College Democrats foster political interest, try to get Willamette out of echo chamber
Willamette University’s College Democrats (CD) is headed by President Gus Gunter (‘23), an International Studies major and Vice President Andrew Hull (‘23), a Politics, Policy, Law and Ethics (PPLE) major and Math and Economics minor, as well as an executive council that, according to Gunter, “has a very diverse view of political opinions that do skew a little more left than the median voter.”
When asked about the student organization and their roles as a whole, Gunter responded that it “is a student organization that provides space for students with any political beliefs from liberal to social democratic to congregate and discuss political subjects.” He defined College Democrats as an official Subdivision of the Oregon College Democrats organization and of the national College Democrats organization. The club participates in events that fall under these organizations including voter registration drives, phone banking during election season and community engagement services such as handing out yard signs. He further added that these activities are dependent on elections, and thus that during downtime, they function as a space for discussion of interesting political subjects. As president, Gunter is generally the point of contact for any ASWU-related concerns, and if the club needs to decide what kind of topic they want to discuss, he is also the point of contact, but he emphasized that their cabinet tries, “not to have too much of a hierarchy.”
Hull said that one of their goals on campus is to “help students who are looking to vote, to be more informed about who to vote for,” further noting that in their freshman year with the lead up to the 2020 democratic presidential primaries, they hosted debate watch parties to allow people to see and get to know more about the candidates. As vice president, Hull focuses more on community engagement such as when he helped organize phone banking and outreach with candidates in the 2020 elections. He noted that it’s less important as a role this year because there isn’t much opportunity for community engagement and that more space for discussion on their roles might expand closer to November when they get requests from the Oregon and National Democrats Organizations.
Gunter added that one of the other big goals of the club is to not have an echo chamber, but to, “encourage a space for a healthy and respectful environment, actually fostering healthy discussion of complicated political issues.” The club itself consists of around seven to ten members who meet weekly, with membership being reduced due to no in-person meetings in the past few years. In the past, the club had up to forty people at least attending debate watch parties and other big events. Though meetings are generally happening in-person now, Hull noted that they follow a general rule of moving their meetings online if classes move online. Gunter further noted that the club has been “fairly healthy with Zoom phone banking” and other discussions on Zoom whenever restrictions are in place. Gunter said that things should get better moving forward and hopes that they can start to have debate watch parties in-person again.
One of the ways in which the club avoids an echo chamber is by having a diverse distribution of political identities in its members. Gunter mentioned that the most common self-identification for their club is somewhere in between liberal progressive, social progressivist, and democratic socialist. Depending on the meeting, there might be a few people who are a little bit more moderate liberal, or a few hard socialists. Hull added that most members would consider themselves socialists with a few who would consider themselves liberals. He commented that the club is “certainly welcome to those interested in politics who are willing to attend and engage in political discussion, assuming that they’re aware that it’s a space where most of us will generally be talking from a perspective where it’s central left to left wing” to which Gunter reiterated, “everyone is welcome as long as you aren’t disrespectful to anyone's basic human identity…we respect human dignity.”
Another way they accomplish this is by being familiar with and open to working with political clubs outside of their affiliation. When asked about the Student Solidarity Union (SSU), Gunter and Hull both said that they were not surprised that there is a new socialist-leaning club on campus, given how appealing an alternative-party club can be to a lot of people, especially those who are more leftist. Hull further noted that the SSU and CD are two clubs “focusing on different niches,” with his impression being that the SSU is more “local-oriented, working on more community involvement,” whereas the CD is more electorally-oriented and more keen on supporting electoral campaigns.” Concerning their relationship with other political clubs on campus, Gunter noted that previously they have interacted with the College Republicans (CR) before it was [disaffiliated] because the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) preferred that they did things together to seem more bipartisan (ASWU allocated funding for things like the voter registration drive) and there were members from CR that they regularly coordinated with. Despite the fact that they, “didn’t have a very extensive relationship for obvious reasons…Politically dissimilar goals,” both clubs were able to collaborate on voter registration and the hosting of debate parties. With SSU, they noted that they have not worked in an official capacity with them yet given that the club was founded this year and that there has been a lack of verbalized interest on both of their ends. However, CD is, in fact, willing to work with SSU if an opportunity to collaborate presents itself.
College Democrats has a history of being inactive, but it was revived by the former president and vice president of the club in Gunter and Hulls’ freshman year. Concerning the reason for its inactivity, Gunter noted that “Willamette is a very liberal campus, there are some people who are left of liberal, some are leftist, some conservative, the nominal person is a liberal/liberal progressive, so there isn’t generally a demand for a political space for that niche.”
Concerning what kind of change they would like to see at Willamette University (WU), Gunter, stressing that these are his personal opinions and not the official position of the club, noted that one thing that frustrates him occasionally is when students fall for popular misinformation if it has “good vibes and catchy pastel coloring,” and that he wishes that people would check their sources more. Further, he mentioned that he would really like to see the administration have a “more transparent equity process,” noting that WU has had issues with providing transparency and clearness especially when it comes to equity concerns and complaints, giving an example of wheelchair-accessible and disability-accessible doors being broken up to a month at a time as in Lausanne. He further added that the administration has a policy of talking about it and then waiting for students to forget about it, and that “Willamette students tend to have a short memory about outrages on campus.” Hull stated that one thing that could help in regards to driving more change is that, “Willamette is already a more politically engaged campus than a lot of other American college campuses so we’re starting with a head start there,” and Gunter agreed.
Regarding what they wish was different about the American political climate today in general, Gunter expressed frustration in seeing the news or political rhetoric where there is an assumption that both parties are equal members of the system. He is also frustrated by the mass amnesia that often occurs in the national media, for example how the nation tends to forget things like the Capitol rioters. On that note, Hull added that he was “disheartened by the fact that the Republican party has not wholeheartedly denounced the actions of the rioters in January.” Gunter added that Oregon has an incredibly significant paramilitary element to its radical conservatism and that he has had to explain this risk to freshman students who belong to marginalized groups because there might be literal fascist street gangs who want to hurt them. Hull added that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on maintaining democratic norms, and further stated that there are lots of ways in which the US system is inherently anti-democratic. He gave the example that a lot of the politicians who supported the overturning the results of the elections have still been doing very well in fundraising and in a lot of ways have been welcomed back into mainstream politics, establishing a normalization of intense anti-democratic behavior that is “dangerous to the continued health of democracy and the general health of the nation.”
On how the internet has shifted political discourse, Hull noted that the internet has been a double-edged sword with immense positives, especially as it allows people to be more informed about politics, while also harboring a lot of negatives. Hull added that the discussion around elections on the internet makes the political climate more about the spectacle of who’s going to win, rather than on the actual policies and implications of various politicians. Specifically, he said: “viewing politics as a game where you hope your team wins, as opposed to a method for governing your country and improving the wellbeing of everyone in the nation and abroad is detrimental to the quality of discourse and the quality of politics.”
When asked about Gunter’s new status as an ASWU senator and how his background in political leadership would inform his decision-making and rhetorical strategies during ASWU council meetings, he echoed a lot of Hull’s previous sentiments by stating that his position generally on ASWU is that it isn’t real politics, but rather a student government that serves as a place for students to get funding and support for student activities, and also to voice concerns that can be brought to the proper administrative body. He emphasized that, “We are here to help the students, not to govern the students”- something he wishes more ASWU senators would take to heart.
Their meetings focus on topics that the executive team decides on, with the conversation later shifting to current topics, an example of which was the meeting on Feb. 2 which focused on the escalating conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The meeting took the form of a preliminary introduction of those present, a following introduction to the topic, an open discussion between all attendees of the meeting where they also made use of online news articles, and finally a time for open questions from the audience. These meetings happen at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in Ford 202. If you’re politically engaged, or simply interested in discussions about current politics, they’d love to have you. When asked if there was anything else he’d like the broader campus to keep in mind about their club, Gunter wanted to reiterate that it, “doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is, if you want to have an in-depth discussion on whatever wild and zany political things are happening each week, we will try to provide that for you.”