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Conservatives at Cornell and Beyond

S.E. Cupp '00 was Daze editor at The Cornell Daily Sun and interned at the Johnson Museum. After the classically trained dancer worked at The New York Times, she enrolled in the master's program at New York University, where she's currently pursuing a degree in religious studies. Brett Joshpe '02 went on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 2005.

If these Cornellians don't sound like your typical College Republicans, it's because they're not. But both experienced life at the University as self-described conservatives, and now they want to set the record straight. Their new book, Why You're Wrong About the Right, tackles myths and reveals "the surprising truth about conservatives." Intrigued, MetaEzra sat down virtually with the authors to discuss how their Cornell years formed their worldviews today.

S.E. and Brett

So, be honest: Did you land on campus a fully formed conservative, or were you once a bright-eyed, idealistic young liberal who eventually became hardened by the radical excesses of Cornell's students and faculty?

SEC: I came to Cornell like most 18-year-olds I think ... less interested in politics, per se, and more interested in "big ideas." So I'd say most of my "big ideas" at the time would probably have been classified as liberal, though I'd always been a law-and-order, eye-for-an-eye kind of gal. But my sophomore year I attended a debate between then-government prof Jeremy Rabkin, a known rebel conservative, and some visiting professor from another institution about affirmative action. [Editor's note: Rabkin departed for George Mason last year, drawn by the lure of a salary increase and more responsibility. You can read MetaEzra's chat with him here.] I found myself so aligned with Rabkin's position, and energized by his enthusiasm, it prompted me to do a little research. I figured, "if this is what it means to be conservative, maybe I'm a Republican." In a very short time I fast-tracked my political education on my own, and by the time I left I was a staunch Republican.

BJ: I arrived an unapologetic Republican. I was never an idealistic liberal. My idealism was always somewhat limited to the expectations I set for myself individually as a person. Despite being a Republican from day one, my politics certainly shifted Right as my education progressed through my Cornell years and into law school. When I began college, I would have described myself as a "moderate Republican." Several things, however, pushed me further right: the events of 9/11 and aftermath, a legal education that revealed the logic of conservative reasoning, fatigue with reactionary liberalism on campus, and finally, a greater appreciation for the world around me and less concern with grades and the opinions of those who gives the grades.

Was it hard to be a conservative at Cornell back when you were a student? Do you think it would be the same experience for you now, if you were still enrolled?

SEC: At the time, I didn't really notice how liberal Cornell was. I knew Prof. Rabkin was a campus celebrity, so there was the sense that conservatism wasn't the norm, but I was also an art history major, so politics didn't always come up. I saw it a little in a class I took in gender studies, which may have been the most uncomfortable class I've ever taken, and certainly some of my friends were very liberal, almost radically so, but otherwise I was too wrapped up in the social scene at the Palm, my job at the Sun, and getting a job after college to really pay attention to that. But graduate school is a totally different story. NYU is fantastic, but the liberal ethos is absolutely inescapable.

BJ: I never found it hard to be a conservative in any liberal environment, mostly because I have found it amusing to be in the minority. It has always made it easier for me to ruffle feathers, which I enjoy. I also never took campus politics too seriously (at least not until law school), so I might offend someone with my conservative politics over drinks, but it's easier to get past that and be friends probably than if the same person only knows you as a campus activist. I think generally, however, most conservatives on college campuses are probably okay with their situations, because we've all had to get used to being conservatives among liberals. We discuss this in our book. Conversely, many on the Left seemed shocked whenever they hear mainstream conservative views. We call this type of person the Disbelieving Liberal.

If I were still enrolled, it might be a little different. When I think back to some of the things that certain professors did and said at Cornell, I wonder how I kept my blood pressure normal and didn't take more issue. I can recall certain professors and statements right now. And while I was never afraid to speak up, I think I was more concerned at the time with doing well in school. I'm glad I was able to do that because my career probably would have looked very different otherwise. However, if you put me in that situation without me needing to worry about regurgitating what professors wanted to hear, I probably would be a consistent class disruption.

S.E., what drew you to Daze, in particular? Was it the quasi-autonomous fiefdom that I remember? Did that aspect attract you at all?

SEC: I loved art and pop culture, so it made sense at the time. And I was sort of thrown into the editor position in my second year, and it became less of a choice and more of a hostage situation. But a really enjoyable hostage situation, if those exist. The work felt real and authentic, and the people were so passionate about their jobs, it was exhilarating. Plus, bossing people around was super fun, and an experience I don't think I'll get again, unfortunately.

Did organizations like the College Republicans or publications like The Cornell Review anchor you along the way or serve as guideposts? Or were you pretty removed from that world?

SEC: I think that the College Republicans and The Cornell Review are invaluable groups in places like Cornell, and it's clear they do "good works," in a sort of Protestant sense. But in college (and even now in a way) I didn't know too many conservatives who were or are "joiners." Most of the conservatives I know are a bit more antisocial, for lack of better word, or maybe independent is better, and wouldn't really find it appealing to join a conservative group to meet conservative people and talk about conservative issues. Republicans, on the other hand, are I think far more drawn to this action-oriented kind of call to arms. I'm both, though in college I think I was just a conservative, and not necessarily a Republican. So it never occurred to me to get "involved" in that way.

It seems that conservative students either arrive on campus with their views set, or for some reason or another they become political autodidacts. Presumably, then, liberal students don't need to do any reading on the side to arrive at or solidify their views? Does your book address this imbalance at all?

SEC: I don't think it's fair to say any 18-year-old arrives at college with their views fully formed. We all have influences and ideas and a sense of where we think we want to go, but rather than treat students like they're bringing all this political baggage with them to college (and so we need to correct for their biases) I think we should treat them as blank slates. We should assume they're still a lot more impressionable that we think ... because they are. Liberal academia takes for granted that students are already liberal, and this gives them the freedom to say whatever they want, regardless of how appropriate or relevant. And conservative students, as we say in the book, generally avoid the classes they think will spew liberal rhetoric, whether it's an anthropology class or a comparative literature class. Maybe if there wasn't this expectation that students (who the government even recognizes do not have the equipment to make an educated vote until age 21) have already chosen their political identities, universities would take more time and care with what they teach and say.

Who is the intended audience of the book?

SEC: This book is for everyone. It's for the conservative who wants more ammunition to argue with liberal friends. It's for the undecided who wants a fresh perspective. It's for the liberal who truly wants to speak from a place of fact and truth, not hyperbole and histrionics. It's for young teens, 20- and 30-somethings who don't find traditional conservative literature all that exciting, and for the 40+ market, who wants a return to Goldwater and Reagan principles. With contributors like Tucker Carlson, Ted Nugent, Curt Schilling, Newt Gingrich and George Will, there truly is something for everyone.

If the book had existed when you were both at Cornell, do you think you would have been received differently by peers and professors?

SEC: I was treated fine in college, but I'm sure there were conservatives who weren't. If you're asking whether I think this book would have changed or will change politics on college campuses, the answer for me is no. I think that will have to come from students themselves, their parents, and their parents' wallets. But hopefully this book helps inform all three contingents in meaningful ways.

BJ: I might have had a few more dates?

Andy Guess | Posted on May 30, 2008 (#)

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