Srivastava: Conservatism must shift approach to social issues in the Trump era

Heena Srivastava , Op-Ed Contributor

It only takes a comparison of two political student groups’ Facebook pages to determine the ideological leaning of a college campus. On campus, College Republicans have less than half the number of page likes as College Democrats — and their page even features public posts of ridicule.

It comes to no real surprise that young people often lean left. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won 55 percent of the 18-29 age bracket. More specifically, it isn’t shocking college campuses also lean left. From University of California, Berkeley to New York University, college campuses have been home to left-wing protests since the 1960s. The reasons behind the current imbalance, however, have deeper causes than just youth fervor.

Since the Kennedy Administration, colleges have taken initiatives to bring about demographic diversity. Northwestern has similarly taken action to promote diversity through the “We Will” campaign, a focus on Federal Pell Grant students and so on. Alongside that, party affiliations have become more and more rooted in social identity.

The spotlight on identity politics largely came into focus during the Obama Administration, and now nearly consumes the conversation in the Trump Era. Before then, for some, being Republican often meant believing in a small government and personal freedom. Since the election of President Trump, however, some Republican people of color have begun questioning whether they can still hold conservative values.

With the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter, activists brought to light issues of institutional racism for many who were previously unaware, and identity politics became the forefront of Democratic ideals. These movements emphasize the historically — whether directly or indirectly — oppressive laws and systems that still exist today. And those laws are still in effect. To conserve these laws, or to be socially conservative, continues to disadvantage minority groups.

For example, possession or sale of crack cocaine, which is often cheaper and thus more accessible to poorer neighborhoods, has a greater sentence than powder cocaine. And anti-welfare policy impairs low-income populations, which largely consist of people of color.

The issues a party prioritizes depend on their saliency — people care about the issues that most affect them. These issues are salient to people of color. They may not be for, or even cross the minds of, those they do not affect. At a university that claims to pride itself on its diversity, it naturally follows that race relations matter, and that the majority leans left.

With these newfound realizations, social conservatism has been labeled as essentially discriminatory, and many social conservatives are raising eyebrows. To label people and policies as racist is to offend and isolate. Trump appealed to a population that resented the demoralization of their essential values. He pointed a finger at identity politics and used that isolation against the Democratic party.

Now that political parties are so polarized in their identity politics, associations are deeply personal in a different way. People are no longer just apathetic about their opponents, but rather avidly denounce them. The connotation of conservatism has changed. With it, so has the definition of Republicanism.

This is not the best news for NU College Republicans. It subjects them to not only a smaller following, but moreover ardent opposition. Not all Republicans in the past, however, have glazed over institutional racism. In an August 2015 interview with Fox News, Marco Rubio explained his advantage in interacting with the police compared to a black friend. While many conservatives denounced his statements, Rubio’s actions demonstrate how Republicans can also acknowledge institutional discrimination.

By recognizing the polarization the current focus on identity has created, political parties can begin to close the gap. Social liberals can recognize the root of party isolation and begin productive dialogue. At the same time, social conservatives can recognize discriminatory policy, and separate it from their positions on other policies. And then they can begin to truly acknowledge and address social issues while still retaining their core conservative values.

Heena Srivastava is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.