Brown is famous for its incredibly liberal student body. In 2016, only 1.8 percent of students said they planned on voting for President Donald Trump; more students supported Green Party candidate Jill Stein. In 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, a mere five percent of the student body identified as Republican. Even among Democrats, Brown students lean toward the far end of the political spectrum — 36.4 percent of students said they would support either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary as of fall 2019, compared to a combined 15.7 percent for Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the leading center-left candidates.
As many know, Brown exists within somewhat of a liberal bubble. After almost four years on campus, I’ve seen virtually no change in the representation of conservative voices. Campus Republicans and conservatives therefore have a responsibility to play an important role in breaking this trend by voicing their viewpoints more effectively. These students must increase their activism, outreach and mobilization to create a better academic environment that fosters a marketplace of ideas. The existing right-leaning groups on campus must step up their efforts as well, both to increase their membership and further engage with the community.
The Brown bubble is incredibly dangerous. Students are placed within a self-reinforcing community, only exposed to the political agendas that they already share with their peers. On the off-chance that students are challenged on any number of political issues, from health care to gun rights, it is usually from students who are even further to the left than they are. I’ve seen this impact first-hand; as a Democrat and political science concentrator, I am rarely exposed to conservative views from my peers, either in my courses or outside of the classroom. This lack of ideological diversity ultimately fosters a weaker academic experience for students. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt studied the factors that influence research outcomes among academics and found that a variety of political viewpoints promotes creativity, discovery and problem-solving. In Brown’s current state, we do not experience the full potential of that diversity.
Contrarily, conservatism and the Republican Party are alive and well in the world outside of College Hill. Nationally, Republicans hold both the presidency and the majority in the Senate. On the local level, the majority of governors lean right. A near-complete lack of conservatism on campus therefore leaves students ill-prepared to understand the key decision-makers across every level of government.
I’m not the first to encourage a louder conservative voice on campus. Students have called for more conservative speakers, a greater number of conservative faculty and more conservative publications. Yet others have largely ignored the role of increased student activism. Activism is one of the principal ways to effect change and promote dialogue on campus. Instead of focusing on how students can vocalize different ideologies, the responsibility has been placed on University faculty.
There are likely a number of reasons why Republican and conservative activism on campus has been noticeably insubstantial. To begin, there are simply very few conservatives on campus. This could be partly due to the admissions process — just 21 percent of the class of 2022 came from states that voted for Trump in 2016. If fewer conservative students are applying it may be because right-leaning students might self-select out of coming to Brown due to its progressive reputation. Or many conservatives could choose to spend their time in any number of nonpolitical activities on campus, from volunteering to playing sports. Their political views may be less important to them, so instead they choose to spend their four years elsewhere.
The remainder, however, often refrains from engaging in politics for fear of retribution. It is difficult, disheartening and sometimes upsetting to voice the minority opinion, especially when so many at Brown hold their progressive values close to their identity and view attacks upon them as egregious. Many of my conservative friends fear speaking out loud on political issues, hoping to preserve their reputations amongst their liberal peers.
While it is certainly imperative for Brown’s liberal students to become more welcoming of dissenting ideas, conservative students must speak up despite a harshly liberal environment. In the classroom, conservative viewpoints can have rigorous intellectual roots, exposing students to thought-provoking ideas that often remain outside of the realm of class conversation. Through student groups, activism on both particular issues and broader values can sway local decisions on campus and in Rhode Island, challenging the extensive progressive efforts in these realms. Doing so will not only benefit liberal students by exposing them to opposing ideas — these actions will strengthen the conservative and Republican communities as well. Students will more fully experience freedom of expression, giving them the opportunity to engage with their political ideology in an honest way. They will also feel the benefit of being a teacher, relishing that “aha” moment from others when they learn new concepts and facts they had not considered.
Some students have taken this advice to heart. On campus, the Brown College Republicans is the largest conservative student group, but it is joined by Turning Point USA, Young Americans for Freedom, Young Americans for Liberty and most recently, Students for Trump at Brown. No Labels seeks to promote bipartisanship on campus, while Students for Life provides a space for pro-life students.
Though at first glance it may seem that campus conservatives are very active from this list, the sheer number of groups is misleading. Many members overlap between groups, and three of the organizations — Young Americans for Freedom, TPUSA and Students for Life — were either founded or revived only in the past year, giving them little time to organize any events on campus.
TPUSA brought its founder, Charlie Kirk, to campus last semester for a lecture co-sponsored by the College Republicans, one of the few successes for conservatives on campus. However, Kirk represents a more Trumpian version of the Republican Party, one that is easiest for Brown students to despise and dismiss as outright misguided. No Labels organized a debate between campus Republicans and Democrats, but due to the inherent format of debate, the event did not give Republicans the ability to dialogue their viewpoints without the immediate counterpoints from the other side. While the University sponsored former Republican presidential candidate John Kasich’s visit to campus last semester, this event was completely unrelated to student efforts or activism.
To be fair, the small output from these clubs is not for lack of trying — each club president that I spoke to, including President of College Republicans Julian Haag ’20, President of Young Americans for Liberty Adam Shephardson ’22, No Labels President and Vice President Aidan Brice ’21 and Rohan Gupta ’22, was genuinely attempting to expand their club’s reach and membership, doing anything from individual one-on-one meetings with students who feared to express themselves publicly to larger information sessions and weekly meetings. Yet they have ultimately found it difficult to bring students out of their comfort zones and into political activism.
There is thus no better time than now for conservative students to step out of their shells. It’s time for posters, rallies, protests, frustrated emails and refuted talking points — all tactics that have succeeded for the liberal student body. Republicans that wish to see Trump reelected should continue their mobilization, and Democrats who wish to have any chance of winning the upcoming election must seek to understand these viewpoints to the fullest extent possible. In the classroom, more students have to challenge the predominantly liberal viewpoints that dominate the discussion. Outside of the classroom, students should seek out the existing conservative clubs and form their own if they don’t align with them. In nearly every single policy issue, from prison reform to infrastructure renewal to climate change, a broader conservative voice is needed on campus, both to help students express themselves politically and to give others a greater understanding of the challenges they face. If these changes don’t happen, many on campus will likely find themselves facing the same surprise as in 2016, unable to fathom the reelection of our current president.
Jonathan Douglas ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.