Political diversity at KO (Under the Radar)

Under the Radar

by Ishaa Sohail ’19 and Ben Small ’19

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Are you afraid to express your political opinions at school? Are you afraid that your peers will judge you for what you believe in? Do you feel oppressed because your viewpoints on controversial topics don’t align with what everyone around you thinks?

In late October 2018, with these questions in mind, seniors Matt Safalow and Michael Atorino created the KO Conservative Diversity Club with the goal of promoting diversity of opinions and providing a venue for open political dialogue. The club seeks to dispel the stigma and stereotypes that they feel accompany being conservative at KO, Matt said.

Matt said he believes that diversity of thought is something that KO is currently lacking and desperately needs. “I really want to get rid of the stigma that there is for being conservative at KO,” Matt said.

During the club’s conception, Matt emailed Dean of Students William Gilyard and discussed what the club would encompass. Matt said that club’s objective is to change what it means to be a conservative on campus by re-branding and promoting free market values.

Mr. Gilyard said he didn’t have any concerns and said that he thinks that having the club is a nice way to come together and not only learn about conservatism, but also other political viewpoints. “I see it like any of the other clubs on campus and I hope that they are able to foster and support civil discourse,” Mr. Gilyard said. “I do think that it is unfortunate that it was born out of feelings of inequity.”

Matt said he feels that the club addresses the political problems he sees at KO. “Conservatives often feel uncomfortable to speak in class, largely due to the known political leanings of their teachers,” Matt said. “Speakers at KO, specifically Symposium authors and speakers brought in for diversity assemblies, are also very liberal and usually make conservative students feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in this community. These speakers are brought in by the very people who to claim be fostering a place where students on both sides should feel comfortable and where ‘civil discourse’ can occur. These two goals will never come to fruition when the people being brought in to speak in front of the students are clearly liberal and often proclaim their hate for conservatives.”

The club met for the first time on Nov. 5, 2018 in the Conklin Library, and almost 60 students attended.

“I think that it is always a good idea to have places where civil discourse can happen in a productive way,”  Junior Juliana Kulak said when asked what she thinks about the creation of the club.

Junior Spencer Schaller said he thinks that healthy civil discourse is more important than ever. “Everyone doesn’t agree with each other and you don’t have to, but I find to create a politically stimulating environment, it’s important for everyone to be open to hearing other ideas,” he said. “For a while, I was always kind of close-minded and stuck to, I believe the saying is, ‘my side of the aisle,’  but once you open up a bit more, you realize how things change, the grey side of things and that it’s important to look at both sides of an argument even if you may inherently disagree with it.”

Junior Alyssa Pilecki said she lean conservatives on most social issues and thinks that the KO Conservative Diversity Club is an effective way to increase awareness and civic engagement. “In general, I do not open up about my political views to many people, but when I do I pretty much always receive a reaction of genuine shock and something along the lines of ‘But I thought you were a nice person!’ or ‘You really seem like you’d be a liberal though’ or even just a nonverbal reaction, like them raising their eyebrows at me,” Alyssa said.

She said she believes that one’s political standing does not correlate with your personality. “I think that the KOCD is hoping to help disperse this common outlook at least in the community, which does tend to be more liberal,” Alyssa said. “Not that that’s a bad thing, I don’t think it is at all, but it is helpful to now have a space where the ‘conservative? really?’ comments should cease,” Alyssa said.

Freshman Patrick Schwab said he fully supports the club. “I think this is an absolute genius idea and should continue to speak about how we can change the climate of conversation in the classroom, not just speak about political topics sometimes out of our control,” he said.

Others said they believe that there is not an anti-conservative stigma at KO. “I believe that [KO] is certainly a liberal environment but not to the point where anyone who’s conservative should actually feel discriminated against,” senior Josh Lesham said.

Junior Madeline Arcaro said she agrees with Josh. “[The club is] a fine idea but some of the group’s announcements sounded like they were saying Republicans are victims or something,” she said. “I think that that is ignorant.”

Jason said he does not support the club or its message. “Empathy and respect are predominant among KO’s values, so the assertion that conservatives are KO’s most marginalized group is inaccurate and, I would argue, irresponsible,” he said. “Claiming that conservatives are persecuted for their political ideology devalues the experiences of members of our community and the outside world who actually have to contend with systemic oppression.”

Indeed, some students said they think that KO’s political environment is actually very conservative. “[KO is] incredibly conservative,” sophomore Mary Ellen Carroll said. “People walk around with Trump 2020 stickers on their backpacks. We have small clubs of liberals who just so happen to be very loud.”

Form 1 Dean Clay Miles said he is a firm supporter of open political dialogue but that the club gives him pause. “I believe there should be a place for any and all groups to share thoughts and ideologies,” he said. “[But] I must admit that the name: Conservative Diversity throws me. What does it really mean?”

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the recent 2018 midterm elections, the United  States is a divided country. That division seems to be finding its way into KO. “I am very impressed that some of the students are politically engaged, and it makes me hopeful for our country,” Director of Marketing and Communications Jackie Pisani said. “Unfortunately, the political environment in our nation right now is very divisive and toxic, and I can’t help but think that it may spill over into conversations on campus. However, overall, I feel people are tolerant of other points of view or at least try to be. I believe the KO community is representative of both liberal and conservative mindsets.”

In a recent political climate survey on Dec. 2 and  3, 2018, the KO News polled 188 faculty members and Upper School students. Over 130 students participated with each form contributing roughly a quarter of student responses. The survey asked respondents their political party affiliation (Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Social, or Independent) and how they identify on both economic and social issues (Liberal, Lean Liberal, Moderate, Lean Conservative, or Conservative).

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Almost 47 percent of those surveyed indicated that they identify with the Democratic Party, 34.6 percent as independents, and 14.4 percent with the Republican Party. About four percent indicated their support for either the Libertarian Party or the Green Party.

A substantial number of students and faculty indicated that they do not align with any particular political party. Perhaps this party disillusionment is due to the fact that young people tend to view the political arena as an increasingly divisive and partisan one.

“I think that young people especially are starting to lose faith in the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans,” senior Janvi Sikand said. “Very few candidates or elected officials on either side of the aisle seem to speak for us, about the issues that affect us the most.”

Freshman Teddy Schwartz said he feels that national political divisiveness certainly affects the KO community.  “I think there is a mix of kids at KO but most of them are either very liberal or very conservative,” he said. “I think it is a polarizing environment sometimes, there are not enough moderate people at KO right now, also not in the world right now.”

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Faculty tended to be more Democratic. Over 60 percent of faculty surveyed supported Democrats compared to around 40 percent of students, and just 8.8 percent of faculty said they support Republicans, compared to 16.8 percent of students. As a percentage, twice as many students as faculty align with Republicans on average. And indeed, the number of independent students was around seven percent greater than that of faculty members.

“As is the case with many academic institutions I believe we lean towards the liberal camp especially as far as faculty are concerned,”  Mr. Miles said. “Student views not as much.”

Another interesting difference between students and faculty is that no faculty member indicated their support for either the Green Party or the Libertarian Party. Around six percent of students, on the other hand, indicated their support for these so-called “third parties.”

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Of all four Forms, Form 3 reported the largest number of Republican supporters at nearly 25 percent. Indeed, in general, the percentage of those who identify with Republicans decreased with grade level. Form 6 has the lowest number of Republican supporters. Around a third of Form 3 students indicated their support for either Libertarians or no-party affiliation. The remaining 42.4 percent aligned with Democrats.

Freshman Patrick Schwab said he believes that KO is a very liberal place. “Extremely liberal, or at least more allowing of strong liberal views,” he said when asked about the political environment at KO. “When political topics come up in class I hear strong liberal views more often, and when conservative views come up, teachers are more ‘touchy’ and those views are often not welcomed.”

English Department Chair Cathy Schieffelin said she does her best to accommodate a diversity of opinions in class. “I try to create an environment in my classroom where all students feel comfortable voicing their opinions and ideas,” she said. “The only times when I intentionally call what students say into question is when their ideas are offensive to other students.”

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A plurality of Form 4 students aligned with neither Democrats nor Republicans. Around 36 percent of those surveyed identified as independents. Of the 188 people polled overall, only one person indicated his or her support for the Green Party specifically. The percentage of Form 4 Republican and Democratic supporters was representative of the overall student body: around  17 percent supported Republicans and around 40 percent supported Democrats.

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Form 5 and 6 students reported the higher percentage of no-party affiliation of any group surveyed. Around 50 percent of both Form 5 and 6 students indicated their support for no political party or for the Libertarian Party. Juniors had the lowest percentage of Democrats at just 33.3 percent, compared to the overall student rate of 40.5 percent.

“I think that a lot of people feel, not just that KO is a liberal space, but that in general, it’s not really a good idea to talk about politics,” Spencer said. “I just think that the degradation political [dialogue] has really changed the world. But I do feel it’s something we need to talk about, and I’m glad the KO Conservative Diversity Club is a thing that we have and area for people to come talk in a receptive, open environment.”

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Of any Form, the number of Form 6 Republican supporters most closely approximated that of the faculty, with 9.7 percent of Form 6 students supporting the party, compared to 8.8 percent of the faculty. Around 42 percent of seniors indicated their support for the Democratic Party. Beyond the two major political parties, almost 50 percent of seniors said they do not support any particular party: around 39 percent are independents and 9.7 percent support the Libertarian party.

“I would say I’m a very moderate liberal,” Josh said. “I’m both socially and economically liberal although I understand that even though I believe in many economic welfare programs after working at a school for underprivileged girls in Hartford this summer I understand that the money has to come from somewhere.”

The final part of the KO News’ survey asked respondents to identify their general leanings regarding economic and social issues separately. Those surveyed could identify their views from a list: Conservative, Lean Conservative, Moderate, Lean Liberal, Liberal. The survey also included an “I don’t know” option.

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From the charts, it is clear that a significant majority of KO students and faculty are socially liberal. Around 67 percent of those polled said they were either liberal or leaned liberal when it comes to social issues. Only around 14 percent indicated that they were socially conservative to some extent.

“I am more Democratic because I agree more with their social stance on issues that I feel strongly about such as LGBT+ rights,” Teddy said. “I am more conservative on economics, but I am in a place in my life where the social issues of equality are more important to me.”

Despite the fact that a majority of both students and faculty said they were socially liberal, there is a significant difference between faculty and students. Around 92 percent of faculty indicated that they are either liberal or lean liberal on social matters, compared to around 57 of students. This disparity represents a 35 percent difference between students and faculty.

“Overall I’ve found it to be a mainly liberal place, though there are of course also people who are conservative,” Elise said. “To me, being liberal means you are more accepting of minorities; in my experience at KO, I haven’t had problems being myself, though I have heard stories from some people who have encountered rudeness.”

ECONOMIC PIE

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In terms of economic opinions, the numbers are more spread out. Around 35 percent of respondents said they were either liberal or lean liberal when it comes to economic issues, and around 27 percent indicated that they are economically conservative. Interestingly, a similar percentage of students and faculty—around said that they moderates on economic topics.  

“I feel that government doesn’t really have a role in people’s lives and that people should just be left to do whatever they want,” Spencer said. “Though, in general, I may disagree with some social policies normally attributed to the left, I still feel people should have the right to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t impede on other people’s rights.”