Emmakristina Sveen, clad in Lulu and bleach blond, is the opposite of what you would expect. Confident, passionate, and well informed, she faces the difficulty of being a conservative in a liberal school. The sophomore is one of two founders of the Wesleyan Republican Committee, new this year and rapidly growing. Joining her is Freshman Brooke Hodgson, Director of Social Media and Outreach for the committee. Together they discuss the club’s founding, it’s social media explosion last month, how they hope to change the perception of Republicans on campus, and what they really want moving forward.
Rachel: Can you tell me a little bit about your political history? Were you always active, or did that start in college?
Emmakristina: I actually was raised in a household that was not politically charged at all. My dad is not a citizen of the United States, so he can’t even vote, and my mom has kind of bounced back and forth between conservatism and liberalism based on the officials who are up for election. I guess my passion for political activism sort of manifested itself coming here and being completely surrounded by one political view and realizing that there were aspects of that that I really didn’t agree with. That sort of turned into political activism without me meaning it to.
R: How did you go about forming the committee?
Meghan Kelly, our treasurer, and myself have always been the two conservatives of our group of friends. Over the summer we found that we were talking about ISIS a lot and we were just not agreeing the way it was being handled, and that was a view that both of shared that was extremely conservative in nature. We were walking back from Usdan one day and there was a table asking people to sign a petition that Meagan and I strongly disagreed with. That’s when we were like lets start a Republican club! We didn’t think it would be so serious, then before we knew it we had thirty people who were interested, then sixty, then a hundred people on our listserv. Meghan’s brother was the chairman of the College Republican National Committee at Northeastern and he put us in touch with the national board. Without any outside help we created the most well-established and successful Republican Chapter in Connecticut. It started in late September, and we have grown to have a website that has had over 20,000 hits and over 75 people on our listserv.
R: Brooke, how did you get involved? Were you politically active growing up?
Brooke: My parents were very politically divided. My dad was a Republican, my mom used to be a Democrat. It was something we didn’t really talk about because we didn’t want to get into it. Then I got to my high school, which was very similar to Wesleyan in a sense, where I felt like sometimes it was very much fostering a liberal community, and my education seemed to be liberally biased so I noticed, mostly towards the end of my junior year, that I wasn’t being taught fairly. And I guess that kind of pushed me to get more active in politics.
E: I think your question as to whether or not we were politically active before this is really important because a lot of the feedback we’ve gotten is “you’re just Republican because daddy told you to be, didn’t he?” and that kind of thing. It’s really interesting to note that both Brooke and I, Emma Bentley, our vice-chair and Meghan, our treasurer, are all women leading this organization who grew up in non-politically charged households. Some people here don’t believe that anybody in their right mind could be Republican, or have conservative views, without being completely blind to the world and elitist, racist, and homophobic. It’s important to note that we established our political views on our own, as adults. None of us were raised in a strongly conservative home.
R: When and how have you received that sort of feedback? Can you elaborate on the Facebook comments a couple of months back?
B: It’s been all kinds. I think we first saw it when we started putting up posters. They would be ripped down or ripped in half. Then we started getting things on Yik Yak. People would comment on our website design, or even start attacking Emma personally and they would come up with mean nicknames for her.
E: Sveeny the Weenie.
B: It’s not even how you pronounce her name!
E: The issue is the rise of anonymous blogging. It gives people a false confidence to say things that they would never otherwise say, or haven’t even thought about before they express because their name isn’t even behind it. Most of the hostility we have received has been anonymous. For the most part we haven’t even paid attention to it because people whose views are worth hearing are the people who are going to put their name behind it.
The hostility first started when we put up our fliers because people thought it was a joke, a practical joke. That’s why we started with a Facebook page, a website, and a twitter because we knew our legitimately would be called into question off the bat. Then we did this campaign, the Why I Am campaign, where students held up a piece of paper that said why they are Republican. It was a campaign the entire GOP was doing, nothing substantive, just a couple words, but we did it to show that we were here and we were legitimate. It was that that received the most amount of hostility. Someone who graduated last year, a registered democrat, made a positive Facebook status about the committee, and it received an enormous amount of backlash and sparked this huge thing. Everyone at the school found out about it and our website views went from 200 to 9,000 in one night because of that. After that was when we really started receiving the most hostility. Most of it was on Yik Yak and Facebook. It’s people saying that we’re elitist, homophobic, that we kill children with guns. Ridiculous stuff! My face is up on the website: the blonde founder right there for anyone to see, and there were multiple incidents where I was walking alone at night and getting yelled at from cars. People told me to get off campus, because I hated people of color, and that guns killed children and I was supporting the murder of children, ridiculous stuff like that.
B: Also a lot of name-calling. She was walking alone on campus and felt threatened by students in her own community. It was always at night, which kind of goes along with the Yik Yak theme in that it was borderline anonymous and no one wanted to debate with us face to face. We talk with the president of Wes Dems and he doesn’t support that kind of behavior at all.
E: That’s one of the coolest things: Wes Dems is one of our biggest supporters. I meet with the President every Sunday and talk about what we can do together. I think the hostility came from people who felt threatened by an institution like the Wesleyan Republican Committee coming onto the Wesleyan campus was threatening their livelihood of this campus, where they could foster all these liberal views and not be challenged by people with different political opinions. It was bad, and it was what received a lot of attention. There were members of the committee being individually called out on social media. It was cyber bullying in every definition of the word. If someone were to say “I really disagree with the Republican view a, b, and c, and this is why and can you debate that with me,” even if it were in a hostile manner, we would be happy to debate with them, but we didn’t receive one comment like that.
E: The entire thing fueled everyone in the club to say screw it, we’re here, and we’re gonna grow. It was a really cool thing because there was a time when people were scared to be in the club. Then we finally got over that hump, when people realized the club’s not going to stop, the hate is kind of dying down, and at that point we had a huge group of people join after the hostility was at its worst, because people were like this is cool, I want to join, these people are sticking through it. That was really cool to see.
R: Brooke, what was it like to be in charge of social media during this whole thing?
B: I’m kind of competitive. Seeing things like that make me want to jump up and stand up for what I believe, but again I just didn’t feel like it was my place to represent people. It was hard to sit back and watch everything I worked so hard for and Emma worked so hard for being degraded with endless aggressive insults. What we’ve seen is that we have a very big spectrum across moderate, tea party, you name it, we have those opinions, and I don’t think it’s fair for me to try to respond to things in the Republican name.
What I’ve been doing is trying to keep members informed. Every day I wake up and search Republican news or GOP news or what’s happening in politics. It’s mainly focused on GOP but I was tweeting about Obama’s immigration policy. It’s nothing biased, it’s strictly the facts, just to keep people informed. Now we see people throw so much news at you, so I just pick out the stuff that’s kind of relevant towards what we want to do.
E: As the board we realized before we even started that board members could not come and say this is what I believe in the Republic Agenda. I founded the club, I run the club, and the members have no idea of what I do or don’t agree with in the Republican Agenda, where I lie on this Republican Spectrum. When people look at Wes Dems they're like "Oh it’s a Democratic club, everyone has their own views." When they look at Republicans they say, “they’re all Republicans, they’re all conservative, they all want to own guns, they’re all pro-life.” The opinions of individuals are all wrapped into one giant opinion. The way it’s presented is that the entire committee has beliefs instead of a committee comprised of individuals with their own beliefs.
Our group is so diverse, and it was really important when we got the hostility to not reply to anything. We as the board members had to maintain this neutrality, this almost mystery behind what our actual views were because it would label the club.
B: I also think it’s really important to look at the reasons why Emma and Meghan founded the club; it was to form a political voice. A big part of what we’re doing now is to make up for the lack of voice. We brought in professors, we’re looking to bring in more outside speakers just to lay out the typical Republican views and things that happen across all the spectrums. We had professor Adelstein, who’s is not politically affiliated, come in and lay out the economy and explain it to us. It was super helpful and very in sync with the club.
R: How do you think that you can change the perception of your committee so that people do recognize you are a committee or people with individual beliefs?
B: I feel like that just has to come with recognition, which is going to come with time.
E: The issue of our committee has nothing to do with what we’ve done, nothing to do what we stand for, rather the perception of the Republican Party, a perception that is exceptionally bad on a campus as liberal as Wesleyan. We still have been unsuccessful in finding a faculty sponsor; we still haven’t found one sympathetic to our cause. This is such a liberal institution. It’s really just going to take time.
R: Anything you want to add?
E: During our most heightened point in the year we wanted to talk about the great thing we were doing, not the drama. We were creating political diversity on campus, which is fundamental for the political health of every student on this campus. We are the next generation of voters, the next generation of the economy, of the government, of the world. We’re coming from an extremely intellectual institution, a great institution, but if we come out and no one’s political views have been challenged and everyone’s views are so one-sided liberally, that almost takes away from everyone’s experience that they are supposed to get at college. We’re not trying to convert people. We’re just trying to coexist.