Progressing Conservatives

How young Conservatives at Queen’s remain true-blue amid stereotypes and stigmatization

First year students stop by the Campus Conservatives’ booth at the side walk sale on Sept. 11.
First year students stop by the Campus Conservatives’ booth at the side walk sale on Sept. 11.
Credit: 
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“If you’re not a liberal at 20 you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at 40 you have no brain.” This adage, attributed to Winston Churchill, paints a picture of the fickle nature of politics, but also reinforces a familiar stereotype: the hardened, cold-hearted young conservative, the miserly antithesis to a more idealistic liberal youth majority.

Maryanne Sheehy, ArtSci ’10, and an executive member of the Queen’s University Conservative Association—known colloquially as the Campus Conservatives— for the past three years, said that image of young Conservatives in Canada is totally false, but somewhat widespread.

“Theres a misconception that Conservatives are heartless, aggressive, cold and only care about corporations and money and not people,” she said. “Many Conservative stereotypes, especially in this country, are completely unfounded. Anyone who looks at recent legislation or Conservative governments initiatives will know that this is not the case.”

Sheehy attended her first political rally in Grade 2.

She said people are often surprised to hear about her political affiliation.

“I’m a young feminist vegetarian woman from the GTA who is involved in the arts community. I don’t fit the stereotype of what people think a Conservative should be,” she said.

“There are so many different types of Conservatives in this country. Many young people, like myself, identify with the party for its fiscal policy and because of a belief in smaller government involvement in peoples everyday lives”

In the wake of a 2008 Conservative Party campaign for university student recruitment —including tongue-in-cheek ads bearing the slogan “Freak out your professor. Join the Conservatives”—more students at Queen’s seem to be sliding right, or at least sticking closer to the center.

Although membership with the Campus Conservatives sunk to low double-digits in the early 2000s, the club now boasts more than 200 regular members and an executive of 16, with some spots remaining for first year students.

Luke Robertson, ArtSci ’10 and a member of the Campus Conservatives, said coming to Queen’s was a turning point in his involvement with the Party.

In his first year at Queen’s, he met Brian Abrams, federal Conservative candidate for Kingston and the Islands. Robertson managed his campaign in 2008. Although Abrams lost to longstanding Liberal MP Peter Milliken, the campaign was the most successful Conservative attempt in the area in 20 years.

Robertson comes from a family of Conservatives. He said he initially gained experience with the Party helping a family friend campaign in Stratford, Ont.

“I started to get to know the Party a little better and the people in it, and I came to respect the values the party stands for,” he said. “I recognized [the party’s values] as the ones I live by each day.

“I think the values represented by the Conservative party are the values a lot of people live by each day if they really take a look at it.”

Robertson said he hasn’t felt discredited because of his Conservative affiliations, but occasionally has had to defend his passion for politics on a larger scale.

“I find a lot of people ask questions and they don’t really want an answer,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I feel more judged or more ostracized for being Conservative, I think it’s more a problem that if you ask me a question I’m going to give you an answer. I’m passionate about what I believe.”

Political studies professor Jonathan Rose said students tend to have nuanced opinions when it comes to aligning with a particular party.

“I would say, having taught and experienced other campuses, the range of opinion is probably more compressed here than you might find in a larger university like University of Toronto or York [University],” he said.

Rose plans to poll his classes for their political stances to compare the students’ political affiliations during the upcoming election campaign with the opinions of the public at large.

“I suspect the distribution will be more or less the same,” he said. “One party or another might be slightly more or less represented, but that’s … a function of young people experimenting with new ideologies. In general, there’s a greater range of diversity at university.”

A 2004 study by Stanley Rothman of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., found academics are five times more likely to identify as liberals than conservatives. The study polled more than 1,600 undergraduate faculty members from 183 schools.

Although no such study has been conducted in Canada, Facebook groups like “Conservative Students Sick of Liberal Professors (Canada Chapter),” “Students Against Liberal Professors” and “Conservative College Graduates (despite our professors’ best efforts)” seem to indicate similar perceptions in Canadian schools.

Rose said he tries to keep his political beliefs out of the classroom, adding that students’ differing views haven’t had a negative effect on class discussion.

“I think one of the great things about teaching in our department is that people are passionate about their beliefs and able to clearly articulate them,” he said. “As an instructor I’m indifferent about whether you’re on the left, right or in between. What matters to me is that you’re able to maintain an open mind and articulate your position clearly, and students on the right can do that just as well as students on the left.”

Although the political beliefs of students in his classes can vary widely, Rose said debates are amicable and engaging.

“There’s certainly a friendly rivalry,” he said, “but I think campus politics is insular and small enough that all the players know each other and the differences they have in class spill over and are discussed further at the QP or over coffee after class.”

Given the size of the political studies department and the university, the politically active students tend to know each other. Sheehy said she hasn’t encountered many problems in terms of anti-Conservative bias.

“Everybody has their opinions,” she said. “I haven’t encountered too much trouble with professors or TAs. It’s often with other students where I find the most amount of debate and opposition. I was once called a called an ‘arrogant WASP’ during a tutorial in second year. Everyone gets a little bit of grief but I think it’s certainly easier to be a Liberal or a New Democrat on campus.”

Kevin Wiener, ArtSci ’12, an executive member of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Youth Association (OPCYA), said a small minority at Queen’s holds on to anti-Conservative rhetoric.

“People can be really prejudiced and have this misguided belief … that conservative students have this sinister hidden agenda,” he told the Journal vis email. “It’s ridiculous, of course. Conservative students care just as much about this university as everyone else, but some people refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good opinion.”

Wiener said young Conservatives’ involvement on campus mirrors that of other campus political groups, adding that he felt Queen’s did a good job of keeping professors’ political ideology out of the lecture hall.

“I do believe that there are professors who have biases, and a good professor will be able to keep that out of their teaching,” he said. “That’s something that most Queen’s professors are able to do.”

Sheehy said stringent anti-Conservatives often haven’t looked at all the facts.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about Conservatives that I often find myself defending is that we don’t care about women’s issues, and that we they cut funding to status of women,” she said. “We’ve actually increased funding by 42%—it’s the highest that it’s ever been. There are more women in Harper’s cabinet than any other cabinet in Canadian history.”

Sheehy said she’s noticed a shift in the Party’s reputation.

“I think since the 2006 election, people’s opinions of the Conservative party have become much more positive. There is a more realistic and much fairer view of what the Conservative party is and what it stands for. There are few people who still believe we have a ‘hidden agenda’ and are out to change fundamental Canadian values.”

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