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"Kremlin on the Charles" No More?

Harvard's student body is more conservative-friendly than you might think.

12:00 AM, Jul 28, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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"HARVARD HATES AMERICA." That's how John LeBoutillier titled his 1978 bestseller about life at the country's most prestigious university. LeBoutillier's story was one of ivory-tower elitism run amok. Its central theme--that Harvard students and professors are mostly knee-jerk radicals--is by now an article of faith for many on the right. An article, however, worth reconsidering.


Though it might be hard to imagine with the Democrats swarming Boston, conservative undergraduates at Harvard have never been so many, so organized, and so active as they are today. Just ask Harvey Mansfield, the university's longtime professor of political philosophy and the most well-known conservative on the faculty. "In the last 20 years," Mansfield says, "there's certainly been an increase in the number of conservatives [at Harvard], and in the presence of conservatism on campus." He notes that, in particular, "the growth of the Harvard Republican Club, both in numbers and activity, is very impressive."


Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature, serves as co-adviser for the Republicans with Mansfield. She calls the club "extremely dynamic" and "a numerically large group." According to club secretary Lauren Truesdell, the Harvard Republicans boast around 900 names on their weekly e-mail list, and have drawn more than 100 students to their Lincoln Day Dinner each of the past two years. They have upwards of 160 dues-paid members on campus. And in 2001, they won an award from the College Republican National Committee for being the most active college Republican club in the nation.


Thanks in part to this enhanced conservative presence, the terms of campus debate have shifted rightward. Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom estimates that even in the 1970s, only 10-15 percent of the student body was actively radical. The difference today, he says, is that a formidable conservative opposition exists to challenge student radicals.


Of course, one should not overstate the growth of conservatism at Harvard. Anti-abortion posters still get torn down. Conservative speakers still occasionally get harassed. The Harvard College Democrats are still larger than the campus Republicans. (According to Democrats' president Andy Frank, the club has an e-mail list of 1,650 and counts 245 dues-paid members.) And left-wing groups, such as the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice, still make more noise--and thus garner more attention--than conservative ones.


Plus, as Thernstrom points out, while the number of dyed-in-the-wool liberals has shrunk very dramatically since the 1970s, many Harvard students are "quite cautious about not sounding conservative." Indeed, probably a plurality, if not a majority, of the student body is vaguely apolitical. Today's typical Harvard undergraduate resembles the "organization kid" depicted by David Brooks: highly driven, deferential to authority, focused on achievement, averse to anti-establishment boat-rocking, and, in politics, wary of being seen as controversial or unduly passionate. Harvard's organization kids tend to be philosophically liberal, but temperamentally conservative.


The most self-defeating thing philosophical conservatives can do in such an environment is retreat into a form of identity politics, i.e., play the persecuted campus minority and be deliberately provocative rather than persuasive. With undergraduates much less radically inclined than they once were, such Dartmouth Review-type rabble-rousing could easily ghettoize conservative students. For example: Harvard's conservative journal, the Salient, has become notorious in recent years for publishing fairly strident articles on homosexuality. On a campus where "organization kids" predominate, there's no quicker way for a right-wing publication to make itself peripheral to student life.


To be sure, the proliferation of organization kids is something that Harvard professors will not necessarily cheer anytime soon. A preponderance of political apathy, and the intellectual timorousness that flows from it, can produce staleness in classroom debate. As Thernstrom puts it, "Now, there just seems a lot less argument [in his classes]. Students do not seem to think it's proper to argue with each other."

The Iraq war in particular has not occasioned the overwhelming campus response that some might have expected. A staff editorial in the Harvard Crimson (the daily campus newspaper) noted in June 2003: "What was most remarkable about student opinion at Harvard on March 20, the first full day of bombing, was not that 56 percent opposed war [but] that only 41 percent took a strong stand either way [according to a Crimson poll]."