Just a few years ago, I called myself a Republican.
It’s not something I try to hide. If you look back at my past columns and blogs, you’ll notice that I used to complain about liberal professors, and once tried to reason with the Young America’s Foundation from my position as a Republican.
I’m not ashamed, and I don’t regret coming to GW as a member of the GOP. It has given me a unique perspective on the left-right divide, and if nothing else, has made me so much happier with the position I’m in now: I openly call myself an independent.
This week, our campus will host two speakers back-to-back who are in ideological opposition to one another: Rick Santorum on Monday and Laverne Cox on Tuesday. Personally, I’ll head to see Cox while avoiding Santorum like the plague – and my freshman year, that might not have been the case.
It wasn’t easy to get where I am now, and it hasn’t always been comfortable moving away from a long-held group affiliation. The College Republicans was the first organization I joined on campus. Why would I want to leave it for the unknown? I was worried I might feel lost without a political group to call my own.
But you can’t let yourself fold under the pressure – from family, from friends back home, from peers in political organizations – to go with the flow, especially as a freshman or sophomore. After a while, I couldn’t hold back my disagreement any longer – and I wish I had quit Republicanism sooner. That’s why it’s important for other students to know that it’s OK to switch parties or drop out altogether, and you aren’t betraying anyone if you do.
I came to GW optimistic that I would hang on to my right-of-center views. If you ask my friends and family, they’ll tell you I insisted, “I won’t become a liberal in college like everyone else.”
But then I came to this University, where I encountered the most intense brand of conservatism I’ve ever experienced in person. It scared me.
My experience with the CRs my freshman year wasn’t bad. In general, I found them to be pretty mild and accommodating. But for me, being a Republican came with a qualifier: I was socially liberal, fiscally conservative. That sometimes made me feel unwelcome – like I wasn’t Republican enough. My favorite candidate in the 2012 election was Jon Huntsman, which was greeted by a few laughs. Despite the insistence that moderates were welcome, I still felt out of place.
And that was just the CRs. Outside of those meetings, I was appalled by the radically conservative events the Young America’s Foundation hosted.
Last year, the group created a fake grade redistribution petition, which asked students whether they would support re-allocating points from students with the highest GPAs to students with the lowest GPAs. The group likened this exercise to the redistribution of wealth.
Annually, YAF protests abortion by placing crosses in Kogan Plaza, one for each “life lost.” The organization often brings to campus extremely controversial speakers like Phyllis Schlafly, the woman who almost single-handedly thwarted the Equal Rights Amendment. This week, YAF will host Santorum, an anti-contraception, anti-marriage equality conservative with a record for offensive statements that has followed him since his 2012 presidential campaign.
The group does put on one admirable event where members fill Kogan Plaza with flags in honor of Sept. 11 each year. But this does not outweigh their radical displays throughout the rest of the year.
Plus, there’s the Network of enlightened Women, a national group that formed a chapter at GW last fall. NeW aims to rebrand the women’s movement so it conforms to a conservative ideology – which hits me, an outspoken feminist and women’s studies minor, particularly hard.
NeW is the antithesis of the feminism I know and love. Instead of celebrating women, one of the group’s biggest events so far this academic year – The Gentleman’s Showcase – revolved entirely around honoring “GW’s favorite conservative gentleman.” The group hosts speakers who claim liberals are waging a war on women, and its Twitter account highlights articles that attack women who choose not to shave their body hair while somehow still championing the hashtag “#freedomfeminism.”
YAF and NeW often hold joint events, creating a strange brand of “conservative feminism” that’s a complete oxymoron.
Over time, I grew afraid to be even tangentially associated with the social conservative agenda, thanks to organizations with platforms like YAF’s and NeW’s. Unfortunately, this meant removing myself from the Republican Party altogether.
I’m frequently reminded that I made the right decision: Every time a prominent conservative member of the GOP says something radical – which is often – I feel a surge of reassurance. Most recently, YAF’s outrage on our campus over the possibility of mandatory LGBT sensitivity trainings has left me feeling better than ever about my departure from the party.
These organizations are GW’s embodiment of the extremism that has taken over the Republican Party and scared away some moderates, like me. The GOP lost a young, female voter who is liberal on social issues – the exact type of person the party should be trying to recruit – when YAF and NeW drove me away.
It seems like their antagonism isn’t about changing anyone’s minds. It’s about the possibility of a segment on Fox & Friends, or the chance to write a new article about liberals at GW for a conservative website.
It’s about attention. And that need for attention is polarizing. It either draws similar people closer or pushes people farther away.
My preference to move to the middle isn’t unique. In fact, half of all millennials choose not to identify with either party, and those who do identify are more likely to be Democrats. Plus, the Pew Research Center reports that “millennials today are still the only generation in which liberals are not significantly outnumbered by conservatives.”
To me, this sounds just like our campus.
Connor Schmidt, the president of the College Democrats, told me his organization has about 2,500 active members, and said he’s seen an upward trend in membership every year. Plus, Cavan Kharrazian, a leader of the Progressive Student Union, told me the group has over 40 members and has seen a “sharp increase” in membership over the past few years. Kharrazian noted that three years ago, only about five people consistently attended meetings.
Meanwhile, College Republicans President Alex Pollock told me that this year, his organization has about 500 members, a number that has remained stable during his time at GW. YAF’s president, Emily Jashinsky, told me the group doesn’t have official membership numbers. YAF co-president and the president of NeW, Amanda Robbins, said NeW hasn’t counted members. But both groups tend to garner low numbers of RSVPs to most of their events on Facebook, usually between 20 and 30, indicating that they have a comparatively weak presence on campus.
At the end of the day – though I’ll admit, it can be difficult – I do my best to ignore what groups like YAF and NeW do. Their brand of politics and feminism don’t concern me because I’ve found my own.
I’ve learned that it’s OK to be independent, or even to switch parties. You shouldn’t be afraid to change your mind. A political party is a choice, not an obligation, and you don’t have to put up with extreme ideologies if they make you as angry as they made me. Trust me when I say you should go with your gut because you won’t regret it.
After coming to GW, I didn’t find a group affiliation. Instead, I found myself, and I’ve heard that’s what you’re supposed to do in college, anyway.
Sarah Blugis, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.