Last spring, Emmakristina Sveen ’17 and Meghan Kelly ’17 witnessed a protest outside Usdan and realized that only one political perspective was being represented.
“We were actually asked to sign a physical petition,” Sveen said. “Obviously we didn’t, because we didn’t agree with what they were protesting for, but we just sort of realized that that’s something that’s so political….There’s one side of it being advertised and protested right outside the student center, and the other side is completely silenced and hidden a little bit, hushed.”
From this experience, Sveen and Kelly were inspired to start the Wesleyan Republican Committee (WRC).
The last incarnation of a Republican student group, the Wesleyan College Republicans, officially went under just before the 2012 presidential election. Eugene Wong ’09 founded the club in 2007, but it was Alex Levin ’12 who last headed the student group. Membership dwindled upon Levin’s graduation, and with no real leadership in place, the club disintegrated.
To receive charters with the College Republican National Committee and the College Republicans of Connecticut, the current WRC established an executive board of five students and wrote a constitution.
The executive board consists of Sveen (Chairman), Emma Bentley ’17 (Vice Chairman), Kelly (Treasurer), Andrew Mehr ’17 (Executive Director), and Jake Cronin ’18 (Director of Membership and Recruitment). Brooke Hodgson ’18 serves as the board’s newly added Director of Social Media.
Sveen emphasized that the WRC has been embraced by other college Republican groups.
“The Connecticut Republican Party, when they found out that we were starting our own chapter, jumped on the opportunity and capitalized on that,” Sveen said. “Now we’re pretty well established in terms of college Republican clubs in Connecticut, and we’re pretty well established nationally, too.”
She found that the group has served as an outlet for the expression of views that may go less acknowledged on campus.
“We formed the institution to give a voice to people to with conservative voices,” Sveen said. “Nobody wanted to be the one to start the committee, but there were definitely people itching to have a voice. We really want to instill in our members and other students on this campus a voice to advocate, regardless of what your political affiliations are, regardless of whether Wesleyan is known as being a liberal institution.”
The presence of an institutionalized Republican student group on campus challenges both internal and external perceptions of the University’s political landscape. Thw mainstream media regularly portrays the University as a hotbed of liberalism, with College Magazine ranking the University #4 on its 2014 list of “The 10 Most Progressive Campuses.” However, contrary to popular belief, Wesleyan is home to students of many political identities, beliefs, and affiliations.
Within three weeks, the WRC has amassed a listserv of over 70 students. Sveen, though, is hardly shocked.
“Just the fact that we established this club, and we already have a member base of over 70 students, does indicate that this campus is politically diverse,” she said. She noted that despite this success, political diversity doesn’t necessarily correlate to political activism.
“I don’t know if you can really consider something politically diverse if not every side speaks up and advocates,” Sveen said.
“Being a Republican at Wesleyan, it didn’t surprise me that there were other people who also chose to come here and live under the big liberal umbrella here,” Sveen she added. “But I definitely surprised a lot of other people. When I say we have  people, it usually tends to provoke shock.”
Sveen acknowledged that political beliefs are more complicated than party affiliations.
“We also think it is really important to talk about politics in terms of a spectrum, particularly with this younger generation of voters,” Sveen wrote in an email to The Argus. “There are undoubtedly both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives on this campus, but there is also a huge presence of very intellectual and well-informed students that fall everywhere and anywhere in between.”
Sveen also pointed out that political diversity exists within the WRC itself.
“We do have a lot of people in our club who are absolutely very conservative, but we also have people who are very, very moderate,” she said.
Marshal Lawler ’16, President of the Wesleyan College Democrats, looks forward to a broader representation of political voices.
“A lot of people on campus assume that there’s a consensus surrounding [political] debates…and that’s very much not the case, especially when it comes to things like economic policy around the country,” he said. “That being said, I’m a Democrat and think that Republicans are wrong about most things, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think they have a place in the political discourse. There are good and bad ideas on both sides of the political aisle.”
Lawler believes that the formation of a conservative student group could actually lead to increased political engagement among liberal students.
“Because there’s no competition [at Wesleyan], a lull forms, and people don’t feel the need to engage as thoroughly, because they don’t realize that these ideas are threatened at all, and they don’t feel the need to defend them,” he said. “So there’s not as much political engagement, at least in traditional mainstream politics, as I’d like to see. I would like to see more engagement on Wesleyan’s campus, especially if it is as liberal as people say. I think that healthy competition will actually make people come out and participate more, which I’m really excited for.”
Mitchell Ryan ’17, a member of the WRC, agrees that political uniformity can result in complacency.
“The best political environment is to have all sides of the issue,” he said. “With one side, people get comfortable with their views. They’re not ever challenged.”
Bentley, like Lawler, hopes that the formation of WRC will bring about changes in Wesleyan’s political discourse.
“It is crucial to have multiple political views on every college campus,” Bentley wrote in an email to The Argus. “In the ‘real world’ (after college) there are multiple political views being preached wherever you go, [so] why should Wesleyan be any different? It is unrealistic to have an environment where only one political view is heard because that leaves no room for discussion or debate….We hope the formation of WesRepubs allows for greater political diversity, more bipartisan community events, heavy debates revolving current political events, and simply a broader Wesleyan political spectrum of views that can be heard and expressed in a formal setting.”
For some students, the WRC has already provided exposure to new ideas.
“We’ve had people come up to us and say, ‘I was raised one hundred percent liberal—parents are liberal, came straight to Wesleyan, and I’ve never been exposed to the Republican ideas and would love to just come and listen. I’m not going to say I’m going to change my registration, but I want to listen,’” Sveen said.
Despite encountering this open-mindedness among students, the WRC board members have yet to find a faculty sponsor. The Wesleyan College Republicans of 2007-2012 faced the same challenge and never found a faculty sponsor.
“It’s difficult to find faculty [members] who are sympathetic to our cause or faculty members [who] have the time,” Sveen said. “We are still in the process of looking, and [Bentley] is reaching out to two different professors this week who were recommended to her. We really want a faculty member who won’t just sign off on our forms, but somebody who has similar views and is similarly conservatively minded, and will participate in our club and participate in our discussions and participate in our debates.”
The WRC meets every Wednesday at 8 p.m. in PAC004. Last week, attendees spoke about Second Amendment rights in relation to gun violence and gun control.
“The discussion could not have been more successful,” Sveen said. “We all had our own opinions about gun laws and gun control, but we also all had questions.”
Meetings have been attended by die-hard conservatives along with people who are on the fence politically. Though its members identify as Republican, the WRC plans to hold events open to everybody, regardless of political affiliation.
“One thing we thought would resonate on campus is to have representatives from the National Federation of Republican Women,” Sveen said. “One of the things I hear all the time is, ‘Why are you a Republican?’ and ‘the Republican war against women.’ I obviously do not believe that there’s a war against women, and as a female Republican and as a female leader in the Republican Party on my own campus, I think it would be really inspirational and educational to hear from someone who works in a coalition that’s just for Republican women.”
Sveen also pointed out that the top positions on the executive board of the WRC are occupied by women, a fact that distinguishes the group from most other college Republican committees. She hopes that female speakers—along with speaker from Connecticut Black Republicans and Conservatives—will challenge stereotypes about Republicans.
Hannah Skopicki ’18, a member of the WRC, enjoys prompting others to question their notions of the quintessential Republican when she explains her own political views to them.
“I think that when you get a Jewish girl from New York, that’s not exactly the stereotypical Republican that everyone thinks of,” she said.
Because most college students vote Democratic, Sveen—along with the National Republican Party, which was, she reports, thrilled to see the formation of the WRC at the University—is working to reclaim the youth vote.
“Statistically speaking, a significant percentage of Americans admit to not affiliating with Republicans because of the party’s perception, not so much the actual policies,” she said.
Bentley hopes to confront these perceptions.
“We hope to not only educate students about the Republican agenda, but to break down and explore the stigma around the Republican Party in hopes that the youth of our generation is attracted to this newly refurbished notion of a more moderate Republican,” she said.
According to Lawler, there is also an increasing number of libertarians on campus.
“Especially because right now is a time when the president is unpopular in his sixth year; most presidents are,” Lawler said. “Identifying as Republican, or at least someone who disagrees with the president and the party in power, is more common than people would think.”
Still, the WRC’s existence has generated a blend of shock and contempt from people on campus. The group has been the object of curiosity and animosity on social media. Lawler condemns the hateful responses.
“I’ve noticed, especially since the formation of the group, that some people have been really hostile on social media,” Lawler said. “And I haven’t been too happy with that, just because they haven’t even gotten the chance to exist yet.”
On Oct 22, the WRC ran a campaign called #whyiam, in which members stood in front of a blackboard stating, “I am a Republican because…” with pieces of paper proclaiming things such as, “I don’t believe in a Socialistic America,” “I want a job after college,” and “I want to keep what I work for.”
Sveen noted that part of the hostility provoked by the campaign was due to a misunderstanding of the project’s aims.
“I didn’t fully explain what the campaign was, and it was misconstrued a little bit,” she said. “It wasn’t detailed, it wasn’t substantive; it was just one aspect of the Republican party that people agree with the most, something they’d take to the grave. And some people tried to make the words a little casual, or funny, and it was misconstrued.”
Despite the response, Sveen sees the campaign as a worthy exercise in self-reflection.
“We’re doing stuff like that to get people to think to themselves, ‘Why am I a Republican? What is it about the Republican agenda that I agree with? Or do I even know; was it just that I was raised as a Republican?’” she said.
The WRC has received nothing but respect, however, from WesDems, according to Sveen.
“WesDems as a club has been unbelievably supportive,” Sveen said. “Obviously we disagree on many points—our political views are almost completely opposite—but they’ve been our biggest supporters.”
That support stems from a mutual belief in political discourse.
“Both sides are like, ‘This is not a contentious thing,’” Sveen said. “This is the nature of our country and our political system. Best to embody that at our school, considering that we’re the next generation of voters.”
Sveen and Lawler are particularly excited about the possibility of co-hosting debates.
“People in my club have always wished the debate were a possibility,” Lawler said. “Politics without anyone to argue with is kind of boring….I would like to see the discourse continue, maybe at a higher level than it does, say, in Congress.”
The bottom line for Lawler, though, is greater political engagement.
“I would like to see everyone on campus come out there and get engaged,” he said. “Supposedly Wesleyan is this politically engaged community, and we do have a very active activist community, but when it comes to mainstream politics, people aren’t very enthusiastic.”
Sveen agrees that getting involved in politics is paramount.
“We’re really trying to give people that voice and re-establish that two-sided environment,” she said. “People are really excited to go out and say, ‘I’ve held this in for however many years at Wesleyan, and now I have the vehicle to advocate for what I believe in.’”