Progressive and Conservative Campus Activism

The Public Eye - Vol. 19, No. 1

By Pam Chamberlain
Extracts [pp. 2-4, 35-39] from
Deliberate Differences: Progressive and Conservative Campus Activism in the United States, a Political Research Associates report by Pam Chamberlain (2005), 84 pp.

Our findings are summarized as follows:

Energetic college students all over the country are engaged in campus-based activism, but their numbers are small. Although both conservative and progressive students organize on campus, the sum total of activist students is small compared to the overall student population. Progressive organizations outnumber conservative groups by a 1 ratio, with a range of issue-specific groups being the norm for progressives and a single, general conservative organization the core of conservative campus strength. According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, almost equal numbers of first-year students identified as progressive and conservative in 2003: 27% as progressive, and 23% as conservative. Perhaps just as relevant is the fact that 50% of first-year students label themselves independent or unaffiliated.

Campus activists are confronted with the challenge of mobilizing the vast majority of students who have other priorities besides political activity. Despite unpromising odds, small numbers of campus activists create and often sustain a wide range of campaigns, representing various perspectives on issues related to the environment, labor, reproductive rights, free speech, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people, multiculturalism, and the war. When major issues emerge, as they did in 2003, like the war in Iraq and affirmative action in university admissions, activists are able to generate a high level of student interest and mass mobilizations.

Conservative and progressive students approach activism differently. Because there are fewer conservative organizations on campus, usually a core group of activists coordinates campaigns across several issues. Progressives tend to maintain an array of issue-based organizations that do not regularly function with a coordinated strategy unless they create a coalition of progressive groups.

Conservatives' shared view of themselves as being in the minority and enduring a hostile environment on campus shapes their public education and political activity. They tend to use "fortress reasoning," focusing on the need to protect themselves from their numerous opponents. Conservative activists recast some of the terms that have proved successful for progressives in the past, such as valuing freedom of speech and diversity. Progressives, however, share no such common message; instead, they usually generate multiple issue-based messages from their various organizations. They describe a common feeling of fragmentation.

We were interested in the level of tensions between activist groups that traditionally disagreed on hot-button topics. The war in Iraq and the affirmative action court cases created a focus for both conservative and progressive activists.

Political mentors are absent from campus. Virtually all the student leaders we interviewed described themselves as arriving at college with their politics already developed. For the most part, their political mentors were their parents or teachers. Both conservative and progressive students expressed disappointment that they could not find similar mentors on campus, especially from the faculty. In turn, the majority of the faculty we interviewed preferred to remain distant or exhibited disinterest when asked about their involvement with campus political groups. A few faculty members, mostly progressive, were actively engaged with student activism. All our sample schools had Student Affairs Offices that provided, at a minimum, organizational support and training to student groups. However, student leaders rarely mentioned staff in these offices as their mentors. Without access to ideological or strategic support on campus, students report they seek it elsewhere.

Students are responding to issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation as they perceive them on campus. Progressive activists observe forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia persisting at their schools, despite the impact that previous activism has had on higher education. They view their work as far from over. Conservative students challenge progressive assessments and compensatory practices, dismissing them as "unnecessary" programs, "substandard" academic offerings, or simply "unfair." National conservative spokespeople stimulate discussion on these topics, providing students with arguments against affirmative action, feminism, multiculturalism, and area academic programs such as Queer Studies.

Activists at the single-sex school and the historically Black university in our sample use a gender or a race lens more readily than student leaders at the other schools to interpret and analyze their campuses and the issues that interest them. Historically Black fraternities and sororities are examples of organizations with legacies of both service and social action that provide an unusual, and often overlooked, source of activism.

Debate is unpopular on campus. Contrary to popular opinion, most college students do not enjoy debating political topics. Often the public hears about acrimonious confrontations between student groups or between students and their administrations over hot-button topics in the culture in general, such as the Middle East, terrorism, reproductive rights and racism, as well as over campus-specific concerns like union organizing on campus. Both politically uninvolved students and current student activists reported that they do not value political debate. Either they were intimidated by what they described as a confrontational situation, or they did not expect that engagement in formal or informal debate affects opinions. Most student leaders in this study, with the exception of law students, believed that debate wasted their time.

Many implications emerge for civil society of a generation of young people who do not value debate or do not have the skills to engage successfully in it. We suggest that, without a politically engaged population of young people and leaders who can and will conduct conversations across difference, we cannot expect a similarly engaged population of adults.

National political organizations successfully influence campus groups with resources, mentors, and incentives. Both progressive and conservative groups from the general political sphere are interested in student activists. These groups regularly become involved with students, often without having a visible presence on campus.
Some of their methods include:

  • using students as foot soldiers in electoral or other campaigns;
  • establishing campus affiliates;
  • training students to be leaders;
  • supporting student-led organizations such as newspapers or clubs with training, materials, and funding;
  • engaging student support through student activities fees;
  • providing attractive organizing supplies;
  • producing low- or no-cost events with political messages that tour campuses; or
  • offering incentives to individual students for participation in their programs.
Conservative organizations use a coordinated strategy of national organizations to provide these services. Progressive organizations, while more numerous, are far less strategic in how they provide support.

A "leadership pipeline" exists for both progressives and conservatives, but their approaches differ. While there appear to be about equal numbers of opportunities for leadership development for conservative and progressive students, each group has access to different types of such programs. Centralized training opportunities, from summer schools to national conferences, exist for conservatives, but no equivalent, prominent, and multi-issue programs are advertised to progressive students. Although such training does exist for progressive activists, it is harder to identify.

Internships, now considered a necessary part of a college student's career preparation, are available in scores of national political organizations. Information about these opportunities is available to students through the internet.

Conservative organizations promote their programs more visibly on their websites. Conservative groups tend to focus on developing public figures or stars, while progressive groups primarily develop lowerprofile organizers. This distinction is relevant in part because of the general absence of political mentors from campuses. Conservative stars perform mentoring roles for students.

Centrist students are not actively recruited by either conservative or progressive campus activists. The majority of college students engage in community service, volunteer work of some sort, or service learning. These numbers are growing as a result of directed efforts across the political spectrum to improve civic engagement among young people. Centrist students, those whose politics are neither entirely conservative nor progressive, constitute 50% of college students today. They are the largest body of potentially engaged students on U.S. campuses. Many centrist students engage in service work, but are not motivated to join activist groups on campus.

Surprisingly, neither conservative nor progressive activists report that they target this cohort of students. Centrist students are often the ones who report being "put off" by activists' recruitment styles. We believe these students constitute an undeveloped source of potential activists.

[Of the eight major findings summarized above, the treatment of the seventh is here reprinted in full. For reference notes, see the complete text.]

A "Leadership Pipeline" Exists on Both the Left and the Right

Conservative and progressive movements want to recruit young people into positions of potential leadership, both to sustain their organizational structures and to identify leaders who can appeal to young adults. What are the mechanisms that have produced national conservative figures such as Karl Rove, Dinesh D'Souza, and Ann Coulter? Who are their progressive counterparts? We researched differences in how conservative and progressive campus movements define leadership, where the organizations of today find their young talent, and how campus activists who are eager to work in movement jobs after graduation find employment.

From surveying the main websites of conservative and progressive groups, we might easily conclude that conservatives are more active on campus than progressives. The websites of many of the major conservative groups, including the Independent Women's Forum, Focus on the Family, and the Eagle Forum, have direct links to their campus-focused divisions. On the websites of major progressive groups, however, it was often so difficult to find information relevant to progressive college students that we were forced to look more carefully at each site. In addition, we quickly found several prominent conservative organizations specifically focused on campus politics, including the Young America's Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Collegiate Network, ISI's affiliate.

More difficult to find and seemingly less comprehensive from descriptions, there are many programs intended to develop political leadership among progressive students. Examples of national progressive organizations with as strong a commitment to college campuses as some of the conservative groups were the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has extensive resources for its Feminist Campus program online, and the Sierra Club, whose Sierra Student Coalition has its own website. After extensive Internet research, though, we found that progressive programs were approximately equal in number, if not greater than, conservative programs. The list we came up with included 15 conservative educational/training programs, including conferences and seminars, and 15 progressive educational/training programs. In addition, we researched 20 conservative and 29 progressive internship programs among the many regional and national organizations that have internship programs.

Educational/Training Programs

Of the educational and training programs, we were only able to speak with participants or organizers for two events, both student conferences. One was sponsored by the conservative Young America's Foundation (YAF), and the other was organized by the progressive Student Environmental Action Coalition. At the Young America's Foundation's 25th Annual National Conservative Student Conference (NCSC) in 2003, we conducted two in-person interviews with YAF staff involved in organizing the conference and two in-person interviews with students who attended the conference. In addition, we spoke informally with approximately five other students at the conference without taking notes; one student who attended the conference emailed responses to our questions.

The Young America's Foundation describes itself as the "principal outreach organization of the conservative movement." Its national summer conference is its largest outreach event. Over the course of their week in DC in 2003, 187 young conservatives heard about 30 hours of speeches by major conservative figures, culminating in an appearance by conservative writer Ann Coulter. The conference's goals, according to its organizer, were to educate students on conservative issues (something she said the students do not get on college campuses) and to create a "network of like-minded individuals."

The conference format used a traditional pedagogical approach, with a series of speakers addressing the entire group. Formal interaction in the sessions was limited to questions directed to the speakers. Attendees across the board expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to be present. The students we talked to saw both of these aspects of the conference as valuable. Both students and speakers at the conference repeatedly referred to a phenomenon that Kathryn Lopez of the National Review called the "campus liberal orthodoxy," and complained that they did not feel comfortable talking about their conservative beliefs on campus. Thus, they were happy to be in an environment in which they felt they could discuss politics without being attacked. They also asserted repeatedly that there was no party line at the conference, which represented conservative views from libertarianism to Christian conservatism.

The conference's purpose, however, was not solely educational. While the conference organizer made it clear that YAF does not try to create political leaders at the NCSC, the event served as a stepping-stone for many young conservatives to become actively involved in conservative political activism. All of the students we spoke with talked about networking at the conference with other students and with representatives of nonprofits and lobbying groups. One, for example, said she got an internship with Oliver North because she had met him at the conference the previous year. At a panel discussion including three "graduates" of the NCSC, each of the panelists said people they had met and information they had received at the conference allowed them to become more involved in the conservative movement. Jim Graham, now executive director of the Texas Right to Life Committee, said of the conference, "I think the most important thing I realized is that…there are people who change the world…and I can be one of them." Kathryn Lopez, an NCSC alumna, who went on to intern at the Heritage Foundation, said she would not have known about Heritage without the NCSC. Similarly, a current law student at Harvard University said the conference "connected [her] with the conservative movement," and spoke of using attendance at the conference as a credential with conservative organizations. Thus, through a combination of educational events featuring celebrity speakers and networking opportunities, the YAF's National Conservative Student Conference contributes significantly to the development of conservative leaders.

We were unable to find a progressive equivalent to the YAF National Conservative Student Conference, which led us to conclude that no centralized progressive training program exists. Although there are numerous programs offering training for campus organizers from groups such as the AFL-CIO's Union Summer, Feminist Majority Foundation, Sierra Student Coalition, and the Student Environmental Action Coalition, these programs tend to be more narrowly focused on specific issue areas, rather than offering a general training on progressive organizing. These organizer trainings, which last just a few days, are generally shorter than

YAF's conference, do not bring in celebrity speakers, and are focused on organizationbuilding rather than discussing political ideas. And while there is one program, the Century Institute (run by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank), that offers a more theoretical introduction to general progressive ideas, it serves only around thirty students a year. This lack of commitment to ideological training weakens progressive leadership development in important ways. Leaders become known by their issues alone, and little cross-issue work emerges.


We conducted interviews with nine internship coordinators from five progressive and four conservative organizations: four by email, four over the phone, and one in person. We interviewed seven interns by email and one by telephone; four of them had interned at two conservative organizations, and the other four had interned at three progressive organizations. The internship programs we studied varied widely in size, from small programs with just two to three interns at a time to large programs like the conservative Family Research Council's Witherspoon Fellows Program, which has fourteen interns at a time and includes an extensive educational component. We were unable to secure cooperation to speak with interns or internship coordinators at the two largest internship programs we found in our search, the conservative Heritage Foundation (fifty summer interns) and the Libertarian Cato Institute.

The conservative and progressive internship coordinators generally described the goals of their internship programs in similar terms, saying that they hoped to get assistance with their work from the interns and to provide them with experience in the policy world. Several of the coordinators (both progressive and conservative) felt that both the interns and their organizations benefited from the degree to which interns were allowed to do serious work and were integrated into the day-to-day organizational operations. Several also mentioned that they had problems advertising their internship programs and would like to be able to publicize the internships more widely. At the organizations we studied, internship programs often served as points of entry for jobs after graduation, in spite of the small number of full-time staff at such organizations. This seemed to be true more often for conservative organizations.

All of the interns who responded seemed very happy with their internships. This response was probably related in part to students having applied to specific organizations and to their self-selection, since those who responded may have been more likely to be happy with their internships. The interns we talked with had varying levels of pre-internship political activism on their respective campuses. Some had not been involved in any political groups, whereas others had been leaders in college political organizations and had volunteered for local campaigns. Nearly all, though, regardless of pre-internship political experience, said that their internships had affected their plans for future involvement in activism. For some, that meant considering going into grassroots organizing directly after college. For others, participation in an internship program broadened their view of politics and allowed them to integrate political views into their daily lives. In the words of one intern, "It's not really my career plans that have been changed as much as my idea of politics, my attitude towards activism, and my genuine desire to make a difference." All of the interns seemed to think that the internships would affect their activism on campus: they planned to be more active in groups, and felt that they had gained skills to make their activism more effective. As one intern said, "I know that I will take back new skills, resources, and a greater passion to help advance the mission of our [Young America's Foundation] student group."

Those interns who did plan careers in the political world (whether or not those plans were made before or after their internships) clearly saw the internships as stepping stones to future jobs. One intern was preparing to go directly from her internship into a job at the same organization. While this direct step from internship to job is relatively rare given the small staff size of most progressive nonprofit organizations, political internships give interns unusual opportunities to meet political and nonprofit leaders who might help them get jobs after graduation. In addition, interns often do the same kinds of work as staff members, and thus gain an edge in experience over other job applicants. Many of the interns expressed surprise at the level of responsibility they received in their organizations. Interns generally cited these two aspects of political internships —networking and job experience —as the most valuable features of the programs. At the Young America's Foundation's National Conservative Student Conference, a panel of three 'graduates' of the conference called internships "essential" for students interested in working in politics.

So, then, who wins the leadership development race? The conventional wisdom is that conservatives are putting more resources than progressives into campus activism and programs that develop campus leadership. Our study suggests, however, that the picture is somewhat more complicated. Because conservative and progressive groups approach leadership development in very different ways, it is difficult to directly compare their programs. From the information we gathered, it is not possible to assess the relative effectiveness of conservative and progressive groups' respective programs to develop campus leaders. However, we can suggest some ways in which left- and right-wing programs and recruitment efforts seem to differ.

The Internet is now the dominant recruitment tool for programs of the kind we studied, and, as noted earlier, it was much easier to find information about campus-oriented programs on conservative sites than on progressive ones. This may be due in part to the importance of college campuses to conservative cultural discourse. Conservative organizations from the Young America's Foundation to the Eagle Forum describe college campuses as hotbeds of liberal or "politically correct" activism, places where conservative ideas simply are not welcome. YAF president Ron Robinson, for example, spoke of a "pattern of viciousness" aimed at outspoken campus conservatives; he maintained that the "campus establishment is either afraid of or hostile to conservative ideas." Conservative political organizations, such as Accuracy in Academia, ACTA, or the Center for the Study of Popular Culture devote considerable spaceeffort to studying and publicizing their claim of liberal bias in academia. Since conservatives see college campuses as sites of liberal indoctrination, they put a great deal of energy into making Internet and other resources for campus conservatives accessible.

Conservative sites also make various kinds of appeals and use different kinds of language in attempting to attract students (although we cannot tell from our study whether these appeals translate into programmatic differences). Conservative sites make proclamations like "IWF [Independent Women's Forum] is taking back the campus," and try to appeal to the individual frustrations of conservative students. The Eagle Forum Collegians website, for example, asks students:

  • Are you tired of student fees being used to promote liberal causes?
  • Are you concerned about the blatant advocacy of radical leftist ideas in your classroom?
  • Are you being pressured by the politically correct agenda on campus?
The Independent Women's Forum similarly appeals to conservative students' frustrations, saying its campus project offers "information, guidance, and support for students inundated with rigid political correctness."

In contrast to these general appeals to frustration about perceived hostility on the part of the campus establishment, progressive groups' student programs tended to assume that students accessing the site were already solidly in the progressive activist camp, and focused more on networking and organization building. Almost every campus progressive organization featured "networking" ideas prominently on its site; Feminist Campus (, for example, had a message board for student activists to network and post event ideas, while JustAct ( talked about "building a national grassroots youth network." The one progressive organization that used a personal, emotional appeal to students as a recruitment technique was Planned Parenthood's 'Vox' campus outreach group:

  • What would you do if you knew that anti-choice politicians fight to deny women and men access to… information and services?
  • What would you do if you knew that anti-choice organizations spend millions of dollars on campuses each year to limit access to reproductive health programs and to keep college students in the dark about sexuality? What if they were on your campus and tried to limit your access?
  • You'd want to protect the services and information that you and your friends rely on, and Vox: Voices or Planned Parenthood is the way to do that.

The final major difference between conservative and progressive organizations' campus recruitment efforts is more programmatic. Conservative organizations focus on stars, while progressive groups focus on organizers. Groups like the YAF help campus conservative groups pay for conservative luminaries like author Ann Coulter and humorist Ben Stein to come to campus. The Student Environmental Action Coalition, the only progressive speakers bureau program we found, helps students get in touch with student organizers who live close enough to speak at their campuses relatively cheaply.

The conservative focus on 'stars' is not limited to speakers: conservative organizations also seem more interested in creating future star leaders than do progressive organizations. Jeff Nelson, Vice President for Publications for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, identified a unique characteristic of the conservative movement: "I think one of the principal, even signal, features of the conservative movement is its overriding concern for nurturing young people."

The Young America's Foundation, for example, has a "Club 100" program, which gives students rewards for bringing speakers to campus and hosting other events. The top Club 100 point earners win a trip to the Reagan Ranch, now used as an education and training center by the YAF. In the words of YAF president Ron Robinson, conservative groups focus on creating strong leaders because they "don't need a majority of activists." Conservatives know that college students are more liberal than the population at large, but, with wellfunded, well-organized campus groups, conservatives can make as much of a splash as more widely popular progressive groups.

The Path to Movement Work

We also solicited retrospective information from young staff people at movement organizations to learn more about the paths they took to reach their current positions. We contacted 29 organizations and received 16 responses.

Young staffers describe their work primarily in terms of career development, not movement building. There were no distinctions between staffers working at conservative or progressive organizations on this issue. Almost all the young staffers had been active in social or political movement organizations in college, and 100% felt positively about working in a movement position. Although some of the job descriptions were clerical or administrative – not the coveted policy analyst or media jobs – staffers across the board were pleased with their situations. Even more surprising still was the consistency of response to a question like: How well does this job fit with what you want to do with your life? All of the respondents described their satisfaction with their jobs in terms of personal career development, with only one respondent articulating a desire to contribute to a larger movement.

The process of landing a job in a competitive market during an economic downturn seems to be very similar for both progressives and conservative young graduates. Everyone in our sample acknowledged the crucial role networking plays in landing a job. One student leader was quick to point out that, while networking was "instrumental" in getting a job, "I was not given the job because my contact knew me. I was given the job because my contact knew my work and my writing." Another took a step further back to speak about how, even before using her network to apply for—and get— a job, networking had been "the foundation of gaining the skills and background necessary to secure [her] current job." Respondents mentioned interning, meeting key players, getting entry-level positions, attending conferences, and using the Internet as part of the networking process.

When pressed about the role of college career service offices, almost all respondents indicated that they either did not use the service or did not find it as useful as individualized networking and web searching. Progressive students often mentioned as a valuable site; conservative respondents did not mention a single job listing service for conservatives. Not one student from our on-site interviews, in response to a specific question about national organizations, mentioned that they noticed a presence of recruiters from outside organizations on campus. And no one expressed the expectation that they could get either a progressive or a conservative movement job by going through their career services office. This was true even at schools in our sample with extremely pro-active career services staffs.

Although there are probably more progressive job openings available, because of the dispersed nature of the progressive movement, more centralized resources exist for conservative students to use to further their activist careers. At times like these, when a Republican is in the White House, or in any state with a Republican governor, conservative graduates clearly have more opportunities to work near the seats of power; the Republican Party structure quickly funnels promising young leaders into positions of responsibility. Conservative students mentioned more often than progressive students traditional avenues of networking, like working as an intern on Capitol Hill or volunteering on an election campaign. Progressive students described similar opportunities to network, but they benefited from a website for progressive jobseekers,, that has no counterpart on the Right. Conservative students often described their devotion to hard work and the willingness to go the extra mile as indicators of their commitment to movement work: "It's hard to find people like me who will sacrifice for the group— take a day off and maybe impact their grades." While not expressed explicitly, some conservative students may hold the expectation that these qualities are desirable traits in the competitive job market.

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