“How did you survive Harvard College?” conservatives ask me, half-jokingly.
Half-seriously, I tell them: “Hell if I know.”
Some pitfalls are shallower than I expected. For one thing, Harvardians are less rambunctious than their peers. Two years ago, for example, Karl Rove, a Republican strategist, spoke at Winthrop House, where he volleyed questions from an unsympathetic but respectful audience. That same year, he spoke at the University of Iowa, where two attendees tried to arrest him. Harvardians are so calm that three years ago several alumni asked President Drew G. Faust to appoint a task force to promote student agitation. They should have told her to cut hot breakfast.
True, Harvardians stage strikes every now and then. But most are spectators, not participants. Rather, I notice the liberal bias in more subtle ways—like when kids at the Institute of Politics play icebreakers. “Name your favorite columnist,” one of them says, and the rest chirp, “Gail Collins!” Meanwhile, I verify her identity with my neighbor: “Oprah’s friend, right?” I also notice it whenever I read The Harvard Crimson, which advocates the Second Amendment’s repeal. Still, I give the paper credit. It no longer supports the Khmer Rouge. And it publishes me.
For another thing, more Harvardians than I expected are conservatives. They rank among the more interesting people on campus, especially the New Englanders. They refuse to wear jeans and use awkward verbs like “midwife” in everyday conversation. They also fascinate liberals, who rarely recognize their prejudice. Last year, for instance, a sociologist interviewed some of us in preparation for a book about young conservatives. Her first question: “Are your parents religious?” Like clockwork.
Yes, liberals try to understand us, but some are patronizing in their attempts. Once when I told a girl I was conservative, her eyes welled with pity. “Do you feel isolated?” she inquired—as if she were my shrink. I thought she was going to show me an inkblot and ask if I saw Dick Cheney. That said, I prefer patronizing to nasty. Liberals can misrepresent our positions without penalty more often than we can theirs. When I criticized Obamacare, for example, a Harvard Democrat wondered about me on the club’s blog, “[M]aybe he’d prefer eugenics.”
Actually, the liberal tilt is quite navigable. Yet one pitfall for conservatives—for everyone, really—is deeper than I expected. It is cynicism.
When political junkies are freshmen, we breathe fire. We attend every event at the IOP. We sign up—by the hundreds—for the political parties. Eventually, however, we realize something. We realize that the politicians are dull and the activists crazy. My freshman year, for example, Dominique de Villepin, then prime minister of France, visited the IOP. His speech was less than profound. “Competition among our states is in no one’s interest,” he said. “The only possible road is our cooperation.” Deep, Dominique, deep.
The activists are worse. You have the sensationalist adults. When the Harvard Republican Club hosted a filming of the movie, “Hillary! Uncensored: Banned by the Media,” three years ago, an activist introduced the film by calling Hillary Clinton a traitor to feminism. “A person should be judged by the content of their character, not the contents of their underpants,” she said. And you have the eager students. One time, for instance, the HRC hosted a party for visitors from other schools, where one guy distributed his business card, which read, “Future Elected GOP Leader.”
Sure, Harvardians are sensationalist and eager when they arrive on campus. But after these encounters, they mellow. This development is a good thing. Unfortunately, some students mellow out. By senior year, they do not believe in conservatism, not because they believe in liberalism but because they do not believe in anything. The problem is overexposure. Students too quickly throw themselves into politics only to learn, “This stuff is dirty,” and give up.
Instead, students—especially conservatives—should pace themselves. If they are interested in politics, they need not spend their mornings in the Government Department, their afternoons at the IOP, and their weekends in New Hampshire. Such a schedule makes politics too familiar. And excessive familiarity breeds apathy.
In short, a conservative survives Harvard College by having a life beyond politics. A paradox, perhaps, but you can manage. The key is persistence. To maintain an interest in politics while living outside it is to be a rather self-controlled junkie. And to remain a conservative after four years at Harvard is to be a very stubborn thing.
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears regularly.