College Political Clubs: Activity, For a Change
Presidential Elections Never Fail To Arouse Apathetic Community
It happens every four years. Wars, depressions, heart attacks--none of these can prevent presidential elections from taking place. Present intense speculation about Eisenhower's future plans, the number of accusations and counter-accusations, the New Hampshire primary less than three weeks away--all these are reminders that this November about 60 million voters will go to the polls to elect a President of the United States.
Politicians throughout the country have already started making plans for the big push ahead, organizing booster clubs and trying to attract more people to take active part in the political parties. Their efforts will almost certainly meet with some success, because traditionally the American people, often apathetic in off-year elections, suddenly become very concerned with politics when it becomes a question of electing a chief executive.
The situation at the University promises to be no different from elsewhere. Already three clubs have formed with the sole purpose of pushing the candidacy of a Presidential contender. Most of the current interest seems directed toward Adlai Stevenson. The Students for Stevenson Club already has 328 members, a figure far ahead of the other groups. Eisenhower for President supporters number slightly over 100, while the Kefauver booster club so far has only 25 supporters. Furthermore, if Eisenhower decides not to run for reelection, it is a safe bet that many new clubs will form to back the candidacies of various Republican aspirants.
But these new clubs, with ambitious hopes and plans for the future, have not completely stolen the initiative from the three permanent organizations at the University primarily interested in practical politics--the Young Republicans, the Young Democrats, and the Liberal Union. Their tentative spring plans include discussions of topics and candidates for 1956 and, more important, two largescale conventions. The Republicans are still uncertain about their convention which, President John R. Thompson '57 says, will be converted into a mock congress if Eisenhower decides to run. The Democrats, however, have proceeded rapidly with plans for a large intercollegiate gathering to include representatives from about 70 colleges in May.
As a general rule memberships of political clubs go through four-year cycles. In 1952, for instance, the HYRC had 200 more members than it does today. The HLU's membership has also fallen drastically since that election year. The one club to go against the trend has been the HYDC.
Republicans Were Popular
At present the Young Democrats have about 260 members, not including the Law School Democratic organization with another 100. This is twice their 1952 figure. The Young Republicans still have the most members with 385, but this is nothing like the predominant role they once enjoyed at the University. Two weeks after the Club was founded in 1888, it already had 817 members. In those days the Republicans had to rent a building in Boston to hold all the people who wished to attend their massive rallies. One meeting, in Tremont Temple, attracted 4500 people. In fact, the nearly even division of the University in 1952 between Eisenhower and Stevenson marked the first time in history, except for the freak 1912 split, that the Republicans did not overwhelmingly carry the school in the CRIMSON straw poll.
Although the Democrats seem to contradict the general political scene with their rise in membership during non-election years, the HYDC has had the usual problem of a student apathy to overcome. Membership figures give little indication of the number of participants. Last Wednesday, for instance, less than one-fifth of the members attended an important HYDC election meeting.
A variety of reasons are advanced for this generally weak show of political interest. Christopher Niebuhr 56, former President of the HLU, suggests that perhaps students who were interested in hometown politics do not become equally engrossed in Cambridge and Massachusetts affairs. The new HLU President, Joseph E. Frank '56, gives another reason. "Students are more concerned with studies and social life than with extra-curricular activities and political organizations," he says.
The most highly regarded way of keeping up interest in non-election years--and the best way to keep an organization in the public limelight--is a good speaker program. Even in 1892 this fact was realized.
In that year, the Republicans had a gala public meeting in Boston, with reserved seats in Tremont Temple. The Rev. Edward Everett Hale presided over a collection of notables which included Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elihu Root.
Sucess or Failure
The organization of most of the clubs depends upon the executive boards, the real focal point of all activity. They are the groups which determine the success or failure of a club. "Every organization is run by a small group of students who are willing to work." Frank concedes.
Since positions on the executive boards determine the direction and power of an organization, elections for these offices often result in bitter contests. Last year there were repeated charges after a HYRC election of "corruption," "bribes," and "ugly threats." The HYDC was almost ruined before it began, in the 1952 campaign, when a pair of Southern Democrats tried to split the club after they had lost an election, despite buying votes. The rival Democratic Club, however, was not recognized by Dean Watson.
Most of the activities of the clubs are of a much more normal nature. Designed to sustain and increase the participation and interest of the members, such projects as club bulletins, discussion meetings, Wellesley mixers, beer parties, and political tables, have admirably served their purpose. Charles L. Edson '56, past president of the HYDC maintains that his club has "tried to get down to the members, to incorporate more students into the clubs activities."
The HYRC has been the most successful in this respect, with its newspaper and freshmen workshops. The Harvard Times-Republican has weekly presented a platform for expressing the Republican viewpoint of the news, and has allowed many club members to help formulate this viewpoint.
Lack of interest in political organizations was not always a problem at the University. The following account of a Harvard Republican Club excursion to Washington, D.C., to the inauguration celebration of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 presents quite a contrast to the current status of political activity:
"We hired an entire house, perhaps two houses, on a side street, filled the rooms with beds, and occupied it for two days and nights. We went down and back by special train... There were from 200 to 300 in the parade. Our group worked in caps and gowns, behind a large Harvard banner. After the parade the group countermarched in a body to the White House, and there was tendered a reception by the President on the portico."
Nowadays, political clubs are more interested in constructive action. In 1952, for instance, the Harvard Liberal Union, working in conjunction with several members of the faculty in a nationwide Civil Liberties Appeal, helped raise over $14,000 in a futile effort to unseat two main "opponents of civil liberties," Republican Senators William Jenner of Indiana and Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
While the club presidents themselves realize that the influence of a college organization upon the candidacy of a major candidate is very hard to measure, concentrated effort by a few dozen workers in a local election can easily prove the difference between victory and defeat. The Liberal Union has worked upon this theory, and aided the election in the fall of 1954 of Sumner Kaplan to the State Legislature, the first Democrat ever elected in Brookline.
Much of the most important work consists of doorbell ringing, to get people registered to vote, and then to get people them out to vote. The Students for Stevenson Club is now in the process of preparing detailed information about registration and absentee ballots to residents of the five states, Minnesota, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, in which its candidate is entered in the primaries.
The Kefauver for President Club is the only other club which has pre convention campaign plans, since the HYDC, HLU, and HYRC are prohibited, by the nature of their affiliation with national organizations, from supporting pre-convention candidates.
A New Conservative Club also exists, but its founder and former president, William Brady '57, says that the organization will not campaign for candidates.
Once the actual campaign starts in September, however, every club interested in practical politics will go into action. The only ones with a definite scheme in mind will be those supporting a Presidential candidate. The more permanent, more broadly based clubs, the HLU, the HYDC, and the HYRC, will have to decide which candidate to support actively.
By virtue of its independent position, the Liberal Union has the most freedom in its choice of candidates. Although it cannot oppose candidates supported by either the national or state ADA, the HLU is free to withhold support from whomever it wishes, and can designate the specific men it wishes to aid.
After the issue of supporting candidates is decided the clubs settle down to the less spectacular task involved in political campaigning. Perhaps the best organized club for political action in 1952 was the HYDC, whose president, Stan Tobin, had worked long and hard in the summer planning for the campaign. He had police type maps of every precinct of Cambridge, and developed a system of methodically covering as much of the area as possible. Despite its small membership, the HYDC attracted the greatest number of workers during the autumn months.
Since it is chiefly in the few months of actual campaigning that a political organization can do any real good, it sometimes seems that a club should be in existence only during those months. However, without maintaining a continuous undercurrent of interest in the political ideals it supports, can hardly hope for a spontaneous outburst of assistance during election years.
The political clubs, with such projects as the two mock conventions and pre-campaign preparation for next fall, will be the vehicle for renewed political interest to manifest itself again. The remainder of this term will see continuing ground work activity in anticipation of the big push next fall, when again the political arena will dominate the country and the University