REXBURG- The College Democrats at Brigham Young University-Idaho received a flier this week about the future of student loans from the Democratic National Committee.
At their meeting Wednesday night, the handful of self-proclaimed Democrats didn't debate how to get the piece of paper into the hands of the college's 12,505 students. What they worried most about is whether the word "Democrat" should appear anywhere on it.
That, they knew, might overshadow the message.
They know that on this campus, to declare yourself a Democrat is like coming out of the closet. Not only do their political views put them in the vast minority at BYU-Idaho, the college itself is located in the reddest area of a very red state. George W. Bush received more than 91 percent of the vote in Rexburg in 2004, making it the most pro-Bush city of its size in the nation, according to a study by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.
The group decided it has two options: distribute the fliers anonymously, or make its presence known. Deliver what it sees as a critical message about the future of student loans, or write “College Democrats” on the fliers and watch the trash bins fill up.
It’s a problem the group has struggled with since it’s most recent incarnation last fall on the BYU-Idaho campus. Relatively few know they exist, and most that do either don’t care or label them as wackos.
After a few minutes, they have a solution.
Re-write the flier in a more soft-spoken, conservative tone, and include their name.
They’ve worked too hard to remain anonymous.
The One-Party Myth
BYU-Idaho bucks the notion that colleges are liberal havens.
It boasts a strong conservative atmosphere – due in part to it’s ownership by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintS. Nearly all of its students are LDS.
While the LDS Church makes it clear that it does not endorse any political party, statistics show that predominately Mormon areas tend to vote conservative. Sixty-five percent of Mormons who participated in a Harris Interactive poll of the 2000 presidential elections said they would vote Republican.
As a demographic, they are considered to be so solidly in that category that the national Democratic Party doesn't spend much time wooing them.
Bart Marcois, a former senior official in a Republican Administration and an active Latter-day Saint, said that the perception that church members must be Republican is unhealthy.
“It isn’t good for the Church to have our population so one-sided that we are ignored by one party and taken for granted by the other,” he said. “It isn’t good for the country or the parties either, if we withhold our support and our consequent influence from them. Why should the Democrats pay us or our values any attention if we never help them get elected? Why should the Republicans pay us attention, for that matter, if our votes are automatically ‘in the bag?’”
The LDS population wasn’t always overwhelmingly republican.
Because of the rocky history between the church and the Republican Party of the day, Utah was on the verge of becoming a Democratic state when it was finally granted statehood in 1891.
Church leaders, favoring a two-party system, encouraged their members to split between Republican and Democrat.
Joseph F. Smith, a counselor in the First Presidency of the church at the time, said, “We . . . going on the stump so as to convince the people that a man could be a Republican and still be a Saint.’”
In 1998, when the reigning perception was that the church and the Republican party were allied, Marlin K. Jensen, a general authority of the church, talked about it to the Salt Lake Tribune.
“One of the things that prompted this discussion . . . was the regret that's felt about the decline of the Democratic Party and the notion that may prevail in some areas that you can't be a good Mormon and a good Democrat at the same time."
“Marlin K. Jensen's comment is all the more striking because it expresses a completely opposite position from Joseph F. Smith, and does so in nearly identical terms,” said Phillip Allred, a member of the Religious Department faculty at BYU-Idaho.
Allred is studying the relationship between religion and party affiliation, focusing on LDS Democrats in the Utah/Idaho area.
He says it’s understandable that many Mormons gravitate toward the Republican side because the church takes such strong positions on moral issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Church members tend to inaccurately equate the Democratic Party to those two moral issues alone, when in reality the party has a much broader platform.
That runs over to BYU-Idaho, making it by college standards, a very conservative university. Those who've taught at other colleges notice.
“I was in the minority at the last campus I worked at – a conservative among liberal faculty,” said Ronald Nate, an economics faculty member at BYU-Idaho and adviser to the College Republicans.
Other Idaho campuses tend to be less conservative than BYU-Idaho.
ISU political science professor Sean Anderson said he’s seen an increase in the students that identify themselves as liberal at that campus over the last twelve years.
“When you’re talking about areas of the country where people are by and large conservative, my perception is that campuses tend to become refuges for ‘political dissidents,’” he said. “Students that find themselves out of line with their religious culture tend to hover around the campuses.”
The College Republicans at ISU have about 100 members and about 20 who attend club functions regularly, according to Anderson, who serves as their adviser.
It’s half of what BYU-Idaho has; around 200 College Republicans, with 40 to 50 students who consistently attend weekly meetings.
The BYU-Idaho College Democrats, on the other hand, have about 30 on the rosters. About 10 show up to meetings.
It also has a vague history, flowering during election years, wilting afterward and then often dissolving.
When Peter Nguyen, a sophomore from Portland, Ore., started the group last fall, it had been dead since the 2004 election. He had built it from scratch, refiling all the paperwork with the university and canvassing the campus for an adviser.
Peter Nguyen has always been one to stir up controversy.
So when he started the College Democrats, he wasn’t too worried about the backlash he was sure would come.
“Let’s be real here. By creating a liberal organization here on campus, I knew I was going to be inviting opposition. I knew I’d probably be the target of scorn and ridicule, and I have.”
Raised in Portland, Oregon, he’s the son of Vietnamese immigrants.
His friendly demeanor and sense of humor in high school got him elected a class officer more than once. His notoriety for having an opinion and his eagerness to debate earned him “most likely to be elected president.”
Now a columnist for BYU-Idaho’s weekly newspaper, the Scroll, Nguyen stirs up the coals by writing point-blank commentaries on student life and current events, usually taking the less popular sides of issues.
It’s earned him the nickname “The Angry Asian,” which he uses as a byline, mostly because he thinks it’s funny. He’s anything but angry.
“‘The Angry Asian’ is just a way for him to get his foot in the door,” said Brent DeRoest, a friend from Portland. “He likes to raise a lot of hard issues, and it makes him sound angry – but I think a lot of people change their mind when they get to know him.”
Nguyen’s political passion comes from his family.
“I’ve been interested in politics since I could read,” Nguyen says. “I was actually raised in a conservative home. My whole family was active in the Republican Party.”
“Even in high school, when none of us could care less about politics, he was always bringing up little facts,” DeRoast says.
On campus, Nguyen stands out; he needs a haircut and shave to match the crisp, professional look encouraged at the school.
But his straggly hair and chin scruff aren’t his only unique characteristics.
He’s a registered Republican, and he spent the last five months piecing together the College Democrats Society from scratch - a move that had deeper motives for Nguyen than sparking debates or getting attention from the student body.
He’s an ardent believer that diversity breeds progress, especially in politics. For Nguyen, political variety was an aching need on the campus, and it had to be dealt with, even if it meant jumping to the other side.
Which, is exactly what he did.
“I came to school here and heard students bashing the Democratic party, basically ridiculing good men and women who are doing the best they know how,” he said. “It caused me to look at what the Democrats believe.
“I found that I actually identified a with the Democrats on a lot of issues. And, I found that there’s no such thing as a perfect political party.”
So he became a Democrat.
“It’s not good government to have only one party,” he said.
“I’ve had it expressed to me that by not liking President Bush, I’m not following the tenants of the Church,” he said. “I’ve had people ask me if I’m doing this to stand out and be rebellious.”
He resents that and wonders if people would ask the same of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada who also is Mormon.
It’s the same thing with other student Democrats on campus.
It’s worth going to BYU-Idaho because of the unique religious atmosphere there, but “the negative reactions from some students disappoint me a lot,” said Heather Swallow, president of the College Democrats. “I sometimes get sick of it because I don’t like being ridiculed for things that fit inside church standards.”
She’s from Utah and considers herself a straightforward, rule-abiding Mormon, but says that some students don’t seem to think she can appreciate her religion because she’s a democrat.
Nguyen says it’s one of his main frustrations. Their chapter doesn’t conform to the national Democratic agenda just because they are affiliated with the party.
“There’s got to be a separation of religion and politics,” he said. “There are moral issues and political issues.”
It took Nguyen three months to coax enough democrats from the BYU-Idaho woodwork to have a meeting. And he discovered some interesting things along the way. As he sent out mass emails and put up posters (many were defaced), he started to hear back from faculty members.
“They were encouraging,” he said. “Some said they were Republican, but told me to keep up my efforts. Others wrote back and said they were Democrat – more than people would think.”
“Students would be shocked to find that their teacher is a Democrat,” he said.
It was the College Repubicans' advisor who gave the Democrats a boost. Nate helped put Nguyen in touch with Rob Booker, who Nguyen says has helped the College Democrats gain the attention of the Democratic National Committee.
Now the DNC is funding all expenses for the group to go campaign this spring, Nguyen says. It’s a huge step towards what he and the other Democrats are hoping to achieve: a solid foundation, and a voice.
It’s part of the mission of BYU-Idaho, Nate said – to prepare students for lifelong learning and to be good citizens, and the student political organizations do that.
“The College Republicans experience is richer if we have College Democrats working alongside us. It’s exciting to have the opposition.”
Lindsey Buquet, president of the College Republicans, said that her group is “stepping up our recruitment,” in response to the stir the Democrats are causing.
The group is too young to have a full platform, but president Heather Swallows says they hope to accomplish three goals.
“We want to get involved in the community,” she said. They hope to do this by becoming an outlet for service.
“We also want to educate students here about Democrats; show them that we can follow church guidelines. We’re not evil,” she said.
Nguyen told everyone that in their new society, there would be no “Bush bashing” or personal attacks on the Republican Party - they can criticize, he says, but they try to avoid name-calling or personal insults.
And their third goal is something they share with the College Republicans: to educate their fellow students.
“There’s a lot of political apathy out there. A lot of students I talk to think there’s no point for them to be involved, that they’re young and no one will listen,” Buquet said. “It’s sad, because I think students can have a big impact on politics.”
“Politics is about winning the uninformed vote,” he said.
“I get great satisfaction knowing that I’m part of getting people to act. In the end, the most we can ask for is simply to have good people running out country, Republican or Democrat.”
They still don’t have the numbers they want, but the Democrats at BYU-Idaho have come a long way.
“The College Democrats are here to stay,” Nguyen said.