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Promoting Politics: Iowa caucuses prompt action on campus

By Sally Jongsma

Many colleges and universities have a Young Republicans or Young Democrats club on campus. Dordt has had such clubs in the past. But this election year’s version has a different name: The Non-Partisan Political Club.

Several hundred community people, students, and professors came to listen to and ask questions of Senator John McCain when he visited campus this fall.

Several hundred community people, students, and professors came to listen to and ask questions of Senator John McCain when he visited campus this fall.

“Our goal is to educate students about the political process and about issues in the campaign,” says student organizer Dustin Gritters, a senior political studies major from Pella, Iowa. He, along with others, is trying to create a climate in which the campus community can have a healthy conversation about the broad range of issues that are important for our society. One of the ways Gritters and the club are doing this is by bringing presidential candidates of both parties to campus so that students can get a firsthand idea of what candidates believe and support.

“There’s a lot of apathy about politics and the political process,” says Gritters, attributing some of that apathy to the length of the campaign. And there is some cynicism about politicians in general, he adds. But he believes that this election is so important in determining how we interact with the rest of the world and how we are perceived by others that he wants to help reduce such apathy.

Bringing Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain to campus in October helped create the kind of atmosphere Gritters is looking for. As a Republican, McCain automatically draws a sympathetic audience on Dordt’s campus, where the majority of people consider themselves Republicans.

Professor Donald King, who teaches political studies and is advisor to the club, says that McCain, because of who he is, was able to engage the audience, communicating well and doing a better than average job of explaining how his beliefs and values shape his stand on issues.

“Students said afterward, ‘I kind of like him even though I don’t agree with everything he said,’” says King. Such candidates help break down the stereotype that all politicians are only willing to spout the party line. King appreciated the fact that McCain didn’t capitalize on the fact that he was on a Christian college campus and only address moral issues that would be safe in this setting. As a result conversations about issues like the economy, climate change, and the war could be discussed openly.

The club hopes to promote more opportunities to examine issues as represented by all candidates and, in some cases, issues not being addressed by anyone. In fact part of the motivation for the club was to find ways to discuss issues that aren’t being addressed by the candidates or the media. Students who formed the club were interested in politics and public policy and excited about the opportunity that having the first caucuses in the nation gives for involvement in the political process. They knew from King that, in the past, candidates like George H. W. Bush, Jack Kemp, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and Michael Dukakis among others had come to campus. To promote cross-party conversation, the club also hosted some of the televised debates of each party—although these events don’t draw as well as candidate visits do.

Republican candidate Ron Paul spoke to a crowd of people on December 4, characterizing himself as an advocate of a strict interpretation of the constitution. He answered questions put to him by attendees.

Republican candidate Ron Paul spoke to a crowd of people on December 4, characterizing himself as an advocate of a strict interpretation of the constitution. He answered questions put to him by attendees.

Gritters believes that a non-partisan club offers a way to talk about issues in a more civil setting—even if people think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

For his part, Gritters says, he’d prefer to identify himself as a Christian first and then make his political choices based on specific issues by looking at the issues and by educating himself on candidates' positions. As the election gets closer. the club plans to share some of their “homework” with other students who are interested

King applauds the work of the club and encourages his students to not think of themselves as belonging first of all to one party. Although he sees the apathy Gritters mentions, he also believes that more of his students today are willing to think about issues from a non-partisan perspective and focus on the issues instead of the person. Based on what he reads, he says his experience seems to match what others are finding: students are more open to thinking about issues and less likely to adopt what they’ve heard all of their lives. That’s good if they are grounded in a strong Christian worldview and are truly interested in justice in society, he believes.

King also acknowledges that the year may have something to do with people’s willingness to be less partisan.

“I don’t hear the same kind of enthusiastic support for one candidate that people like Reagan or Bush received,” he says, adding that Democratic candidates leading the pack are also less experienced. “It will be interesting to see what the turnout will be at the caucuses.” He is disappointed, though, that the Iowa caucuses will be held this year on January 3, before students return to campus, robbing those from other states of the opportunity to participate in politics at a grass roots level.