Mocking the arrogance of “liberals from Harvard” is a foolproof applause line for any Republican looking to rev up a conservative audience. But when the 114th Congress gavels into session in January, GOP speechwriters are going to need some new material.
That’s because many of fastest rising stars in the Republican Party, including Senators-elect Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Dan Sullivan (Ak.) and Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik, all graduated from Harvard. Along with Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Pat Toomey (Penn.), David Vitter (La.) and Mike Crapo (Wyo.), the Republican Harvard contingent will outnumber Harvard Democrats in the U.S. Senate for the first time in recent memory.
Tom Cotton credits Harvard as the place where he “discovered political philosophy as a way of life.” Elise Stefanik, who will be the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress, was an editor and writer at the Harvard Crimson and served as the vice chair of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Like Cotton and Stefanik, Sasse was a government major before going on to Oxford and Yale and becoming a college president himself.
Despite its reputation as “Kremlin on the Charles,” and the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” current and former students at Harvard describe the campus as both overtly liberal in its politics and an ideal place for conservative thought to develop and thrive.
“I thought it was great place to be Republican,” said Mark Isaacson, a former president of the Harvard Republican Club who is now a speechwriter for the RNC. “A ‘Harvard Democrat’ is kind of redundant, but a Harvard Republican is always being challenged, so you’ve got to self-evaluate a lot. You’ve got to think about your views and why you hold them.”
Aaron Hendricks, the current president of the Harvard Republicans, said he has seen the left-of-center political scene at Harvard make some students even more conservative than when they arrived.
“Harvard is a great place to get a vision of just how liberal people can be. So when you’re told that your peers are the future leaders of America, for some conservatives, that’s a really scary thought,” Henricks said. “I can definitely see how that could push people from being someone who thinks conservatively to someone who wants to step up and get involved.”
Beyond getting involved in campus politics, students pointed to a handful of professors whom conservatives credit for adding a heavily intellectual element to conservatism at Harvard, including Greg Mankiw, Marty Feldstein, Ruth Wisse and Peter Berkowitz.
But no professor is credited more or as often as Harvey Mansfield, the exceedingly polite, happily controversial conservative professor of political science who includes Tom Cotton, Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan and William Kristol among his well-known alumni.
Mansfield teaches the classics from Plato to Toqueville and offers a seminar on federalism that reads like the North Star for much of the conservative philosophy that runs through Republican speeches today.
He said he doesn’t know why so many Harvard grads are succeeding in politics these days, but he does think conservatives at Harvard get a better education at the school than the more liberal students.
“When you’re a conservative student here, you have to struggle a little and you have to be more skeptical than most people and you have to think in your mind how you would answer this kind of argument. You figure it out for yourself,” Mansfield said. “You are more on the defense, but because you have learned how to play defense, you also get better at offense, so you get better at arguing.”
The Harvard College Democrats remain the largest political club on campus with an email list of 2,000, weekly meetings, four standing committees and election-year events like sending 300 students to New Hampshire to campaign for President Obama in 2012.
But Jacob Carrel, the president of the Harvard Democrats, still gives Republicans credit for what they’re doing. “They are a smaller group and because they’re smaller, they are more tight knit, they’re really able to defend their views,” Carrel said. “We’ll have debates against them and it’s clear they’re really able to defend themselves, probably because they have to with many of their friends.”
Not all famous conservative graduates are held in high esteem by the student body, however. The Crimson recently suggested that conservatives in the mold of Ted Cruz should no longer apply to Harvard in the future if they can’t resist the “treachery” of defaming the institution after graduation. (In fairness to the Crimson, Cruz suggested that Harvard Law School, his alma mater, hosted “Marxists who believed in…overthrowing the United States government.”)
Mansfield said he thinks the addition of Cotton, Sasse and Sullivan to the Senate will improve the experience for conservatives at Harvard. “I think it will inspire a lot of Harvard students who are Republican to see that it isn’t a handicap to be conservative at Harvard,” he said. But even Mansfield did not include Cruz as one of his own.
“Ted Cruz, by the way, is not a Harvard man. He’s Princeton,” Mansfield said. “Just going to Harvard Law School does not make you a Harvard Man. Cotton is a Harvard man. Sasse is, too. Elise Stefanik is a Harvard woman. The others are mere alumni.”