The Sleeping Giant: The State of College Republicans at W&L
By Hayden Daniel '19
Since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 to the office of President of the United States, there has been a marked increase in activist groups and events targeted toward those who are left-of-center on the political spectrum. From Amnesty International to more well-established progressive groups on campus such as the Gender Action Group and College Democrats, liberal groups have exploded on the Washington and Lee campus in both number and activity, including a notable poster display in Leyburn Library from the College Democrats that detailed the supposed deficiencies of each of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees. In fact, most of these groups, although miniscule when compared to other groups on this campus and other chapters on more decidedly liberal campuses across the nation, are yet highly organized and dedicated organizations. Far from being almost invisible groups akin to ancient mystery cults, liberal and progressive groups have quickly came to dominate dialogue on campus. It is a widely-told joke at Washington and Lee to wonder at the very existence of such left-of-center groups on a campus perceived to have an overwhelming number of conservatives in the student body, but with the rapid growth of such groups on campus and the relative silence emanating from the opposition, perhaps that joke would be more aptly told in reference to right-wing groups on campus, especially the College Republicans.
In stark contrast to this liberal renaissance on campus languishes the College Republicans, one of the largest and seemingly most powerful groups on campus given that the majority of students identify as belonging to the conservative side of the political spectrum. Despite its apparent power and strength, the organization has decayed in its events and influence over the past few years, reduced to the small pocket that is the leadership committee at best and vanishing without a trace at worst. Often the first and last that an incoming freshman sees of the largest conservative student organization on campus is the sign-up sheet at the Activities Fair. For the vast majority of subscribers to the College Republicans email list, notifications for events have been paltry if not nonexistent. In fact, the last email that I received from the College Republicans was dated October 14, 2015. Also, elections for leadership positions are conducted via email, once again emails that rarely if at all reach the majority of subscribers.
I came to Washington and Lee convinced that it was a majority conservative campus, assured that no campus disruptions on par with those that erupted at UC Berkeley a couple of months ago and at Yale last year take place here. I eagerly signed up for the College Republicans at the Activities Fair my first week, enthusiastic to uphold conservative principles on campus. I met the College Republican leadership and found each of them intelligent, principled, and honorable. Then came the waiting, and I along with many others have been waiting ever since.
When I began my research for this article, I honestly expected to find some “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to quote a former presidential candidate and First Lady, complete with backroom deals where the reins of power were passed amongst a cabal of political elitists concerned only with padding their resumes with leadership positions and increasing their prestige on campus. I expected to find an oligarchy of cronyism, where the party leadership excluded the average member and were determined to do as little as possible in order to secure their own positions. Perhaps that is what is going on, perhaps it is a case of corruption, but instead of this grand conspiracy, I found explanations that were far more benign and mundane but no less concerning and perhaps no less serious. According to the leadership within the College Republicans and my own inquiries into the matter, the basic problems seem to be IT issues with the email system and conservative apathy on campus.
One of the most pressing issues is the utter and complete lack of communication between the party leadership and the average member of the organization. As stated above, many have only heard from the College Republicans a few times via email if at all. According to the organization leadership, juniors and seniors regularly get emails, but in fact many email back requesting to be taken off the list. Despite this reported healthy outreach amongst the upper-level years, sophomores and freshmen receive almost no emails. I spoke with the leadership about this, and they promised me that they had no idea that emails were not reaching the sophomores and freshmen and are looking into a solution for the problem. Another problem cited was apathy. The College Republican leadership claimed that apathy amongst the conservative majority to attend events on campus, coupled with the revelation of the email problem, rendered putting on such events irrelevant since no one would attend them anyway. They estimated usual attendance for a speaking event to be between ten to fifteen people and for elections to be between thirty and forty students. Given that Lee Chapel events and events scheduled by the more liberal groups are relatively well attended, these numbers are both dismal and concerning. Even a marginally famous speaker or authority on matters of interest to conservatives on campus should attract more than a dozen attendees to an event, and a ten percent turnout for elections is not only dismal but glaringly abnormal, especially when turnout for general elections such as EC and SJC are relatively good and more people will turn out to answer a Sexual Misconduct Campus Climate Survey than an election for one of the largest groups on campus.
On the surface, these seem like reasonable explanations, an unnoticed IT issue could very well be blocking College Republican emails from getting through to a large portion of subscribers, thereby depressing turnout to regular events. General apathy could also depress turnout, since Washington and Lee is by far a majority conservative campus and the desire and need to have a lot of events is neither necessary nor appealing to the majority of students. However, these answers are not quite satisfying to be taken as indubitable truth, because of a few questions that each of them raise. First, we come to the email and communication problem - were there no College Republican meetings before the invention of email? The leadership and those lucky enough to receive regular emails could perhaps spread word about an upcoming event by word of mouth, yet I only learned of a visit from candidate for VA Governor Ed Gillespie’s meet and greet at Salerno’s on March 23rd from my interview with the College Republican leadership the previous day. Also, one may only need to look around to see a flurry of posters and flyers advertising for everything from liberal events to Lee Chapel speakers to advertisements for upcoming classes. In order to boost attendance and reach more people than would otherwise be made aware, perhaps the leadership of the College Republicans could put up a few flyers to advertise upcoming speakers and events or posters to disseminate propaganda like the College Democrats do.
For example, acclaimed novelist Jeff Shaara gave a talk in Lee Chapel on March 23rd, the same day as Ed Gillespie’s visit. The only advertisements heralding Mr. Shaara’s appearance were a few notifications in Campus Notices, a few flyers scattered around Leyburn Library, Elrod Commons, and Newcomb Hall, and subsequent word of mouth. Despite these seemingly unsophisticated methods, at least when compared to the unfaltering efficiency of modern email as utilized by the College Republicans, the crowd for the talk and the subsequent book signing was quite impressive, dwarfing by far the turnout for Mr. Gillespie’s appearance. If the College Republicans would do this, Campus Notices, flyers, and word of mouth, then perhaps the average turnout for an event would rise and rival that of events held by the College Democrats, whose events are generally more well attended and at least no worse attended than College Republicans events.
With the revelation of the IT issue with the emails, the elections held by the College Republicans to replace the current leadership can be deemed neither free nor fair. Since elections are conducted via Google Forms and sent out in an email, only a small minority of those who are fortunate enough to receive the emails can vote, effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of the organization. Therefore, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the disenfranchised element of the organization to effect change in policy by voting out ineffective officers and electing in those who will get the job done. Physical election meetings would be similarly biased because once again the electorate would be made up wholly of those who have been graced with the luck of getting notification emails.
One of the most deeply held ideals at Washington and Lee is the free exchange of ideas through open discourse, the idea that people of different political ideals can come together and debate civilly. That discourse cannot happen when one side does not participate. Currently that is the situation with the College Republicans at Washington and Lee. Whether it be because of benign issues such as email problems or general apathy or more nefarious reasons like resume padding, the conclusion is the same: a lack of a true, organized, and dedicated conservative voice that can truly represent conservative principles on campus and match the rising tide of liberalism.
The reasons, or excuses, offered by the leadership of the College Republicans that I spoke to make logical sense, but are altogether rather unsatisfying since those problems could have easily been fixed in the years during which these problems have plagued and impeded the organization. If turnout was dismal when members were only notified of events through email, then they should have diversified their efforts to reach out to boost attendance by using other methods to reach out to members. If turnout for leadership elections was similarly dismal when conducted through the organization’s email, then the leadership should have either called a physical meeting to elect new officers or investigated the email problem. In this writer’s estimation, the true problem within the College Republicans is either corruption or incompetence, neither of which should be tolerated by the members of this organization. In conclusion, the present situation within the College Republicans at Washington and Lee is concerning to say the least, and if the email problem is not solved and if the majority of the members of the organization continue to allow their chapter to atrophy under the auspices of the those now in power, then the future of the College Republicans seems darker still.