In past years, Vassar students holding right-of-center views have found a venue to share their voice in the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union (VCLU). Student leaders of the VCLU voted in February to register the group, now the Vassar College Republicans (VCR) as a chapter of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) and instituted the change over spring break. Libertarian students, meanwhile, have regrouped as a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a national Libertarian political activism organization that was established in 2008. While it is often grouped together with Republican ideology, libertarianism instead seeks to limit the power of the state—whether that state is Republican or Democrat-lead—over its citizens.
VCR President Cooper Vorel ’20 commented, “Being affiliated with the Republican party, in our eyes, brings about better visibility and a more inclusive political environment. We think this change will encourage right-of-center students to feel comfortable voicing their beliefs without negative personal charges.”
At the national level, the CRNC is a 527 Political Action Committee and self-described activist group, led by an elected chairman. Each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, has its own chapter which unites all of the smaller chapters on campuses around the state (CNRC, “History”).
The organization has existed since the 19th century, but under the current administration, college Republican clubs are gaining more attention and even splintering within themselves. For example, the California chapter of the CRNC held elections for chairperson last year, and the two frontrunners had very different views of what it means to be a young Republican during Donald Trump’s presidency. One of the contenders, Leesa Danzek, is a moderate Republican, while her opponent (and eventual victor), Ariana Rowlands, is more strongly conservative, illustrating the nationwide splintering within the party (The Los Angeles Times, “Trump sparks revival for college Republicans, along with battle over ‘future and soul’ of movement,” 10.20.2017).
VCR Vice President Allegra Kaufman ’19 reflected, “While Vassar is vastly leftist, [VCLU] allowed similar-minded people to find each other and have free discussion that otherwise does not take place on campus.” Considering the potential impact of this change to the student organization, Kaufman added, “While we are adjusting our name and affiliation to work with College Republicans, I believe all of these values will be maintained going forward. We want people on the political right to feel comfortable at Vassar. We believe that they belong here too.”
Student groups representing other political viewpoints have offered a slightly different outlook on the change from VCLU to VCR. YAL Chapter President Jonas Trostle ’21 suggested, “I’m hesitantly optimistic. The VCLU had a lot of baggage, and maybe it was time for it to go.” Last October, the VCLU hosted a controversial lecture, led by Cornell University Clinical Professor of Law William Jacobson, about free speech on college campuses. When the event raised security concerns in the VSA and the President’s Office, the VCLU decided to increase its focus on discussion-based meetings and shift away from active programming.
“On the other hand,” Trostle added, “College Republicans, and [the label of] Republican in general, carries with it some major baggage itself, namely people like Trump, Sessions and Roy Moore.” For the VCR, party affiliation will present its own complex of issues in the context of a national political climate that can be polarizing and divisive under the current Republican administration.
Trump’s effect on college conservatives has apparently been twofold: drawing more eyes to their pamphlets and bodies to their meetings, but also increasing animosity toward this political minority on largely liberal campuses (The Los Angeles Times). Membership in a Conservative or Republican campus organization also does not necessarily equal approval of or support for Trump. The Penn State College Republicans, for example, decided not to endorse him when he was a candidate, but soon after this declaration, the campus’s pro-Trump student organization stormed the College Republicans’ meeting and called for the president’s resignation and election of a new executive board (The Atlantic, “The Future of Trumpism is on Campus,” 01.02.2018).
While nothing ultimately came of the standoff, and the aggressively right-wing group faded into the background on this particular campus, the incident is reminiscent of a pattern on campuses across the nation. Conservative student groups are arguing amongst themselves, and splitting into factions. This is not to say that YAL and VCR will follow the path of Penn State’s opposing conservatives, but they are part of a nationwide ideological rift among conservative student groups.
Other Libertarian students have expressed concern that political student groups affiliating with parties may exclude political viewpoints that fall outside party lines. Pointing to the issue of tolerance, YAL Chapter Vice President Chris Kremer ’18 said, “I think the VCLU had a role in offering refuge to alternatively-minded thinkers, but it remains to be seen whether the rebranded Vassar College Republicans will do the same or simply be a mouthpiece for the Republican Party’s propaganda.”
His outlook on VCR is pessimistic because the change carries the potential to cut out Libertarian views from the group discussion. Kremer also disapproves of YAL at the national level for what some consider to be its militancy on college campuses.
President of Vassar Democrats Elizabeth Chadbourne ’18 offered her own insight into the potential concerns of political affiliation for a student organization, saying, “It seems that the Vassar College Republicans feel that the name change better reflects the views of their members, and we understand the importance of naming an organization. Given the fact that you do not need to identify as a Democrat to join our org or attend our meetings or events, we have discussed the merit of having the word ‘Democrat’ in our name, rather than ‘Progressive,’ for example.’ She added, “The only thing that we do that is explicitly partisan is canvassing or other campaign work for candidates.”
Former YAL New York State Chair Pietro Geraci ’18 differs in his political views from both Democrats and Republicans. Taking a libertarian stance on party structures, he said, “I am not optimistic at all about this change. The Republican Party is just as obtrusive to liberty as the Democratic Party; both are corrupt, especially on a national level, and both could [not] care less about the Constitution and actually serving constituents.” Geraci interprets the de-emphasis on programming by the VCR as a significant loss to political discourse at Vassar.
Members of the VCR, however, strongly believe that students with right-of-center political views contribute to diversity of opinion on Vassar’s campus. A member of the VCR who asked to remain anonymous suggested, “The most meaningful aspect of the VCLU has been the opportunity to engage in diverse political discussions without fear of being castigated. Regardless of what some might say, members of the VCLU have diverse viewpoints ranging from the left to right [of the] political spectrum and the VCLU is not an echo chamber for the political right. There is regular debate, disagreement and discourse at our meetings.” Affirming the shift in focus from programming to discussion, the member noted, “The College Republicans plan to extend this aspect [to] the fullest possible extent by garnering more membership while also taking the time to foster better relations with Vassar and local communities on a holistic level. The plan is to take a backseat from previous political activism in order [to] meet these goals.”
Students in these groups believe as well that diverse political viewpoints enrich not only student life, but also academic coursework that pertains to politics. Kremer explained, “I’ve found the discourse on campus to be rather stifling; lots of students seem to have accepted postmodernist and critical theory, which is taught in classes. Those students then tend to shut down any opinions stemming from alternative theories.” For Kremer and other YAL members, the emphasis on radical or relativist ideas as the dominant mode of discourse in classes broadly characterizes departments in the social sciences.
Vorel agreed, “Political and social issues are severely limited in discussion because most people assume everyone is already in agreement with each other. This makes it difficult for the right-leaning students to find a niche in the conversation.” He argues that a political discourse that features more disagreement is more likely to bring to light good ideas from different parts of the political spectrum.
Other members have also considered the VCLU to be a supportive space. Kaufman explained, “For a long time, I used to hide my politics. I would not discuss them for fear that I would be unable to make friends because others would judge me as my label ‘Republican’ before my individual values, beliefs and actions. Nowadays, I do not worry so much. It’s more important to truthfully be yourself than to worry about what others think.”
Student organizations on campus with political party affiliation have emphasized different objectives for their activities this semester. Chadbourne stated, “Vassar Democrats members are consistently frustrated regarding the actions that the Trump administration is taking and have been striving to provide spaces for their members and the larger Vassar community to discuss those issues and what concrete actions can be taken to resist.”
Among the issues of interest to YAL are high levels of government spending, privacy concerns and free speech. Geraci said, “We plan to protest American foreign policy, namely our seemingly endless wars and widespread military bases, with a Generation of War/Bring Them Home tabling event, in which we would educate the passersby about America’s dangerously aggressive foreign policy and the military-industrial complex, and describe a pro-liberty solution, such as bringing home all soldiers sent abroad.” In collaboration with non-profit organizations such as Victims of Communism, Students for Liberty and the Leadership Institute, YAL also aspires to bring speakers to campus ranging from Libertarian candidate for Governor of New York Larry Sharpe to gun rights activist Antonia Okafor and drug war journalist Radley Balko of the Washington Post.
The VCR member who asked to remain anonymous concluded, “Ideas, beliefs and conversations definitely have an important role in local communities and politics. Given that young people comprise a significant voter base, political establishments will want to listen to what beliefs and ideas this generation has for the community or the country. This can’t happen if only one type of ideology is perpetuated on campus … Raising the level of conversation at Vassar is a very important way to communicate with the rest of the community at large.”