It was Lord Douglas Hurd, the onetime British foreign secretary, who first got me thinking about the role of activism on campus. During a dinner with students, Lord Hurd remarked — with the curmudgeonly disdain befitting of a Tory peer — on the proliferation of activist groups in all Western countries over the past generation or so, and suggested that their consequences for democracy are largely unfortunate.
His comment struck a chord with me, because my own experience working with activist organizations has mostly been negative. Readers of my columns already know of my dislike for GESO, which has always struck me as extremist and out of touch. The same goes for other activist organizations I have had any direct experience with.
The rather left-leaning Public Interest Research Group, where I worked on environmental issues for a summer in college, seemed similarly inflexible. They cast developers and buyers of vacation homes as evil geniuses intent on despoiling every remaining acre of open space in the country. And to prove I bear no special animus for the left, I can say my worst experience came courtesy of the American Legion, where my 18-year-old self swore at a legionnaire who called me a “smart-ass kid” when I suggested that constantly haranguing students about the evils of flag-burning was not much of a lesson in democracy.
Of course, the existence of such organizations is nothing new. What appears to have changed over the last generation or so is their sheer number and their growing attractiveness to students of college age. You only have to glance at the Yale student organization registry to see how many activist organizations exist around campus, covering every inch of the political spectrum, from anti-abortion activists to students for sustainable development. The proliferation of such activist groups appears to have come in particular at the expense of the traditional political parties.
Lord Hurd argued that activist groups contribute to extremism and deadlock. By encouraging especially idealistic young people to eschew the messy give-and-take of partisan politics, such groups promote a narrow view of what democratic politics entails. In the process, politics ceases to be about interest and becomes about values which, unlike interests, do not allow for compromise.
According to this view, by holding fast to the values of their specific group, activists come to value their own supposed moral and ideological purity above all else. Purity requires avoiding real discussions or compromise, and instead demands total submission from one’s opponents. Protests and demonstrations take the place of serious negotiations, since anyone who disagrees must be a priori motivated by base desires for personal gain, or just plain stupid. Politics in this way is reduced to, as Theodore Roosevelt dismissively observed, the belief that “performing the whole duty of man … [consists of] sitting at home in ease, doing nothing wrong, and confining one’s participation in politics to conversations and meetings with men who have had the same training and look at things in the same way.”
So, is such single-issue activism undermining the fabric of democracy? Single-issue activism has its benefits, of course. It gets people involved in politics who might otherwise tune out. It also allows individuals to follow their own interests and develop expertise in one area. In some cases, this kind of activism even makes a real difference, when protests and rallies give way to the sustained on-the-ground involvement groups such as Doctors Without Borders are known for.
Yet a lot of political action today, particularly on college campuses, is quite strident and overbearing. I have certainly met more than my share of holier-than-thou activist types during my time at Yale. On the national level, the Democratic Party’s feebleness seems in large part the result of its inability to knit together all of the special interest groups comprising its base who demand the party maintain its moral purity, as Howard Dean discovered when he suggested Democrats would be better off if guys with Confederate flags on their pickups voted Democratic. At the same time, the growing extremism of the Republicans appears to be the result of giving in to one particular set of activists, the Christian Right, at the expense of seeking debate and compromise. The explosion of single-issue activism is hardly the only reason for this change, but it is symptomatic.
So what to do? Talk to people, especially those you disagree with. Get active in partisan politics which, despite the depressing trajectories of both major parties, remains the best incubator for creative, effective advocacy. Compromise is necessary in a democracy. Politics will only really work when our single-issue activists acknowledge that few issues are ever straightforward and become willing to dirty their hands in the pursuit of real solutions. Moral purity may help you sleep at night, but it is not conducive to effective politics.
Jeff Mankoff is a sixth-year graduate student in history.