into the lifeblood of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party should provide increased financial and logistical support to the College Democrats apparatus, while giving CDA appropriate organizational freedom to engage youth in a way they deem constructive.
To end, I challenge President Obama — who knows as well as anyone the blurred lines between community organizing and party politics — to work with DNC leaders to build a more inclusive, integrated approach to youth outreach. It may be our only hope.