Abigail is an alumna of Vanderbilt Political Review.
By Abigail Fournier, Ben Lackner, and Shiva Sachdeva
For many, the mental image of a social conservative in the United States is that of an old, Republican, white male. Although perhaps a generalization, it is nonetheless appropriate to associate social conservatism, an ideology that supports traditional marriage, pro-life values, and Judeo-Christian principles, with older generations. Most Millennials are socially liberal; according to the Pew Research Center, 57% of Millennials said they are more liberal on social issues, while only 36% said they are more conservative. These ideological lines change considerably for older Americans, with the percentage of those who adhere to some form of conservatism directly correlating with age. There is even a wider generational gap when considering specifically young people’s view regarding specific issues like gay marriage. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 77% of young Democrats support same-sex marriage, as did 61% of young Republicans. Millennials are also less religious than older generations. 29% of them consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, while only 21% of Generation Xers, 16% of the Baby Boomers, and 9% of the Silent Generation do the same.
Today, younger Americans in large part support same-sex marriage and express pro-choice views, and these trends extend into the heart of Vanderbilt’s campus. Last spring, the Vanderbilt Political Review and the Vanderbilt Hustler conducted polls on campus regarding social issues. Less than one-third of Vanderbilt students self-identified as conservative, and of those who did, most expressed relatively moderate views compared to conservatives nationwide. 57.2% of students considered themselves liberal and, when asked about abortion, only 9.6% reported being unconditionally pro-life – that is, they don’t support exceptions in the case of rape, incest, etc. But, within the one third of Vanderbilt students who said they were conservative, this number rose to 76.6%. It thus seems that for those conservatives on campus, their political ideology might seem out of sync with the rest of campus.
The group of students who identify as socially conservative might be a statistical minority at Vanderbilt, but not all of them feel outnumbered. Matt Colleran, President Emeritus of the student group “For All Life” and current president of Vanderbilt’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom does not feel like a minority at Vanderbilt with regards to his political views. Colleran commented, “I think that just due to groups I’m in, even non-political groups, tend to lean more conservative, so I’ve honestly never felt like we’re that small of a group. At least in terms of the people who care about politics at all, … I think there are probably as many right-leaners at left-leaners.”
Colleran, a native of Pennsylvania, recognizes that his political views might generate polarized responses, but he nonetheless talks openly about his conservative positions on campus, especially when it comes to the topic of abortion. He said, “Here, I don’t ever really feel hesitant talking about being pro-life. I think that’s a reasonable enough position that a lot of people agree with, and those who don’t, a lot of them are truthfully undecided.” Colleran does admit, however, that he is more hesitant to discuss his feelings about more recent social issues such as the transgender bathroom debate.
Other social conservatives at Vanderbilt feel similarly. When asked about the ability of social conservatives and Republicans to speak their minds at Vanderbilt, an executive member of Vanderbilt College Republicans (VCR) agreed with Matt’s statements. This VCR leader, who prefers to remain anonymous, guessed that approximately 20% of the Vanderbilt study body is very conservative. They believe that although it might be seen as harder for social conservatives to voice their opinions without being shut down, this group of students continues to do so regardless of social pressures. He argued, “Not that I don’t think there are ways for social conservatives to speak their opinion, but there are forces that try to push back. However, I do not think there is a liberal monopoly on campus.” The leader added that students who wish to speak their minds will usually find the means to do so, regardless of pushback by those of opposing opinions. There seems to be a feeling among very conservative students, as evidenced by remarks from Colleran and the VCR executive member, that this ultra-conservative portion of the student body certainly exists, and might be stronger and larger than the average student may think.
Despite these anecdotal assessments, statistics from the Vanderbilt Political Review poll and Pew Center Research about the Millennial population still support a liberal majority among Vanderbilt students and the young-adult population in this country. Perhaps the feeling that there are more conservative students than exist prevails among the Republican population at Vanderbilt because people often associate with others who share their political beliefs and cultural values. According to the Vanderbilt Political Review’s poll, 89% of students’ best friends fall within two steps of their political ideology on a 1-7 scale. This could create the conception that a person’s own political group is larger than they think. The Vanderbilt Political Review poll also did not ask students how strongly they feel about politics; it is possible that the student body is more evenly divided among students who consider themselves activists or have high political knowledge.
As Colleran explains, it’s no surprise that students spend more time with those that have similar political views. “Of course people are going to be closer to people they agree with. That’s not only because of political beliefs – there are strong cultural divides between the parties and between belief sets.” To him, it is no coincidence that people will “naturally gravitate” to those with a similar upbringing.
Some might also view the expression of conservative views on campus as an act of defiance. Through this defiance, it is easy to see how a sharp divide could be created between socially conservative students and the rest of the Vanderbilt student population. This feelings might sometimes create an adversarial environment, one which could lead to additional polarization of the separate ideological camps. As the VCR executive member explains, polarization is counterproductive to good discussion and will only cause further entrenchment of groups.
This does not mean however, that all social conservatives on campus spend their time with those that share similar views. As Sophie Druffner, secretary of For All Live, explains, many of her friends do not share her pro-life views. She attributes this to the fact that “abortion is a subject that brings up a lot of emotion,” and that as she has gotten older, many of her friends have either gotten an abortion themselves or know someone who has done so. Perhaps because abortion is such a personal and emotional issue, it is not frequently discussed amongst friends. This self-censorship could theoretically lessen the effect that ideology might have on the selection of peers.
Vanderbilt is an institution that prides itself on diversity of identity, socioeconomic status, and opinion. Colleran commented that Vanderbilt College Republicans have focused on promoting conservative economic policies given the stigma of social conservatism on a liberal campus. Additionally, many Trump supporters on campus have remained silent about their endorsements to avoid social pushback.
After conservative activist Milo Yiannopoulos’ recent talk at Vanderbilt on October 11, and with the a pivotal presidential election less than 30 days away, it is likely that discussion about social conservatism on campus will continue to increase as these ideas are brought into the campus spotlight. As vanderbilt prides itself for having students of many different backgrounds, this political discourse is a beneficial and inevitable means of understanding our peers and strengthening our community.