On a frigid mid-February evening, a meeting of the Harvard College Anscombe Society is late getting started. Outside, the snow in Cambridge rises depressingly high, and the sidewalks are streaked with salty slush. The gloom extends inside room 107 of Robinson Hall, where the Anscombe Society’s executive officers, all three of them, are holding off calling the meeting to order. It’s a lonely business being a conservative on what is often described as one of America’s most liberal campuses, and the Anscombe Society—motto: “Where traditional values meet Harvard”—hoped a recent recruitment effort involving Valentine’s candy distributed in dorms would draw potential members to tonight’s meeting. But now it’s past 7 p.m., and so far co-presidents Bella Gomez and Thayer Wade and treasurer Bryan Poellot are the only ones who’ve showed up. Still, the group isn’t ready to accept defeat.
Harvard’s Anscombe Society is one of several on campuses across the country named for G.E.M. Anscombe, the British academic who advocated for chastity, family and the right to life. The Harvard society has about 30 official members, but only a handful are active. That put the society in a precarious position when its last president graduated in 2014. “[Because] the club is so small and not that many people are active, we didn’t have an election,” Gomez recalls. “And then, when our president graduated, we were left without leadership.” Gomez eventually agreed to take over, but given her commitments as a member of varsity crew, she asked Wade to serve as co-president. All things considered, a few new members would be a godsend. Wade glances at the time. “We’ll just give it a few more minutes,” he says.
It’s not hard to figure out why the Anscombe Society has trouble attracting new members. The society is concerned with social issues, like “sexual integrity,” which includes a call to abstinence; the sanctity of traditional marriage, which is to say the institution involving one man and one woman; and “true feminism,” which means, according to the society’s website, “equal rights and freedoms… that can co-exist with motherhood and the unique responsibilities it entails.” Sure, there are millions of people who share those beliefs, but they’re not typically college students.
The society knows all this. Gomez, who calls herself “extremely socially conservative,” says she has no illusions about how her beliefs fit in at a place like Harvard. “We are a very small group on campus,” says the 20-year-old sophomore from Lexington, Kentucky. “We’re trying to grow.” And in fairness, the group has had successes: A lecture it hosted in February by the conservative writer Donna Freitas drew about 40 people. Still, the society’s message can be a tough sell.
President Richard Nixon referred to the university as “the Kremlin on the Charles,” and Texas senator Ted Cruz has claimed that while he was at Harvard Law in the 1990s, there were a dozen Marxist members of the faculty who “believed in the overthrow of the U.S. government.” Harvard, in other words, has the reputation of being very liberal.
That’s not to say the Anscombe Society members are the only conservatives on the campus. There’s the popular Harvard Republican Club, plus the John Adams Society, Harvard Right to Life, the Harvard Salient student newspaper and a number of other conservative groups and clubs. But there is a belief in right-wing circles that the institution remains impervious to conservative influence. Gomez says when she discusses politics with her more liberal classmates, “they’re letting me talk mostly so they can tell me that I’m wrong.”
Not all conservatives at Harvard feel marginalized. The campus has proved fertile for Republican political talent. Last year, three Harvard-educated Republicans—Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Dan Sullivan of Alaska—were elected to the U.S. Senate. That chamber now has more GOP members with Harvard ties than Democratic ones. Meanwhile, Harvard grad Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, was elected to the House last year.
Gavin Sullivan, a 20-year-old sophomore, is a vice-president of social events for the Harvard Republican Club and says the dominant liberal sentiment at the school actually works to build solidarity on the right. “I think it invigorates our discussions a bit,” Sullivan says. But in general, he adds, “people are respectful of political diversity.” Sullivan says it’s easier on campuses for conservatives like him, who are motivated primarily by fiscal policy, noting, “Students can react strongly to social conservatism.”
But just how strongly? From what I’ve seen, it wasn’t the scorn of liberal students vexing groups like the Anscombe Society as much as the lack of awareness that such groups existed at all. Indeed, when I asked Jacob Carrel, the president of the Harvard College Democrats, what he made of the Anscombe Society, he said it was his sense that they weren’t especially well known. How could all the communists at Harvard miss the social conservatives in their midst?
I put that question to Richard Bradley, author of Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University, who says, “You hear about conservatives at Harvard and think, Why on Earth did these people go there? Are they gluttons for punishment? But the truth is, the idea of Harvard as some sort of liberal bastion is largely a myth.”
Bradley says at its core Harvard is a business whose product is education. “Harvard is about power,” he says, “and whether you’re liberal or a little right, it doesn’t matter.”
Harvard is less concerned with activism than with influence, as we saw in April when students, faculty and alumni staged sit-ins to demand the school divest from fossil fuels. Bradley says the students who choose the school, regardless of their politics, do so because of the opportunities that come with it. “There are a lot of people here,” one student tells me, “who are convinced they’re going to be president.”
With the minutes continuing to tick away, it is clear that no new members are going to show up at the Anscombe Society meeting in Robinson Hall. Wade takes one more look at the time and at last calls the meeting to order.
It’s hard not to feel for Gomez, Wade and Poellot, three driven young people willing to sacrifice for their beliefs. Their recent recruitment push was a lot of effort with no discernible payoff. So was it better to be feared or ignored? My mind flashed to the Valentine’s Day packages the group delivered to all freshmen. The bags, packed with candy, were placed in baskets on dorm-room doors. This kind of “door dropping” is so common that many students eventually stop bothering to sort through them. As Jacob Carrel, the College Democrats president, told me, “There’s a good chance the people who got the bags didn’t even notice.”