‘You don’t talk about it’: Being conservative at Washington University
In the fall of 2016, Drew McPike was a first-semester freshman at Washington University. Waiting in line for Bear’s Den pasta one night, he struck up a conversation with an acquaintance from class.
Having started school at Washington University only a few months before, McPike had already learned not to “stir the pot” by expressing his right-leaning political views too loudly. “I just knew that wasn’t a way to make friends,” he said.
But with the presidential election looming only a few weeks in the future, and McPike already settling into a political science major, the conversation naturally turned to politics.
“She finally asked me who I was going to vote for and I hesitated for a second, thinking, ‘Do I really want to?’ And then I thought, ‘Well, you know what? She asked me, I’m going to be honest,’” McPike said. “So, I told her, ‘Yeah, I’m going to vote for Donald Trump.’”
For McPike, now a junior and the president of the College Republicans, the conversation in the pasta line typifies responses to his conservative views.
“She kind of paused for a second and gave me this look,” he said. “She didn’t yell at me or anything, which I really appreciated. But you could tell that right away took her a second and be like, really? Like, you’re going to do that? And I expected that. It wasn’t the first time that it happened to me.”
McPike’s experience in the pasta line echoes the perceptions of many conservative students at Washington University, who often feel like they need to hide their political views or risk social isolation on a predominantly liberal campus.
A liberal campus
The majority of Washington University students identify as unabashedly liberal. In the survey Student Life conducted for this special issue, 73 percent of respondents identified as either “somewhat liberal” or “very liberal,” with the latter group being larger than the former. A further 15 percent identified as “moderate,” leaving only 6 percent of respondents identifying as “somewhat conservative” and a meager 2 percent describing themselves as “very conservative”. The remaining 4 percent identified either as independent or another political affiliation.
By all accounts, voter turnout reflects these survey trends. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, another Student Life survey found that 93 percent of students registered to vote planned on voting for Hillary Clinton. This would make Washington University far more liberal than even the college-aged demographic nationally, with USA Today estimating that 56 percent of those aged 18 to 24 voted for Clinton.
These surveys are far from scientific, but in the absence of truly comprehensive data anecdotal evidence points to this being an accurate depiction of students’ political ideologies.
For example, in one of McPike’s classes—a discussion-based political science class of just under 20 students—a professor conducted an anonymous survey of students that included a measure of political affiliation.
“There was one person identified as Republican, and I knew exactly who that was, because that was me,” McPike said.
In fact, for president of the College Democrats and junior Hannah Wheaton, one of the largest political divides on campus isn’t between right and left at all.
“I think at Wash. U. there’s a lot more students in the Democrat or progressive category, which is super broad, and I would say encompasses a lot of students who have really varying opinions about things,” she said. “There’s a lot larger presence of people who have…a little bit more radical economic ideas, which doesn’t mean that they’re are invalid…but it is definitely a lot more progressive in some respects than Democrats that I’ve experienced [elsewhere].”
Joshua Kahky, junior and president of Young Americans for Liberty—a group for political discussion on campus that tends to attract right-leaning students—put it more bluntly.
“There are very few right-leaning students that I’ve actually come in contact with,” he said.
Conservatives on a liberal campus
In addition to demonstrating the overwhelmingly liberal demographics of the University, many responses to Student Life’s survey also brought to light a widespread discontent among right-leaning students. Among the responses were “I don’t feel respected academically by my peers because of my political beliefs,” “many moderate and conservative students feel alienated and socially threatened by some of the rhetoric that can be heard from the mainly left-leaning student populace” and, simply, “Wash. U. is a liberal echo tunnel.”
Critiques came not only from right-leaning students, but from their liberal peers as well.
“I wish we were more tolerant of Republican views, coming from someone who is a Democrat,” one respondent wrote. “In a lot of ways, I feel unchallenged in my political views on campus, but for the few things I do have questions about, I worry about asking them due to potential backlash,” another wrote.
More than anything, respondents expressed a hesitancy to express any views on campus that deviated from the left-leaning norm, citing social as well as academic consequences. The responses, including one that said “If you are conservative, you don’t talk about it,” came as no surprise to Kahky.
“I’ve definitely felt that if I try to discuss my political opinions on some hot button issue, most of the time my friends around me will give me the stink eye,” he said.
McPike agreed, citing stories from conservatives he knows including a “Make America Great Again” hat being forcibly knocked from someone’s head and perceived discrimination in grading based on the political views expressed.
“I’ve heard stories about other people on campus that have been treated poorly because of their political leanings, and I just don’t want to deal with that,” he said. “I know that when we had our midterm launch party, people wanted to show up in Republican gear. So, for instance, I have a Reagan-Bush shirt, and when I went to my work study job that day, I wanted to wear the shirt all day. But I’m not going to wear it.”
Wheaton, despite her own political beliefs, also understands the sense of alienation many conservatives feel.
“I’m a strong opponent of Donald Trump. I think that he’s a fearmonger and I think if I was a conservative…I would fear saying that I was a conservative right now just because I think that a lot of students at Wash. U. link being a conservative and being supportive of Donald Trump or as being representative of a larger movement of hatred and bigotry,” she said. “I do honestly dislike that that’s how people feel. I don’t think that that’s the kind of campus and the kind of culture that we should be cultivating.”
The University and free speech
In the national media, news about right-leaning voices on campus often come not from students themselves, but from University administrators and their decisions to allow—or not to allow—right-leaning speech on campus. High profile incidents at the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University and Stanford University have sparked debates about where the responsibility lies in regard to censoring speech on campus.
For Dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion Emelyn dela Pena, the line for censoring speech on campus is a fine one.
“If someone is inciting violence, if someone is causing sustained harassment of a particular community then we would probably step in and say, you know, this is now harassment, or this is inciting violence,” she said. “I think rightly so our policies lean much more towards allowing speech no matter how offensive it is. Because when you stifle certain speech, historically [that power has] been used against the marginalized, too.”
Beyond simply allowing discourse from across the political spectrum, Washington University actively encourages initiatives to promote dialogue on campus. This year, the University hosted an event in which Chancellor Mark Wrighton and others spoke entitled “Reflections: Unity, Social Justice & Peace” focused on fostering open dialogue on campus. The University also supported a number of initiatives aimed at encouraging dialogue and voter turnout in the lead-up to the midterm elections. These included “Party at the Polls,” an initiative aimed at getting students out to vote sponsored by the Gephardt Institute, and the Common Ground Grant, a grant for which groups on campus can apply if they intend to use the money to foster greater dialogue on campus.
As assistant director for civic engagement education in the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, Theresa Kouo is one of the most active administrators in these efforts.
“I think one of the things that’s important in terms of the mission of higher education is to make sure that we are exposing students to lots of different viewpoints,” Kouo said. “And I think where the rub has been in recent years is that the politicizing of different issues has sort of been entrenched in that if you believe these things then [people believe] you must be conservative, or you must be a Republican or you must be a Democrat.”
In addition to these events, student-run groups like the College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty provide spaces for right-leaning students to discuss political issues. Unlike the College Democrats, who focus primarily on connecting students with avenues for activism in support of liberal causes, both groups function primarily as spaces for discussion, perhaps to make up for the space they feel is absent elsewhere on campus.
“If [those clubs] don’t exist, it’s hard for those students who want to find that community to find it,” Kouo said. “Because I think that there is a fear—whether real or projected—that if [right-leaning students] sort of ‘out’ themselves, that they could be like ostracized or challenged by other students who don’t agree with them.”
For Kahky, the University’s efforts are appreciated.
“I think the administration does a good job in fostering open conversation,” he said. “I think a lot of people who get the emails from the chancellor and provost sometimes just doesn’t really look at them, throw them away. Especially when hot button issues like the shooting at the synagogue that recently came up, they usually offer a forum where you can talk about what you feel on the matter.”
For Brown School of Social Work graduate student Graham Zulu, who moved to the United States for graduate school after attending school in Zambia and Turkey, University administrators sometimes sends more subtle messages that may not live up to their stated goals. In fact, Zulu distinctly remembers entering the Brown School common room early in the year and finding all the televisions there tuned to CNN.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Where is Fox News?’” he said. “Coming to [the United States], I really want to be challenged in my views, and that didn’t feel like challenging to me.”
McPike, for his part, believes the University could do more to promote ideological diversity on campus.
“They’re obviously not censoring a College Republican group, so I can’t say that they’re actively [working against] diversity of opinion. But I think in some sense that even if there’s not not an active effort to quash that diversity in opinion, it’s happening,” he said. “They’re not really fostering a community in which diversity of opinion is really valued.”
“No one takes me seriously”
For most right-leaning students, the primary consequences they see from expressing their beliefs come not in the form of University censorship, but rather social reprimands from their peers.
“Most people won’t be outright mad at you or say something to you,” Kahky said. “A lot of the time it’ll just be passive. It’s like a cold shoulder or somebody who may have been friendly with you a day before will just stop talking to you or they’ll try to avoid eye contact when walking past you. It’s noticeable.”
Junior Matt Rappaport, who considers himself a moderate and an opponent of Donald Trump, believes that campus culture often prevents right-leaning students from speaking out.
“I know a ton of people actually who voted for Donald Trump but did not feel comfortable saying that they did,” Rappaport said. “I actually know a Latino student who voted for Donald Trump and…obviously they couldn’t really talk about their views.”
According to Zulu, who often plays “devil’s advocate” for conservative views in his Brown School classes, one student actually approached him after class to thank him for expressing opinions they felt they couldn’t.
“I asked him why he didn’t speak up, and he just said, ‘Are you crazy? I’m a Republican. If I say what I think no one takes me seriously.’”
Kahky, in particular, often posts his political ideas to his Facebook account, with reaction often being intensely negative. He recently posted an article from The Federalist, for example, with the post garnering three reacts and 53 comments. The comments section of an earlier post was overrun with commenters who decided that rather than “feeding into Josh’s persecution-complex,” they would post “cute animal GIFs” in the comments.
According to dela Pena, the rise of social media makes such dismissive or confrontational discourse more palatable.
“Social media…has amplified people’s voices and amplified it in a way where I think you can say something and not see immediate reactions from people,” she said. “If I were to say something to you right now and it hurt your feelings, I would see it on your face, right? But online I wouldn’t be able to judge that or to temper what I say based on what people’s reactions are.”
For Wheaton, the strength of the response may point to an issue with the content of the message.
“But I think it does kind of beg the question, why are those students fearful? Why are students reacting negatively towards you? Why? Why do you fear how other students will perceive you because of your politics? And I think that’s a place where we as a country need to grow in terms of tolerance, understanding and healthy political discourse,” she said.
“What civic discourse is about”
Despite his politics, McPike seems content on campus and confident in his beliefs.
“My friends know, and I have some friends that really don’t agree with me on stuff, but they’re very good about having conversations and very open. I really appreciate that,” he said.
For dela Pena, discourse like that between McPike and his friends may hold the key to better communication on campus.
“Students feel like if they’re challenged or if there’s pushback from anyone, then that feels like we’re creating an environment where you can’t speak up,” she said. “Part of our work as a University is to really teach people and talk about what civil discourse looks like. It’s not always comfortable. People are going to push back on you, and when there’s disagreement that’s a healthy and vibrant part of what civil discourse is about.”