When I say “party at UNC,” you probably think of booze-soaked fraternity dudes doing morally questionable things with a keg, a hose and a funnel. Or maybe you think of scumbags who convene in large groups during a global pandemic because “haha, we’re in college, we’re supposed to have fun!”
Back in the day, however, UNC had other types of “parties.” Make no mistake, the students would still occasionally get hammered and create chaos, but there were also parties of a different sort: political parties.
No, I’m not talking about the Young Democrats or College Republicans — I am referring to the various student-organized political parties that routinely nominated and ran candidates for student office.
During the 1920s, a sort of one-party state was created, which an article from The Daily Tar Heel described as “a three-year regime which literally did away with all opposition.” Yes, you read that right: the student government used to operate on the same rules as actual dictatorships.
The next year, a new system emerged. In 1931, a group of students founded a “Complete Non-Fraternity Political Organization” in response to “fraternity men being in the decided majority of the campus elective positions.” Soon thereafter, a coalition of non-fraternity and fraternity students formed an All-Campus Party (ACP).
The revenge of the nerds was had in 1933, however, as the newly organized University Party (UP) crippled the establishment’s dominance over student politics. After several years, the UP became dominated by the same frat dudes it vowed to destroy. In response, a populist Students’ Party (SP) was created in 1936. The UP and a rebooted SP continued to dominate student politics for the next two decades.
In 1969, a new group emerged: the Conservative Party. The party served as a safe space for conservative and moderate students to express themselves. The group’s very first resolution was to defund The Daily Tar Heel — then a University-funded publication — calling it “a coercively maintained monopoly, taking definite political stands and often distorting the news to suit the ideological whims of the editors.”
By 1970, a general attitude of ambivalence had befallen the parties. They had become shallow husks of their former selves. In the years prior to their decline, thousands of students had attended the parties’ meetings. Now, just a handful stopped by.
The Blue Sky Party
Following the 1971 elections, the existing parties faded into obscurity. From 1972 to 1975, the Blue Sky Party (BSP) ran candidates on a platform of, among other things, abolishing student government, banning cars, expanding North Carolina’s borders to cover the entirety of the United States (except New Jersey) and placing a giant dome over UNC to control the weather.
To accomplish these goals, the BSP nominated a student, Pitt Dickey, for president and a dog named Sage for vice president. In both 1972 and 1973, the duo came in second place in the general election. What likely cost them these elections was their controversial plan to “extend a hand of friendship to that isolated fortress of academia, Duke University” in order to “normalize relations with them and sweep away centuries of distrust and rivalry.”
Our current state of affairs
Have things improved from our partisan past? Maybe. Student elections can still be bitter, contentious affairs, even without parties. Regardless, engagement in campus politics is abysmal; according to the UNC Board of Elections, just 14.11 percent of students voted in the spring 2020 general elections.
Here's my solution: Rebuild the party system, at least somewhat. UNC’s political system is so small that individual candidates standing on their own is a bit difficult. If aspirant legislators formed at least semi-formal, temporary political coalitions with bold ideas and action plans, students would have a lot more of a reason to vote.
We wouldn’t be the only college doing this. This past year, the University of Maryland’s student government elections were fought by two parties with varying interests. One of the groups, Forward Maryland, released a comprehensive platform that would make even Elizabeth Warren blush.
College is supposed to be all about trying new things, right? So let’s make UNC’s student government a little more interesting — a true laboratory of democracy.
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