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 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.”