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Disempowering Politics

By Jackson F. Cashion

The Harvard College Democrats and Republicans have not been living up to their potential, due to rules that harm both the parties they love and the student body they serve. Instead of serving as forums where the country’s future has a say in their party’s future, these groups toil away for parties that demand service from college students and give nothing in return. These policies deny us the voice we can and should have instead of empowering us.

The Harvard College Democrats and Republicans need to think hard about how to serve their parties best—by either toeing the enforced party line or by creating a party that better represents them. No one benefits from a lack of discourse in our country—particularly college students who have such little say in our nation’s affairs as it is. These groups can be powerful and influential to the benefit of all—but only if they want to be.

These groups need to start from scratch and throw out their old charters. The rules and regulations of each prevent anything resembling a conversation with the parties from ever happening. In both groups’ constitutions, they accept their party’s platform by default and shirk from endorsing a candidate until the party faithful has made its official decision. They commit valuable resources to a mission they have no part in deciding. It sends the wrong message about how politics should work in our country. Surely even the most party-line members of the Dems and the Harvard Republican Club have gripes about particular party policies. Rules that enforce blind acceptance of party policy silence the opinions of those who make up these groups. Granted, there may be a desire to be an umbrella organization that welcomes all party members and offends no one, but this is done at the cost of losing many redeeming qualities that attract individuals in the first place

This hinders the ability of these groups to do anything substantial on campus.  At a school where 80 percent of students voted for Obama, the Dems should be far and away the largest organization. Instead, a small core has alienated most self-identified Democrats.

Let’s face it: Most of the campus is unhappy with both parties. These groups cannot act on informative criticism of their parties, and so they silence and alienate some of the brightest and most opinionated students who could share their ideas. If these groups really wanted to work in the best interests of their parties, they would promote healthy criticism rather than run from it. The Dems and the HRC could attract more members if they tried to challenge the parties instead of falling in line. They could be innovative forums about college students’ particular visions of politics—instead people turn away from them because it’s nothing but the same old.

It gets no better come election time. The window of opportunity to influence the direction of the party is during primary season, but these groups slam that door shut by refusing to endorse a primary candidate. By the time they ramp up volunteer recruitment, knock on doors, and make phone calls, the moment for them to make their mark on the race has already passed.

The campaigning is not the problem—the problem is that the Dems and the HRC have no say in how their resources should be used. They lose clout when they sit out of the part of the election cycle where their resources could have a long-lasting impact.

If there were a concerted effort among college political groups to share what really matters to them during the primaries, politicians would bend over backwards to get their approval. Wouldn’t it be great if those candidates reflected the particular positions of the college kids who will spend cold hours knocking on doors for them?

The Harvard College Republican Club has been around since 1888, the oldest such group in the nation. Politicos would listen to them if they said something worthwhile. Some Democratic Senate candidates would love the endorsement of the Harvard Dems—if they had an endorsement to give. It’s sad that we, the country’s future, cannot influence the country’s political future.

The most frustrating part of this is that there is a clear answer to these problems. We could have groups that pressure the party establishment to hear us out. Young Democrats and Republicans should be a part of the discussion—not agents of the establishment. It’s not fair to the members of these groups, and it perpetuates a party system that doesn’t represent an important part of the electorate. The Dems and the HRC have the power to influence the nation’s politics; they just have to be courageous enough to use it.

Jackson F. Cashion ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.

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