It’s not easy being a conservative on a college campus these days, even in conservative parts of the country. Austin Ramsey knows about that. He attends East Tennessee State University, where some conservative students have reported being outnumbered by easily-angered liberal students and professors who inject their liberal opinions in class. In 2016, a group brought therapy dogs to campus to console students upset about the election of President Trump.
Universities across the country have become known as places unfriendly, even hostile, toward conservative students and speakers. Schools of higher education are supposed to be an arena for the civil exchange of ideas, but with conservative students feeling pressured to keep a low profile, that exchange of ideas is at risk.
Ramsey is working to make sure the ideal is not completely snuffed out. This past March, with the help of Better Angels, he and three other students organized a debate and workshop to foster civil political discussion. The debate attracted around 50 people, including students, faculty and staff, and a few people from the community. The topic was whether students should be allowed to carry guns on campus.
I chatted with Ramsey at Better Angels’ recent national convention in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in early June. We were both there as conservative delegates. The national nonpartisan nonprofit is dedicated to “bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes.” The idea for the group was in the works before the polarizing 2016 presidential election.
Soon afterward, Better Angels sprang into action, traveling across the country to set up “red-blue workshops” in which an equal number of conservative and progressive adults came together to talk about their differences within a structured format. As newly formed local chapters continue to hold workshops in communities, Better Angels has turned its attention to college campuses. Ramsey was something of a star at the convention, where a big focus was on expanding Better Angels’ presence on college campuses and launching programs in high schools.
A 19-year-old who just finished his freshman year, Ramsey comes across as low-key but confident. He is an information systems major who goes to a Southern Baptist church and likes to fly drones and radio-controlled aircraft. He told me he’s been able to make inroads at his school by listening to what people have to say and refraining from making snap judgments about people and making them uncomfortable with “gotcha” questions. His mottos are “be honest” and “be yourself.”
Ramsey, who counts a Bernie Sanders fan among his friends, also believes it’s important to talk about how your experiences have shaped your outlook. For him, that includes relating how he became an entrepreneur in sixth grade when he started his own disc jockey business.
At the Better Angels convention, I also spoke with two of three faculty members from Luther College in Iowa, who came to get ideas on how to include students from across the political spectrum in classroom activities and campus events. Victoria Christman, a liberal, is an associate professor of history and the director of the school’s Center for Ethics and Public Engagement. She told me that the small private liberal arts school is fairly progressive. Environmental sustainability and interfaith dialog are two big issues on campus. The school’s College Republicans club is no more, having collapsed under external pressure as well as internal disputes over President Trump.
Christman was already working to bring together conservative and liberal students for discussions when she learned of Better Angels. She likes the group’s approach, especially how it encourages listening over converting others to one’s own point of view. Each side knows it will be listened to if it listens in return. “That shared good intent fosters real conversation,” she said.
Her colleague, Michael Engelhardt, a political science professor and a conservative, said he plans to use techniques he learned from Better Angels in his classroom. He likes the fishbowl exercise, in which “reds” and “blues” take turns in a circle sharing thoughts about their political party or an issue while the other group observes from an outside circle. The challenge for Christman and Engelhardt is finding more conservative students willing to come forward. “They’re out there,” Christman said. “We just have to find them.”
These efforts are encouraging, though the situation will likely remain daunting for many conservative students for the foreseeable future. But conservatives shouldn’t become so cynical that they miss out on participating in forums in which they are welcome to express their views. That goes for older adults, too, not just college students.
I became involved in Better Angels in Nashville last year by participating as a “red” in a workshop. Later, I joined the local chapter that was forming and became a workshop organizer. Better Angels isn’t the only group working to bring people with opposing views together to talk about their differences civilly. There’s also Living Room Conversations, founded in 2011, and Make America Dinner Again, started after the 2016 presidential election.
For Better Angels, the focus on coming together to talk and better understand each other is a harder sell for conservatives than for liberals. It sounds like a more liberal endeavor, and it doesn’t help when Better Angels uses progressive phrasing, such as “immigration justice,” to promote topics of discussion. Nonetheless, the group gives conservatives a chance to voice their views in a setting where they will be treated respectfully.
So far, I have felt nothing but welcome, even as an orthodox Christian with strong conservative opinions. Better Angels encourages critical self-examination of one’s own views and those of their political party, and I’ve interacted with liberals who are as open as conservatives about doing so. I heard liberals at the recent national convention express frustration with being around only people who think like them, annoyance with those who threaten to leave the country if the election doesn’t go their way, and dismay at the angry protests against conservative speakers on college campuses, such as the one at Middlebury College which turned violent.
Better Angels recognizes it needs to do more to recruit conservatives at the local level, in addition to reaching people beyond its current base of white higher-income earners. I have experienced some of the challenges firsthand in trying to persuade my fellow conservatives to get involved. One conservative gentleman I was trying to convince jokingly told me that conservatives just want to stand with their muskets on their lawns protecting their homes. I laughed at the kernel of truth in that, but aren’t conservatives also supposed to be concerned with local civic life and efforts to “conserve” civilized forums and debates?
Some conservatives, as well as some progressives, now scoff at the notion of civility, arguing it’s a superficial concern that glosses over the real issues and one that won’t bring about change. But just because civility isn’t everything doesn’t mean it’s nothing. On the right, civility certainly beats the alternative, which has become conservatives finding common cause with vulgarians simply because they make progressives mad.
What fundamentally divides us is not polarization and a resulting lack of civility. These instead are the results of a weakening common culture and waning religious belief and confidence in Western Judeo-Christian civilization. Conservatives aren’t making serious conversations about these issues any easier when they become consumed with bitterness and sneer at progressives from the sidelines. Some have convinced themselves there’s no room for them outside the confines of their own echo chamber.
But you can’t complain about a door getting slammed in your face if you haven’t first tried to go through it. I think Ramsey, the East Tennessee State University student, has the right attitude. When he sees an opportunity, he goes for it.
“Life offers you opportunities,” he told me. “You either take them or leave them, and I take them.”