We were only three hours into our first day of programming, yet I found myself eating lunch across from a woman who’d been working at the Heritage Foundation longer than I’d been alive. At the moment, she was answering a question regarding the Heritage Foundation’s recent lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security. The Heritage Foundation was concerned about the truthfulness of Prince Harry’s visa application to the United States, since he had admitted in his recently released memoir to using drugs in his twenties. They said that they were concerned about fairness in the U.S. government’s visa approval process–a claim I seriously doubted considering their general aversion to ethical U.S. immigration policy.
“I’m not familiar with the lawsuit you are referring to,” the woman responded. That’s weird, I thought, because I literally couldn’t help but see the news of the bogus lawsuit pop up at least a dozen times in my social media feed. Every news outlet I follow had reported on this as a bReAkInG news event. Yet here I was listening to a woman with decades of experience working at the Heritage Foundation saying she was completely unaware of this lawsuit.
Suffice it to say, a conversation about Prince Harry’s departure from the royal family wasn’t exactly the kind of political debate I thought I signed up for when accepting my spot to attend the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Summer Academy. The program boasts its ability to bring together undergraduate students on either end of the political spectrum to engage in dialogue about America’s most pressing issues. In a day and age when the word ‘politics’ goes hand in hand with ‘polarizing,’ I was excited to see what I had gotten myself into.
Upon arriving at AEI (a center-right think tank that celebrates freedom of the markets and of the self), I found myself in a conference-sized room of young people who skewed politically to the right. This phenomenon wasn’t new to me, as I grew up in a working-class red community where many of my high school classmates held conservative views. However, this time around felt different. Many of the students here were well-versed, passionate, and truly inspired by America’s conservative political tradition.
The energy of my first morning at AEI reminded me of O-Week at Duke; I repeated the same elevator pitch more times than I could count. “Hi, I’m Chloe! I’m from the mountains of western North Carolina. I go to Duke University. Nice to meet you!” But one question that arose more than once that I didn’t recall from my O-Week toolkit was: “Are you religious?”
“Uhm, yes I am,” I would answer cautiously.
“Oh, cool! Are you a Christian?”
“Yeah, I am,” I said, as I wondered where this was leading.
“Nice! Which denomination are you?”
“Uhm, I grew up Southern Baptist,” I would respond. It was at this point, after I shared my faith background, that I was met with a knowing remark that signaled that I had been cataloged as someone on their political team. Since I had grown up Southern Baptist, they thought surely I was politically conservative. After all, if you look at polling data, you’ll note that there is a high probability that people who identify as evangelical are more likely to align themselves with the Republican Party. Little did they know.
In no way was this self-grouping behavior abnormal. As the initial morning of programming went on, I noticed myself asking roundabout questions that accomplished a similar goal. I would ask, “What were your thoughts on the pre-readings?” As it turns out, this was a loaded question.
For background, AEI had given everyone pre-readings of policy analysis from a diverse lineup of think tanks, alongside a sheet outlining the political makeup of our class. Going into the week, I knew that out of the 12 students taking the same course as me, four students identified as conservative, two students identified as socialist, two students identified as moderate, three students identified as progressive, and one student identified as libertarian. Knowing these numbers, I couldn’t help but do mental math as I tallied off who fit into what category. As soon as one girl raved to me about the findings of a Center for American Progress (CAP) study, I knew she had to fall into either the socialist or progressive box.
The only category that I wasn’t able to fit someone into was the singular libertarian. Which of the pre-readings would a libertarian ideologically align with? I couldn’t tell you. I had never before knowingly had a conversation with someone who identified as a libertarian. For whatever reason, my conception of their ideology was every man for himself, in a doomsday prepping sort of way. How would that line up with our assigned pre-readings on the U.S. Social Safety Net? I wanted to find out.
For better or for worse, our programming went on. At lunch on the first day, after the question was asked regarding the Heritage Foundation’s Prince Harry lawsuit, I couldn’t help but glance around the table to gauge the reactions on my classmates’ faces. The guy who snickered across the table probably wasn’t a conservative, but the girl who made a snide remark about Meghan Markle definitely was. What would a libertarian think of the newest episode of royal drama? I wasn’t sure. But I also couldn’t help my surprise when three of my classmates asked me to explain the Heritage Foundation’s lawsuit to them. They said they hadn’t seen anything about it on the news or social media. Weird, I thought, considering I’d seen so much of the story in my social media feed.
Before I knew it, the days had passed and we were at the end of our time together. I was sad to say goodbye, as I had grown fond of my cohort’s camaraderie and was beyond trying to identify the incognito libertarian in our class. By letting go of monitoring the telltale signs of my peers’ political beliefs, I came to appreciate the input of every member. We had all come to class prepared, asked tough questions and treated each other with dignity. Although someone self-identified as progressive, we didn’t question that they were multifaceted and discussed views that mixed and matched both sides of the political spectrum. No one was automatically boxed in as the villain just because something they said may have aligned with the ‘other’ side.
During our final meal together, my closest confidant from the Summer Academy told me she had a confession to make: “I know it’s been a running joke since we’ve gotten here, but I wanted to tell you that I’m actually the libertarian.” No way, I thought, she was a libertarian this entire time! This girl and I had seriously made so many jokes about the enigma of the missing libertarian. We had shared the same views on multiple policy issues throughout the week, and here I was finding out she had been hiding in plain sight this whole time! Talk about trust issues!
“Why didn’t you say anything until now?” I asked her.
“Well, I didn’t want anyone to think of me a certain way right off the bat.”
Fair enough. So the long-pondered question of which of my classmates was the libertarian had been answered–turning out to be the girl I got along the best with in the class (and allowed to follow my personal Instagram account, not just connect with me on LinkedIn). I didn’t know what to make of this news, as I’d gained no clarity on how to categorize someone as a libertarian upon my first two minutes of meeting them. Not that I should aim to box someone in so early on, but it had certainly been my practice up until this point.
In the months that have passed since leaving AEI, I’ve reflected on the quirky experience I had there. Perhaps the problem in politics today is not which team is winning, but the fact that there are defined teams at all. How can we be politically engaged in a two-party system without vilifying the other side? Can we have a more open mindset and also hold people accountable when they go too far? Why do our news feeds present us with such different realities? Is it wrong to go to a speaker event on campus if we don’t align with all their viewpoints? You can consider each of these questions for weeks at a time, but I think so much of it comes back to the snap judgments we make two minutes upon meeting people–whether they’re a libertarian, a doomsday prepper, or somewhere inbetween.
Chloe Decker is a Trinity junior. Her columns typically run on alternate Wednesdays.
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