When I arrived on campus at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, over 300 miles away from home, the political scene was completely dead. It was late 2019, and the Democratic primary race was in full swing, but neither College Democrats nor College Republicans were anywhere to be found. It wasn’t until a full semester had passed that, by chance, student political life on campus would have new life breathed into it. This came in the form of two nationally-organized conservative student organizations: Turning Point USA and Students for Trump. After their founding and subsequent dive into activism on campus, interest in political involvement exploded. Within two semesters, the membership of Students for Trump rose to nearly 200, two new conservative organizations were formed, two were revitalized, and even the College Democrats consolidated in time for the election in November.
While, yes, the introduction of these chartered organizations with steady funding and available materials opened the door to this political renaissance on my campus, I’ve never been fully convinced that it was these factors alone that actually resulted in the current atmosphere. Indeed, it was College Republicans, a generally similar, funded-from-the-top group that had gone dormant before these populist, enthusiastic clubs sprang up; resources and opportunity were clearly not the only keys to ensure prosperity, and outside observers would be mistaken to attribute success with such.
Take, for example, Turning Point USA as a whole. Claiming to have representation on 1,000 university campuses in 2017, a later report found that only 400 chapters were officially registered and, even then, many were inactive on their Facebook pages. Considering, if we take Charlie Kirk at his word, that the drop-off in “active” chapters’ accounts for more than half of the total, Tennessee’s chapter seems incredibly lucky—they started in earnest and, even after two-and-a-half semesters and a foregone presidential election, are still holding regular meetings and acquiring new members.
Students for Trump have equally relevant problems. In the run-up to the 2016 election, the then-young organization boasted an impressive 300 chapters. Following Trump’s victory however, with their mission essentially complete, they quickly floundered: many chapters were disbanded, went inactive, or were absorbed by other campus groups with national leadership mostly halting communication. As President Trump faced re-election and the venture was acquired by the umbrella of Turning Point Action, this cycle repeated. Prior to the relaunch party in August 2019, Students for Trump received 2,500 inquiries about starting chapters at Division I universities; after the election completed (and it certainly didn’t help that Trump lost), chapters have again lost their momentum. For instance, The Brown Daily Herald has reported their campus’s organization is now inactive, with its leadership being “fine with disbanding the club.” Here in Knoxville, unfortunately, a similar situation is occurring.
With this context, it becomes clear that indeed, national support structures are not necessarily the answer to addressing political inactivity on university campuses. Instead, I posit that the more important component necessary to creating a successful and sustainable political atmosphere is enthusiasm and an emphasis on grassroots organization. Simply maintaining a presence goes a long way in inspiring others to do the same—with the introduction of these clubs on our campus, led by people who simply wanted to be seen (and be seen often) espousing their political opinions, leadership changes in dormant groups were quickly enacted by the end of the semester. As the next academic year started, our conservative organizations were even mostly united under a new coalition, which has worked to keep activity up and since brought two new clubs into the fold.
Engagement and involved leadership, in short, is the solution to woes suffered by both chartered and independent student organizations. It is fallacious to bank on support from above to keep one’s venture afloat, and from my research detailed here, eventually many of these organizations fall into periods of vampiric hibernation, still able to aid their larger support structures despite inactivity. The only antidote for this phenomenon is activity, and from the experience the University of Tennessee has had over the past year, the proof is in the pudding.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.