A Left among Rights: A Progressive Student’s Week at a Conservative Think Tank. What Did He Learn?
A Left among Rights: A Progressive Student’s Week at a Conservative Think Tank. What Did He Learn?
In his own words, Zak Schneider (CAS’22, Pardee’22) recounts a week with right-leaning peers: “I came to this realization that I was wrongly worried”
Zak Schneider (CAS’22, Pardee’22) describes himself as “Elizabeth Warren in theory and Pete Buttigieg in practice, solidly left on economic and social issues.” For one week over the summer, however, at the suggestion of Graham Wilson, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science, Schneider volunteered for a week’s immersion in the Summer Honors Program at the right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C. The double-major, in political science and international relations, learned a surprising lesson, which he shared with BU Today.
We had a cohort of about 60 people. They were college students from around the country: from people who grew up on rural farms in Wisconsin to people from the Deep South to people who lived in Manhattan. As someone who’s writing a senior honors thesis on democracy, I’ve learned how important a respectful, responsible opposition party is. My anxieties were rooted in the “own the libs” phenomenon [a political strategy focusing on upsetting political liberals, used by some US conservatives], this culture war by conservatives. I was afraid of that mindset going in, of people who weren’t open-minded, just trying to score points for their team.
I remember first coming in there on Sunday afternoon and having a conversation with someone over dinner. That someone turned into the 10 people who were sitting at my table. And that 10 people turned into 20 people who were all sitting around us. They all just engaged in this lively conversation until like 10 o’clock, about everything under the sun: lowercase “l” liberalism, secularization, inequalities and social justice, foreign policy, the role of religion in society, finding the good life and happiness.
The very first night, I came to this realization that I was wrongly worried. I was in a room with other people who shared this intellectual curiosity and genuine interest in hearing other people’s perspectives. None were Trump conservatives. These people are grounded in reality, facts, a shared understanding for liberal democracy. These are not people coming into politics trying to gain for their race, culture, or ethnicity. It was about 25 percent left like myself, 25 percent conservative, and 50 percent middle-of-the-road. They were willing to see the validity in the other side.
The schedule during the day was class for three hours. I was [taught by] Yuval Levin, a scholar of American political consciousness. He has written many books on the roots of the left and right. My class was Freedom, Progress, and Tradition. Then they would have panelists for an hour and a half and a career workshop of some sort for another hour and a half. The rest of the day is loosely regulated, things like watching a documentary or having conversation over dinner.
It’s not for everyone, for sure. Conversations lasted hours on end. On Thursday night, we stayed up until about 5 a.m. There were a couple of points at which it got heated, naturally. We talked about systemic inequalities, and that was a tough issue. It’s becoming a partisan issue. One of the concerns from the liberal students was those on the right are overlooking history; inequalities in our society have existed until this day. I think that presents a tricky problem for conservatives that always look for what makes this country great and tend to skim over things that aren’t so flattering. But this was not a bad-faith argument trying to devalue somebody else’s experience.
The AEI Executive Council Program, which I’m going to try to found at BU, sends scholars to talk about important issues, and we get to debate them. This weeklong program inspired me to do that.
The main lesson I learned is, take other opinions seriously. In order for our country to climb out of this hellhole that we’re in, we need to think about looking at each other as other human beings. The only way of doing that is having deep conversations about what you want out of life, what you think the government should do for you. One of the things that frustrates me with my fellow people on the left is that they are becoming close-minded as well. Sometimes my friends don’t want to engage with people who they disagree with. It’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s physically displeasing. Not everyone can sustain 16-hour days going head-to-head.
But it is important to engage with opinions you don’t agree with, and this goes for both sides. The intellectuals at AEI verbalized some of the key differences in the way we perceive the world. These differences have to do with preconceived notions about how society should look and what the good life actually is. Disaffected Trump voters have trouble coherently expressing their exact grievances with society. This not due to stupidity, but to a frustration and long-held dissonance with the liberal democratic order. My conservative friends at AEI, on the other hand, recognize these differences. The way to have good discourse between our two polarized sides is mainly through meeting people where they are at—putting each other in the other’s shoes.
To be clear: this was a transcript from an interview I gave and I did not write any part of this article. Though I would not categorize myself as a “progressive,” I do feel strongly about the conclusion of this piece.
Wow. I really appreciate what Zak Schneider did and that he is sharing it with us. Very interesting and compelling. In particular, I was struck by this point:
I was in a room with other people who shared this intellectual curiosity and genuine interest in hearing other people’s perspectives. None were Trump conservatives. These people are grounded in reality, facts, a shared understanding for liberal democracy. These are not people coming into politics trying to gain for their race, culture, or ethnicity.
I havre a question about this:
It was about 25 percent left like myself, 25 percent conservative, and 50 percent middle-of-the-road. They were willing to see the validity in the other side.
But this doesn’t sound like a conservative think tank. Why were 25% of attendees at the American Enterprise Institute summer honors program liberals? How are people recruited to the AEI? Regardless – of course, as Zak notes, it is a good thing to have diversity of opinion.
American college campuses have been criticized for not being tolerant enough, making students uncomfortable who are conservative or middle-of-the-road. I received a note from a student (after class was well over) which included this comment: [Note — my class is about the intersection of psychology and public policy.]
Politics may be unavoidable in a public policy class, but this was another area where the information provided did not seem balanced. One side of an argument was often assumed wrong. Namely, more conservative policies were “wrong” or “ignorant”. Liberal policies and ideals were clearly preferred in class. As an independent, this really impacted my ability to engage with the class. I felt like the lone dissenter in many discussions, but heard from others outside of class that they didn’t feel comfortable or well-informed enough to question the dominant position. From my perspective, this is problematic. It’s evidence of what many students already feel: questioning liberal ideas is not encouraged, and being openly conservative will make you a social outcast. I should mention this is not unique to your class. Friends of mine across disparate majors have had similar experiences with students and professors.
How should I make sure that students who take left perspectives do not drown out the concerns of centrist or conservative students? I can bring up this topic explicitly, but that could stifle discussion because students could be concerned about whether they are hitting the appropriately non-judgmental note.
Hi Professor Cadwell-Harris,
If I may respond to at least some of that: firstly, this program that I was in specifically recruited a diverse set of political opinions. The scholars who work at AEI are largely, of course, right of center. However, the whole point of the summer honors program was to bring groups together in order to engage with academic material that was quite diverse in and of itself. AEI also prides itself on the “competition of ideas” which is embodies a lot of the liberal democratic norms that exist in society today–irrespective of ones partisan affiliation.
To address your second point, what I found increasingly salient as I was having these deep conversations was, rather than taking the partisan position at face value, understand WHY one comes to such a value. Most of the time, that leads to a personal experience, or specific psychological characteristic, or “brute fact,” or psychological perceptual cues that are driven by an underlying morality structure (ie religion, or belief in some kind of objective value system vs a relativistic value system–for example). Understanding these partisan attitudes through a much deeper, abstract lens actually takes some of the animosity out of political conversations and allows for deeper analysis. Oftentimes, this is when I come to many realizations about my own political and social views as I see the upstream factors that contribute to my conceptions. This allows me to at least imagine how someone “across the asile” is not plainly wrong, but rather possessing some kind of different life experience that leads them to a different basic ontological conclusion about the world–which, of course, has downstream consequences on their politics.
Hi Zak– I agree with you. It really helps to learn how others have come to their perspectives. Also, conservatives have valuable ideas, like “retaining achieved value.” The US has vast private and public institutions with a lot of value, e.g., the food supply chain. Achieved value can be disrupted or lost if cultural/political change occurs quickly, as happens in an extreme form with revolution and arm conflict.
Funny, I wrote some years ago for a different BU publication, Bostonia, about learning about the values of conservative ideas, see link. https://www.bu.edu/bostonia/fall13/conservative/
and for all who are interested, my two courses at the intersection of psychology and politics are:
CAS PS 542 Child Development and Public Policy
CAS PS 561 The Psychology of Wealth, Poverty and Inequality
and I also teach:
CAS PS 560 Cross-cultural Psychology
Thank you for sharing your experience.
What was the demographic diversity at this event and in your discussion groups? Were people from marginalized communities fairly represented in these hours-long conversations? Were there only a few people of color in a sea of white faces? This is very important to me as a liberal Black woman. I fit into the group of liberals that you worry about. The type who prefer not to engage with people who erase their existences because they’ve been privileged to not have to acknowledge them. I hope you recognize your positionality entering these spaces and when you think of the reasons why some liberals do not often speak up. Ultimately, thank you for educating the conservatives whom I try to avoid and having the difficult conversations that will help bridge American politics.
This is a very important point. My cohort was relatively diverse, however, I would guess that whites were overrepresented as a whole in the program. This has to be taken with a grain of salt, though. Most of the “liberal” or left-leaning members of the program were actually white, so it is hard to pin down an easy prescription of exactly how to make these views more representative. This was not uniformly true, but I do think it is hard to lump any demographic groups into homogenous ideological partisans.
To go back to what I said above responding to professor Cadwell-Harris, I think political distinctions come less so from simply a racial or class identity and more from a person’s lived experience. Something that deeply troubles me (and doesn’t trouble enough people on the Right, especially) is that the collective personal experiences of non-whites in this country are largely built by systemic racism and inequalities that have impacted their day-to-day lives and those of generations prior. What I struggle with–especially when having conversations with people more hostile to these ideas (This does not include the AEI demographic who are much more aware of these issues than most)–is the inability to cultivate a sense of empathy for other situations. Being a white person myself, it is impossible to know exactly how someone of color experiences the world, but I make a genuine effort to try. I think it is absolutely crucial in order to go into these conversations, especially when involving complex topics like these. This structured cultivation of empathic values key to a thesis that I am working on at the moment on democracy.
I’d like to see BU become a “liberal” school, meaning that we are open to all ideas. I agree with the note from Prof. Caldwell-Harris’ student. I’ve spent time on the far right and far left, but coming to BU as a committed moderate (“liberal” in my use of the word), I was generally regarded as a conservative. There are many ideas that are neither progressive nor conservative, but simply constructive. Maybe I’m just an old-line pragmatist . . . but I don’t think so.
I suggest that we need to stop putting ideas on a continuum. As a geometry student in high school I learned about the X-Y axis and it was a real eye-opener when I learned about the Z axis. The same is true politically, and I should add that the political axis is not the only axis. We need to think in new dimensions — constructive dialogue can help us do that.
Thank you for sharing.
It gives me hope to see that respectful dialogue can be achieved in our society.
This is incredibly interesting to read about!
Oftentimes, as a progressive myself, I tended to look over conservative viewpoints in an attempt to block out ‘ignorance,’ but as I’ve learned more about American politics and the way misinformation and the education system, I’ve realized that conservative viewpoints, even if different from my own, are important ones to understand. Left-wing media portrays conservatives the same way right-wing media portrays progressives. Ultimately, the only way to really make progress is through working together. As you mentioned, it is incredibly difficult and can even be exhausting to have those conversations, but they are impactful and important. We need to stop demonizing individuals who are simply reacting to the circumstances they have been given in life and forming opinions based on those experiences. Through having these important conversations, we may change someone else’s mind or even have our own minds changed.
I actually really related to this article in theory. The feeling of feeling singular against a wide mass of people who share views that are different than yours is something I faced often growing up in a more conservative state like Arizona.
I am also a progressive, and appreciated the ‘Warren in theory, Buttigieg in practice’ anecdote. it resonated with me greatly. As a progressive myself, especially watching certain media stations over others, I often do not hear a viewpoint different than my own. I think I subconsciously listen to podcasts/news that resonates with my own beliefs so that I feel validated in what I feel. However, ‘fake news’ and misinformation can be spread often and consistently, and that has been a rude awakening for me especially going to college in a completely different place than the one I grew up. Furthermore, studying the education system as an education major, I’ve realized that opposing viewpoints, are just as important as my own because they lead to more learning, and more discoveries. As another commenter said – ‘Left-wing media portrays conservatives the same way right-wing media portrays progressives’. No one is unlike another… we must come together in order to enact real change. Common ground is a must when it comes to collaboration.
So, if ‘none’ of the people in this group, were Trump supporters, then it was not really diverse group of Conservatives.
Furthermore, the implied notion that Trump supporters do not respect classic Liberal Democracy is absurd.
It display’s an utter lack of understanding, of the Conservative majority, and the ideological fundamentals of Trumpism.
How can you claim that this was a cultural interaction with Conservatives, when a key segment of the Conservative demographic was absent?
I think Patrick touched on this and Emery explicitly noted questions of representation. These think tanks don’t have the diversty of thought that comes with standard media driven American politics. My assumption coming into this piece was that liberals have been policy makers and since the Obama era conservatives have been policy breakers. However, it seems like this particular orginazation is composed of policy makers. We have different conceptions of what it means to be a conservative and, from my perspective, it seems like these divisions are largely based on class lines. I think that’s the big dissconnect here.
In looking at the requirements for this particular program, the final prompt rings similar to the last question at every presidential debate. ‘What do you respect about the other side?’ These types of questions are a good litmus test for reasonable discourse; regardless, the prompt shaves off a large section of the voting pool, which makes decisive choices in our poltical system.
It’s possible that you preceived some diversity with regards to different proposals and approaches to policy, but that expirience is a luxury.