Shades of Conservatism: Conservative Identity at Dartmouth College

The third week of my freshman year, I was sitting in Brace Commons working on homework when a stranger approached me. As a ’20, it was typical to meet random people without any context, so I didn’t think much of it.

“Hey, I hear you’re a Republican.” No name, no introduction, no propriety. The stranger made this accusatory statement and nothing more.

Looking up from my laptop, I curtly replied, “That’s correct.” His eyes widened.

“So, are you a racist?”

A conversation that lasted several hours followed this peculiar introduction. My new friend ran through a series of -isms and -phobias that he believed I must profess if I were, in fact, a true Republican. More than half of the time, he cut off my explanations with, “Then you can’t be a conservative!” as if he had finally cornered me into admitting that I was secretly one of his comrades. Whenever I am asked about conservative life at Dartmouth, I use this exchange as an illustration of my experiences.

So far at Dartmouth, I have engaged in many thought-provoking conversations and debates. Some of these have been so informative that they have profoundly influenced the evolution of my political beliefs and values. However, conversations like the aforementioned one indicate a shockingly deep-rooted ignorance on the part of my left-leaning peers. Some conservative students might consider this interaction an example of how they are regularly oppressed; I do not share this opinion. While conservative viewpoints expressed in class are often shamed or ridiculed, any rational individual can make the realistic distinction between discomfort and oppression.

Many conservatives often make the argument that the dominant, vocal left oppresses them on college campuses. To support these claims, they point to incidents where conservative students on campuses have been threatened with physical violence, property damage, and other forms of intimidation as methods to stifle their right to free discourse. A recent BBC video featuring young college conservatives telling their stories about being called “bigoted,” “racist,” and “homophobic” for simply trying to speak about their right-leaning beliefs seemed to lend credence to these assertions.

I will not delegitimize or dismiss any individual struggles that conservatives have faced because of their peers’ reactions to their beliefs. However, I will not validate these singular events as examples of the systemic and systematic oppression of conservatives on college campuses.

Modern activists on the left side of the political spectrum articulate and endorse a definition of oppression that is based on a sum of smaller instances of prejudice, hardship, and discrimination perpetrated by individuals, society, or the government. The principles of this definition are based on the concept that de facto prejudice is a legitimate form of oppression — an idea that is at odds with conservative philosophy. The right’s definition of oppression focuses on de jure prejudice, or prejudice that is not only found in individuals and throughout society, but that is also ingrained in policy and law. In essence, the burden of proof for the right to classify actions as a form of oppression is higher, as it requires that the government is actively using policy to systemically and systematically discriminate against and create undue hardship for individuals of a certain background. The conservatives who argue that they are oppressed on campuses exploit the left’s definition. In doing so, they legitimize the left’s definition and concede the debate over oppression to those on the left. It is fair to say that students discriminate against and dismiss the views of conservative students, but this phenomenon alone is not oppression — it is simply a lack of understanding.

Taking all of this into consideration, it is still undoubtedly true that it is difficult to be a conservative student on a left-leaning college campus. At some point in the 1960’s, the left began to popularly stereotype what it meant to be “right-wing,” and the right began to do the same to the left. College campuses were inundated with leftist individuals and thought, and liberal views became associated with intelligence, academics, diversity, and empathetic understanding. With liberal voices overwhelming conservative voices in higher education, conservative views became associated with old-school elitism and outdated views of race, sex, class, and sexuality. The clichés attributed to the two schools of thought by their opposition began to define them: the left was dismissed as bleeding-heart communism and the right was discredited with accusations of racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. The Democrats were supposedly comprised of social justice warriors, social deviants, minorities, labor unions, women, and the lower class, while the Republicans were the party of the rich white male and the evangelical conservative. Although this categorical sorting of traits has been largely debunked, many people on both sides of the aisle still think along these lines, fundamentally misunderstanding the complexity of peoples’ identities.

Countless proverbs and writers have observed that a sheet of paper, as thin as it is, has two sides. Everything in life, no matter how thin it may seem, has another side. As brilliant as this commentary seems, it is mistaken. A sheet of paper has six sides. As thin as it is, it is still a three-dimensional object. The only way to truly understand a sheet of paper — or in this case, an identity — is to view it in three dimensions. It is the best way to capture the true complexity of an individual’s identity. When people think of the traditional spectrum of identity, they oftentimes only consider the innate aspects of it like gender and sexuality. While this point of view does address some of the more obvious distinctions of identity, it is akin to recognizing that a sheet of paper has two — and only two — sides. Many people who have not been part of traditionally marginalized minority groups obviously understand that minority groups exist, yet they are sometimes blinded to the diversity that exists inside of those very groups. Introducing a third dimension may be more challenging to conceptualize or understand, but it is exactly that complexity which makes it a truer reflection of human identity.

Both internal and external characteristics create the essence of who a person is; this fact is not difficult to grasp. Everyone understands that an amalgamation of race, sex, health, gender, sexuality, and other traits makes up identity. In addition to these more personal characteristics, political inclinations are also an influential factor in a person’s identity.

Imagine a bell curve and give it a Z-axis. You now have a three-dimensional bell curve. Label the X-axis as “personal identity,” the Y-axis as “percentage of population,” and the Z-axis as “ideological identity.” Much like a standard two-dimensional bell curve, the majority of people fall in the middle of this new bell shape. But, just like in a two-dimensional bell curve, there are outliers—people who do not fit the traditional expectation, or stereotype, of statistical likelihood. On the “personal identity” axis, there are nearly countless internal and external variables that influence one’s placement. There are a similar number of variables that contribute to one’s place on the “ideological identity” axis.

How do conservatives feel at Dartmouth?

How do conservatives feel at Dartmouth?

Now imagine that the identities of Dartmouth’s entire student population are plotted in this three-dimensional manner. This model is capable of changing the “deep-rooted ignorance” that lies at the heart of a widespread lack of understanding that plagues college campuses like ours.

It is an undebatable truth that there are more vocal liberals than vocal conservatives on college campuses. Because of this fact, it is more common for liberal students to characterize conservative students based on stereotypes than the other way around. By doing so, these students ignore the outliers discussed in the three-dimensional bell shape. Conservative students typically do not have the luxury of judging, stereotyping, or excluding their liberal peers. If they did, they simply would not have that many friends or access to the social dimension of their college experience. Therefore, it is more common to find liberal students limiting and dismissing the speech and advocacy of the right than to find conservative students doing the same to the left. Many conservative students, especially at Dartmouth, identify as right-leaning moderates, but still find themselves being grouped in with more fervent conservatives by their liberal peers. In the weeks and months after the 2016 Presidential Election, it was common to find moderates and conservatives discussing why they did or did not vote for a particular candidate, but it was rare to find liberal students who were willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any Trump voter’s motives. It was a daily occurrence to see liberal Dartmouth students condemning not only Trump supporters, but any conservative in general, without any willingness to empathize, compromise, or understand. Evidently, right-leaning students are more likely to recognize and embrace a spectrum of political beliefs, and a spectrum of personal identities that hold those beliefs, on their own side as well as on the left’s side. Left-wing students often refuse to afford the same level of critical analysis and understanding to the right’s spectrum of beliefs.

Some phantom degree of oppression is not the cause of the difficulty entailed by being a conservative on campus. The true cause is our liberal peers’ refusal to acknowledge the same depth and nuance in our values and beliefs that we do in theirs. My daily challenges as a conservative at Dartmouth do not stem from liberal students trying to stifle my speech and persecute me; they stem from the constant inability of liberal students to understand, or even attempt to understand, the complexity of my political and personal identity. I am not oppressed, but I am horribly misunderstood. As a gay conservative, I am regularly dismissed by liberal students, forced to watch looks of confusion and occasionally disgust spread across their faces when I discuss politics. Liberal students often accuse me of exhibiting cognitive dissonance and of being a hypocrite and a traitor to the LGBTQ+ community because of my conservative. The semi-permeable compartmentalization of my personal identity and my political identity is often incomprehensible to many liberal students at Dartmouth, yet I receive nothing but acceptance from conservative students.

To many on this campus, people can either be social justice warriors or Strom Thurmond-esque conservatives; there is nothing in between. This could not be further from reality. It is dumbfounding that some of the world’s top students — whose Ivy League education trains them to analyze the nuances in academic and literary works — are incapable of applying their analytical abilities to nuances in the beliefs of their peers.

Political beliefs are only one aspect of an individual’s identity. These beliefs are based off of the other parts of that individual’s identity, values, and convictions. The gradient hierarchy of one’s beliefs dictates their political views, regardless of popular stereotypes. The idea that individuals can compartmentalize different portions of their identity might be difficult for some to understand, but that does not mean that people — liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between — cannot and do not do it. If we can agree that people are complex, then it makes sense that we can agree that people are complex in every aspect of their lives. Furthermore, complexity implies nuance. If these nuances are accepted and embraced, then it is perfectly fine for gay-conservative-Christians, rich-WASP-social-liberals, middle-class-transgender-black-Republicans, and Asian-asexual-libertarians to coexist. Conservatives too deserve a grey-scale of political ideology. We deserve to have our shades of conservativism recognized.  Nuanced political identities—those that compartmentalize personal identities—equate to diversity of opinions.  They imply prioritization. They constitute a spectrum. They demand acceptance.