Pamela Larkin ’19 | President of the Smith Republicans
I’m a moderate liberal, and I am the president of Smith Republicans. I believe that productive and reasonable disagreement is essential for healthy political culture. The Smith Republican Club is crucial to the betterment of not only conservative ideas but also liberal ones and the future of American democracy.
First, let’s acknowledge the extent to which liberal ideology is dominant and mostly unchallenged at Smith — both in classroom interactions and at out-of-classroom political events. In 2015, Smith’s Office of Institutional Research found that 63% of enrolled students identified as “liberal” or “very liberal,” 16% identify as “moderate/middle-of-the-road” and 3% identify as “conservative.” (The rest identified as “something else” or selected “haven’t thought about it that much.”) Out of 1,360 respondents, two identified as “very conservative.” This means that on average, a Smith classroom with 25 students has 16 liberals, four moderates, and 0.79 conservatives.
As a government major, I have seen the impact these demographics have on political discussions inside and outside the classroom. For example, last semester, the government department hosted a speaker with liberal views, to talk about how intentional Republican gerrymandering has increased political polarization and damaged democracy.
The speaker’s thesis went unchallenged in the discussion after the lecture.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to ask a conservative scholar for his opinion on gerrymandering’s effect on political polarization. He replied that the Senate has led the way in political polarization, and the House of Representatives has followed. Since Senate races are state-wide and cannot be gerrymandered, (Republican) gerrymandering seems to be more a symptom, rather than a cause, of political polarization. It is difficult to tell who is right, but there is no doubt that a conversation between the two views would be compelling. Unfortunately, genuine and reasonable pushback on liberal ideas is uncommon at Smith.
The lack of political conversation is an issue because ideologies suffer when they receive only positive reinforcement. Without serious debate, the pillars of an ideology become less grounded, and its believers become less persuasive. Domination by one set of ideas warps conceptions of “truth”; something that is considered true at Smith might not be true elsewhere.
For example, many liberals (and many Smith students) believe the public education system is underfunded. In a conversation about the education system, where this idea was stated as fact, one conservative student I spoke with responded, “I don’t agree; it seems suspicious to me when people say a system would be fixed if you just gave it more money.” This difference in basic assumptions means that conversations at Smith about improvements to the education system (that assume the liberal “truth”) are unpersuasive in many spaces outside of Smith (where the liberal assumption is not accepted as “truth”).
The domination of liberal ideology at Smith creates an environment where students come to a consensus on sets of “truths” that are not mutually accepted by much of the country. In addition, a space dominated by one set of ideas becomes an echo chamber where people don’t have to defend their opinions. Smith students frequently don’t have to justify liberal “truths” on campus, in class or at other political events. If there was more criticism of liberal ideas at Smith, it would make these ideas more persuasive, and it would force individuals to learn to defend their own rhetoric. Many arguments, especially political ones, come down to a fundamental disagreement in opinions or difference in values, and disagreement is an effective way to make those differences clear. Identifying these differences clearly, and possibly finding some common ground, is the first step in meaningful progress. In this way, the scarcity of genuine, reasonable conservative opinions at Smith works to the detriment of liberal ideology and all Smith students.
Before I conclude, I want to clarify three things.
Firstly, I support efforts at Smith to create comfortable, safe spaces for queer students, students of color and students who might otherwise be made uncomfortable by conventional college culture. For the purposes of this article, I do not define these efforts as a part of “liberal ideology.” My focus is specifically on promoting discussion of genuine, reasonable conservative ideology in classes and at out-of-class political events. Secondly, I exclude conservatives who relish their “shock value” from the category of “genuine, reasonable” conservatives. Any believer in an ideology who presents an argument with the goal of inciting outrage is, by definition, not presenting an argument with the goal of being reasonable. Thirdly, I recognize that many students come to Smith specifically for the culture that embraces liberalism and that many of them have experienced harmful conservative cultures outside of Smith. My goal is to maintain the open culture many of us joined Smith for while making room for vigorous debate in specific educational and political spaces.
There are many ways to promote conservative ideas at Smith while maintaining the culture we all enjoy and reaping the benefits of compelling political disagreement. Administrators and the Student Government Association should recognize the importance of encouraging students to interact with conservative ideas, bring more conservative speakers to campus and offer more support to organizations that bring conservative speakers to campus (like the Republican Club and the Bipartisan Coalition). Professors should assign more readings that argue the conservative opinions, play devil’s advocate in one-sided discussions and challenge students to justify their assumptions and opinions (even if everyone in the room agrees with them). Similarly, Smith students should contribute to all of the above! Attend events with conservative speakers, play devil’s advocate in class and ask your professors how conservatives view a topic when it is not presented.
Last but not least, join the Republican Club! Help us bring genuine, reasonable conservative speakers to campus, advertise these events and encourage political discourse across campus. In the long run, we all stand to benefit.