From the Vietnam War protests on campuses to the Sudanese divestment campaign (that Brown students like Scott Warren helped lead), students have long spoke out on political issues. Just last year, students nationwide organized a massive “Our Campus” protest to protest Donald Trump’s election. A Washington Post headline from November 2016 reads, “People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump.” And Erica Chenoweth, the author of that article, has catalogued the number of protests nationwide, finding a spike after Trump’s election.
But while big protests often grab the most attention, and are historically common on campuses, there are other ways of making change inside the democratic system. In fact, much of today’s student political activism is focused on making tangible policy improvements, not on preventing democratic erosion or protesting Trump.
This policy focus was evident at a general body event and then a leadership meeting for the Brown Progressive Action Committee, a nonpartisan student group formed in 2017 to make progressive political change in Rhode Island. (Full disclosure: I am the Chair of BPAC and helped run these meetings).
For the general event, BPAC had four campus political groups talk to students about their work: Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, which addresses poverty and homelessness; Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition, which supports immigrants and undocumented students; Brown NARAL, which advocates for reproductive rights and health; and GlobeMed, which works on health care policy. Each group presented on its issue’s status in Rhode Island, what the club does, and what policies they advocate for. The PowerPoints they used focused heavily on the policy side and what possible actions students could take.
For example, NARAL explained that RI has a partial-birth abortion ban, spousal notification for abortions, and parental consent laws. NARAL advocated for the repeal of these policies. When it came to action steps, however, their plans were less clear. They encouraged canvassing or lobbying, without offering much detail on how. The GlobeMed presentation was similar, giving detailed information about the 10% drop in the uninsured rate after the Affordable Care Act and the 110,000 people in RI who received coverage from that bill’s Medicaid expansion. But again, the action items were not rife with detail. None of the advice was tailored to how students can make the most difference in the policy making realm, though it was clear that that was the groups’ focus.
I use these examples to illustrate the presenters’ focus on using the political system to create policy change. In embracing policy change as their primary goals, these groups assumed some faith in democracy in two ways. Our country’s political process, and by extension its policymaking process, is generally considered a democratic one. So, the groups’ faith in using democratic policymaking institutions to accomplish their goals assumes that the democratic system is functioning well enough to continue working within it. If the democratic system were collapsing, groups who wanted to use it to make change would likely shift their focus to prevent that collapse, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.
The groups focused more about policy’s tangible impact on the real world than on any normative conception of democracy. Instead of debating whether Dahl or Schumpeter’s vision of democracy was better, HOPE, for example, was trying to decide whether using Medicaid funds for housing would be a good treatment for homelessness. BPAC itself is a microcosm of this policy focus. Since its formation after Trump’s election, I’ve made our focus local and policy-oriented. The small RI statehouse is accessible, and making change at the state level uses federalism to resist national changes we don’t like. Embracing what Heather Gerken calls “uncooperative federalism,” we have also, for example, advocated for Providence to be a sanctuary city. Our brand of resistance uses democratic ideas like federalism, but is more about using institutions to make specific changes than preventing democratic collapse.
After the presentation meeting, leaders from BPAC, HOPE, and NARAL held a legislative brainstorming session. This event reinforced that the groups are more concerned with policy than democracy, while further illustrating the challenges that student activists face in the policy realm. The rationale for the meeting was to enhance student engagement in local politics, and we only invited groups who do concrete political work – not just those who talk about politics once per week. Recognizing that student action is a preciously rare resource, we discussed which groups are politically active enough to coordinate with, how to coordinate, and whether to focus more on candidates or policies.
Together, we found some effective solutions: an email group of clubs to share political events with, ideas for how to get clubs to go off College Hill to do activism, multi-group canvasses when candidates share our issue positions, and more. The groups who only do policy, like HOPE, can learn which representatives support anti-homelessness initiatives and share that info with groups who work for candidates, like BPAC. I think this coalition-building is a noble effort to pass better laws in RI. It taps into students’ passion for change-making – evidenced by the plethora of clubs on campus – and uses the momentum of this political age to resist bad policies. By focusing on specific issues and candidates, not a general concept of democratic decline, they make their activism more targeted – and acknowledge that the existing democratic political system is useful for accomplishing their goals.
Yet it also showed the challenges of student policy activism. Groups that care about policy often prioritize issue canvassing over, for example, a rally to resist the president. But the former is harder, requiring time, investment, and knowledge that students’ schedules and limited funds might prevent them from having. The policymaking process, though democratic, gives decision-making power more to legislators than citizens. It seems true from our examples that students often choose policy advocacy over democracy protection. But that choice doesn’t magically make students effective policy advocates.
Events like these two that BPAC held show that many students are concerned with what’s going on in politics in a way that focuses more on specific policy issues than a general concept of democracy. This does not mean that no students find the threat of democratic erosion to be their primary concern. But for student political leaders at Brown, their resistance is channeled primarily through advocating for the policies they care most about, using existing democratic institutions to do so.
Photo by BPAC, “BPAC.”