The Republican Party has spent the past few years struggling through a deep divide, largely caused by fallout from a contested election. The Democratic Party seems to be disjointed, too, though the cause is less clear.
No, I’m not talking about Congress or the national committees in Washington trying to control the future direction our country is headed. I’m talking about college students.
For many decades, campuses have had clubs for College Democrats and College Republicans, but over the past few years these clubs and the organizations that oversee them have fallen into disarray. The 2021 election for the new leader of the College Republican National Committee was contested, and the group has frayed as a result. Tension and accusations of racism have plagued the top leaders of the College Democrats of America in recent years. And students on both sides said that it was difficult to stay organized and afloat during the pandemic, causing some chapters and state-level organizations to become dormant or die off completely.
For politically oriented students, such campus organizations can be crucial parts of their college experience, said Amy Binder, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute, which is dedicated to furthering civic engagement and informed dialogue.
“Students who are active in politics in college are likely to remain active in politics. And many of them want careers in politics or politics-adjacent sectors,” Binder said. “So, what’s happening on college campuses is really important for how young leaders are being socialized and shaped.”
At The Hechinger Report, we’ve been reporting on how the culture wars and the growing political divide are beginning to affect where students go to college, which led us to publish The College Welcome Guide. It collects data on factors like enrollment figures, graduation rates, free speech climate, incidence of hate crimes, services for veterans, LGBTQ+ resource centers from more than 4,000 campuses, as well as showing state laws that affect college students.
It seemed obvious that we should include campus political organizations in our table. I volunteered to get the lists of all College Republican and College Democrat chapters in the country.
I assumed it would be an easy task – simply Google the national organizations, find lists of campus chapters, copy them into an Excel spreadsheet and send it to my editor. At most, I thought I’d need to send an email to a press contact.
To my surprise, neither the College Democrats of America nor the College Republican National Committee had a list of chapters on their website. The Democrats have a list of links to state-level organizations, and the Republicans had a “find a chapter” feature, but no way to pull a list of all chapters. All the emails I sent to the Democrats bounced back, and the Republicans didn’t reply. We tried other search methods, too, but in the end, Hechinger editors decided that the information we had would be a nightmare to fact-check and so we couldn’t responsibly include this category in The College Welcome Guide.
I agreed – but I was determined to find out why we couldn’t accomplish this task.
The split in the College Republican National Committee seems to be the primary reason that the College Republican chapters were so tough to track down.
Courtney Hope Britt, the chair of the organization, said that there had been some cracks in the organization ideologically before she ran for chair in 2021, but the strife increased after her win was contested. Some state-level organizations and chapters decided to disaffiliate with the College Republican National Committee at this point.
Britt, who graduated from law school at the University of Richmond in her home state of Virginia before she ran for chair, said she had worked hard to win her seat, driving around the country to meet with students for her campaign during the pandemic. She said that not everyone supported her, but that she won the election fairly, despite complaints otherwise.
“We put a lot of our hope and faith in students because they should be young and idealistic, but in a lot of ways, they’re just refracting what they see in larger politics. It’s not fair to students, because the adults who are role models to them aren’t doing much better.”Amy Binder, professor of sociology, Johns Hopkins University
“Some of them moved on and said, ‘Okay, this is the reality,’ and some of them took their cues from what they’re seeing nationally in politics, that if you don’t like the result of something you just deny them,” Britt said. “I disagree with that fundamentally.”
Britt won re-election this summer and will continue to serve as the organization’s chair until 2025. Leading the organization and fundraising to keep it afloat is her full-time job. At the start of the fall 2023 semester, she said, there were 240 clubs.
She said that running the organization over the past two years has been challenging, though not exclusively because of the election-related drama.
“I think that everyone in party leadership, at least internally, knows right now that it is difficult to lead the party in its current state,” Britt said. “The Republican Party has a lot of very tense divisions. I mean, just look at the House Republicans over the last month. I think that I need not say much more than that.”
With all the turmoil, law student Will Donahue saw an opportunity to create a new national organization.
Donahue is from California, whose chapter had clashed with the College Republican National Committee before the 2021 election controversy. He created the College Republicans of America in the spring of 2023 to give some of the chapters that had left the opportunity to recharter with another organization, with a new focus.
He wants the new organization to emphasize professional and personal development, to prepare students to be successful in both their political careers and their lives. They plan to partner with organizations that teach financial literacy and investing strategies, he said, and to emphasize community service.
“I think it kind of repairs the national image I think people have about Republicans that may or may not necessarily be true,” Donahue said. “But if the youth generation is leading the ground movement to try to make the planet a better place and become global citizens, I think that’s the direction that we need to move in.”
On the left, the trouble among college Democrats has been more difficult to identify. There is no contact information on the College Democrats of America page, which is embedded in the Democratic National Committee website. I found a few email addresses elsewhere online, but all bounced back with error messages.
Finally, on Nov. 2, I got in touch with Justin Parker, the newly elected national vice president of the College Democrats of America.
The organization has what Parker calls a “colorful past.” He hasn’t been involved for long, but he said that lack of transparency among past leadership led to drama, resignations and the disaffiliation of state-level organizations from the national group over the last few years.
Right now, he said, 27 states are affiliated with his group, and he hopes to coax some of the groups that left to rejoin.
Parker said he and other leaders have plans to revamp the organization to increase communication between chapters and state organizations across the country, so that they can learn from each other’s experiences and all become better.
Among those plans, Parker said, is continuing to work on a freshly revamped independent website that still has no contact information and no chapter list. The rebuilding work is crucial, he said, in order to reach as many young voters as possible before the 2024 election.
Jen Anderson, a sophomore at Montana State University in Bozeman, helped resurrect her campus chapter of the College Democrats and later the statewide Montana College Democrats after she was unhappy with some of the policies enacted by the state legislature. She said the state-level student organization had been dormant since at least 2020.
“I think that everyone in party leadership, at least internally, knows right now that it is difficult to lead the party in its current state.”Courtney Hope Britt Chair, College Republican National Committee
She and other leaders recently decided to disaffiliate from the College Democrats of America because they wanted to focus their energy on the issues Montana residents face. She said the group plans to avoid anything related to the presidential election, geopolitical conflict and the culture wars.
In Michigan, sophomore Jacob Welch has had a similar experience. He helped restart the College Democrats chapter at Grand Valley State University during his freshman year, then worked to re-ignite the state-level organization and was elected president.
In early October, Welch said, the Michigan Federation of College Democrats decided to leave the College Democrats of America, because the Michigan members believe college political groups should focus more on taking action around societal issues they’d like to see changed. Like Anderson in Montana, he said he wanted the group to focus on issues that are priorities for Michigan residents.
On both sides, students said that participating in their campus political club gave them a chance to spend time with like-minded students and make friends. Those stakes seemed to be a bit higher for conservative students, who are more likely to be in the political minority on college campuses.
Britt, the chair of the College Republican National Committee, said that, for conservative students, finding a sense of belonging of campus can sometimes feel difficult when few other students share their views and even faculty seem not to respect their opinions.
Britt recalls sitting in an election law class during the Trump presidency and hearing her professor say that the Republican Party was dead. She was confident enough in her views by then to be comfortable speaking up, but she said it was only one example of feeling ostracized for her political orientation.
“I think it’s useful both for those students to have a sense of belongingness, to have a home, but also for the rest of the campus community because they’re bringing ideas and conversations up that otherwise may not be presented without them being there,” Britt said.
Experts agree on the social value of these clubs, and some say that the political value can be great, too.
Binder, the sociology professor, said that she thinks students interested in politics are looking beyond the two mainstream groups.
For example, she said, some students on the left see the College Democrats as being “hopelessly in the center” and ultra-career oriented, sometimes calling them “resume builders.” She thinks leftist students are more likely to gravitate towards gender alliances, multicultural centers or groups that advocate for a specific cause. They might seek out groups like Young Democratic Socialists of America, which is focused on community organizing. On the right, Binder said, some conservative students are being drawn to groups such as Turning Point USA, a group that advocates for conservative politics on campuses, and aims to promote freedom, according to its website.
She thinks there is a tendency to scold students for not “holding up these hallowed institutions” of the political parties.
“We put a lot of our hope and faith in students because they should be young and idealistic, but in a lot of ways, they’re just refracting what they see in larger politics,” Binder said. “I kind of feel like that’s not fair to students, because the adults who are role models to them aren’t doing much better.”