August 30, 2012

Beyond partisanship

In February 2012, an email was sent out to the Knox College community on behalf of sophomore Alex Uzarowicz. “Do you believe in individual liberty, traditional values, strong national defense, and free enterprise?” it read. “If you say yes to any of these, come and join us this Friday at 5 p.m. in the Gizmo!”

And just like that, Knox had a conservative political student group.

The reality of it was not so simple. On May 11, three months after sending his initial email, Uzarowicz and senior Karl Bair meet on the Gizmo patio for the Knox Conservatives’ weekly meeting. A few minutes after 5 p.m., Uzarowicz runs into the Gizmo to make sure no one is waiting inside. The place is deserted.

According to a 2009 survey conducted by Professor of Political Science Sue Hulett, 8.1 percent of Knox students call themselves conservative. If this number has remained constant, that means around 115 of 1,420 students identify as conservative today. Uzarowicz says that four or five regularly attend meetings. Where are the rest?

When asked whether they know any conservatives on campus, Knox students are surprisingly forthcoming with names. Contacting the conservative students is equally simple. Emails are sent. The project is explained. Responses are eagerly awaited.

Six of 14 people reply. Four of them will share their stories.

Staking out

The first of the four is Uzarowicz himself, who quickly outlines the situation as he perceives it.

“We have 1,400 students, and the vast majority are liberal. That’s the reality of it,” he said.

Since its founding in 1837, Knox has been progressive about social change. Women have been allowed to attend since the college’s early years, as have African Americans. The campus today is notoriously LGBT-friendly, with an LGBT theme house and a thriving gay-straight alliance group. Most recently, in a nod to green consciousness, Knox set aside $40,000 to purchase a growing dome in which to cultivate fresh produce year round. The college will be one of the first institutions of higher learning in the nation to acquire such an item.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that the majority of Knox students identify as liberal. The national average for colleges is a 29 percent liberal student body, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center; Knox’s figure is closer to 65 percent.

“I think we’re too homogenous to the point that whoever doesn’t fit … [into] the mold gets isolated or gets eyes rolled at them,” Uzarowicz said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’”

As a freshman, Uzarowicz began writing a conservative column for Knox’s student newspaper. It ran alongside two other political columns, both more liberal in nature, and initially was not well-received.

“The comments posted on my first columns were really hideous,” he said. “They called me a fascist; they called me a homophobe. … I really don’t understand it.”

The second of the four is sophomore Mydel Santos, who identifies as conservative-leaning and also spoke to the presence of conservative stereotypes.

“I always think that if I say I’m Republican, [others] are going to think, oh, you’re anti-gay, you’re racist, you’re wealthy,” she said. “That kind of does prevent me from being more open about my own views.”

Santos and Uzarowicz, along with Bair (the third person to respond) and conservative senior Andrew Kunsak (the fourth and final), argue that “conservative,” as they use the term, has more to do with constitutionalism than warmongering and includes the belief in small government and trust in the individual.

“The basic idea … is if you don’t limit people, people are creative enough and inventive enough in order to solve their own problems,” Bair said. “You don’t need this big, overarching, bureaucratic government.”

Beyond this, beliefs diverge. Kunsak was quick to point out that he does not wish to be identified with many other conservatives at Knox.

“The people who are those outspoken conservative people, I have zero desire to identify myself with,” he said. “A lot of traditional conservative social values, I don’t like that.”

Still, the broad basis of the “conservative” classification is a strength rather than a weakness, according to Uzarowicz, which is why he chose the name “Knox Conservatives” rather than “Knox Republicans.”

“Conservative means you have a set of ideas and this is what we are,” he said. “A Republican is saying, ‘We have this set of ideas, and we’re going to pick them just for political opportunism.’”

Taking names

When asked what percentage of the Knox student body he believes is conservative, Uzarowicz thinks for a moment, then suggests somewhere between 15 and 20 percent — a number far above the 8.1 percent reported in Hulett’s survey.

“I think Knox is becoming a bit more diverse politically,” he said. “But then again, it’s very hard to tell because they don’t disclose their beliefs.”

Kunsak guesses less than 15 percent; Bair thinks the percentage falls between 10 and 20. Only Santos is on the low side.

“I would say six or eight [people] per class, or maybe 10 because there are closet Republicans,” she said.

Thirty years ago, the other estimates may have been more accurate. Hulett, who has done extensive research on the current political composition of the Knox student body, found the balance between conservatives and liberals to be slightly more balanced even when she came to Knox in 1980.

“Many people were decidedly liberal, but I’m not sure the balance was overwhelmingly liberal,” she said. “I would have said 60 to 40 [percent liberal and conservative, respectively] or 60 to 30, with 10 who didn’t care. It seems to me that today, the conservative voice is considerably less.”

Some may wonder why conservative students would choose a college where most of the student body is on the other side of the political spectrum. For Bair, that was exactly the point.

“I believe that a true college experience should be one that challenges all of your beliefs,” he said.

For Bair, Knox has been a reinforcing experience. He admits to having become more accepting of homosexuality, but has otherwise remained steadfast in his views.

“I still remain a conservative, maybe even pushed towards conservative just because of the bleeding-heart liberal style that exists at this school,” he said.

While Bair is comfortable sharing his views, citing his outspoken personality, Uzarowicz taps the edge of his cup in thought. He pauses.

“I know you’re not doing this,” he said, “because you’re being very respectful and you want to know what kind of conservatives we have at Knox, but it seems kind of like a witch hunt.” He leans forward, as if to be reassuring. “I know you’re not doing a witch hunt, but I can see how people feel a little taken aback.”

Meeting in the middle

At the May 11 meeting, Uzarowicz and Bair’s conversation is far-ranging and surprisingly nonpartisan. They move effortlessly from former Senator Richard Lugar’s fraternity affiliation to their mutual dislike of Mitt Romney, the discussion dotted with irreverent quotations and names of potential Republican vice-presidential candidates.

At about a quarter to 6, they drag themselves up from the table and go their separate ways. Uzarowicz apologizes for the poor attendance.

“What we need to do next year is probably advertise and put up posters,” he said. “I need an actual group of people who push me to do it, and it’s hard to find that on this campus.”

At the same time, Uzarowicz believes that a conservative group could be a catalyst for stimulating dialogue. He has spoken with junior Gretta Reed, president of the Knox Democrats, about co-sponsoring events next year.

“She actually agreed with a lot of what I said, because she’s a fiscal conservative. Socially, she’s very liberal,” Uzarowicz said. “The more we talk, the more we engage, the more we understand each other, and the more we can actually compromise.”

In Santos’ view, discourse must start in the classroom. Both she and Bair mentioned having interacted with professors who expressed distaste for the conservative viewpoint.

“One way to deter or decrease the biased-ness (sic) is … to discuss the Democratic viewpoint and then have a good discussion about the Republican viewpoint,” Santos said. “It’s not a discussion about how stupid this opinion is, but seriously trying to understand it. And it’s fine to disagree still, but there’s a way of doing it in a tactful manner.”

Or perhaps, suggests Bair, understanding must begin at an even more fundamental level: with individual students themselves.

“Don’t ever take anything at face value. Learn about it and come to a decision,” Bair said. “That’s how people get better. That’s how people get smarter. That’s how the country keeps moving forward.”

Anna Meier

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