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Government talks bring diversity into politics

November 17, 2017

Spurred by student and faculty efforts to bring more diverse perspectives to campus, guest speaker Henry Olsen shared a decidedly conservative viewpoint this Tuesday in a talk titled “The Once and Future New Deal Republican: Saving Reagan From Reaganism.”

As a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., Olsen focused much of his talk on arguments he advances in his new book, “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.” He argues that President Reagan’s core principle was human dignity, not human liberty, and that Reaganism is similar to both Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and President Donald Trump’s economic policies.

While many students who attended did not fully agree with the arguments Olsen outlined in his talk, many appreciated the opportunity it presented for students to engage with conservative ideas.

“I’m pretty leftist, but I feel like Reagan is such a significant and popular historic figure that I want to understand more about his appeal,” said John Sweeney ’20. “I think that overall Olsen gave a very compelling argument for why maybe Trump had a unique appeal and why he was able to target some of the same voters that Reagan did.”

Ishani Agarwal ’20 explained that as an international student, she grew up accustomed to countries with many different political parties. The adjustment, to feeling the need to place herself ideologically within the polarized two-party system in American politics, has been a struggle, given that she does not completely identify with either major party.

“For me especially this talk is valuable because I’m able to have an avenue to hear talks that I’ve been thinking about and maybe don’t get that much of a chance to talk about at Bowdoin,” Agarwal said. “We’re so rooted in either being completely conservative or completely liberal that it’s like, you can’t really sort of step into the opposite territory, even for one specific issue.”

This engagement with different political perspectives remains the goal of the Bowdoin Eisenhower Forum and the Government and Legal Studies Department, who co-sponsored the event along with the Office of Student Activities and the American Enterprise Institute.

The Eisenhower Forum, a student group, works to “give students an opportunity to engage seriously with often neglected conservative issues and perspectives on campus … through the promotion of speaking events and public lectures, bringing more conservative thinkers and writers to our campus,” as they write on their Blink page.

According to Professor of Government and Chair of the Government and Legal Studies Department Michael Franz, Olsen’s talk also served to actualize the aim of the Government and Legal Studies Department to “expose students to a diverse … range of political perspectives.”

“I think the interests of the faculty in the department are diverse, and therefore the interests of the speakers we bring reflects that,” Franz said, noting that individual faculty members usually suggest visiting speakers.

Olsen’s talk is one of several that the Government and Legal Studies Department is co-sponsoring this year. When the department co-sponsors a talk, it helps a student group or other department with a portion of the costs of bringing a speaker to campus, and builds awareness for the event by advertising it to students in Government and Legal Studies classes.

Still, the bulk of resources that the Government and Legal Studies department uses to fund political speakers goes to talks they sponsor independently, using money from a specific endowment, the John C. Donovan Fund.

Franz explained that in the past, the Government and Legal Studies Department generally used the Donovan Fund to sponsor one big political talk each year, accompanied with a dinner. Over the previous decade, however, the department has shifted toward using the Donovan Fund to cover several smaller, more academic talks, increasing the number of political speakers they are able to bring to campus in a given year.

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