The Gift of Being Challenged

When Massachusetts chose to relinquish its unequivocally liberal reputation by sending a man with a pickup truck to the U.S. Senate, Cambridge—for its part—did not follow suit.  A mere 15 percent of Cantabridgians cast their ballots for Scott Brown. And yet, after four years of maintaining my right-of-center views at Harvard, I am convinced that there is no better place to be a Republican.

No, really.

For the minority of students who arrive at Harvard with self-professed right-of-center views in tow, this institution offers something that is dolled out much more sparingly to their progressive-minded counterparts: a thorough and frequent challenge to their political views.

While for some this translates into a full-scale conversion of political belief (Franklin D. Roosevelt, class of 1904, was once a member of the Harvard Republican Club), for most it is an exercise in toning the muscles of political argument, and more importantly, finding the oft-ignored weaknesses.  In short, the Harvard Republican learns why he believes what he believes; and the Harvard Republican learns where to break rank with orthodoxy.

Consider a friend of mine.  Leaving her freshman dorm on a Tuesday evening in September, her roommate stopped to ask where she was going.  “A meeting,” my friend, the freshman, replied tersely.  The roommate pressed.  “A Republican Club meeting,” she relented.  The response: “Oh. Well, it’s okay. I don’t judge.”

“College,” Robert Frost once remarked, “is a refuge from hasty judgment.” Perhaps.  But it seems “I don’t judge” is precisely the phrase one uses to conceal one’s hasty judgment. The Harvard Republican is often the victim of the hasty judgment of his cohorts—and understandably so.  National Republicans have done one thing well in recent years: tarnishing the brand.  So there exist plenty of reasons to raise an eyebrow at a classmate who labels herself Republican; at least two of those reasons have their own cable shows.

The political views that one holds upon arriving on campus are, at least to some degree, a product of the prevailing demographic of one’s home territory—or, at least, the influence of one’s family or their news channel of choice.  For those arriving at Harvard as Democrats or as liberals, the environment is undeniably more hospitable than those for whom “Ronald Reagan” is pronounced only with the requisite amount of reverence.

Leaning to the left at Harvard rarely receives a meaningful challenge.  A Democrat rarely has to follow a declaration of his political affiliation with the corollary, “But let me explain.”  In the midst of a campus where students default to Democrat, being Republican, though, is a conscious choice that must be made and re-made throughout the undergraduate experience.

Ross G. Douthat ’02, a former Crimson contributor and a current New York Times columnist, lamented in a 2005 Atlantic pseudo-exposé entitled “The Truth About Harvard,” that “Harvard was easy” and plagued by rapidly declining standards.  The problem, he concluded, was that “no one was pushing back.”  Whether true or not of Harvard academics, for the Harvard Republican, someone is always “pushing back.” And that makes for the sort of rigorous thought that Douthat declared absent in the classroom.

Thus, as the Harvard Republican approaches graduation, he understands why he holds his right-of-center beliefs.  Not only has he justified them multiple times to peers “pushing back” across a dining hall table, he has justified them to himself when forced to self-evaluate.  That is to say, his political beliefs now inform his party affiliation, when for others party affiliation far too often informs political beliefs.

That self-evaluation, though, can produce less-than-orthodox views.  Imagine the reaction of then-New Hampshire GOP Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte when, at last year’s Republican Club Lincoln Day Dinner, one of the club’s board members explained his vision for a type of government-run health care system.  (It did not stop her, thankfully, from critiquing the Obama health plan in her subsequent speech.)

This is not to say that a Harvard Republican is simply a Democrat with an identity crisis.  No, the Harvard Republican knows that he does not have to subscribe to the entire party platform to be a Republican; and he certainly does not have to stand for the nonsense that too many soundbite motivated conservatives spew.  He knows that he can support the best of the party’s policies, while offering a full-throated critique of the worst.  And if freshman roommates kept that in mind, they might be less hasty to judge—or declare their aversion to judging, as it were.

David Brooks, the Times’ other resident center-right columnist, explored in an August 2010 piece the “metacognition deficit” in politics that produces policy stances determined not by circumstance but by reluctance to deviate from “tribal purity.”  He writes, “Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate.” Only a “few people I interview do this regularly,” he notes. Maybe he should interview a Harvard Republican; they do it all the time.

Looking ahead, I have little doubt that Harvard will break decisively for Obama in the 2012 election. Yet I envy those Republican students who will be here for the election season. For while I may be generalizing a bit too easily or may have grown excessively nostalgic, I say it again: there is no better place to be a Republican.

Mark A. Isaacson ’11, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.