The weeks leading up to election night Nov. 6 saw a flurry of political activity on campus, with guest speakers and debates, watch parties and students streaking on the Main Green in patriotic spirit. But now that the November election season is over, the political fervor that once gripped campus seems to have drifted back into an atmosphere of political complacency or even indifference. It is as if members of the collective student body is thinking: “Obama’s been re-elected – now what?”
To answer this question, Sam Gilman ’15, Andrew Kaplan ’15 and Heath Mayo ’13, a Herald opinions columnist, co-founded the newest bipartisan political group on campus, Common Sense Action, a grassroots organization with a mission to mobilize young voters to political action.
The idea for the group was conceived last summer, when Gilman worked for a bipartisan policy center in Washington, D.C. “I realized that a whole generation of Americans were growing up not exposed to the other side of (politics),” Gilman said.
Concerned about the policy issues that most youth remain ignorant about, he recruited Kaplan and Mayo to create a group that would focus on bringing the youth voice to bipartisan politics and launched the initiative in the beginning of November.
The three are all self-described “principled partisans.” Gilman is an Independent, Kaplan is a Democrat and Mayo is a Republican – but they found they shared many ideas on how to improve political policy.
The team sought to foster diversity in the group, bringing a greater variety of ideas and opinions to the issues they faced. The first topic they addressed was the economy.
According to Common Sense Action’s website, “by amassing 17 trillion dollars in debt and failing to invest in nation building, (the government is) mortgaging the future to pay for the past and present.”
“By 2020, the United States will be paying $1 trillion in interest alone,” Kaplan said.
“As youth, we all have common goals,” Gilman said. “We want the same American promise that our parents had, that our grandparents had, for us and the future generations.”
One way that the organization is raising awareness is through their document, “Contract with the Future.” They will be organizing their second semester goals around the Contract, a manifesto that students can sign to show their support and express their interest in the group’s goals.
Gilman and Kaplan said they have already made their presence known on campus, holding weekly meetings and discussing various political ideas and plans for the coming months with different students each meeting. They plan to use their website, as well as Facebook and other social media platforms, to spread word on campus.
“We are grassroots, not grass-tops,” Kaplan said, meaning Common Sense Action seeks the opinions of all members regardless of leadership status within the group.
The core leadership group comprises 12 students who take turns holding meetings and conducting one-on-one interviews with other students to learn about their political views and what they would like to see the government accomplish.
The founders described a typical meeting as relaxed and informal, starting off with an icebreaker activity. Common Sense Action aims to encourage interaction within the group and facilitate meaningful relationships that transcend partisan lines, Gilman said. Common Sense Action members in the meetings answer personal questions such as “What are your dreams and goals?” and “What do you want to accomplish in the future?”
It isn’t until after these check-ins that the conversation transitions toward politics. “How can the government help you accomplish your dreams?” is a common preliminary question that inevitably leads to more discussion among Common Sense members.
Gilman acknowledged that the group has “principled disagreements, but there’s always a level of respect.”
Perhaps that’s because of the environment that Common Sense Action fosters, and maybe it’s also partly because of the open-mindedness of the student population at the University, the founders said.
“It’s important to analyze both sides of a debate,” said Justin Braga ’16, a member of both Common Sense Action and the Brown Republicans. “There are people (in the organization) who obviously disagree with me, but I respect that.”
Elizabeth Pollock, assistant director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center, has been working with the team since its inception and said she is optimistic about the effectiveness of bipartisan cooperation.
“One thing that I know (the founders) believe is important is focusing on the issues where principled Independents, Democrats and Republicans can find common ground and setting aside the issues in which they will never find common ground,” she said.
The organization has recruited a motley team of students from all political affiliations, from Libertarians to Socialists and everything in between. They have spoken to members of all the political groups, collecting input on the issues that are important to youth.
“It’s useful to encourage people to become interested and become involved (in politics),” said Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus and adjunct professor of engineering and entrepreneurship, who has advised the group on the proposal for the organization. “When only half of the country is voting, there’s something wrong.”
Sofia Fernandez Gold ’14, president of the Brown University Democrats, said she would be happy to collaborate with Common Sense Action in the future. “The Brown Democrats always strive to be the best members of the political community that we can,” she said. “Encouraging people to discuss politics is always a good thing,” she added.
In the long term, the group wishes to bring the youth voice to the policy-making table, as well as reduce extremism and advocate bipartisanism in the government, Kaplan said. Through online video and picture campaigns, their goal is to encourage not just politically-minded students, but also students who may not be studying the humanities, such as future engineers or doctors, to come out and support the cause.
“Anyone with student loans can relate,” Gilman said. “We need to have a voice in shaping solutions.”