A Message to Prospective Conservatives
College campuses have frequently been characterized as liberal bubbles, “safe spaces,” or, more specifically here at Harvard, the “Kremlin on the Charles.” While all of these monikers have merit, the reality of campus politics and dialogue as it stands today is far less bleak. Though last year’s Crimson Senior Survey found only 10 percent of graduates identified as “conservative or very conservative”—compared to 23 percent who identify as “very liberal”—this is still a far cry from the days of the John Reed Club and “The Harvard Communist.”
As President of the Harvard Republican Club, I won’t tell you that being a Harvard Republican will always be easy. It won’t. But I will strongly encourage you to resist shying away from this campus for that reason. While being conservative at Harvard may be quite a different experience to being conservative in my home state of Alaska it comes with its own unique advantages. As an engaged, vocal conservative, I have been challenged to hone my arguments, accept the pervasiveness of liberalism in higher education, and allow my worldview to be questioned. It is the same for my fellow members of the Republican Club. This experience is invaluable and, consequently, gave me the most eloquent, inquisitive role models to learn from as an incoming freshman.
The Harvard Republican Club was my first home on campus. I was lucky to be brought in from my first day on campus and to have remained involved since. That’s not to say that it’s a homogenous or inflexible community. There are disagreements, and we welcome a diversity of opinion. One of the most toxic misconceptions about college Republicans is the notion that any one set of views is correct or will represent all or most of the campus. That is why the Harvard Republican Club specifically seeks to embody former President Ronald Reagan’s big tent party, allowing, as we say, anyone to the right of Marx to join. Our club’s internal surveying this past winter showed our membership as 48 percent fiscally conservative and 37 percent conservative-leaning, but not necessarily Republican. 70 percent are registered with the Party. The differences in opinion, background, and beliefs among Harvard conservatives allow for dynamic discussion and are part of what makes me love the community all the more. Rejecting the establishment of a litmus test or requirement to subscribe to a particular strain of conservative thought maintains the club as a collective of partisans, but not ideologues.
Outside the club at Harvard, things are somewhat different. Professors and teaching fellows vary in their degree of acknowledgement of the idea of conservatism as a valid system of principles, and any conservative on campus can recount for you a particularly frustrating lecture that devolved into liberal diatribe and scoffing at conservatives. That said, meeting with TFs or professors during office hours has usually allowed for dynamic discussions and respect, despite differences in opinion. Within the Institute of Politics, staff members are incredibly conscious of the importance of political diversity and strive to keep the organization nonpartisan. Students, however, are sometimes less so, often out of passionate disagreement.
There are also great opportunities for collaboration between student groups. The Harvard Republican Club, Harvard Right to Life, John Adams Society, and Network of Enlightened Women host a collaborative reception for conservative students at Visitas and host another in the fall. Meanwhile, there is some bipartisan collaboration as well: The Harvard Republican Club, Harvard Democrats, and Harvard College Conservation Society have offered joint support for a carbon dividends policy formulated by Harvard professors and alumni. Additionally, in one-on-one interactions, incoming students should expect to find peers who will appreciate the intellectual value of conservative arguments, even if they vehemently disagree politically.
Conservatives in college are often described by their absence or their presence, but truthfully that’s hardly relevant. There are conservatives on every campus. You’ll find them if you know where to look, but they’ll also find you if you’re vocal. Don’t be afraid to be vocal. They’ll come up to you after section to tell you they agree, even though they stayed quiet, or to thank you for saying what they were thinking. Being a conservative at Harvard is about balance. It’s the decision to raise your hand in section to argue the opposite point when there has been zero disagreement between classmates and teaching fellows alike. It’s feeling like an outsider when positions are stated with which everyone, except you, agrees. It’s finding the courage to use your voice while knowing people will not always like you for it. It’s also discovering students here at Harvard who are willing to listen and learn, even if in the end they still disagree.
To newly admitted conservative students, here’s what my two years on campus have taught me: Your views will be challenged, and you will gain so much more from your time here because of it. Use these challenges to hone your arguments and to learn to defend your positions with evidence. Don’t try to score a cheap win by assuming someone is less informed than you, because on this campus, they almost certainly are not. Incredible individuals, some of whom you’ll agree with, and some of whom you won’t, are all around you here—learn from all of them. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to speak up.
Kiera E. O’Brien ’20 is a Government concentrator in Leverett House.
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