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I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
I grew up in Lynchburg, Tennessee, a small rural town of 6,396 people near the Alabama border perhaps best known as the home of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
So, you might imagine that last year, starting college at Harvard University would be a total culture shock — and I wouldn't blame you, because that's exactly what I thought. But now, a year later, I've actually discovered that Harvard and Lynchburg aren't that different at all.
In both high school and college, in my conservative Southern town and liberal elite campus, I noticed the same dynamics playing themselves out over and over. Members of the in-group majority are outspoken about their beliefs, occasionally deriding the opposing viewpoints. Members of the out-group minority stick to themselves, occasionally operating in secrecy but also deriding their opponents. The majority is often viewed as oppressive, stamping out opposing viewpoints in such a way as to endanger freedom of speech or the telling of the truth. But my experiences have taught me that that isn’t true.
While I loved the South and my Lynchburg family and friends, I always wanted to leave. At least for a little while. Most of the people in my hometown had been born and raised there, just like their parents before them; some can even trace their Lynchburg ancestry all the way back to the town’s founding in the late 1800s. But I could never picture myself staying in town my whole life. My parents always emphasized travel and seeing the world; my mom talked about her own experiences visiting Jamaica, seeing the King of Morocco in Washington D.C., or going on her honeymoon with my dad in Mexico. I was also an avid reader, and spending my time adventuring around the US with Percy Jackson or the UK with Harry Potter made me restless to actually see these places for myself.
While my parents did their best to show us the country on various summer vacations, whether through visiting family in Chicago, sitting through a four-hour TimeShare presentation in Florida, or taking me to a health science competition in Dallas, it was never quite enough. I wanted to experience what it was like to actually live in other parts of the country or world. The latter was unlikely, since my family is firmly middle class and I have two younger siblings. My parents wanted to help send each of us to college, ideally with a car as well, implying that overseas trips were always out of the question. I set my sights on going to college or eventually working out of state far enough from Lynchburg that I felt like I was getting new experiences.
I sometimes joke with my family that while everyone I knew wanted to be teachers or nurses (or, in Lynchburg, work at Jack), I had my sights set on the Supreme Court: clerking for a justice, arguing before them, and perhaps even one day sitting on the Court myself. I first became interested in American history after reading a Civil War book when I was seven. I was fascinated by the figure of Abraham Lincoln, a man who first committed to preserving his country at all costs, but then decided to fight not just to preserve but transform and improve it for the millions of enslaved people living there.
The idea that a man could live and die for his ideals became the mark of true heroism to me, more than anything Harry Potter or Percy Jackson had ever done. When Hamilton became popular while I was in middle school, I became very interested in the founding of our country. This time, I was once again captured by the image of men that I'd always written off as intelligent but boring, even though they had founded a nation that was for the first time built entirely on principles of freedom and individual liberties. This further contextualized my longstanding admiration of Abraham Lincoln, because while the founders set forth an ideal for our nation, Lincoln was among the first to rise to the challenge of making it reality. That interest in the constant pursuit of the preposterously idealistic foundational ideas of our country eventually birthed a full-fledged obsession with constitutional law and the Supreme Court.
I wanted to be a part of that pursuit of our national ideals. I asked for books about the Court, justices’ autobiographies, and collections of famous opinions for Christmas. I dreamed of one day being featured in such incredible works, and when I talked about this with my family, they enthusiastically agreed and wanted to support me in my endeavors toward that lofty goal. I knew that to get there, I’d need to get into a good school, so I set myself the unrealistic goal of being admitted to an Ivy. That meant working to get my ACT score up; taking all the extracurriculars my 400-student, 7-12th public school had; trying to get leadership positions in most of them; and keeping my GPA at a 4.0.
Even though I had these ambitious goals, no part of me expected to actually be accepted to such an elite college. I knew I probably didn’t have the resume — with either academics or extracurriculars — to compete with other applicants.
I applied to 17 schools total; most were schools I was confident that I’d get into and hoped would give me significant financial aid. Then I applied to eight “reach” schools: three Ivies, plus Duke, Georgetown, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and Washington & Lee. I never felt great about my chances on paper. I had to interview well if I wanted to prove I was more than my meager accomplishments. Up to this point, I thought that would be easy.
But I bombed the Georgetown interview. Horrifically, the email from Princeton to set up an interview was in my inbox for a month before I saw it. My last interview was for Harvard, and I thought I gave it my best but still didn’t feel great. When I mentioned loving American literature, my interviewer excitedly said he was a retired English professor and asked for my favorites. I promptly forgot everything I’d ever read and resorted to describing the plot of a Flannery O’Connor short story until he guessed the name.
On April 6, I had completely forgotten it was Ivy Day. I’d already committed to a “safety school” with good financial aid and a good honors college. My sister played on the high school softball team, and I was at one of her games when I got the email from Princeton saying decisions were here. I shrugged and opened it to another rejection. Next, I opened my Cornell decision; rejected again.
Finally, I went to open my Harvard decision, relieved that at least the waiting would be over and I could move on. So when, to my shock, I opened an acceptance letter, I jumped out of my seat and ran to the other side of the field to show my parents, then proceeded to wander the stands telling various friends and family the amazing news. It’s a feeling I’m still not over, and I don’t know if I ever will be, because it felt like my dreams were coming true against all odds. Shortly after that, I received my financial aid, and all of the sudden this dream-come-true was actually in reach: it was affordable, even more so than my state school.
Once the initial excitement wore off, though, came the fear. Rural, conservative Lynchburg could not have been more different than urban, liberal Harvard. And I — at this point, firmly right of center — had heard the horror stories. Elite liberal college professors and students hated rural conservatives. If I were open about my views, I knew I’d be ostracized and mocked, and professors might fail me purely for disagreeing.
On the other hand, my parents feared liberal indoctrination (the horror!). I was afraid that, even if I held my cards close to my chest, somehow I’d be “outed” and everything would come crashing down. I cried about leaving home to go somewhere so unfamiliar, despite having been so sure that was exactly what I wanted. Still, my parents reminded me of what I wanted to do, and how great this opportunity was. In the end, I apprehensively joined the Harvard College class of 2025.
Now, over a year after making that decision, and after spending the past few months back home on summer break, my concerns seem almost silly to me. Liberal Harvard was not that much different from conservative Lynchburg: the political viewpoints may be different, but fundamentally, the people have the same tendencies to judge others. Harvard students and professors certainly stereotype rural conservatives, but I found that the rural conservatives I’d always known were just as quick to fall into the trap of stereotyping Harvard students.
Most students at my high school didn’t share my academic interests. I spent my free time reading about history and politics, but others didn’t really do the same. Whenever discussions did come back to politics, like in an election year, all my friends were very strictly conservative. Most of our time was spent discussing which Republican candidates we liked best, or whether the Republicans would win. The day after the 2016 election, when I was in eighth grade, I talked excitedly with my friend about Trump’s win. Another girl overheard us and proclaimed her disgust. And that was among the first times I heard someone my age expressing a liberal viewpoint.
Not to say, of course, that I knew no liberal or left-leaning students. In my high school, these students tended to join the marching band, of which I was also a member, which probably granted me the most exposure to opposing viewpoints possible in my school. Most of the politically liberal band kids were the only ones to identify as gay in my school. They also were more politically involved than most conservatives, and I even knew one girl who was an avowed socialist and Bernie Sanders supporter. They liked talking politics amongst themselves or around the band. But they still tended to stick to themselves because they were such a conspicuous minority. Most people knew who they were, and while many of us were cordial and even friends with them, others treated them with disdain.
While I eventually realized I disagreed with some of what my more conservative classmates said and believed — such as supporting Donald Trump — I never wanted to associate with the school liberals. These kids were known to be rude and meet teachers and students alike with eyerolls and snickers if politics were ever discussed, and to some other students that justified their ostracization. Very rarely would the liberal students discuss or debate politics with the conservatives, even the ones who were open to such discussions, so they gained a reputation as hateful and vindictive.
Teachers at my school were also fairly uniform in their political views, at least in the subjects where it mattered most: history and government. Each of my two history teachers, one of whom was also my government and economics teacher, was a staunch conservative. The US history teacher was a hardcore history buff, but also something of a conspiracy theorist, and he was not afraid to say where he stood on an issue. The other, who taught world history, government, and economics, was always interested in talking theory vs. practice and debating ideas and policies, usually with favor to the conservative ideas.
But the difference between the teachers and the students was simple (maybe a mark of maturity); the teachers entertained liberal views, at least for the sake of debate. Stereotypes about conservative educators in the South are unfair to the real people. My US history teacher gave the most accurate, complete story he could in his lessons, not shying away from difficult topics like racism, classism, and sexism. His conservatism was not about denying the often grotesque history of discrimination in our country; it instead came in his deep opposition to government perpetuation of such discrimination and his deeply-held belief that individuals ought to live free of government oppression.
The world history teacher liked to hold debates, encouraging us to argue sides we didn’t believe and to try to find the best arguments for our viewpoints and opposing viewpoints. I vividly remember him expressing the rare opinion in my hometown that undocumented immigrants should not be deported.
These are the kinds of experiences I carried into my first semester at Harvard. I enrolled in two classes that — to my initial dismay — turned out to be very liberal political science classes. The first was a history gen-ed called “The Democracy Project,” which I learned later is infamous among campus conservatives for being left-wing indoctrination. The second was a freshman seminar taught by Harvard law professor Mike Klarman, who described himself as on the very radical left flank of constitutional law scholars. I braced myself to hate both classes and, at first, I did.
It seemed that each class was fulfilling my preconceptions, with intolerant liberal professors and students. I was particularly annoyed with one of my classmates in the law seminar, whose ideas about state and federal law were informed by his experiences growing up in New York City and would never have worked in a rural town like my own. None of my classmates appeared to consider perspectives like mine, and instead they mocked rural America’s ignorance, in some cases blaming that ignorance for the problems that plague us.
I remember at one point staying late to discuss issues in the South that I've encountered, like lack of broadband internet; when I expressed frustration that neither national party thus far seemed interested in solving these issues, I was met with the statement that rural people don't know enough about what they're talking about to vote them in. Thus far, all my worst fears were coming true.
Not only that, but it seemed impossible to find any other conservatives on campus with whom to share solidarity. I assumed they were in hiding, like I was, or that I simply didn’t know where to find them. Slowly, though, I began to connect with Harvard’s right wing.
At a club fair, the Harvard Right to Life group had a booth, and through them I connected to a conservative women’s club. The government department sent out emails to prospective majors offering to set up “affinity groups” for similar students; someone requested a conservative affinity group, and I attended the first meeting and met the renowned political philosophy professor Harvey Mansfield, as well as a few other conservative students. Professor Mansfield swiftly connected me to some of the conservative student leaders, and it was as if I suddenly had an in: I knew the people who knew the people. The conservatives I met were all welcoming, and each emphasized the community they’d found in a place they all described as unfailingly hostile. I discussed my classroom woes and was met with sympathy and suggestions for next semester.
Conservatives at Harvard are remarkably like the liberals of my high school, but a bit more intense. Not only do they mostly keep to themselves, they also shroud themselves in secrecy so as not to be found out, their secrets revealed, and in some cases their names attached to their views. While the consequences of being caught as a conservative at Harvard may not warrant such secrecy, it's still very real. Look no further than the resurgence of the conservative student newspaper The Salient, which was revived during my first semester. The chief difference from its original run is the now total anonymity of all its writers. (For any Harvard students reading this: I have not written for the Salient, nor do I know its writers.)
This secrecy has been met with disdain from the rest of campus, and every time a new issue of the Salient comes out, a new round of ridicule arises, as well as wishes that the writers would come clean so they could be confronted. At one point, I received a dorm-wide email from an angry student asking Salient writers to “avoid distributing your publication to people who don’t care about your writing or your feelings,” though attaching names to the pieces would help “get more recognition next time.”
But even as I finally found a conservative community on campus, who unanimously agreed that the environment here was intellectually hostile, I also started rethinking my rejection of my left-wing classes. I stayed late for my law class to listen to Professor Klarman’s opinions on the Supreme Court, and as I learned more I was surprised to hear his thoughtful treatment and understanding of conservative legal arguments, so much so that when we discussed Roe v. Wade, I felt comfortable discussing my pro-life views with the rest of the class. In my history class, which was both large and exceedingly liberal, the teaching staff asked us how they might make it more appealing to conservative students, so that the final class project — a mock constitutional convention — could more accurately represent the views of a divided country in a real convention, were one ever to happen.
As I closed my freshman year, I realized that just as some of my peers at Harvard misunderstood my hometown, I had also misunderstood Harvard. And just as the liberals and conservatives in my hometown misunderstood and maligned each other, so do they at Harvard.
In my high school, I had been part of the in-group, viewing the out-grouped students as “other,” confident enough that the people around me would affirm my beliefs that I even stooped to ridiculing the beliefs of those who didn’t. But that confidence also created a fear of going someplace where the dynamic might be reversed. Luckily, when I did leave and join a school minority, I discovered that the stereotypes I had learned growing up, that Harvard stamped out all disagreement and quashed conservative thought, were patently untrue. But I think Harvard students could stand to learn that their notions about the South aren't all that true either. The teachers at my high school and the professors at Harvard, in my experience, always worked to foster an open intellectual environment, even though the students can be divided and hateful.
In the end, going from Lynchburg to Harvard taught me that though the fears we have about each other are misguided, they’re based on a very real, deep divide. One that we could all benefit from bridging.
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Editor's note: I want to make note of a correction from yesterday's newsletter. We mentioned the floods happening on Australia's western shore in our international affairs round-up. But the floods are happening on the eastern shore. This is our 66th Tangle correction in our 156-week history. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.