"Joining the Young Democrats at Harvard," former president Peter Wiener explained recently, "is like joining Hillel when your high school is 90 per cent Jewish--when you're in the majority you might join, but won't care.
The fact that there are more Democrats than Republicans--at Harvard and in the country as a whole--is only of the many problems that beset Young Dems, and it is more serious than it sounds. It has led not to a crisis in membership numbers, for although membership has declined to 750 from a 1964-65 high of 900, Young Dems is still the largest political organization at Harvard. But it has lead to a crisis in identity.
For what has plagued this sluggish monster of an organization for the past few years is not how to stay alive, but how to lead the hundreds who join it only to hear a few top-name speakers, not how to make noise, but how to say something significant in political vacuum which is Harvard vague liberal consensus. Young Dems' membership problem is one not of numbers, but of quality, in a college whose liberal student activists join SDS and whose non-activist creative thinkers write tutorial papers.
Zonalizations about the club's failture to mobilize the energies of its membership and to define a meaningful role for itself flow freely from all quarters of the club. Critics charge that the club is bound to attract young politics on the make--"oftensive, back-slaping manipulators," one former executive committee member called them--who in their frantic efforts to establish the groundwork for future political careers inevitably make fools of themselves and a farce of the organization.
Apologists look jealously at SDS, which with a membership one-eigth the size of Young Dems has managed to attract in the past year well over eight times the amount of attention. They say that Young Dems must resign itself to this poor showing because it will never be able to offer the kind of coherent ideology which attracts a dedicated membership. "We're not even a consensus, let alone a point of view," Weiner has said. "Most members identify more with the Democrats than with the Republicans, and that's about all."
Disillusion in this situation sets in quickly, and the turnover on the executive committee, the club's ruling body, is extremely high. Among those members who remain, too, are those who privately express doubt that the organization will ever be able to justify its existence by doing more than what one calls "diddley work"--stuffing envelopes, writing letters, lending the Harvard name to worthy causes. (And worthy causes, members point out, are at their weakest position in several years as ways of attracting either commitment or attention.) Only about one-third as many people filled out Civil Rights Coordinating Committee interest cards at registration this year as did last year. A large part of the explanation no doubt lies in what one member calls "the Vietnam hang-up", and it is just in the area of controversial foreign policy that Young Dems is most constrained, most lacking in consensus, and least able to make meaningful policy statements. "What are we supposed to try to be?" one member has demanded defensively. "A junior SDS? A more moderate SDS? What the hell are we in this for?"
It is a vicious cycle--a reputation for inaction does not attract action-oriented people. Young Dems echo each other in articulating the problem; few see a way out of the cycle. The panacea offered most frequently is leadership--a charismatic leader for the club who would both attract a devoted following and, in the words of a former Radcliffe coordinator, "get people to think they're giving their time for something worthwhile. It's all a question of security--people don't want to commit themselves to something that might be a bust. Freshman Cliffies are so vulnerable to being used--if they are approached by this charismatic figure and made to think they could use Young Dems to meet people like him, they would work. And as long as they worked, what the hell would Young Dems care why?"
But Ross, who was president for the year and a half before Weiner, was evidently such a leader. The most frequent description of him is "an animal--he got people to work for him through the brute force of his personality." Under Ross, the organization was transformed from a small, tightly knit, party-oriented, penniless club into what observors call "a three ring circus." Party politics were placed second to building membership and raising money. Through a highly-successful speakers program Ross succeeded in doing both. But, according to one former executive the club became so dependent on Ross's personality that when his term was over he left a void that almost no one could have successfully filled.
Weiner didn't fill it; he didn't attempt to. He sees himself as having run an institutionalized, intellectual organization, admitting that maybe a circus is what Young Dems needs to camouflage, if not to cure, its anemia. He speaks for himself as a transitional leader, presiding over the club as it adapted itself to its new size and bank account. The transition, he implies, is up to the new president, Larry Seidman, to define and complete.
Larry Seidman is even less like Burt Ross, as a leader, than Pete Weiner was. He is an idealist; he shuns the word because it is a political handicap, and so is a self-conscious idealist, but he is an idealist nonetheless. If Young Dems is ever to make a place for itself in Harvard student politics, the club must first, he maintains, define exactly what it is both to itself and to the rest of the college. That is what the club has failed to do in the past, and that, at least, is what Seidman hopes to do now. "It's a matter of leading," he says. "Just because you have a large membership doesn't mean you can't provide leadership. You stand for something, and then you're voted in or out of office on the basis of it."
Seidman envisions a Young Dems composed of action committees, with members of each involved in actual organizational work in government programs: poverty, education, medicare, housing and urban renewal, civil rights. A few of these groups are operating now, and he hopes to have others soon, including one working with ABCD. He characterizes the whole program as "bridging the gap between the people who have PBH sympathies and the people who are someday going to be winning elections."
Positive results, Seidman says, come to those who have the power within the system; the problem is that too often those with the political power do not use it in the way that those he calls "the PBH-minded people" would if they were able to realize its importance and get it. "We can no longer afford the dichotomy between the machine politicans and the top thinkers and organizers. If the top people don't conceive of politics as their place, then the machines get the power by default."
The next few months, Seidman feels, will be crucial to the success of the program. "People won't flock unless we start somewhere--we have to build." He sees the committee programs as a necessary first step before Young Dems puts forward any program on a national level. "The first stage has got to be production here, because this is where we're all living for four years--anything else is just a hollow phrase unless you can say this is what we're doing here, where we are."
Shedding Old Notions
If Seidman is successful, his club would be unrecognizable to the Democratic Party ideologues who inhabited the pre-Ross organization. "We're