The College Democrats, long a staple of campus politics but relatively inactive in recent years, has been revived this year under new leadership. However, despite a lengthy history under the name of the Garfield Republican Club, a right-leaning counterpart to the College Democrats remains absent.
Essence Perry ’22 and Argenis Herrera ’22, the new co-presidents of the College Democrats, told the Record that they both wanted to get involved in politics upon coming to the College, but found no effective outlet to do so. “I think both of us were seeing that people here didn’t really have the opportunity to participate in politics in a positive way,” said Perry, “and really engage with the political process, and have the opportunity to do so more than just vote.”
According to Herrera, the previous iteration of the College Democrats was sparse enough that the new leaders largely had to begin from scratch. The process of rebuilding the club “started with trying to find the traces of the last iteration of the College Democrats, which was kind of hard – we didn’t really find that much,” he said.
Jim Mahon, professor of political science and the College Democrats’ faculty advisor, stated that, while the current organization is branching out in new ways, he did not believe it to have been struggling in previous years either. “I didn’t get the impression that it was anything but vital when [the former co-presidents] were leading it,” he said. “In my experience, the organization’s level of activity depends more on the electoral calendar than on the leadership.”
Perry said of last year’s College Democrats that “they were kind of active at the beginning of last year, but a lot of the people went abroad, so it dropped off.”
“The process [of restarting the organization] was really easy,” Perry continued. “We had a good group from the start, so I think that made it really easy to restart and get people excited.” The organization has already hosted several events and is planning more, including inviting Shannon Liss-Riordan, a candidate for the United States Senate in Massachusetts, to the College.
Despite this activity on the campus’ left wing, however, the College Democrats lacks a Republican equivalent on campus. Currently, the only student organization dedicated to conservative politics is the Society for Conservative Thought, founded in 2017 by John DiGravio ’21 and Christian Lockwood ’20.
According to its website, the Society is “a non-partisan student organization dedicated to providing an academic space where students can freely engage with the conservative intellectual tradition of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.” Lockwood emphasized that the organization is “nonpartisan in every capacity. We do not talk about political or policy matters during our meetings.”
The Society for Conservative Thought and the College Democrats are frequently positioned as each other’s opposites, but the two clubs’ missions diverge greatly. Despite this strange situation, Perry said that the two organizations have a harmonious relationship. “Officially they’re a nonpartisan group,” she said, “so there really isn’t much contention there. They’ve been really willing to collaborate on many projects.”
Lockwood concurred, although he noted that the Society’s nonpartisan mission limited the potential for interaction. “We are going in with the best of intentions and everything,” he said, “but we simply cannot be partisan, and so that very much limits how much we can interact with a partisan group.”
While the College does not currently host any Republican organization, it was once home to the robust and long-lived Garfield Republican Club, which lasted for decades before fading out of existence during the 2000s.
Bob Howie ’90, who was president of the club during his time at the College, said that in his era both the Republican and Democratic clubs on campus were active but neither were especially sought-after. “I don’t think either organization was either popular or influential, but neither were they reviled,” he said. “People were more likely to join clubs for causes than the ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ clubs at that time.”
According to Howie, the Garfield Republicans were both politically and intellectually focused. “We tried to organize events and bring outside speakers to campus of a more conservative philosophy,” he said. “We also worked on voter registration activities and campaign work – mostly (as I recall) during the 1988 Presidential election – when we did things like setting up information tables with fliers in Baxter.”
Michael Lewis, professor of art history and former faculty advisor for the Garfield Republican Club, told the Record that in the 1990s the club “met in Dodd’s dining room, and usually drew about 20 students. It always began with the Pledge of Allegiance. The flag was unfurled, which often drew stunned looks from the other students in the room, and then the meeting opened,” he said.
The end date of the original Garfield Republican Club is difficult to determine. Darel Paul, professor of political science and current faculty advisor to the Society for Conservative Thought, said that he thought “it went defunct in the late 2000s and was then revived only to die out again by 2013 or so.”
Lewis similarly could not recall when the club died out. “My feeling is that you won’t find any document dissolving the club,” he said. “You will find a meeting, and you will find it’s the last recorded meeting, but you won’t definitively know if there wasn’t some meeting after that. It’s hard to know when things [end].”
A second revival was attempted in the 2016-2017 school year under the name “The Williams College Republicans Club,” but it was never recognized as a registered student organization and faded away soon after. That club’s constitution said its mission was to “inform the Williams community of the virtues of conservative values and policies [and] serve as a friendly channel of intelligent political conversation for all Williams students.”
Lewis, Paul and Mahon each had their own theories about why the Garfield Republican Club disappeared and its successors failed. Lewis attributed it to a dispersion of conservative perspectives in other organizations. “It seems as if there is a certain amount of cultural conservative energy, and it goes into Uncomfortable Learning, the Society for Conservative Thought [or] Williams Catholic,” he said. “It’s interesting how they all serve as surrogates for the Republican club.”
For Mahon, on the other hand, the answer was simple: Trump. “I’m guessing that Trump has tarnished the brand on many campuses,” he said. “That’s too bad, not only for Republicans (for whom my heart bleeds), but also for us when we want to put on bipartisan events in election seasons.”
Paul believed it was campus culture that made a College Republicans club unsustainable. “The dominant position of wokeness within student culture has made this social challenge especially acute for any students who might hypothetically want to revive the Garfield Republican Club,” he said.
“Thanks not only to Trump but also to the general tenor of campus life at this time in history, an organized Republican presence at Williams is surely stone dead now,” Paul said.