My political background seems pretty typical of a Harvard student. I grew up in a household full of liberals. In high school, I joined the Young Democrats club and volunteered for the campaigns of several local Democratic politicians. And when it came time for me to vote this past year, I proudly cast my ballot for President Obama. I have always considered myself a Democrat, and a liberal one at that. That is, until I got to Harvard. Here, I have somehow been made to feel like a conservative.
It is not something that happened right away. I stepped onto campus in the fall excited to get involved in what I expected would be a vibrant liberal political environment. I attended a few meetings of the Harvard College Democrats and often engaged in political discussions with my peers in informal settings. When a friend chided me for being unaware of the concept of Preferred Gender Pronouns, however, I began to realize that the liberals of Harvard were much further to the left than I had ever imagined. Now more than a semester into my time here, it seems clear to me that the political left at Harvard operates almost exclusively on the fringes of liberalism.
Rather than focusing on the ongoing budget negations and the economic health of our nation, the liberals of Harvard spend their political capital vilifying oil companies through the divestment movement and obsessing over political correctness. With much of the Harvard community, let alone the general population, still unaware of the existence of PGPs, liberal student groups here are pushing for their institutionalization. The focus on these far-left issues has left me, and other mainstream Democrats, feeling disillusioned about the state of Democratic politics at Harvard.
Furthermore, this radical approach is damaging to the very causes these students are trying to promote. Fixating on PGPs, for example, detracts from the broader push for transgender acceptance and equality. It trivializes the important issues at stake. We should work towards making substantive gains in areas such as marriage equality and combatting discrimination before focusing on issues of semantics. To say we need a shift in focus is not to belittle the ideas behind the concept of PGPs; it is only to suggest that taking such radical stances on these issues is not a winning strategy.
Besides losing the support and participation of moderates, the ruling liberals of this campus are missing an opportunity by moving so far to the left. At a time when the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that some pundits, such as the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, believe it is on the verge of extinction, we have the chance to show the rationality of Democratic politics. We need to buck the “idealistic liberal” stereotype and bring common sense to the political arena by presenting reasonable solutions to the core economic and social problems of the average American. In this way, we can keep the far right from even coming close to implementing its reckless economic policies and intolerant social agenda.
While college is undoubtedly the time to push the boundaries of our political ideologies, the expressions of radical leftism on this campus hinder the achievement of the mainstream democratic agenda. If we continue to move further and further left, we bring the radical right back into play. So long as we are as far to the left as they are to the right, the American people, who are on average moderately conservative, are left with no clear choice.
And while Harvard students obviously do not dictate the current platform of the Democratic Party or even the platform of the national liberal movement, we will assuredly play a role in forming such platforms in the future. Outside observers rightfully regard Harvard as a bastion of liberalism, and the behavior of our students gets more than its fair share of media attention. We cannot dismiss the fact that the focus and tone of our discourse matter.
Harvard students have long been known for their liberalism—and perhaps I should have been less surprised than I was by the extremity of it—but that does not mean we cannot also be known for our pragmatism. There is nothing wrong with having lofty progressive goals and passion about social justice, but it is important to understand the current political atmosphere. As liberals, we need to return our focus to the issues that people outside the walls of Harvard care about—the issues we can push while the Republican Party remains weak. We need to leave the radicalism to the right and work to win on the mainstream issues before we contemplate the frontiers of liberalism.
Carson J. Scott ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Grays Hall.