The Rise of the Right
It was Election Night 2012, and the Yale College Republicans were feeling hopeful. Buoyed by the Romney campaign’s optimistic Electoral College projections, Yale’s dedicated conservative coalition arrived at the Silliman movie theater to watch the results come in. They came equipped with Jack Daniels, champagne, and fists full of banners reading “Romney-Ryan” and “Believe in America.” They planned to toast a renewed era of conservatism. They planned to paper the campus with victory posters in the middle of the night. Several cycles of Fox News later, the champagne was flat and the banners remained in Silliman.
Just over three weeks after the election, on a cold Friday evening, those same young conservatives packed into Linsly-Chittenden Hall to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography, Witness. A classic of the American conservative canon, Witness is one man’s regretful apologia about his ardent days as a secret communist activist. At the event, the men wore jackets and ties, the women wore pearl necklaces and high-heeled shoes, and everyone laughed at The New York Times.
It was precisely the sort of scene that would have made conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. smile. When the late author and political commentator published “God and Man at Yale” in 1951, he described the University as a bastion of liberalism that cultivated a hostile environment towards conservatives and stripped its students of any sense of individuality. Buckley went on to found and edit the National Review, the magazine credited with providing the intellectual forum for a new conservative movement and, eventually, the Reagan Revolution. Chambers was Buckley’s hero. Now, students and local Republicans alike, Buckley’s acolytes, were attending panels on the perils of communism and listening to Mitch Daniels, outgoing Indiana Governor and GOP hero, at an invitation-only formal dinner at the Omni Hotel. The evening’s festivities were made possible by a privately-funded program at Yale named for Buckley, a program that launched in 2010. Many prominent campus Republicans cite the program as an example of an ascendant conservative culture at Yale.
“Something like the Buckley program would never have existed in the past, but things are picking up,” says Alexander Crutchfield ’15, Floor Leader of the Right in the Yale Political Union. “In the YPU, we’ve seen something like four times more recruits on the right than on the left. I think the high recruitment is sign of a new generation of conservatives that’s genuinely excited about conservative principles, genuinely concerned about the direction of the country, and genuinely inspired to take initiative. That’s exactly what you saw at the Buckley conference.”
Last year, in protest of the Occupy New Haven movement, members of the Yale College Republicans placed posters around the city that read “Status quo!” Truthfully though, to be a conservative on the Yale campus today is to be a radical of sorts. Constantly fielding questions, arguments, and accusations places on young Republicans what Professor Charles Hill calls “a real burden of proof.” While liberals seem to enjoy at times a sort of intellectual laziness (how much research does one really need to do when 90% of your peers will agree with almost anything you say?), conservatives are, in a sense, always on trial, always in the minority. As Elaina Plott ’15 puts it, “If you’re a liberal at Yale, your thoughts can easily disappear into the echo chamber. If you’re a conservative, you might as well be wearing a neon sign over your head.”
Indeed, conservatives are expected to defend a party that often has difficulty defending itself. But here’s the impressive part: they actually can—and with a deftness and confidence that many GOP party professionals might envy. Like college students anywhere, Yalies can be brash and self-important, all too often valuing style over substance. Something about freewheeling intellectual campus debate seems to encourage oratorical ostentation. Many of the conservatives at Yale, of course, fall victim to these same foibles, but in large measure, they actually defy the stereotype. Conservatives at Yale are, in no small measure, well versed in all the day’s issues, unashamed of their political affiliation, and willing to engage with their political adversaries so long as they’re treated with dignity and seriousness. Elizabeth Henry ’14 quotes Reagan on the fly; Alec Torres ’13 peppers his speech with the sort of fanciful vocabulary for which Buckley was famous; Crutchfield talks about the faults of the federal government like a seasoned politician. These qualities don’t arise out of commitment alone, but also out of circumstance, according to Henry.
“I know what I believe, but being at Yale forces me to read more, to know more, to learn more facts and more statistics,” the Yale College Republicans chairwoman explained. “I’m expected to be able to speak on the entire Republican platform very broadly. A lot of people actively deride what you believe. I thrive in that environment, but for conservative students coming to Yale who don’t read the National Review, I can see how it would be tough. I had a friend transfer from Yale to Alabama because she just couldn’t stand it.”
Zak Newman is an admiring adversary of the conservative cohort on campus. As president of the Yale College Democrats, he said he has not seen a growth in the numbers of students at the other end of the political spectrum, but rather in their dynamism. “I would not say that we’ve seen a growth in the number of self-described conservatives on campus,” said Newman ’13. “Rather, the conservative minority has in recent years become active in participating in politics. Conservative circles have existed on campus for years in the form of parties in the YPU and other discussion groups. Those leading new conservative activism efforts on campus do so out of a realization that a challenge to progressivism at Yale can only be successful through organizing.”
The left-leaning political consensus at Yale makes the Buckley Program all the more important, conservatives say. At the organization’s recent second annual conference, Buckley Program’s current president, Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13 spoke to diners as they sipped glasses of wine.
“At a very basic level, we do three things: we host speakers and debate on campus; we run workshops and seminars; and we offer summer internships, where Yalies receive a stipend to work at places such as the National Review or The New Criterion,” Zelinsky told the conference. “But that doesn’t really explain what the Buckley program does on campus. I am going to borrow the words of one of our faculty mentors: we traffic in ideas – we create a space where intellectual diversity is valued. We challenge people to think differently.”
But a blotch of red paint on a blue political canvas doesn’t make for a purple painting. Yale is still overwhelmingly liberal.
It’s hard to know precisely how many students lean right on campus, though William F. Buckley, Jr.’s son, Christopher, a celebrated novelist and former Regan White House speechwriter, said, “I’d guess—conservatively—that less than 10 percent of current Yalies would call themselves ‘conservative.’ In my day (Class of 1975) it was probably less than 5 percent.”
Professor Charles Hill, a self-described “Burkean conservative,” sees little difference between Buckley’s Yale and today’s University. Hill, who holds the title of Diplomat-in-Residence at Yale, is a former career diplomat, who specialized in China and the Middle East, and served as an adviser to Republican-era secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz.
“Back in Buckley’s time, the political culture came as a kind of a shock to him,” said Professor Hill. “It wasn’t quite the Yale he thought he was getting into. There was also a shock from the alumni who read ‘God and Man at Yale.’ Now, the pervasive liberalism has been so accepted that it’s just part of life. By my experience, it’s ninety percent plus liberal, progressive Democrats on campus and that’s just the way things are. It’s been that way for generations.”
According to Hill, this homogeneity exists among the faculty as well: “Everyone here thinks exactly alike. They think liberal progressive politics is the way things are and that’s the way things should be, so there’s no need to discuss it other than to fend off what they may see as upheavals of other thought—those in the ten percent. It’s an assumption of agreement, and that’s the test of the political culture, really.”
Alexander Crutchfield is a student conservative who proudly stands within Hill’s described ten percent. The walls of his Branford dorm room are adorned with two posters of Ronald Reagan and another that reads “I love capitalism.” On his bedside table sits George W. Bush’s memoir “Decision Points.” Crutchfield has certainly made no secret of his conservatism, but others on campus do. “The term closet conservative is thrown around a lot and it’s very much the case,” he explains.
“Coming out as a Republican at Yale is even more difficult than coming out as gay,” says Madison Alworth ’15. “People can judge you harshly for it.”
Elizabeth Henry, too, has garnered her own share of attacks from a segment of the Yale population. “There are actually three groups of liberals at Yale,” she said. “There are the apathetic liberals, who aren’t really antagonistic towards us. Then there are Democrats like Zak Newman, who I’m friends with because he’s knowledgeable and understanding of us. And lastly, there are the Democrats who think Republicans are bad people—that we’re somehow immoral. Someone once told a friend of mine, ‘I can’t believe you would hang out with Elizabeth Henry! You know she’s a Republican, right?’”
Crutchfield sees the evolution as coming about through an attitude change as well as a commitment to action, not only among liberals, but among conservatives, too.
“We often have a tendency to stick together,” he said. “We’re all too content to isolate ourselves with conservative super PACs and Fox News. The problem becomes that we’re not actively engaged in a real dialogue. For too long, we’ve been content to sit in our conservative ivory towers. That has to change.”
Other conservatives overwhelmingly agree with Crutchfield. Torres summed up the sentiment, saying “It’s impossible to say that change isn’t necessary after a loss that bad, but I disagree that we need to change stances on issues. The philosophical ideals of conservatism underlying the party are good—we just need a new branding. We were painted too well by our Democratic opponents and media as the party of the wealthy when really, our philosophy of limited government, low taxes, and social responsibility is beneficial to everyone.”
In many ways, Yale’s young conservatives embody the change that they, and even much of the Republican leadership, seek within the party. The Yale College Republicans have spent time this election canvassing for Scott Brown and Linda McMahon, and making phone calls to swing states for Mitt Romney, but it extends beyond volunteering. By injecting the campus with a renewed spirit of political action and conversation, today’s conservatives are not only challenging the status quo—they’re keeping alive the legacy of Buckley.
“The best thing about Buckley was that some of his dearest friends were on the left,” recalled Professor Hill. “I remember seeing him come out of Mory’s once in the late Clinton years. Lanny Davis, a leading advisor to Clinton, was coming up Wall Street in the other direction and they just kind of fell into each other’s arms and laughed. That was Buckley, and you have to maintain that kind of buoyant character in your politics and commentary in order to succeed. The conservative students on campus have certainly captured something of Buckley’s spirit.”
Noah Remnick is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College