Alternative Viewpoints: Democrats at a Mostly Conservative School
Written by Jacquelyn Eubanks
“Wait, you guys are real? You’re not ironic?” That’s what one student asked Katherine Wilkins, ’21, while she was manning the booth for the political organization College Democrats at The Source, the annual bazaar of extracurricular clubs and groups available for students to participate in at Hillsdale College.
In all fairness, I, too, found myself at The Source my freshman year wondering the same thing. The truth is, there are a number of left-leaning students here, and they gather together every other Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. in Lane Hall. At a meeting I recently attended, six students came. It’s a far cry from Hillsdale’s College Republicans, which boasts that it’s the largest club on campus (its email list has between 400 and 500 subscribers). But the College Democrats don’t pretend to be a major presence; that’s not why they came here.
I sat down with the current vice president, Genesis Rivera-Arreola, ’20, to talk about the club’s history. I had no idea that College Democrats was fairly new. I assumed that, like the Republicans, it had a long-established reputation. It turns out the club was created in the 1980s but deactivated rather quickly, and it only reemerged in 2015 when Elyse Hutcheson, ’18, revived it. Since then, it’s received recognition through events such as “Pie a Democrat,” and currently has around 40 subscribers to its email list. During the 2018-2019 school year, it celebrated its rechartering, meaning it is now recognized as an official club that can receive funding. Its mission statement reads:
“Our purpose is to facilitate intelligent discussion of Democratic ideals, policies, and principles, to promote knowledge of these principles, and to create an environment of Democratic thought and action for Democrats on campus.”
At first, the members planned to accomplish this mission by increasing visibility and getting active in local politics. Just before the 2018 midterm election, the club participated in making calls for Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer. At the meeting I attended, the club decided on a new goal: hosting a greater number of educational events.
Initially discussed was a “Bipartisan Bakesale” in which the College Republicans and Democrats would jointly sell donkey and elephant cookies. “We spent a meeting creating all kinds of punny slogans for it,” Katherine said, laughing. “For example, ‘Cooperation never tasted so good!’” The funding would ideally go to hosting talks—nothing out of the ordinary for a Hillsdale club. Except, at a school where the majority of visiting lecturers tackle topics like free-market economics and Christianity in an increasingly secular culture—all from a conservative perspective—members stressed a real need to, as Jordan Nied, ’20, put it, “provide more than strawman arguments.” The idea of getting T-shirts came up as well as partnering with other clubs to sponsor talks on a variety of issues.
The group as a whole covered a wide spectrum of political and religious thought. “I was once told by another student, ‘Well, you’re a liberal, so you believe this,’ Katherine said. “I said, ‘No, actually, I don’t. That’s not what I think.’ There’s an oversimplification of arguments on both sides of the aisle. There are nuances,” Katherine said.
Let’s be honest: a major reason why many students chose Hillsdale was because they wanted to avoid the far left’s stranglehold on every other institution of higher learning. So, why come to Hillsdale if you know you’re going to be the ideological minority? McKenna said that after researching political science programs at other colleges, she found Hillsdale’s politics major curriculum to be the best. Jordan was looking for the highest quality school he could find for the lowest price, or as he quibbed, “practicality over politics.” David said he wanted to attend a liberal arts school, and he’s also “subconsciously a contrarian.” Genesis came from a liberal high school, knew Hillsdale was more conservative, and decided to attend Hillsdale for the challenges it would present her. While she hasn’t necessarily changed her views, she admitted that she does think about issues differently than she did before; she’s found herself researching more about economics and the 2nd Amendment to broaden her understanding and strengthen her argumentation.
At the end of the meeting, I walked out to the parking lot with some of the students to continue the conversation. What we found was that we really have more in common than media culture would have us think: we could agree on what we identified as problems, and at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to do what we think is best. To any young liberals or Democrats considering Hillsdale, the members of “College Dems” (as they call themselves) encourage you to consider the College, and not to fear being judged.
“On an individual level, the conservatism here hasn’t negatively impacted or affected me,” Katherine said. Genesis added, “Nobody is disrespectful or rude; they’re willing to discuss things and engage in more dialogue.” To those interested in the club, she says, “Anybody is invited. All are welcome.”
Something beautiful and unique about Hillsdale that we’ve all found, regardless of political or religious affiliation, is an environment open to discussion from all perspectives. In order to have a free society, it is necessary that the freedoms of speech and assembly not only be preserved, but also regularly exercised. The presence of College Democrats on a largely conservative, Republican campus is a testament to our esteem of the First Amendment and the inalienable rights it enshrines. At a time when many other college campuses are shutting down free speech and making it impossible for alternative ideas to be vocalized, I am grateful and proud to attend an institution that cultivates free dialogue and academic inquiry.
Jacquelyn Eubanks, ’20, is a politics major with a penchant for writing. She spends most of her time as a coffee-sipping novelist dreaming of life as a fast-paced urbanite à la “Friends.” You can find her currently on social media (@TheJackyEubanks) and hopefully someday atop a mountain.
Published in September 2019