In “The Righteous Mind,” a magisterial 2012 work on the moral psychology of political ideology, New York University’s Jon Haidt dishes out some unwelcome news to his predominantly liberal readership: By the numbers, liberals don’t seem to get much about the conservative mind. The political reality at Harvard more than occasionally bears this out. However, in his attempt to push back against the prejudices of an overwhelmingly liberal field, Haidt all too often glosses over the pathologies and blind spots of the right.
In March 2010, a poll conducted by Harris revealed that 67 percent of Republicans surveyed thought President Obama a socialist, despite very ample evidence to the contrary. In light of this, the president has kept remarkably mum about his law school alma mater over the course of the last few years, lest he be tarred and feathered for association with the much-maligned “Kremlin on the Charles.”
But after three years of appreciating that the reddest thing on the Charles is the brick-faced business school, it’s clear enough to me that if anyone needs a reality check as to what goes on behind enemy lines, it’s the conservatives. Inasmuch as Harvard is a solidly liberal place, campus socialists operate under just as much scorn as their religious conservative peers. On a campus where Obama walloped Romney by a 60 percent margin and self-identified Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly five-to-one, students live remarkably conservative lifestyles, flock to the financial services sector, and avoid radical protest like the plague.
My intention is not at all to burn the liberal mainstream and apologize for the far left. On the contrary, I would like to set the record straight for conservatives who conflate Barack Obama with Saul Alinsky, Harvard with Haight-Ashbury, and Rachel Maddow with Emma Goldman: The liberal and the leftist are distinctly different species—ideologically, culturally, and cognitively. If the defining challenge for the opposition in the Obama era were compromising with Lenin, the paranoid intractability of the contemporary Republican Party might be justified. But with true leftists considered in perspective, the oft-bemoaned chasm between American conservative and American liberal narrows to a crack, manageable with a bit of political backbone.
Living among the liberals, I can begin by dispelling one particularly stubborn conservative myth: that liberals hate capitalism, the American way of life, and—most incongruously—freedom of choice. Contrary to this narrative, moderate liberals are an extremely common scene on Wall Street trading floors and are the rule, rather than the exception, in Silicon Valley start-ups. In “Coming Apart,” conservative libertarian Charles Murray’s account of the cultural chasm rending middle-class America asunder, the statistics show that Ivy League elites—the scourge of “Real America”-type conservatives—are the demographic most likely to get married, stay married, and follow the arc of the classic American dream. In a matter of a few decades, these will be my Harvard classmates. Though less inclined than conservatives to hold institutions like “the market” and “family” sacred, they are actually more likely to participate in them.
The leftists, a loud but tiny minority at Harvard and an effective rounding error in the American arena at large, have little patience for traditional institutions. If they voted for Obama at all, it was with a deep sense of trepidation and ambivalence. More recently, while the conservatives kvetched to no end about the threat to the institution of marriage posed by the liberal campaign for marriage equality, hard leftists from the other side of the spectrum took to mocking Human Rights Campaign’s red equal-sign as well, rejecting marriage as “un-queer” and proclaiming, “Assimilation is not liberation!” When leftists criticize corporate greed, it is not in the gentle, “mend it, but please don’t end it” tone offered up by Beltway Democrats—but rather with the overthrow of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in mind.
This is not to say that Harvard liberals are all a bouquet of roses or that the ideological left leaves nothing to be admired. Unlike Harvard’s leftists and conservatives, who deserve credit for welcoming controversy and stirring the pot on a daily basis, liberals in Cambridge haven’t the need for an ounce of courage—they will always be part of a majority, supported by myriad resource centers, bureaus, and ideologically naked professors. By comparison, whether by disposition or by numerical circumstance, the leftists among us are forced to make bold statements—some productively challenging, and some annoying.
By now, it should be evident that “Kremlin on the Charles” is as inaccurate an epithet as would be “Phalange on the Charles,” that Barack Obama is an establishment liberal and not a radical socialist, and that Americans liberals are at least as far from the hard left as they are from the right. Taken together with Professor Haidt’s insight that liberals don’t get conservatives, these basic conclusions suggest a severe dissociation lurking behind America’s mounting political dysfunction: We all fundamentally misunderstand each other. It’s high time that we start listening.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays. Follow him on Twitter @Josh_Lipson