When former Senator Kelly Ayotte (R – NH) addressed the William F. Buckley Jr. Program’s Annual Conference last Friday, she opened with a trite refrain on liberal intolerance.
“When I look at what’s happening across the country on our college campuses,” Ayotte said, “[I find] extreme hostile to different viewpoints, to conservative viewpoints. And sometimes those viewpoints—frankly often—those viewpoints are completely shut out.”
Her utterance was met with a series of solemn nods from various attendees, who, upon finishing up their last bits of filet mignon, seemed to take the fact of ideological hostility on college campuses as given.
But the trope belies a different reality felt by conservatives on this campus: while Yale is a decidedly liberal space, it is not nearly as “hostile” towards conservative viewpoints as right-leaning outsiders tend to believe.
According to Alaric Krapf ‘19, a Buckley fellow and a self-identified conservative, the common claim that liberals at Yale are routinely hostile to conservatives is an overstatement.
“It’s like sore losing to say, oh, we’re so oppressed and need protection, rather than just announcing your ideas a little more boldly and trying to convince people of them,” Krapf said in an interview with The Politic.
“I think the Buckley program can sometimes lapse into this, but is at its best when it stands as a counterpoint to [Yale liberalism] while still challenging itself as well,” he continued.
Krapf’s view tempers the narrative of campus intolerance advanced by conservatives, like Ayotte, who observe from the outside world. Through a veil of sensationalized news stories decrying the coddled college mind, conservatives not on campus might assume that liberal-on-conservative aggression is an everyday occurrence at schools like Yale.
Well-versed in the realities of campus life, however, Yalies at the conference agreed with Krapf’s remarks.
When asked about her experience as Kentuckian conservative at Yale, Alyssa Damrom ‘18 explained that “the school fosters a general sense of respect in general—it doesn’t always apply to all people-to-people interactions and there are always anomalies. But Yale is nothing like UC Berkeley.”
Damrom said such “anomalies” became the norm in the fall of 2015, when the dual Christakis-SAE Halloween incident prompted many liberals, who felt under siege, to lash out at their conservative peers. That October, a Buckley fellow who was a person of color was spat on and called a “race traitor” as he entered the Program’s 5th Annual Conference. Since then, she admitted, such hostility has dissipated and respect has reemerged as the status quo.
Similarly, William Curran ’49 said, “the fact that [conservatives speakers] come here without incident sets Yale apart from schools like Middlebury.” As an undergraduate at Yale back in the 1940s, Curran was acquainted with William Buckley, Jr., who was his mentor later in life.
When he first read God and Man at Yale in the 1950s, Curran’s beliefs about Yale’s lack of ideological diversity were confirmed. And yet, he maintains that the lack of diversity has not translated into hostility. Describing political life at Yale as largely unchanged since the 1940s, Curran argues that Yalies have respected opposing viewpoints for generations.
The question then arises: what has allowed Yale to foster a less-than-hostile, perhaps even respectful, attitude towards conservatism?
As one might expect, those in positions of leadership at the Buckley program credit its mission to “promote intellectual diversity”. Despite this stated purpose, it should be noted that the program has an undeniable conservative bent. The program is, after all, named in honor of one of the most influential conservatives in American history.
The logic follows that by inviting conservative thinkers to an overwhelmingly liberal institution, the Buckley program ultimately promotes diversity and tolerance. Buckley fellows like former Vice President, Kyle Tierney ‘17, however, were reluctant to accept this characterization of Buckley as a right-leaning organization. Perhaps they fear that in doing so, they risk being seen as a conservative safe space, or worse, a platform for partisan thought.
Instead, Tierney emphasized the power of Buckley as a nonpartisan program to promote tolerance.
“Over my four years at Yale, [campus tolerance] got better in large part because of the Buckley Program,” he said. “Without the Buckley Program, Yale would surely be falling behind.”
Noah Daponte-Smith ‘18, the sitting Vice President of the Buckley Program, also credited Buckley’s on-campus presence.
“Places like Middlebury or UC Berkeley that have genuinely hostile environments towards conservatives. I think the reason for that has to do with the fact the right-wing organizations on campus…invite people who are controversial just for the sake of it,” Daponte-Smith told The Politic.
Rather than organizing events around hot-button celebrities, the Buckley program focuses on policy over personality.
“The Buckley program, which is sort of the face of campus conservatism, has this tendency only to invite guests that would be conducive to an edifying discussion on a relevant issue,” Daponte-Smith explained. “We see no point in inviting someone like Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer.”
While there are exceptions to this trend—the Buckley Program has invited high-profile, controversial speakers like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina in recent years—the 7th Annual Conference was a case in point.
Entitled “The Constitution and the Courts: Challenges, Opportunities, and the Future of Freedom,” the Conference’s line-up was stacked with serious academics from Philip Hamburger who discussed the “administrative state” to Randy E. Barnett who tackled issues surrounding judicial confirmations and constitutional interpretation. While Ayotte made headlines during (and after) the 2016 election when she flip-flopped in her support of President Trump, she, too, was a relatively safe play.
But if one accepts Curran’s claim of institutional continuity, then it is unlikely that this single seven-year-old program accounts for Yale’s long-standing attitude towards conservatism. At best, it would seem that it reflects, but did not cause, Yale’s climate.
The Buckley Program is one of Yale’s largest student groups and has managed to attract Yalies from across the political spectrum. Tierney estimates that 30% of the Buckley fellows identify as liberal, 10 percent as independent, and 60 percent as somewhere on the conservative spectrum. It is hard to imagine that such an institution would occupy a similar space at schools like Middlebury and UC Berkeley.
When asked why liberal Yalies generally are not excessively hostile towards conservatives, the Buckley fellows who attended the conference seemed to share a set of common theories.
The most recurrent argument was that conservatives on campus are not all that conservative.
In terms of policy, most Buckley fellows The Politic interviewed identified as center-right, and no one interviewed espoused conservative views on social issues. Lauren Lee ‘20, a Buckley fellow, explained to The Politic that Yale conservatives, from moderates to social Traditionalists, tend to display respect for those with unique social identity challenges, even if they disagree. This is not to say that there are no students at Yale who believe in traditional conceptions of morality; however, they do not appear to be very outspoken.
Moreover, most fellows described their conservatism as rooted in a philosophic worldview instead of in specific social issues or policy preferences.
Lee defines conservatism as a normative vision of the good life based on deference to tradition, while Krapf ascribes to Russell Kirk’s definition of conservatism as system of order and liberty constrained by Christian virtue. For Daponte-Smith, true conservatism is premised on the Burkean ideal of progress checked by preservation.
The precision with which Buckley conservatives articulated the philosophical roots of their beliefs speaks to another theory: campus conservatives do their homework.
As Chloe Heller ‘21, a center-right Buckley fellow, explains: “The fact that people are constantly challenging me has forced me to really back up my claims and support my ideas and beliefs.”
At Yale, conservatives can not afford to espouse their views without a firm grasp of their practical and philosophic implications. And thus they pour through Kirk, Burke, and Buckley in ways liberals need not do. Put simply, liberals at Yale can get away with flimsy understandings of critical issues.
Perhaps Yale liberals tend to respect conservatives’ not for their beliefs per se, but for the vigor with which conservatives can support their claims.
For Buckley fellow Julie Slama ‘18, the opposite is true.
“Liberals at Yale see conservative and rural viewpoints as being of a lesser intelligence,” Slama told The Politic. Slama feels that Northeastern liberals are not threatened by her Nebraskian-bred beliefs and so tend to be dismissive rather than hostile.
Either way, the Buckley fellows interviewed seemed to agree that the majority of Yalies are more politically apathetic than meets the eye; thus the passion that gives rise to hostility is not all that common at Yale.
According to Daponte-Smith, “there’s like a pretty vocal activist wing at Yale, but that’s not more than 20 percent of the population. The middle 50 percent are probably not that interested in politics.”
He argued that, by contrast, the climate at UC Berkeley is informed by its legacy of widespread left-wing activism.
There is likely a kernel of truth in each of these seemingly disparate theories. Synthesizing, one might infer that the large proportion of politically apathetic liberals at Yale are indifferent to this small faction of passionately informed conservatives. And these Yale conservatives made up many of those who critically engaged with their views through the Annual Conference put on by the Buckley Program.