On November 9, 2016, Donald Trump began his first day as the President-Elect of the United States of America. While political analysts and media outlets worked to understand the electoral upset, Vanderbilt University sent an email to its students affirming its commitment to student wellbeing.
“When President Trump won, I stayed in my room, kept quiet in class and thought that, if I said anything, I would be completely alienated and judged because of what I believe,” Shiva Sachdeva, President of Vanderbilt College Republicans, said.
Sachdeva, who considers himself a moderate conservative, began to worry about the way conservatives are seen on campus. On a campus where 57.2% of the student body self-identifies as liberal, speaking up in class, Shiva believes, may lead to unintended consequences.
“As a conservative in class, I feel like I’d be part of a minority and therefore, a lot of liberal people in my class would take what I say as the overwhelming conservative opinion,” Sachdeva said. “I wouldn’t consider myself too far right. I’m moderate right-leaning. It’s almost uncomfortable in class, especially as a political science major, to voice your conservative opinion because a lot of people will delegitmize what you’re saying.”
Nobody, either on the left or the right, wants to be affiliated with the politics that we have today that’s so divisive, especially if they care about relationships
According to Sachdeva, conservative commentators both on and off campus do not always capture the differences within the conservative ideology movement. In October of 2016, Vanderbilt College Republicans invited one such commentator, free-speech advocate Milo Yiannopoulos, to campus. The event, Sachdeva noted, created a divide that persists within the Vanderbilt College Republicans.
“Having Milo Yiannopoulos made the club really polarized and, in my opinion, disillusioned the moderate conservative base,” Sachdeva said. “I’d say there are a lot of students here that currently feel alienated by the College Republicans.”
According to Danny Harris, the Secretary of Vanderbilt College Republicans, that feeling of alienation within the conservative community is part of a wider stigma against political discussion on campus.
“Nobody, either on the left or the right, wants to be affiliated with the politics that we have today that’s so divisive, especially if they care about relationships,” Harris said. “Are you going to want to say that you’re a Republican, that you support pro-life, that you support the racist rhetoric that comes with immigration, you support no healthcare for anyone? Do you support all those issues? Probably not, but that’s how the Republican platform portrays itself.”
Harris believes that both sides need to do a better job at understanding how people view political issues.
“The awareness needs to be raised that if you do identify with one of the parties, you’re not necessarily agreeing with everything they stand for,” Harris said.
Matt Colleran, host of the Conservative VU and columnist for the Vanderbilt Hustler, believes that university staff may contribute to what he sees as the stigma against political discussion. In the days following the 2016 election, Colleran said he got into a political debate with a Clinton voter, who accused Trump voters of being racist. As the debate grew more heated, a representative of the university intervened, pulling the Clinton voter aside to ask if they required any counseling.
“I probably would not have been having a good day if Hillary had won the election and I had stayed up late that night to watch it and I would have been worried about what was going to happen the next year,” Colleran said. “But I wouldn’t have expected a school administrator to come console me if I got into a political debate with some other student, and I don’t think there would have been a school administrator to come console me over that.”
To better represent conservative interests on campus, Harris is working with a group of other Vanderbilt conservatives to revive a lapsed conservative student publication. Under the name “University Torch,” the publication, Harris believes, will help foster conservative representation on campus.
My opinion is, regardless of your beliefs, you should be politically active
“The website should be fully up after Spring Break, and we’ll have articles coming in and out,” Harris said. “We’re hoping to have a total of twelve contributors. We should be putting out four to six articles per week, which I hope would give conservatives the ability to voice their opinions.”
Sachdeva believes that collaboration between conservatives and liberals is key to breaking the stigma against political discourse.
“My opinion is, regardless of your beliefs, you should be politically active,” Sachdeva said. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Socialist. It’s more about voicing your opinion, and as students at Vanderbilt, it’s our obligation to be active in our society.”
This semester, Vanderbilt College Republicans plans to participate in both a joint voter registration drive and a team debate with Vanderbilt College Democrats. In addition, Sachdeva is open to coordinating future initiatives via combined meetings.
“I would love to have a joint meeting between VCR and VCD, to have a roundtable discussion on how we can better collaborate,” he said. “We’re all Vanderbilt students, we just happen to have different political views.”
Colleran, who has founded multiple conservative clubs on campus, encourages politically active students to create their own organizations.
“Start an organization you’re passionate about,” Colleran said.“If you’re passionate about, say, gun rights, and you start a group, I guarantee that there are other students out there who have the same beliefs.”
For Harris, the campus political culture itself needs to change, and the change needs to begin with how both sides communicate.
“Conservative values encompass more than just traditional American values,” Harris said. “Assertive, inflammatory rhetoric is not what is going to help the dialogue, and that happens on both sides.”