National media outlets have spent months puzzling over the strong support on college campuses for Democratic presidential nominee and 74-year-old socialist Bernie Sanders, but at Harvard some students say that dynamic has gone misunderstood.
Harvard has its fair share of supporters for the Vermont senator, but undergraduate Democrats are fairly split between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, and supporters on both sides say the debate on campus has been collegial, in contrast to recent media portrayals.
This Sunday, the Guardian published an article entitled, “'I've been silent': Harvard's Clinton backers face life on a pro-Bernie campus.” The story characterized Harvard’s notoriously liberal student body as overwhelmingly in favor of the Sanders, and suppressing of pro-Clinton voices. Included in the article are quotes from three undergraduate Clinton supporters, two of whom reported feeling challenged by Sanders supporters. It followed a letter to the editor published in the New York Times by Sam H. Koppelman ’18, a Clinton supporter and Crimson Magazine and Editorial editor, in which Koppelman wrote, “I’m a Hillary supporter. In their eyes, I might as well be a College Republican.”
However, undergraduate Democrats said both characterizations misstated the political climate on campus.
Harvard College Democrats President and Hillary Clinton supporter Susan X. Wang ’17 said she was “surprised” to see Harvard’s Clinton supporters categorized as silenced by Sanders supporters. She said she has not felt the Clinton-Sanders tension the article conveys, although she noted others may have had different experiences.
“I personally do support Clinton and have never experienced the things that this article talks about,” Wang said, referring to the story in the Guardian. “Most of the people that I’ve talked to say that they can engage in pretty good conversations with people who do not support their primary candidate at this time. It’s not a big deal and is pretty respectful.”
Wang is not alone in her surprise about the article—even the sources quoted in the story said they reject the notion that Harvard’s Clinton supporters are victims in any way. Koppelman, who was quoted in the Guardian story after his New York Times letter to the editor, said he “rejects the narrative of victimization” presented in the Guardian article.
“As a white, straight, cis-gendered male, I am in no way shape or form a victim. The idea that Hillary supporters are in any way subjugated, persecuted or victimized is absolutely absurd,” Koppelman said. “The point of me talking about this issue was to try and bring about unity and it was not in any way coming from a place of victimization or vulnerability.”
Janet Ho ’19, another source quoted in the Guardian story, said she also rejects the notion that Clinton supporters on campus are silenced.
“Harvard remains an environment in which everyone is free to debate ideas in a climate of civility and mutual respect,” Ho wrote in an email. “I strongly disagree with the notion that Hillary supporters feel the need to remain ‘silent’ about their views.”
Sanders proponents also sought to quell the notion that there was an acrimonious divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters on campus. Justin G. Curtis ‘19, vice president of Harvard Students for Bernie, said there was “no animosity whatsoever” between Harvard’s student organizations for Clinton and Sanders.
Curtis also said he was confident that given the Republican’s expected nomination of Donald Trump, Harvard’s liberals will unite in November to support the Democratic nominee, no matter which candidate prevails. Curtis further noted that the past two presidents of the Harvard College Democrats are Clinton supporters themselves, calling into question whether there is truly a lack of public Clinton support.
Along with surprise and skepticism, the Guardian article faced criticism on social media, and a Harvard Political Review article rebutting the narrative. Kim F. Soffen ’16, an author of the HPR article, said local voter records from the Massachusetts Democratic Primary indicated Clinton had strong local backing, given she won all the precincts where Harvard students commonly vote.
“As people who are pretty tapped into the political scene at Harvard, this is not what we have observed at all,” Soffen said referring to herself and co-writer Colin J.F. Diersing '16, a former president of the Institute of Politics. “We talked to our friends and none of them have observed it either, and we were thinking, maybe this isn’t real at all.”
The writer of the Guardian article, Adam Gabbatt, declined to comment for this story.
—Staff writer Daniel P. Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanWood145.
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