In the first few weeks of my high school government class, our teacher assigned the classic political compass quiz, consisting of two axes measuring economic and political ideologies. None of my classmates seemed surprised when my dot fell in the deep reaches of the bottom left square, situated somewhere between Bernie Sanders and the Green Party. Along with the few other liberals in my predominantly conservative school, an adversarial political culture forced me to routinely defend and sharpen my beliefs. But without many older liberals around, there was no model Democrat to imitate or prepackaged set of beliefs to take up. Unsurprisingly, my “dot” did not fall right on top of many mainstream politicians, leaving me in a place to agree with most of the Democratic platform while maintaining a critical edge.
As I entered Harvard, I recognized the advantages of my former atmosphere but hoped for a shift away from the close-minded mentality that accompanied it. Debate was entertained between students, but my beliefs were usually laughed off as impractical for straying from the mainstream. With imagination abounding, I entered my first few weeks in Cambridge ready to experience a new and vast array of ideologies. By the end of my first political conversation, however, I realized that I had entered a new echo chamber, this time slanted to the left. Here, too, beliefs outside the mainstream are generally laughed off, whether they be on the right or the non-Democratic left.
I did not expect or want to find the Kremlin on the Charles that so many at home warned me about. Rather, I was hoping for something simpler: more of the poking and prodding that sharpened my beliefs throughout high school. The predominant culture on campus instead serves as a roll call, demanding that students agree with certain benchmark issues to be considered enlightened, while asking no more. So long as students align with certain predetermined roles, either as mainstream Democrats or moderate Republicans, no one questions their beliefs.
In an institution filled with so many connections and so much ambition, an implicit assumption exists in the politically-minded portion of the student body: that we are preparing for careers in politics and that doing such requires conforming to existing party platforms. Unlike my high school, the model Democrat not only exists at Harvard, but it all too often defines how students shape their ideologies and future aspirations. While no one will be surprised that Harvard’s political culture is predominantly Democratic and left-leaning, we must reach our critiques further to demand more ideological diversity.
With so many former Harvard undergraduates holding seats in Congress—a body in dire need of ideological vitality—it is nontrivial to consider the school’s effect on national politics. When pundits try to understand the past decade of gridlock, followed by damaging election cycles for both major parties, the call is often made for greater compromise, which is inevitably and falsely linked to a need for centrism. Harvard and the country should instead focus on revamping the ideological foundations of both major parties, establishing a reservoir of ideas from which to draw new and innovative policies. But for this to happen, new leaders outside of the existing norms must exist, and this next generation of leaders must be willing to stand contrary to earlier party platforms and expectations.
In this light, our biology classes can perhaps shed greater light than anything offered by the Government Department: Without genetic diversity, a species that faces change is ultimately destined for extinction. Likewise, political parties that stifle ideological diversity cannot adapt to to the changing demands of an electorate. In the 2016 election, we saw the dawn of a new mass extinction, one that claimed the vitality of the Democrats and Republicans alike. With the exception of Bernie Sanders, who was not originally within the Democratic Party, neither mainstay of American politics possessed the diversity of candidates necessary to absorb the electorate’s new populist demands while sticking to level-headed politics. In fulfilling the biological metaphor, this evolutionary weakness permitted a political parasite to hijack the environment.
Ideological diversity does not appear out of thin air, but instead out of academia and the students it influences. At this crossroads, Harvard and its disproportionately influential alumni could offer a sliver of hope for American politics. For this to happen, however, our campus must welcome a broader range of political ideas than it currently does. Though critics of higher education often focus on its lack of conservative voices, the problem of narrow political beliefs plagues the left and right alike. The challenge is not so much a challenge of numerical representation as much as sheer ideological variation.
That Harvard offers a thrust into the political field should not come as a shock to anyone, but we must not let it determine our actions or our willingness to consider unique beliefs. If we only consider what will best land us that summer internship or that campaign fellowship, we threaten to uphold the stagnation of the current political landscape. After all, the ideas coming out of higher education should offer the diversity needed for adaptation. In other words, students are the only solution for tomorrow’s pressing needs and today’s suffocating gridlock.
For this to happen, however, Harvard and its culture has to acknowledge that liberals can disagree with Democrats, and conservatives can disagree with Republicans. Until then, we may succeed at producing alumni with impressive political positions, but we will not produce leaders with the courage and passion to effect true change.
Ian M. Lutz ‘21 is a Crimson editorial editor in Holworthy Hall.
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