The Elephant in the Room

Conservative undergraduates’ campus debates

A large group of donkeys entering Harvard Yard with a few elephants interspersed.

Illustration by Daniel Baxter

Thursday nights, clops of dress shoes and clicks of high heels echo through the narrow streets of Harvard’s campus. Adjusting their ties and fixing their hair, members of the John Adams Society (JAS) descend on a House common room to examine life’s deepest questions. Participants in the conservative debate group recite the Pledge of Allegiance, sing “Fair Harvard,” and begin discussing topics ranging from the classical (resolved: Socrates was guilty) to the contemporary (trust the experts) and the lighthearted (baseball is America’s pastime). Their discourse sounds more like a graduate philosophy seminar than an after-school debate club: they cite ancient and modern thinkers, speak extemporaneously, and adhere to complex regulations. Following a three-hour debate, society members take their conversations to Tasty Burger, and, after midnight, wind down at Grendel’s Den. JAS chairman Carter Stewart ’25 sums up the group’s mission: “What can we as 18-to-22-year-olds figure out about the Truth by studying the greatest minds to ever live…as a community, and as friends who are all deeply committed to the same project?”

John Adams is notable for its commitment to debate. Each topic is selected to naturally split the membership, and students believe disagreeing with each other refines everyone’s thinking. After all, what is a liberal arts education without dissenting opinions?

If the conservative groups on Harvard’s campus comprised a human body, JAS would be the brain. Founded in 2014, the group “fill[ed] a hole in the conservative scene on campus,” says former chairman Loren Brown ’23. “We had a lot of wannabe conservative policymakers and politicos…but we didn’t have people who wanted to discuss the fundamental roots of conservative ideas.” JAS is uninterested in policy per se or trendy news, preferring to discuss what Stewart (quoting historian Russell Kirk) dubbed “the permanent questions.”

But not every conservative group on campus holds three-hour secret debates. Others try to put wheels on those ideas through advocacy and communication. The Conservative Coalition at the Institute of Politics, founded in 2021, brings conservative speakers and fellows to the campus through the Harvard Kennedy School. Salient, an oft-revived conservative magazine, publicizes political writings by pseudonymous authors. The Harvard Republican Club, the oldest collegiate GOP group in the nation, focuses on political activism and campaigning. And Harvard Right to Life advocates for pro-life policy and attempts to demonstrate that student opinion on abortion is not uniform.

In Harvard’s predominantly liberal environment, many conservative students find a sense of belonging through membership in multiple groups. The overlap is so strong, according to Conservative Coalition co-chair Abby Carr ’25, that students joke “the Venn diagram between the main conservative groups on campus is more of a circle.” There is still infighting: the Republican Club is divided over Trump (members rebuked him in 2016 but endorsed him in 2020). But overall, the disparate clubs share a core belief: Harvard will be a better learning environment for all students if conservatives share their opinions.

 

Nobody knows how many Harvard students consider themselves conservative. In the Crimson’s most recent first-year survey, only nine percent of the class of 2024 identified that way. But Michael Oved ’25, co-chair of the Conservative Coalition and vice president of the Republican Club, thinks the proportion is much higher. Students, he says, “don’t want to say they’re conservative because they’re scared.” Indeed, vocal conservatives report facing backlash—most frequently, online.

Removed from the accountability of face-to-face discourse, some students attack each other on Sidechat, an anonymous social media app. Carr, a varsity swimmer who appeared on Fox News to advocate against transgender athletes participating in female sports, frequently gets criticized on the app. “That was very jarring,” she says, wondering, “What if these are my close friends?” She considers it to be “cowardly” to post on an anonymous app and laments the lost opportunity for constructive, multi-sided conversations (complaints that are, of course, hardly unique to campus).

A portion of Harvard’s student body would prefer not to engage with conservative thought, especially when it is inflammatory. Salient’s March 2022 cover featured an illustration of a rainbow-colored factory labeled “Woke Inc.” When the print copies reached Lowell House, students voiced their discontent on the all-House email chain. “[W]hoever decides to walk around and deliver these things to our doors,” one then-junior wrote, “do us all a favor and stop wasting paper please,” followed by a heart emoji. “[W]e produce enough trash as a house as it is.”

Salient’s outgoing president, Jacob Cremers ’24, says that the magazine undoubtedly seeks to stoke negative reactions, but preferably in the form of substantive criticism rather than complete dismissal. “My hope has been to start more confrontation that is constructive,” he says. For example, he believes that by withholding its authors’ names, the publication enables readers to focus on critiquing the content rather than the person writing it. Salient, he says, likes to publish long letters to the editor, but does not elevate the kinds of critique found on social media. He says he wants to create a culture “where people celebrate their opponent’s ideas or want to hear from them rather than just getting angry.”

In recent years, during the rare occasions that real bipartisan debates have taken place on campus, some liberal students have declared certain topics off-limits, frustrating conservatives. Preceding this April’s annual debate between Harvard’s political parties, the Democrats provided the Republicans a list of subjects that they would refuse to discuss—including abortion, transgender rights, and immigration. (In response, the Republicans asked not to be labeled as racist, homophobic, or xenophobic.) Loren Brown, the former JAS chairman, argues that even if uncomfortable, no topic should be “non-debatable, because one day, someone is going to debate it with us [in the real world] and we’re going to be caught off guard and not know how to respond.”

Furthermore, conservative students argue that views—liberal or conservative—formed in an echo chamber will be weaker than ones tested by opposition. In an environment without robust disagreement, Conservative Coalition co-chair Michael Oved says that students lose the chance to refine their views through debate.

Before Harvard students become leaders in diverse fields, conservative students want to ensure they can speak across party lines. As former Conservative Coalition co-chair Bridget Toomey ’23 says, “You can’t just ignore half of the American population if you’re going to be an American leader.”

 

Because many conservative students say they feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions publicly on campus, they’ve turned inward. To them, JAS represents the first step toward a community that embraces multi-sided political discourse and robust debate, even if most members are politically similar.

The next step, Cremers says, is to form a debate club equally balanced between conservatives and liberals. The Harvard Union Society, which he helped found last spring, has started to bring that vision to life; its two inaugural debates convened students from across the political spectrum. He says discussions like these are important because “it’s hard for people to hate each other when they’re face-to-face.”

In the future, conservative students hope that Harvardians will feel comfortable voicing their political opinions across campus. They say that will require faculty support; Kenan professor of government Harvey Mansfield, one of Harvard’s most vocally conservative faculty members, retired earlier this year (see harvardmag.com/mansfield-last-23 for a report on his last class), and conservative students worry he won’t have an ideological successor. But by inducing cross-partisan conversations, building a culture of debate rather than anger, and encouraging all students to speak their minds, Harvard’s conservative student groups hope to invite all students to share their political ideas.

Until that vision is realized, a handful of sharply dressed students will be pursuing the Truth at Tasty Burger.

Read more articles by Max J. Krupnick

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