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Harvard is a liberal place. Most people, when they think about the University at all, envision Harvard as a left-leaning institution.
To receive campus acceptance, the majority of political activities at Harvard need to be stamped with the label “Democrat.” For example, Republican Club members report that at a recent membership drive in front of the Science Center, passersby routinely made snide comments about the club.
And during a standard conversation about local politics with students and tutors in Kirkland House, people at the table acted horrified when I pondered volunteering for Mass. Acting Governor Jane Swift’s (R-Mass.) campaign. You’d think I told them I had two heads.
It’s no secret Democrats outnumber Republicans on this campus. But at a place like Harvard, where it is virtually unthinkable to say anything negative to a student group benignly tabling in front of the Science Center, why is it widely acceptable to make fun of Republicans? The University and its students would tolerate my hypothetical second head, so why are Republicans greeted with such intolerance?
Moreover, why does any political group that strays from bland centrist ideology—including the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM)—immediately meet with the student body’s disdain?
Because politics at Harvard has been reduced to three issues: abortion, gay rights, and to a lesser extent, the environment.
These three hot button topics function as a political litmus test. Either you agree with the general liberal stances the majority of Harvard takes on these matters, or you don’t. If you do not agree with the majority opinion—or choose your political party based on matters independent of these three issues—you fall outside of Harvard’s narrowly defined “center.”
Few of us are willing to lay claim to a part of the political spectrum that falls outside of the “center,” defined at Harvard as pro-abortion, pro gay rights and supportive of strict environmental laws. Instead, we evaluate parties and politicians with blinders on, in respect only to their positions on the “hot three.”
The result of this limited focus is a general disengagement from the wide spectrum of political issues currently confronting American political parties.
A paltry 200 undergraduates coughed up the nominal dues to belong to the Republican Club this year, and 300 students paid dues to the Harvard College Democrats, according to group officers. Merely 500 students assumed a party label via formal membership in a campus club. Only this seven percent of the undergraduate population was willing to address the vast range of issues that go along with those party labels beyond the “hot three.”
Most of us in Cambridge, no matter how we vote, hold generally compatible opinions on abortion, gay rights and the environment. So we end up having no real political discussions—or conflicts—at all.
Limiting “acceptable” political discussions to safe topics on which there is largely a consensus stifles conversation about subjects that depart from these three Harvard political touchstones and silences a wide spectrum of voices whose political priorities are independent of abortion, gay rights or the environment.
For example, in immediately recoiling from the identifier “Republican,” Harvard misses hearing the rationale for why students on the opposite side of the aisle vote the way they do. There are a wealth of reasons why one chooses to vote Republican, including views about the role of the federal government, personal liberty, tax policy and national defense. The label “Republican” is treated negatively at Harvard because it implies a divergence from the center, both in perceived stances on the “hot three” and in subject matter deemed important for political discussion.
But this narrow construction of what is politically relevant that is limited to three issues does not leave room for insightful debate about federalism, liberty, taxes, defense or much else for that matter.
The left, as well as the right, suffers if as a community we only tolerate or encourage political discussions that address three topics. Any evidence of the extreme—at Harvard that includes Republicans, libertarians, socialists and those to the far left, including the PSLM—is marginalized because they fall outside of Harvard’s accepted “center.”
As much as I disagree with the PSLM, I respect their frequent and vocal expression of an opinion that departs from the issues encompassed in the Harvard political litmus test. PSLM has refused to limit its political discussions and protests to the “hot three.”
Yet so often these protesters are met with disdain—just like the Republican Club as they tabled in front of the Science Center. And while PSLM has persisted despite students’ ludicrously narrow political imagination, other groups have remained silent. When was the last time you saw the Harvard Libertarian Society picketing in the Yard about the size of the federal government? Or socialists protesting against the current national tax structure? Even the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice—who was quite active during the fall in protesting the United States’ ongoing war in Afghanistan—has faded into silence. In obsessing about the “hot three,” to the exclusion of other political concerns, we forgo discussion about very real problems our nation is facing.
The United States government spends only a fraction of its time addressing abortion or gay rights. American troops are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq may be next. President George W. Bush has dramatically altered the tax system and signed into law a bill that calls for a massive overhaul of public education. The FY 2003 budget is already in the red and we still haven’t sorted out how to deal with the national health care fiasco.
The Harvard community, Democrats and Republicans alike, should be brave enough to talk about these political issues and brave enough to publicly disagree about them.
Joyce K. McIntyre ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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