College has long been fertile ground for political organizing. Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and the Young Americans for Freedom have used college campuses as spaces for ideological debate and action, influencing the development of both left and right-wing politics in the process. This tradition of student-organized political groups is still prevalent in the contemporary campus culture of USC. Garnet Gate abounds with groups representing all sides of the aisle, and Greene Street tablers comment upon today’s issues through posters and debate panels. Campus discourse has continued from these early student movements to the present day, but with the perpetual tensions underlying debate, ideological conflict is a foregone conclusion.
Last semester, the USC branch of Turning Point USA hosted “Let's Talk About Transgenderism,” an open-mic event dedicated to discussing “transgenderism.” Some students, believing the event to have a transphobic slant, counter-protested by attending and offering strong rebukes to Turning Point’s perceived anti-trans stance. The intensity of the ensuing debate displayed the influence of USC’s political organizations as a single event was able to bring nationwide tension surrounding gender identity to a conference room in the Russell House. USC’s Turning Point USA branch did not respond to the request for an interview.
How do USC’s political organizations bring debate to campus through their operations? How do they approach the ideological flashpoints of modern America? Thomas, a member of the College Republicans, Eggs, a member of the Carolina Socialists, and the executive team of the USC Young Americans for Freedom all commented on these issues through their interviews.
On-campus political organizations serve lots of purposes. They often act as representative groups, providing outposts for ideologies that might be underrepresented in mainstream campus conversations. Eggs mentioned how the Carolina Socialists “offers a space outside of the two-party system that can often dominate political discourse on campus.” Likewise, Thomas commented on how the presence of conservative advocacy groups like the College Republicans can “show like-minded students that their beliefs are not wrong,” thus building political solidarity.
Campus organizations also encourage intellectual growth by educating their members about their political perspectives. According to their executives, the YAF seeks “to promote the values of republicanism and constitutionalism” through the discussion and study of foundational governmental texts, such as the Federalist Papers and the Constitution. From the YAF execs' perspective, this type of study allows their members “to develop the skills necessary to vindicate and defend the true spirit of republican government.” Although these groups have political differences, one of their common aims is to facilitate political change through education or action. Thomas said that College Republicans members “focus their efforts in order to make a difference.” Eggs said that Carolina Socialists “have a space to work towards shared goals.” The YAF executive board said that Young Americans for Freedom lays “the infrastructure to make a long-term difference.”
Political organizations use these purposes as the guidelines for their operations, causing lots of variability in group executive structure. Eggs said that the Carolina Socialists, for example, are “horizontally organized, so no one has precedent over anyone else when it comes to events or content we plan.” Instead of following traditional executive structure, the Carolina Socialists use a system of “point-people” that manage specific tasks.
“If it’s a weekly meeting, we have someone suggest a presentation topic, our social media point person typically produces a graphic and then it gets published online,” Eggs said.
Other groups, such as the College Republicans, follow a more traditional executive structure.
“We hold exec board meetings once a week where we figure out what next week’s goals and how to progress our bigger picture agenda,” Thomas commented.
The activities of these groups also vary. While some commonalities exist, such as the production of promotional content, tabling and maintaining social media pages, each group has a distinct method of outreach. Eggs discussed the Carolina Socialists’ usage of counterprotests to challenge ideas and force people “to recognize the humanity of the other side of the debate.”
“When homophobic preachers have come to visit campus to spread their hateful messages, CSOC [Carolina Socialists] is one of the groups that is almost always out there if we’re available,” Eggs said. “It is important to not let these people get the last word in and have their beliefs leave unchallenged.”
The College Republicans are notable for publishing written statements on their Instagram page that address real-world political developments. When writing these statements, Thomas said that “club leadership holds a meeting where we talk about how these political developments play into the policies and beliefs we have and want to see in America and how the club should treat the issue.”
The YAF operates more like a Socratic seminar by focusing primarily on discussion-based events instead of outward political promotion.
“We largely focus on organizing guest speakers from intellectuals and professors to share their beliefs with our club members,” said their executive team. “We also occasionally cooperate with other clubs or engage in public forums in order to spread the word about the importance of understanding political philosophy when discussing politics.”
In all of these cases, the organizations aim to move their beliefs into USC’s political discourse, an act that has wide-reaching impact on campus. Eggs stated that one of the aforementioned “homophobic preachers” later “said that he wasn’t returning to USC because of the response from students.” These actions also lead to the forming of connections among political advocacy groups. Thomas said that the College Republicans have “held a joint event with the other conservative organizations at USC to build a community of like minded individuals.” Similarly, the YAF executives brought up how they have participated in debates “with non-conservative groups such as the Free Speech Forum and the College Democrats.”
However, like many college campuses, USC is subject to political tension. These tensions serve as both challenges and opportunities for advocacy groups, a fact reflected by each group’s reaction to these tensions. Sometimes, political animosity can make outreach efforts more uncomfortable. Eggs described getting “weird looks or people trying to debate you” at tabling events due to the “stigma in the United States about outwardly referring to yourself as socialist,” adding that “you just get used to it” as members partake in more events. Cross-party group relations have also been damaged, as Thomas stated that there has been an increase of tension “between us [College Republicans] and far left political organizations at USC.”
Even though these shifts have had a high degree of influence on advocacy groups, they have all found ways to respond to tension. The College Republicans “try not to exacerbate the tension at USC,” according to Thomas, by trying to find common ground and promoting civility. The Young Americans for Freedom take a similar stance, with their executives arguing that tension should not be “navigated around but rather to be understood” by using the first principles of American government as a baseline for political discussion. Tension provides an opportunity for discussion, and discussion can lead to positive change.
How this discussion should look is a hotly-debated topic in both USC and American politics. The prevailing notion of “civility,” that being a set of agreed-upon parameters for debate to keep the conversation “polite,” has been examined and challenged, with some questioning whether politics can ever be a “civil” issue. In Eggs’ view, politics can and should not be “civil,” as “the personal is political.” They gave “Let's Talk About Transgenderism” as an example, stating that the meeting was inherently uncivil due to its rejection of the humanity of trans people. Others, however, believe “civility” is still possible and necessary in political debate. “We at USC College Republicans believe that all political discourse should be civil and properly debated,” Thomas said, adding that the College Republicans’ “civility” is “shown through the good relationship we built with the USC College Democrats.” The YAF board went even further, saying that “the very concept of political discourse necessitates civility.” From their perspective, the fact that “political authority is required for political power to be legitimate” makes civil discussion necessary.
“What distinguishes political authority from political power is that it rests upon the moral basis of natural right and the consent of the governed,” the YAF board said. “Accordingly, public opinion must serve as a conduit for the common good to establish this consent, thus necessitating civil discourse.”
Still, the exact role of “civility” and what the term entails is up for debate between USC’s political advocacy groups.
This notion of the necessity of debate is universal among USC’s political organizations, as these groups all use discussion to keep USC thinking. Through their posters, seminars, tables and protests, these organizations foster dialogue among students about the most salient issues of our time, challenging each to play an active role in our nation’s political processes. Above all they uphold the value of student self expression by affirming that students’ perspectives are as important as the perspectives of people in power. What is said on Greene Street, or posted on Instagram or discussed in a Russell House conference room reflects the opinions of America’s college students, and on campus political groups amplify these opinions through promotion and discussion. The motto of our university, a quotation from the Roman poet Ovid, states that “learning humanizes the character and does not permit it to be cruel.” Perhaps that is the promise of USC’s advocacy groups: empowering student voices discourages our government from cruelty.