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A Look into the Lives of Conservative Students on Campus

Students and tourists enjoy a socially distant afternoon in the Yard.
Students and tourists enjoy a socially distant afternoon in the Yard. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Natalie L. Kahn, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: November 24, 2020, at 8:36 p.m.

For Wesley L. Donhauser ’21, president of the Harvard Republican Club, negative stereotypes attached to Republican students on campus can be “shocking” at times.

“I feel like there's a general feeling on campus that everybody is [left-leaning] and they’re just a little shocked when they find out, ‘Oh my gosh, you're actually a Republican,'” he said.

Despite nearly half of the country voting for President Donald J. Trump, 90 percent of incoming students in the class of 2024 reported they would vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr., compared to just 7.1 percent for Trump, according to a fall 2020 Crimson survey. In 2012, meanwhile, a Crimson straw poll of students found a higher percentage — 17 percent — supported Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Additionally, in The Crimson's freshman survey, only 7.4 percent of the current freshman class identified as somewhat to very conservative, a marked drop even from the 12.4 percent of incoming students for the class of 2023.

Yet the ever-shrinking coalition of conservative students on campus is not backing down. In 2020, the Harvard Republicans endorsed Trump for president, citing his commitment to protecting “American traditions” and preserving the country’s “moral order.” That marked a departure from 2016, when the group gained national attention for rejecting then-candidate Trump, the first time in the Harvard Republicans' 128-year history that it had declined to endorse the party’s nominee.

Despite that shift, multiple members of the club in interviews for this piece quickly grew hesitant to divulge their views on the president, even after speaking at length about their political positions. For many, that hesitance reflects what they believe is a culture on campus among students and faculty to silence and marginalize conservatives.

An ‘Extreme Minority’

Some conservative students say that even before they arrive on campus as freshmen, they steel themselves to be seen as political pariahs at the College.

After growing up in a conservative-leaning small town in southwest Washington, Loren M. Brown ’23 said he knew he would have to “work” with holding certain beliefs on campus.

“When I was coming here initially, I was well aware that I was going to be in the extreme minority, and that I just have to learn to live with that,” he said.

Amy L. Nichols ’23, also from Washington, said she felt she had to combat the belief that right-of-center students like her are indoctrinated before they arrive on campus.

“It's kind of treated as, if you're conservative, then that means you've been tricked into doing something and you're just ignorant and don't understand how the world works,” she said. “It's not treated rather as something that you've deliberated about and come to decide on your own terms.”

Benjamin R. Paris ’21 similarly said he feels there has been a tendency to disregard more conservative viewpoints as illegitimate.

“I don't debate anyone's existence, and I don't think that in an ideal society human rights are something that we debate,” he said. “Clearly, when we disagree about human rights or about the way that somebody’s existence or somebody’s identity affects politics, obviously it's going to be up for debate.”

“The idea is not, anymore, ‘You are wrong,’ but instead, ‘You are not actually worthy of talking,’” he added.

Paris said he specifically resents what he perceives as an unfair stigma against religious beliefs influencing political decision-making.

“It’s that the progressives or the left-of-center in general are allowed to bring their own kind of secular fit into the room,” he added. “But we are being asked to leave our beliefs at the door.”

Especially in the wake of one of the most contentious and rancorous elections in U.S. history, Brown encouraged students who voted for Trump and those who didn’t to seek out “mutual toleration.”

But Donhauser pushed back on the claim that conservative beliefs are always dismissed outright, arguing that there is a sizable portion of the student population “open to discussion,” and willing to hear out conservative views.

Some conservatives on campus see a bright spot to their status on campus and perceived feelings of political marginalization. For instance, Brown said he enjoys the challenge of constantly defending and thinking through his views.

“In an odd kind of way, Harvard can be healthy to conservatives, because it allows us to constantly, day in and day out, challenge what we believe,” he said.

He said he believes students should be able to have discussions with those they disagree with politically.

“If you believe your views are strongly held in you, then you should have no problem exposing yourself to different types of philosophies that shouldn't suddenly taint you in some way,” he said.

Other right-of-center students, though, say they have sometimes felt less inclined to be vocal about their conservative views.

“It's kind of like always trying to hide that part of who I am,” Nichols said. “You need to pick your battles, and a lot of times if you're coming out to say, ‘Actually, I believe this,’ it's not going to go anywhere except people are going to get upset.”

Even though some conservative students feel disconnected politically from their left-leaning peers on campus, HRC has attempted to remain part of the campus political apparatus. For instance, HRC has on multiple occasions partnered with the Harvard College Democrats on “very friendly” debates and other initiatives, according to Donhauser.

‘A Mixed Bag’

Students said they have faced a range of responses from their professors over their political dispositions and what other students perceive as controversial opinions.

Paris said faculty members’ receptions to his political opinions have been a “mixed bag” – while some professors are receptive to debate, he said, others are less inclined. When picking out his classes each semester, he attempts to figure out how welcoming a faculty member is to conservative opinions.

“It isn't that a professor needs to be conservative, but just that they're willing to listen and they're willing to have the spine to enforce an environment of debate,” he said.

Around 1.5 percent of Harvard faculty reported they consider themselves “conservative” or “very conservative,” according to a March survey by The Crimson; 18.9 percent identified as moderate.

Brown agreed that the perceived lack of tolerance from some professors can be difficult to navigate.

“This mutual toleration of viewpoints is a substantial problem at Harvard, especially in a lot of the larger classes where what they're teaching really just can be just conformable to the way they view the world,” he said.

Lucas Chu ’23, who said he has spent his time at Harvard exploring politics from different angles, bemoaned what he perceives as some professors’ blinkered outlook.

“There was like no consideration when they were talking about political things on conservative plans,” he said of one course.

In recent years, multiple administrators have pushed back against what some have termed “cancel culture” in academic settings. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said in Sep. 2019 that “hearing each other’s points of view” should form a central part of the University's liberal arts mission.

Overall, Brown believes Harvard could do more to facilitate conservative dialogue in and out of the classroom.

“Harvard likes to tout their ability to have a great amount of diversity on campus, but I think they should start to put a lot of focus on political diversity too, especially in the faculty. I think that's where it begins,” he said.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on criticism of the perceived lack of political diversity among students and faculty, or on faculty members’ perceived exclusion of certain beliefs in the classroom.

Trying to ‘Bridge Across People’

Like other students, conservatives on campus feel passionate about a variety of political issues, ranging from climate change to abortion to taxes.

Donhauser said he is very involved in environmental activism, and along with other members from HRC, helped co-found Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, which advocates for a market-based approach to reducing carbon emissions.

“I think this is obviously an issue that affects all of us, right, and it's caused by all of us, but unfortunately that it seems that the left has had a monopoly on,” he said.

Nichols — who said she was adopted from China — said she has strong opinions on issues of cultural appropriation and identity politics.

“Cultural identity is something I struggle with – I was raised by white people, but I'm from China, and I don't really know what my ethnicity is,” she said. “I'm very East Asian-presenting, but I also look like I have something else in me, and I just don't know what it is.”

“If we're trying to monitor and restrict people to certain different groups, adhering to their own culture, then we're not going to really be able to have a peaceful coexistence,” she added.

For some conservatives, a few hot-button issues can motivate their political affiliation, even if they disagree with certain elements of the Republican platform or Republican candidates’ rhetoric.

Brown, for instance, said he cares deeply about abortion. But when he discusses the issue with more left-leaning students, he feels that taking a legal — rather than moral — approach can be more effective.

“Talking about the Constitution, it's easier to bridge across to people, as opposed to talking about the more ethical side of abortion and human life, because that one can get very heated,” he said.

‘Best-Case Scenario’

As the crowds on Massachusetts Avenue continued to grow on Saturday Nov. 7 in celebration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr’s election victory, multiple conservative Harvard students said they did not feel discouraged.

Donhauser even referred to the election results as a “best-case scenario” following widespread predictions of a “blue wave,” noting that Republicans were projected to lose the Senate and seats in the House of Representatives.

“Congress – and especially the House, which is the people’s House – shows to be getting more conservative,” he argued.

Paris — who identifies as Hispanic — expressed his satisfaction at Trump’s increased support among minority voters.

“One of the things that has been the absolute most interesting and vindicating parts of what we learned over the last few weeks is that the use of people's racial, ethnic, gender identities as political tools simply does not work,” he said.

Donhauser said he took solace in what he perceives as Biden’s moderate streak and willingness to compromise, adding that he sees Trump’s loss as a repudiation of the candidate, rather than the ideas that HRC and the Republican Party at large have promoted.

“It seems that him losing the election was not a rejection of the Republican party, of the GOP, but rather a rejection of him, the man, and in that I'm totally fine,” Donhauser said.

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at natalie.kahn@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalielkahn.

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