Following Mitt Romney’s twenty-three-point loss to President Obama among the youth vote, the Republican Party has rightfully focused its attention on increasing its support among this important demographic.
Unfortunately, the outcome of this effort has been a call for the party to abandon its support for life and marriage in order to bring the party more in line with the opinions of younger voters. “I know that neither I nor (almost) anybody else coming of age today supports the Republican social agenda. That's the way the country is moving—so just deal with it,” wrote George Washington University freshman Sarah Westwood in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal following the 2012 elections. Many others have since echoed her tune.
John Londregan and Luis Tellez on Public Discourse already have shown why the Republican Party should continue its principled support of life and marriage, but the debate has thus far ignored a critical obstacle to the conservative movement’s efforts to appeal to youth: the American college campus. More than sixty years ago, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote in God and Man at Yale that on college campuses, “the conservatives, as a minority, are the new radicals.” We remain so today.
After three years at the helm of Harvard’s student conservative movement, I know that the campus is not only liberal but also hostile to conservatives, especially social conservatives. As the Republican Party and fellow conservatives try to appeal to young voters, they must not ignore the university environment in which many of those voters live and learn. The actual state of America’s universities is worse than most Republicans realize, not because conservatives’ efforts have failed but because they have not wholeheartedly been tried. Instead of abandoning fundamental portions of the Republican platform, it’s time for the party to embrace a new one: outreach to America’s universities on social issues.
In 2010, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found in a survey of 24,000 college students that only 35.6 percent agreed with the statement, “it is safe to hold unpopular views on campus.” Of 9,000 campus professionals, only 18.8 percent agreed with the same statement. The use of the word “safe” in the survey is particularly telling; it reveals how suffocating the university environment is for conservatives.
On election night in 2008 (before my time on campus), Harvard Republicans called the University police to escort them home in order to safely leave their election night event as their classmates celebrated in the streets. In the four years since the incident, little has changed, and the groups and students promoting life, marriage, and sexual fidelity bear the brunt of the attacks. Harvard Right to Life’s “Cemetery of the Innocents” display, like those on multiple other campuses, has been vandalized. The Harvard Anscombe Society and Harvard Right to Life have been unable to put up posters on campus for years; the posters are consistently torn down within an hour of being put up. Students also have complained that advisers discourage them from taking classes taught by known conservative professors for the sole reason that the professors are conservative.
Despite our complaints, the university has not responded to these incidents. However, like many other universities, it has been happy to sponsor events such as Sex Week, a week with events such as “S&M 101” with The New England Leather Alliance and “The Female Orgasm and All Things Penis!” with Margeaux the Vulva Puppet. Most recently, Harvard recognized a new BDSM and “kinky sex” student group that caught the attention of the media and seemed to surprise everyone except those already at Harvard. Given the view of sex that universities such as Harvard have already supported, it would be hypocritical for them not to recognize BDSM and other “kinky sex” groups.
Among the faculty in today’s universities, perhaps a few are conservative, and even fewer publicly so. In their absence, conservative students must take the stand, although they are often silenced while their liberal counterparts receive active support and funding from the university. Where, then, is it likely that the undecided or wavering student will turn? To the small student group (or, in the case of Vanderbilt, unrecognized student group), or to the persistent echoes of “marriage equality” and “women’s rights” promoted from nearly every corner of campus? It is always easier to attack an opponent’s argument than it is to defend one’s own, but especially so when one’s opponent is not even present to defend his argument. In an environment hostile to conservatives, many students become liberal not because they disagree with conservatives but because they have never heard an intellectual argument for conservatism.
Given these circumstances, Ms. Westwood’s prescription to “just deal with” the “way the country is moving” on these important questions of marriage and life is especially destructive. For the Republican Party and conservative movement to abandon their stances on these issues is to abandon the effort started by Buckley to restore America’s colleges and universities, and to accept that young Americans and universities will remain liberal.
The Republican Party and College Republican National Committee are eager to contact and mobilize young conservatives prior to national elections, but they by and large disappear during the rest of the year. Although campaigning is a necessary and exciting activity for college conservatives, we must be viewed as more than bodies to knock on doors for a few months every other year. On the morning after election night, something of the college conservative movement must continue forward without campaign activities. With the retreat of conservatives from academia, on many campuses we remain the only conservative voice to push back against the liberal majority, but the odds are stacked against us. We can campaign, but the party also needs to invest in us, to develop young scholars with the capabilities and the courage to make the conservative argument to professors, students, and administrators.
How can we develop young conservatives and begin to reform higher education? First, as Todd Hartch wrote in Public Discourse two years ago, conservative professors and faculty members must end their “Ostpolitik” and begin defending the truth on America’s campuses. It requires risk and more than a bit of courage, but on campuses where many students have never heard the intellectual conservative argument concerning moral issues, their words can inspire previously silent conservative students and introduce some healthy skepticism to the minds of their liberal classmates (and professors).
Second, without conservative voices in positions of authority on campus, we need better funding to bring conservative scholars to campus. Many outside groups offer pocket Constitutions and their own publications, but students are much more likely to come hear a speaker than read a pamphlet. With financial help from the Love and Fidelity Network, The Harvard Anscombe Society last spring hosted Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse to speak about sexual ethics in a well-attended event that countered the message of Harvard’s Sex Week. The Heritage Foundation has scheduled events on our campus with scholars such as constitutional expert David Azerrad that inspired students to write in campus publications defending the first principles of the Constitution and arguing against the HHS mandate. Events like these drive attendance, generate headlines, and, most importantly, educate and inspire students. They require time, resources, and close coordination between student groups and outside organizations, but they can provide conservative scholars and accomplished leaders to campuses that lack both. With them, we can grow our community and increase our campus presence in ways that reading intellectual papers and books alone cannot.
Third, and finally, conservative students must remain strong and true to their purpose. It may be easier to stand for entitlement reform and lower taxes, but, as Ms. Westwood’s despair demonstrates, what the campus desperately needs are students willing to stand up for sexual fidelity, marriage, and life. University administrators cannot change tax rates, but they can fund Sex Week. So it is up to the students to build organizations that promote the message of life, liberty, and true love on campus. The results of being a strong college conservative are worth the ridicule and minority status. With the growth in the main conservative groups at Harvard, we have created an exceptionally close community of friends. While the opportunity to debate our liberal classmates allows us to improve our arguments, we also know that we are part of a movement and not alone.
As Republicans vie for the support of America’s youth, they must recognize the environment in which they are competing. For most American college students, being socially conservative requires the courage to face both hateful remarks and punitive consequences. More than sixty years ago, Buckley urged Americans to revolt against a university system that was liberal and intolerant. It’s time for the Republican message to take up his cause, because it is right and necessary for their arguments to reach America’s youth. The students have been pushing back against liberal dominance, but we cannot solve the problem on our own. We need the full support of our party and conservative allies.
Derek Bekebrede is a senior majoring in economics at Harvard University.