How to run a political club in a partisan town



The town of Brookline skews sharply left in statewide and federal elections even relative to the rest of Massachusetts.

The 2022 midterm elections are only a few weeks away, but in Brookline, there are still more campaign signs from last month’s state house primary than there are for any general election race. This lack of involvement is in large part because of the uncompetitive nature of general elections in Massachusetts. In this year’s election, Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has over a 99 percent chance of becoming governor, according to polling website FiveThirtyEight. Democrat Jake Auchincloss, Brookline’s representative in the US house, doesn’t even have a challenger.

For the high school’s political clubs, this election cycle poses a unique challenge: their student body understands and cares about politics, but the town and its commonwealth’s leftward skew renders pretty much any form of standard political activism impractical at best, especially when it comes to general elections. This reality forces the leaders of the high school’s political clubs to get creative. Here is how two of them make a political club work in Brookline.

Olivia Sheehan

Olivia Sheehan is Co-President of the Brookline High School chapter of “High School Democrats of America,” a national political organization that “serves as an entry point to Democratic politics for youth activists from across the country,” according to its website.

Sheehan said her club focuses on building youth advocacy skills, supporting interest in politics and helping Democratic candidates reach office.

What activism has your club done this year? What are you doing leading up to the midterms?

It’s the beginning of the year right now, but one of the biggest ways we want to make an impact in Brookline is through voter registration. As of right now, we are scheduled to hold a voter registration drive at the high school in the month of October. We used to have voter registration drives pretty frequently at the high school, but we haven’t had one since before COVID. That’s our main focus at the moment.

Massachusetts—and especially Brookline—is a fairly liberal place, and elections here tend to favor the Democratic party. Do you think there is still value in supporting candidates that are almost certainly going to win?

Definitely! Everyone should be politically aware and know—even if you don’t align 100 percent with the candidates—what ideas and arguments you most agree with and which you disagree with.

If high schoolers are getting involved in less-contested elections in Massachusetts, when they move across the country they will already have that political awareness, which is really important. Also, already knowing the process of ‘how do I get registered’ is important. Post-midterms, we want to disperse information on how exiting seniors can register to vote wherever they live next year.

What about the inverse: Do you think there is value in supporting candidates that are almost certainly going to lose?

Absolutely. I think a lot of it comes down to shifting the Overton Window: the more candidates who are given a platform, the more the window of what ideas seem feasible can be shifted right or left. Just supporting candidates increases the attention and platform those candidates have, and that can slowly make progress in what beliefs people are open to. It seems like a lot of Americans want more compromise in government, and the more healthy discourse there is, the more likely the parties will be able to reach compromise.

Do you think there are downsides to uncompetitive races like the ones in Massachusetts?

Yeah, there are definitely downsides – but to be fair, we say Massachusetts is uncompetitive, but we have a very long history of electing a Democratic legislature but a Republican governor. Right now polling in Massachusetts does look like Maura Healey will win the Governor’s election, but it’s not uncontested for sure at the state executive level. There’s oftentimes elected treasurers, secretaries of state, not really attorneys general, but other top elected positions that end up going to a Republican rather than a Democrat.

Romas Moore

Romas Moore is Chairman of the Brookline High School chapter of “Young Americans for Freedom” (YAF). YAF is part of Young America’s Foundation, a national organization “committed to ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values,” according to its website.

Moore said BHS YAF is primarily focused on facilitating “the kind of dialogue that is necessary for the good functioning of our democracy,” including discussions of political issues and cultural topics.

Has your club done any activism work in the past? Does it plan to do any in the future? Why or why not?

The short answer is no. The operations of the Brookline High chapter are constrained, mainly because of its size. Our club has basically been defined by its meetings. Our structure and schedule has changed this year, but we mainly focus on facilitating conversation between conservative students and non-conservative students. Insofar as working for or with a candidate or campaign, that’s not something that our chapter does.

If you look at much larger YAF chapters, there are individual students that can organize stuff, but because of our position we can’t do that. In the suburbs of Chicago there’s more room for some conservative activism, but Brookline is not just a liberal town; it’s in a liberal state in a liberal region. So the extent to which we can do stuff that’s consequential is limited.

Can you give some examples of your club facilitating conversations between conservative and non-conservative students at BHS?

Last year we invited students who had signed up at the club fair and others who I knew were interested to join our club meetings. Our numbers fluctuated any day, but I would say on a given day there were probably about 10 students, myself included, and the conversations ranged from the war in Ukraine to American foreign policy to abortion. And at many of those meetings, there were many students who were not of a conservative disposition or had ideas which very clearly opposed a conservative worldview.

Students came with questions, which we talked about and we engaged with. That’s something we did pretty much every other week, and I’m very proud of it. We had a lot of very interesting conversations, and I learned things I didn’t know from students that are not conservative.

Do you think there is value in supporting candidates in races they are very likely to lose?

Absolutely. The absence of a challenging candidate, such as if there’s an absence of any kind of clash between world views, is one of the stepping stones to the end of effective democracy. In order to have a system where we look at ideas and seriously consider whether or not they are good for America and American policy, or for local reasons, or whatever it is, challenging viewpoints are essential.