Students avoid party-affiliated organizations

Two students talk to each other, one accompanied by a donkey, another by an elephant.
Illustration by Ara Vickers

Lewis & Clark has a reputation for being a liberal college campus. However, it has had a history of low partisan political engagement, which is fairly equally divided between Democratic and Republican groups.

The assumption that the college is left-leaning is not unfounded. According to the first-ever PioPoll conducted by The Pioneer Log regarding the U.S. Presidential Election, 93.3% of respondents are registered as Democrats and 2.1% are registered as Republicans. The poll collected 298 responses from students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni. 

Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Gaskins categorizes the political divide on campus differently than the national divide.

“At least from my experience in the classroom, the political divide tends to be more (between) the classic liberal, center-left kind of approach, and more of the Bernie Sanders, democratic socialist approach, the people more to the left,” Gaskins said. “That seems to be a lot of the dynamic that I have seen, but there are conservatives on campus.”

Compared to colleges nationally, LC seems to be more liberal. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that in 2017, students at four-year colleges and universities were on average 4% far left, 32.2% liberal, 41.4% middle of the road, 20.4% conservative and 2% far right. 

Gaskins also characterizes LC’s political engagement as issue-specific. While he said this is not unique to Generation Z, the campus is less engaged in partisan politics than many other colleges.

“There is a huge lack of partisan political activity on campus,” Gaskins said. “People are passionate about politics and policy and rights and freedoms and liberties and being an activist for the causes they believe in. But there’s a lot of cynicism towards the two-party system and being associated with it.”

Gaskins noted that while he has been at the college, he has seen issue-specific clubs like Students Engaged in Eco-Defense (SEED) and the new Prison Abolition Club gain popularity. In terms of partisan groups, several iterations of College Democrats and College Republicans have been established in the past decade.

LC College Democrats Co-President Mary Welch ’22 has seen this as a challenge for the club’s engagement.

“At least in the near historic, we’ve been considered a very liberal college, but also one of the colleges that while we are sort of like focused on social issues, we tend to not focus on elections as much,” Welch said.

The most recent chapter of LC College Democrats was founded in 2016 by Emma Kaftan-Luckerman ’19 and Daniel Koster ’20. In 2018, several members attended the College Democrats of America Convention in Washington, D.C. Later that same year, the club hosted Oregon’s Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and State Rep. Andrea Salinas. The group was fairly inactive in 2019 and 2020, up until this election season. The group is advised by Gaskins. 

LC College Republicans has seen a similar pattern of fluctuating activity. Co-Presidents Asher Kalman ’18 and Bradley Davis ’18 refounded the LC chapter in 2014, which was also advised by Gaskins. Lincoln Boyd ’15, president of the Associated Students of Lewis & Clark (ASLC) at the time, also played a key role in founding the club. Davis and Boyd attended the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Washington, D.C. in 2015. LC College Republicans has not been active after Kalman and Davis graduated.

Gaskins was surprised at the lack of partisan clubs when he first came to campus.

“(College Democrats) was dormant when I came onto campus,” Gaskins said. “I couldn’t believe that the College Democrats weren’t the main game, driving political discussion on campus.”

With such a low conservative presence, some students have raised concerns about creating a “hostile environment” for students who may be Republican or conservative. A hostile environment would be characterized by conservative students losing friends, suffering social consequences and being ostracized in class because of their political views.

LC College Democrats Social Media Manager Cass Orr ’24, however, believes that opposing views would be welcome on campus.

“One of the greatest appeals of being here is that everyone’s very open to different opinions,” Orr said. “And so, although I haven’t heard that opinion voiced … I would greet that opinion with open arms, even if I do disagree.”

Gaskins, however, believes that many students on the right, or even centrists, opt to “self-censor” themselves in the classroom.

“I do think, to some degree, there is an environment that incentivizes conservatives to keep hidden,” Gaskins said. “Even some more centrist liberals are perhaps hesitant because they are worried about being shoved down or criticized by the more activist left for not being fully on board with their causes.”

Gaskins considers most of the Republicans on campus to be more in line with former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, rather than President Donald Trump. However, the five PioPoll respondents who said they are registered Republicans said they are also voting for Trump. 

Gaskins encourages more partisan political engagement on campus.

“I was really disappointed that the parties weren’t more active, because when I was an undergrad, they were incredibly active, and they would combat each other, and it was a very vibrant environment,” Gaskins said. “One of my goals, one of my greatest desires is to really have an active partisan environment where these groups are doing political events, where they’re making their cases for their parties, in a way that has a free exchange of ideas, but also room for critical evaluation of the role of parties and politicians in our politics.”

LC College Democrats said they are also interested in “free exchange of ideas” with a conservative group on campus. 

“I definitely would love to do events with a more conservative or centrist club,” Welch said. “We’ve actually talked about it in the past and lamented the fact that we don’t have someone to do that with. I would definitely be interested in that because I think Republicans get a bad name.”

Orr agrees. She said political engagement and voter outreach is more important than specifically Democratic outreach.

“We want everyone to have their voice heard, because we’ve just gone through so many years of either people not participating, or people just not interested when this isn’t a time for us to not be interested,” Orr said. “We should all be interested in politics right now. Not even for our own sake, but for our neighbors and for our loved ones.”

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