Crosscurrents of conservatism make way across liberal campus

While the College is not known for its strong political activism, it is often associated with a dominantly liberal political mindset. Stemming from progressive stances on ideas ranging from gay rights to sustainability and the environment, both the College and Williamstown have been classified – by observers, students, professors, alumni and the community at large – as communities of liberal political ideology. Although the individual beliefs and values of students at the College are certainly diverse, it is clear that conservative students on campus are in the political minority; tracing that minority is a matter of greater relevance as political polarization becomes an increasingly frustrating reality beyond the purple bubble.

Evolution of the Garfield Republican Club

Founded in 1982 by Dan Blatt ’85, the Garfield Republican Club (GRC) has been the College’s primary venue over the past 25 years for conservative students to gather and discuss their political views. Blatt, who was openly gay during his time at the College, delivered a talk last month titled “The Bush Administration: The Golden Age for Gays in America,” in which he spoke about what he believed to be the high quality of life for gay individuals during this period.

Raphael Menko ’12, president of the GRC, understands the club’s founder to have been a minority on campus in ways besides his sexuality. “Even in the 80s it was very, very liberal at Williams,” Menko said. “[Blatt] stood out [as a Republican] and was constantly challenged.”

When Menko arrived at the College as a first-year, the GRC was essentially defunct, and he made it his personal project to rejuvenate its membership. He said he recalls club members claiming that they were “afraid to tell people they were conservative” for fear of being labeled as unintelligent or selfish.

“Even though people at Williams are intelligent and well-read, they have an aversion to speaking their mind for fear of having their whole class descend upon them,” Menko said. “And at a small school, nobody wants that reputation.”

He noted that the club is “not just for Republicans,” and that in fact most of its membership consists of libertarian students who are not necessarily socially conservative on contentious issues such as gay rights or abortion.

Menko said that the club did consider changing its name, but decided against it out of respect for Blatt, the founder. He also noted that when the GRC advertises its events on campus, it hopes to promote “a tag-line on everything” that would specifically stipulate that “everyone is welcome.” He said that the club encourages a diversity of political thought, including those who may disagree with the views of its members.

“I’ve definitely become more libertarian [since I] came to school,” Menko said. “I was definitely more Republican [in high school]. I became more of a rational person in college. I took a political theory class and had conversations with my friends. I still don’t consider myself a true libertarian, though.”

John Bennett ’06, a former member of the GRC, said that while the club brought speakers to campus during his time at the College, it was mostly inactive. “But it was hard to blame the leadership for keeping the club’s head down,” Bennett said. “Williams at that time was a frightening place to be a conservative.”

Rob Smith ’10 clarified what it meant for the GRC to essentially not exist during much of his time at the College. “It doesn’t mean conservative students didn’t exist,” Smith said. “I actually got the sense that Williams was – and still is – much more politically balanced than most people think. That being said, liberals clearly have a stronger voice on campus, so I can’t blame anyone for thinking they account for 90 percent of the student body.”

Smith speculated that politically conservative students at the College “are less likely to be involved with student organizations that promote their values … primarily because conservatives at Williams are individualists” and therefore seem “quieter relative to their liberal counterparts,” he said.

Darel Paul, associate professor of political science, spoke to the GRC’s shifting political sway on campus. “I arrived at Williams in 2001, and over my 10 years here the [GRC] has certainly waxed and waned,” Paul said. “It seemed stronger, more prominent, 10 years ago than today, but less active five years ago. In the mid-2000s there were some active social conservatives associated with Williams for Life and Williams Catholic … but this activism seems to have completely disappeared in recent years.”

Paul said that he has seen socially conservative students associated with the College’s religious groups, but not necessarily as prominent participants in the political sphere on campus, where he believes most of the College’s conservative students share more libertarian beliefs.

Carson Eisenach ’14, a member of the GRC, said he appreciates the club for providing a space to discuss current events. Especially with the national election approaching next fall, Eisenach understands the club’s goal this year as one of educating the student body about Republican candidates, organizing debates and bringing political speakers to campus.

Menko also values an increase in political discussion on campus. “I guess what unifies the club is an against-the-grain mentality,” Menko said. “There’s a regression at Williams toward the uncontroversial, which tends to be liberal.”

Changing political climate

Republican Party has really become a much more conservative party than it was in my day in the 50s,” Dew said. “I think that if you factor in the [focus on] religion, the opposition of the lifting of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the opposition to gay marriage and the fact that Republicans either fairly or unfairly are suspected of using these social issues as wedge issues to divide the electorate … I think a lot of our students are uncomfortable with that.”

Dew added that the College’s openness towards diversity and tolerance over the years certainly has helped to set its political tone, but student culture plays a part as well.

“Progressives and liberals look at the world as a place that can be made better, and conservatives look at the world as a place that shouldn’t change,” Dew said. “Williams students … like to challenge each other’s ideas. And it seems that so much of contemporary American conservatism has already made up its mind.”

Smith sees the College as having “embraced some tenets of mainstream liberalism” over time, including affirmative action and a concern for climate change. “Racial affirmative action is a part of the admissions process. Global warming has become a proxy for liberalism, at least in the U.S., and the [College] touts its green achievements,” Smith said. “Because liberals are the dominant voice on campus, it means that when conservatism is discussed in public it is being discussed by students who don’t understand it and who want to disagree with it … If conservatives discussed liberalism in public, I would expect to see a similar misunderstanding.”

Dew explained that much of the thrust of conservative political thought is contingent on the idea of freedom as a sacrosanct value.

“The way in which Americans have defined freedom … has changed and expanded over time,” he said, elaborating that during the Revolution freedom was understood as independence; during the mid-19th century it meant equality of opportunity and during the 20th century, as economic depression hit, freedom was associated with a basic level of security for indviduals. “It’s that last definition that conservatives are challenging today. And they want to go back to that first definition of freedom,” Dew said.

He added that most fiscally conservative students adopt this viewpoint because  they see more liberal economic policy trending towards as unfair appropriations of resources by the government.

Paul said that conservative students at the College tend to fall under the political opinion of what used to be called “liberal Republicanism,” or social liberalism trending toward libertarianism on issues such as abortion, marriage, drugs and religion and towards a centrist or center-right economic standpoint on issues including taxes, trade, the environment and financial regulation. “This is the ideology of the American professional-managerial class, after all, and as one of the top training grounds for that class, Williams rather predictably reflects its social location,” Paul said.

Conservatives as a minority on campus

Despite this social location, liberal political thought tends to stand out as the dominant voice on campus, often prompting conservative students to feel marginalized or even alienated.

Menko said that while events on diversity and inclusion proliferate during First Days, diversity of ideas does not come up. “I’ve come to the conclusion that Williams is selectively open to diversity,” Menko said.

Smith talked about professorial reception of conservatism. “There is no doubt that there are more liberal professors than conservative ones [at the College] … It is unfortunate that conservative students take this to mean that they shouldn’t voice their opinions. I actually think professors really enjoy having multiple views in the classroom,” he said.

Menko’s experience has differed. “It’s frustrating when professors and classmates are non-sensitive to people who are Republican,” he said. “There’s an assumption in class that everyone is of the same political orientation. There’s an assumption that Republicans are dumb and don’t care about the public good and are very selfish and financially driven.”

Bennett mentioned his personal experience when the U.S. invaded Iraq under President George W. Bush during his first year at the College. “As one of the few conservative Texans within a hundred miles of Williamstown, I was expected to answer for a lot,” he said. Bennett, who now works as General Counsel in the office of Republican Texas State Senator Craig Estes, said that the situation taught him how to argue with people effectively.

“I was almost always seriously outnumbered,” Bennett said. “I had to know every angle of a hundred different political arguments that I might face in any given week. I had to examine my own views ahead of time to make sure they were logically tight. I had to know what I believed and why I believed it.”

For Menko too, ideological challenges are exciting and useful. “Why do you go to school where everyone agrees with you? That’s silly. I treasure those debates that I have with my entry-mates,” he said. “That’s fun. It isn’t good to be preaching to the choir.”

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