While President Obama’s inauguration was an obvious sign this week that the country will be getting more progressive in the coming years, there was some quiet foreshadowing accompanying the festivities that bore witness to just how progressive the nation can be.

In the 2008 CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman Survey, an annual survey of the nation’s incoming college students administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, respondents identified themselves as “liberals” at a rate not seen in several decades. But, as we know, they’re not sitting on the political sidelines — far from it. This group of freshmen is more politically engaged than any other freshman class in the last 40 years.

From the survey’s website:

College freshman [sic] are more politically engaged today than at any point during the last 40 years, with 89.5 percent reporting that they frequently or occasionally discussed politics in the last year, according to UCLA’s annual survey of the nation’s entering students at four-year institutions.

The portion of incoming freshmen who frequently discussed politics in the last year – 35.6 percent – surpasses the 33.6 percent level recorded in 1968, itself a 40-year high mark of student political engagement. The 2008 level was also higher than in other recent presidential election years, including 1992 (29.7 percent), when Bill Clinton was elected, the survey found.


An increase was also seen in the proportion of students who characterize themselves as liberal, which reached its highest level in 35 years in 2008, at 31.0 percent. The percentage of incoming students who characterize themselves as politically middle-of-the-road, however, has seen a steady decline and in 2008 reached an all-time low of 43.3 percent, roughly the same percentage as in 1970. One in five students (20.7 percent) identified themselves as conservative in 2008, down from 23.1 percent in 2007.

These numbers seem to indicate that parties are headed toward another golden age. The “party period” in American history sets the standard:

The period from 1840 to 1890 has been labeled “the party period” and “the golden age of parties” because the major political parties (Democrats and Whigs until the mid-1850s, then Democrats and Republicans) were the strongest they have been in American history. Party leaders used patronage and campaign practices that aroused partisan enthusiasm to gain wide membership and keep them loyal and active. It worked. Voter turnout during this period was the highest in American history: between 70 and 80 percent for presidential elections and sometimes higher in state and local contests.

Throughout history, we’ve learned that increased polarization leads to increased participation. While this particular survey only includes college students, history has proven the survey’s accuracy in representing political trends over the years. And so, with polarization and engagement up big among the young people questioned in this survey, political participation should stay sky-high for quite some time, given polarization’s connection with participation and the stickiness of youth voting habits.

However, we can’t solely rely on trends to be successful at shaping the future electorate. And this is where Tim Kaine’s chairmanship becomes so important. The “Party Period” described above was crafted by political machines, or local parties on steroids. In order to cultivate the partisanship that breeds participation, Tip O’Neill’s localism was channeled from the future. Community picnics, socials, and rallies were prevalent, all organized by the local party. Politics invaded many areas of everyday life; many citizens couldn’t avoid it even if they wanted to — and they didn’t. Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy, while certainly not a machine, made the Democratic Party more tangible to people. Suddenly Democrats were being locally organized everywhere, and whether citizens agreed with them or not, they couldn’t keep these newcomers from increasing the amount of political rhetoric and debate in their communities. Consequently, many more people were forced to process political ideas, leading to some sort of political identification that wouldn’t have been there prior to Dean’s chairmanship.

With the party four years into a transformational strategy and with a titanic generation sympathizing with liberalism at a record rate, the stage is set for the Democratic Party to define politics for a generation. But the party needs to milk this trend for all that it’s worth. Dean’s localism should be strengthened, incorporating increasing numbers of people into the party by becoming socially active, whether it’s through volunteer work, sponsoring community events, maintaining a presence at as many small-town fairs and parades as possible, and of course, continuing to allocate dollars to regional parties that atrophied during the last third of the 20th Century.

Finally, Democrats (especially the Obama administration) need to avoid at all costs the idea that youth should be relegated to service; youth should be heavily involved in the party’s strategic planning and day-to-day operations. More on that to come soon.