You Can Plant the Grass Roots

What I’ve Learned from Working in Local Politics

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Conservative activists like me face many challenges, from staunchly liberal environs to the demands of schoolwork and jobs. But if you can keep the balance (and your grades up), activism provides many rewards—a deeper sense of citizenship, meaningful connections, and invaluable experience.

I have long cared about politics. But studying at Harvard with professors such as Harvey Mansfield has rooted my sentiments in the tradition of conservative thought. Edmund Burke was right to prefer gradual change restrained by tradition to radical innovation.
Friedrich Hayek correctly observed that free people are best served by free markets. And America’s leadership, though imperfect, offers the best hope of peace and prosperity. My convictions on these issues have only deepened as I have learned.

Although I’m from Ohio, in the fall of 2009 I registered in Massachusetts to vote for Senator Ted Kennedy’s replacement. Scott Brown’s surprise win inspired me to join the Cambridge Republican City Committee in 2010. Since then I’ve volunteered for local, regional, and statewide campaigns, and interned for a state legislator. In March 2012 I was elected to the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, where I help to develop new candidates for office.

Most of the other active campus conservatives I know have little interest in local politics. But especially for students, local or state-level politics offers you a better chance to make a difference. Big, national campaigns usually demand significant weekly time commitments. In local races, candidates are glad to take whatever time you’re able to give, and most of their headquarters are closer by.

Staying local means you might work on more, and more exciting, projects: when I was on Beacon Hill, I helped my boss write a bill. The small size of these offices and campaigns also means that you’ll get to spend more time around your candidate, from whom you can learn an amazing amount.

Sure, it can be challenging to juggle schoolwork, volunteering, and your social life. (It’s a good thing that most campaigns take Friday and Saturday nights off!) When it comes to class work, I force myself to make a weekly “to do” list and check off every box before I turn my attention to politics.

Even if you attend college in a very liberal region (as I do), conservative activism is still a viable option. There are far fewer college conservatives than liberals, which means that fewer potential interns are competing with you for slots with state legislators and local officials. Conservative groups in these regions also tend to be less organized, so enthusiastic young college students are always in high demand.

To maximize your impact, make an effort to learn about the results of the past election or two and the most pressing local issues. Attend some events and soak up as much as you can from those who are already active.

Despite the occasional frustrations, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my two and a half years working in local and state politics. It’s a great break from hitting the books, and I’ve met some amazing, hardworking, principled people. Why not call up a local campaign, or your local party committee or conservative group, and ask what you can do to help? I’m confident you’ll find it as manageable—and rewarding—as I have.

 

Michael Cowett, a senior at Harvard, is an IR contributing editor and editor emeritus of the Harvard Salient.