FeatureFebruary 7, 2013 at 6:23 am

The Red and the Blue

Being a college Republican in a liberal (arts) world.

“Does anyone here really think that two people who love each other should not be allowed to have that love recognized by the state?”

David [source asked not to be identified by his real name], a College sophomore and Republican, was not so sure that a professor should begin a class discussion on gay marriage with such a biased icebreaker. The topic arose in Hocine Fetni’s course “Law and Society,” where Fetni “would spend most of the ‘discussion’ time allotted for us  to express our viewpoints disparaging the conservative side,”

David said in an email. “It was especially bad during the election cycle, where [Fetni] would point out all the flaws in Romney’s positions for full class periods.”

It wasn’t as though the Republicans in the room had been forbidden to share their own perspectives, but the atmosphere had made Daniel and some of his fellow conservative classmates “scared to speak.”

David explained that Fetni once assigned a Democrat in the class to prepare a critique of Romney’s performance in a recent debate. When he asked if a Republican would meet the challenge for the incumbent candidate, the “right side of the aisle” kept mum.

“No one wanted to respond,” David added, “because we didn’t want him to know we were Republicans.”

The Republican Party. The Grand Old Party. The howdy–neighbor–Bible–thumpin’ GOP! Barring the ever–contested feasibility of Reaganomics, one thing about the modern Republican Party indeed has trickled down to the minds of this country’s younger generations—its confounding image.

When I started researching for this piece, I told some friends about the project. I was hoping to gain some insight on what seemed to me to be the singular plight of young Republicans at Penn: a serious image problem. So I wanted first to be candid with them.

“Well, I am a Republican,” I told one friend.


“I am. I thought you knew?”

“No! Wow—and I feel like I have good Republican–dar.”

I do say “y’all” and tend to drop the g’s in gerunds. I did grow up in Cobb County, Ga., which, according to a Daily Caller rating in 2010, ranked number 60 in the 100 most conservative–friendly counties in the country. (Two of the five adjacent counties made the top 20.) But are there signs, detectable only by Republican–dar, or stigmas attached to being a staunch Republican at Penn?

College junior Anthony Liveris, vice president of College Republicans, recently sat down with me and fellow CR board member and College junior Lucie Read to discuss a few of the misconceptions they have met as conservative students.

When I met Lucie, I recognized her face immediately: she told me that she and I shared a history class this semester. Wary to speak much of a class we had in common, she began instead with an experience in an urban studies class she had taken in the fall.

She remembered certain times when she would have liked to engage in a class discussion from a conservative point of view, but instead would text a Republican friend also in the class and say “Oh, I don’t know if I should say this.”

Unlike David, Lucie had found neither her classmates nor the professor especially unwelcoming, but rather believed “it was [her] own self–imposed stigma.”

Lucie, who said she grew up in a steadfastly Democratic household—her father, born in 1947, has never voted for a Republican presidential candidate—feels now that some of her trepidation in expressing her conservatism came “with having to defend myself” at home.

“I worked for the Romney campaign,” Anthony said, “and it was by far the most uncomfortable thing to say in a bar.” This, he added, had been most noticeable during the election season.

And maybe with good reason.

Last November, in Philadelphia’s 27th ward, which encompasses all of Penn’s campus, Democratic voters sealed the election for the President by a truly astounding margin: 85.2 percent to Romney’s 14. According to a poll released by The Daily Pennsylvanian, of all Penn voters registered last fall, 55 percent identified themselves as Democrats and 15 percent Republicans—more than nine points short of the “Independent” constituency.

The town, the college houses, hell, even the Benjamin Franklin statue, had all been painted blue.

College junior and College Republicans President Arielle Klepach felt an unease similar to Liveris’ last fall.

“Once, somebody said in front of me, ‘Remember that voter ID [law] that was so totally racist?’ Then she kind of turned around at me and said,” her tone here taking a sharp, disdainful turn, “‘Oh—sorry.’”

“[It's] a little awkward,” Arielle added, “when people know that you’re the only one who disagrees.”

“It almost seems like there isn’t a [Republican] presence here,” Anthony said, but “there actually are quite a lot of us. It’s because there is this stigma, just the idea that Penn is incredibly liberal, that kids are a little bit uncomfortable to break that barrier. But I firmly believe that Penn is actually quite moderate, especially with the Wharton presence.”

Lucie agreed. “I heard this during the election and I think it’s absolutely true,” she explained. “It’s a lot harder to be a Republican than to be a Democrat today. I think it’s harder to explain my views and have people not jump all over it.”

When William F. Buckley Jr. published “God and Man at Yale” in 1951—when he was still the crew–cut Ivy Leaguer, years before he would become the highfalutin’ harbinger of American Conservatism—a critic reviewed the book (and, more conspicuously, its author) in the New York Times: “You do not earn a heart–felt and conviction–carrying conservatism…without the inspiring agony of lonely, unrespectable soul–searching.”

Have Penn’s Republicans endured that kind of jarring introspection? If conservatism is reached by only the most forlorn and trying path, then by what right has a tide of young Republican students earned that rugged title?

“You know, you can have a healthy discourse on international relations, foreign affairs, and people respect the conservative angle,” Anthony said. “But it’s when you switch to entitlements, LGBT rights, that things get a little uncomfortable.”

He added that Obama “definitely just has that cool–guy mantra that Mitt Romney just didn’t have. So, to say I worked for Romney—it was like, ‘Why would you want

to be against Obama? He’s so awesome, look at the stuff he does for us.’”

This issue came up mostly in discussions of entitlements and federal aid for college students. Liveris said that for a Republican to touch on such a student–relevant pro

gram as the Pell Grant, and consider it alongside many other entitlement programs, sparks a strong reaction.

The response, he said, can become like: “‘You’re encroaching on me…You’re not going through what I’m going through, how can you dare attack this, I need this. This is my education.’”

The problem of discussing entitlements, however, raises certain questions of its own. Federal programs like the Pell Grant (which helps low-income students pay for college) benefit Democrat and Republican students alike—many of whom have not yet held a job where they must file tax returns. A fair rebuttal, then, might be to argue the credibility of calling for lower taxes or entitlement cuts when the person has had little experience with either.

But for many Penn conservatives, especially College Republicans—whose concerns as a club lie more in policy–making than in election talking points—the most productive strategy would be to look beyond one’s own demographic.

Supporters of Mitt Romney, whose policy on federal financial aid was less than explicit in his campaign, felt compelled to qualify their support by taking a broader view of national policy, outside of what would affect them most directly.

Anthony, for example, thought it best to “touch on that kind of issue and say, ‘Look, I obviously agree with helping students, but there are some entitlements we need to address…just as much as health care, just as much as foreign presence abroad. All of these things need to be on the table.”

What Republicans want most on campus is the chance to put their cards on the table and have their perspectives fairly considered and disassociated from the more Yosemite Sam-like acolytes of the GOP.

College senior Jonathan Skekloff said for any conservative on campus, the toughest issue is finding yourself involuntarily packaged as either a) a Tea Partier, or b) a social conservative.

While Jonathan has “had a lot of situations being the only conservative in the room,” he finds that conversations run more smoothly, conservative opinions digest more easily, when he makes clear that he is also socially liberal.

“The term ‘Republican’ has become tarnished by the extreme social conservatism you see in the ads on TV,” he said. However, “distinguishing yourself from that, people become more understanding.”

Though sometimes hesitant, Penn’s Republicans, like many others in this country, seem more than ready to shuttle forth the vanguard of a new, dynamic conservatism. Not all of them, of course, for the Party represents conservatives of all platforms and perspectives, students of every discipline, worshippers of all gods or none at all. They do comprise a minority voice on campus, but they are there. And most agree that there’s some pride in fighting against the grain.

“The underdog thing kind of fuels our fire, don’t you think?” Lucie asked me toward the end of our discussion.

And that reminded me of a passing comment Klepach made. In her group of friends, she said, with equal dignity and frustration, “I’m the token Republican.”



5 People have left comments on this post

By Republican on February 7, 2013 at 6:23 am

I am currently in a class with Fetni, and it’s ridiculous how biased he is and how much he disparages the GOP. I also have found myself afraid to speak up in class.

I think it’s also important to point out that I believe there is an unfair stigma against “social conservatism.” I am a Republican, and a social moderate, but I have many friends (mostly back home) who are well-informed, smart social conservatives. It is an unfair stereotype that all social conservatives are extremists hate-mongers. There is a legitimate counterpoint to every issue, and people should not be afraid to stand up and say they are socially conservative anymore than they should be afraid to say they are fiscally conservative.

By Dani on February 7, 2013 at 6:23 am

Dear CR,

Boo hoo. I can not, will not, and do not feel bad for people’s discomfort in political conversations when they don’t believe that gays deserve equal rights.

While I understand, quite acutely, that being the minority can make anyone feel uncomfortable, and universities do tend to be liberal spaces, it’s really difficult to stick up for a group of students who support a party that advocates social and fiscal policies designed to destroy opportunity for people like me. As long as you enjoy the right to voice your beliefs – as exemplified by this article – and people don’t openly persecute you for them, then honestly, on your head be the rest of it. Perhaps your unease stems from the uncomfortable awareness that the Republican Party of today is not “conservative” in the ideals of Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, or either of the Bushes, or in a way that most people are comfortable with respecting. It is a noisy, fascist disgrace. It’s also hard to respect a party so overwhelmingly and obviously comprised of privileged and/or ignorant and/or prejudiced white people. So even though some of your peers (including me) may respect some conservative viewpoints, especially with the politically moderating force of Wharton, few people can stick up for the Party itself.

Perhaps if today’s Republican Party advocated policies that weren’t so repugnant to the good senses of humanity, and saying things like women’s bodies can shut down pregnancy if the rape is legitimate, 47 percent of this country is lazy, and stereotyping minorities, then perhaps they might be able to attract a demographic that looks more like America, and perhaps then they could fit in better on a college campus. Perhaps if you actually called out your Party for its gross obscenities and excesses, as your VP tried to do, and then canvassed in support of actually changing your Party’s platform, instead of offering a bunch of empty words entirely undermined by the fact that you continue to vote for them and support them as they are, then perhaps you could earn some more “college street cred.” In the meantime, I refuse to be moved by this piece and all the other College Republican complaints of social discomfort on campus.

I have very conservative and even Republican friends who I appreciate as individuals, and I’m sure that’s the case for a lot of people. (It’s almost like my friend who’s embarrassingly in love with One Direction while the band annoys me to no end – we agree to disagree and overlook that flaw. Except that One Direction doesn’t have the power and will to deny scores of millions of people basic civil rights and reproductive healthcare, run up the deficit with unnecessary wars and tax cuts for the wealthy at the cost of tax hikes for the middle class, and reduce funding for education.) Anyway, my point is: don’t expect a lot of people around you to appreciate your party affiliation when, frankly, a lot of people around you find that party offensive.

By someone who is ACTUALLY open-minded on February 7, 2013 at 6:23 am

Wow, I’d like to thank “Dani” for perfectly demonstrating the intolerance so present at Penn, with your negative, ignorant, and judgmental rant. Case in point.

By someone who is ACTUALLY open-minded on February 7, 2013 at 6:23 am

Quite frankly, I find your comment hilarious, seeing as you’re a supporter of the party that prides itself on being tolerant and accepting. How can you condemn someone for their religious views, while accusing THEM of being the ones who are not accepting? I always find it surprising that students who are bright enough to get into Penn can be so hypocritical and fail to see their own lack of logic, but sadly I have encountered many like you.

By Jykes on February 7, 2013 at 6:23 am

Republicans suck

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