There are two universal truths everybody knows (or thinks they know) about Harvard. The first is that people who go here are “wicked smaht,” while the second, albeit not by much, is that people who go here are wicked liberal. Even individuals who know nothing about the Ivy League, New England, or college in general accept those beliefs as infallible. Pundits are wont to refer to the school as the bastion of liberalism, while conservatives hurl it as an insult to the left.
My political psychology professor always talks about the lack of conservatives to compose an externally valid sample set among Harvard students. And my conservative grandmother did not want me to apply to Ivy League schools in fear that they would transform me into Cornel West. Harvard, in other words, is a laboratory for wide-eyed utopians with grand ideas but little understanding of the real world problems that face the conservative everyman.
Little of this is inaccurate. Most Harvard students do self-identify as liberal—one needs simply to look at President Obama’s approval rating among undergraduates or the sizes of the Harvard Democrats versus the Harvard Republicans to grasp the dearth of True Blue Republicans on campus. In fact, the conservative coalition is so fragile that a so-called “Conservative Reception” relies on sponsorship from the campus’s True Love Revolution, an extracurricular organization devoted entirely to abstinence on campus. It is distinct from the pro-life group and has very little ostensible connection to Republican politics, yet, as a tangentially culturally conservative organization, it is considered politically conservative by default.
While a Harvard Libertarian Forum apparently does exist on campus, this normal manifestation of young conservatism in college environments is minimal at best. Unlike elsewhere in the student world, supporting Ron Paul usually elicits a snicker as opposed to a passionate cry of support.
Thus the perception is true, Republicans are a rare species at Harvard. Yet, such a simple reading into the culture wars here is misplaced. While there may be a strong affiliation between the student body and the Democratic Party, this does not make residents of the Yard members of young adult liberalism. On the contrary, a cultural conservatism prevails. Long gone are the days of storming university buildings to protest the Vietnam War or apartheid in South Africa. This year’s attempt to reclaim that legacy amounted to the Occupy Harvard movement, a protest largely propagated by graduate students.
The Occupy movement was met with widespread disdain and animosity by most undergraduates, a sector of society more concerned with getting to class—and, subsequently, the library—than revolutionizing class structure. While there is support for Elizabeth Warren, who claims to have founded the intellectual foundation for the Occupy movement, there was little support for the Occupy movement itself. Students were too preoccupied with defiling or scorning tents in the Yard and grumbling about the security precautions to determine how Warren’s academic work was reflected in the encampments. While students like the idea of the Harvard professor’s regulation of the financial industry, this appreciation does not preclude the aggressive recruitment process and search for Wall Street jobs.
This is the paradox of liberalism at Harvard. Students are not inherently liberal but, rather, academic. They enjoy exploring advancements in social science that might counter conservative norms, but this search is more due to intellectual curiosity than an intrinsic desire for social upheaval. Individuals may be interested in liberal fodder like promoting diversity and, by extension, affirmative action, but this is not a result of social status sacrifice. Harvard is a hierarchy-enhancing institution that contains many future leaders with high social dominance orientations.
This school largely revolves around being the best in all regards, be they academic, extracurricular, or career-based (socioeconomic). These aspects are usually considered part of cultural conservatism, a culture that many conflate with making money and pursuing high rewards.
Harvard students like to think, and modern media portrayal has removed this quality from most characterizations of the Republican Party. The recent prominence of party figures such as Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann lend credibility to Republican anti-intellectualism. Harvard undergraduates pride themselves on their mental faculties and avoid threats to that intellectualism. But, this does not make them the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Students here are just as likely to be the next Mitt Romney as the next Barack Obama. One’s freshman roommate could either grow up to be Grover Norquist or Barney Frank. There are intellectuals and anti-intellectuals in the ranks of both main political parties. The dissatisfaction of the Harvard populace with conservatism stems from the recent framing of Republican policies as cultural obduracy.
Conservatives at Harvard should not be discouraged. While it may be difficult to find a large percentage of peers with whom to work in Romney headquarters, it will not be too hard to find many classmates who share common political beliefs. This is the classical dichotomy here. Harvard is nominally liberal—very liberal, at that. But in real terms, Harvard is pretty conservative. Students like money and they like success. They place a great deal of focus on hard work and business connections. They understand the importance of preexisting institutions and do not attempt to alter that. Students here work within the current system; that is what conservatism means.