“The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” – Plato
To make a contribution to society: that is what we want. We get an education, develop interests and seek new answers—all because we want to positively impact the world during our lifetimes.
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” Howard Zinn wrote. You have to be political; the political is personal. Whether or not you are conscious of it, you impact the world everyday you wake up. How your taxes and other resources are allocated, what kind of social standing you will have, and almost every social condition that determines your everyday life, is determined by politics.
While some do not wait to graduate college to work for (or against) political change, many students across the world are making use of their education, experience and the network they developed as undergraduates, to take positions of power.
One way to influence society and achieve change is to run for office. Given the changes in candidacy age restrictions, the doors to public office have been widened to younger people. For instance, Zach Vruwink, a 24-year-old and UW – Stevens Point graduate in Political Science and Public Administration, just won the April 3 election for mayor of Wisconsin Rapids.
“I am interested in running for office, its just a matter of when and where,” said Patrick Testin, a former UWSP student, student senator and president of the College Republicans.
“I have found that many people in city, county, and state politics started on campus,” said Jay Burseth, a former student body president and Political Science and History double major at UW – Milwaukee. “Chris Larson, for example, who is my state senator here in Milwaukee, ran for the same office I held at UWM just four years before me. Sachin Chheda, who is the Chair of the Milwaukee Democratic Party, used to run campaigns at UWM.”
“I suspect the ultra-conservative and malicious people I ran against at UWM will pop up again in state politics. Many were very open about how they were using UWM as a start to move on to other, larger elected positions,” Burseth pondered. “This idea frightens me.”
Self-identified young conservatives tend to be distrustful of government and politicians; on the other side of the spectrum, many young progressives and radicals forego running for office—which can be overly dramatic and undeniably superficial—as a means to enact social change.
“There are many roles so-called ‘radicals’ can play in society. It is important to have these people in positions as journalists, educators, elected officials, etc.,” Burseth said. “I have found that when people I agree with politically don’t run for office or don’t take a serious role in combating power, then other, power-hungry and corrupt folks take those positions.”
Burseth thinks that while political office is unappealing, there is no other choice. “I know far too many great activists and organizers who have resorted to bartending, when maybe elected officials of both parties are better suited for these types of jobs.”
The question on social change denotes a change in the characteristics of society and culture; therefore, political victories must expand beyond the legal system. Artists and musicians can sway public opinion.
Johnathan Predaina, who was the student senate president at UW – Platteville last year, sees a value to different approaches to enacting change, such as journalism. However, journalism degrees are next to worthless, and that industry retains a level of elitism despite digitally based openings.
“Personally I’m going into academia to be a Tech-Ed teacher to keep classes here relevant to the 21st century, keeping our children up to speed with emerging technologies,” he said.
But, while universities are prime places for political organizing and action, academia is an institution of exploitation just as any other. Graduate schools do not produce independent thinkers and innovators, but a cheap pool of status-conscious adjuncts who will satisfy market demands. The exhausting workload and status-conscious environment might also be disengaging.
“Movements are the voice of the people, independently thinking. Academics are teaching to the test because they’re forced to if they want to get more funding to do more innovative teaching… but it’s hard to say this new teaching will be better. Politicians can be swayed by ‘investors,’ public and private, because they like what they have and would like to stay in office,” Predaina asserted.
In all, a combination of people willing to organize within and outside of the political system is the most effective means of changing society. “I’m not sure which I’d place over the other,” said Predaina of the different paths to social change. “Radical organizing has a huge part and has played a significant impact in Wisconsin this past year, as we’ve seen.”
“I see it as a cycle with feedback. You need all of them,” said Matthew Guidry, a UWSP graduate and former member of student government.