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Bowdoin College Conservatives aim to fill space left by Bowdoin Republicans

March 1, 2024

Lucas Dufalla
CONSERVATIVE COALITION: A poster advertising the newly-formed Bowdoin College Conservatives hangs in a nighttime Smith Union. The group, formed by Zak Asplin '27, aims to fill the space left by the defunct Bowdoin College Republicans.

Repeated surveys have indicated that the majority of Bowdoin students identify as liberal-leaning. The Bowdoin College Democrats have 219 registered members—more than ten percent of all students. For many years, students who identified on the opposite side of the spectrum could join the now-defunct Bowdoin College Republicans. In 2022, Bowdoin College Republicans sent four representatives to CPAC. The reason for the club’s following dissolution is unclear.

A new campus club, the Bowdoin College Conservatives, has emerged to fill the void left by the dissolution of the Bowdoin College Republicans. The club was founded by Zak Asplin ’27, who, with this new club, aims to reintroduce a conservative political perspective to campus.

“I knew that my views would be tested, and that’s the main reason I’m here. If I can’t test my views, if anyone can’t test their views, whether they’re liberal or conservative, against people who disagree with them, in open, honest and pleasant discussion, it means they shouldn’t be my views,” Asplin said. “I think a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum fall into this trap, and it’s the job of the Bowdoin College Conservatives to try and test views on campus.”

Asplin also believes exposure to different ideas is a critical part of the liberal arts education. He characterizes the “liberal arts mindset” as one in which open discussions are encouraged as interactions where students can set aside their own biases and entertain new perspectives.

“A lot of conservative opinions aren’t being heard on this campus. I think it’s important to get heard,” Asplin said.

Though Republican-identifying and conservative students are now less outwardly vocal on campus, this was not always the case. In 2004, the Republican National Committee recognized the Maine College Republicans as the “Best State Federation in America,” led by their chairman Dan Schuberth ’06. In 2005, Schuberth was elected vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party, making him the youngest vice chairman of a state chapter in the nation.

Professor of Government Jean Yarbrough, a self-identified conservative, believes the decline in the College’s Republican population occurred as the campus became increasingly polarized.

“I think there’s no question that Bowdoin has become more politically polarized in the last few years—just look at the Orient. Historically, there were conservative students who wrote for the Orient on a regular basis. Now, there is no representation of conservative views, or sympathy with them,” Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough identifies this lack of public representation as the result of what she characterizes as a culture of fear.

“I think one of the things that has happened in recent years is that students—even if they have some sympathy with the views of College Republicans or conservatives—are very cautious, even afraid, of being identified that way,” she said.

Colter Adams ’24, co-president of the Bowdoin Democrats, believes that while the campus is predominantly leftward-leaning, it is friendly to conservatives.

“Bowdoin’s campus political culture is generally pretty positive, with viewpoints proportionately represented in campus clubs and a high degree of tolerance for ideological diversity,” Adams said. “Bowdoin skews progressive, but even within that label there’s a lot of range … the biggest issue, I think, is a lack of contact between ideological camps, not the lack of any particular ideology’s representation.”

The decline in the number of Bowdoin Republicans also occurred alongside a massive demographic transformation. In the fall of 1999, 80 percent of the student body was white; by the fall of 2023 it was 52 percent white. Socioeconomic demographics on campus have shifted too. In 2001, 38 percent of students received some amount of aid. By 2023 that statistic was 51 percent.

Yarbrough believes during that same time period, as the College prioritized social and ethnic diversity, whether deliberately or not, it came at the expense of political diversity.

“As the College committed itself wholeheartedly to diversity, they did not pay sufficient attention to diversity of view point, which is essential to a liberal arts education. Students should be able to converse with others who don’t share their point of view, and yet this does not happen enough,” Yarbrough said.

Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs Katie Toro-Ferrari has been working to support political diversity on campus. Toro-Ferrari believes it is detrimental to student life to only have one side of the political spectrum represented on campus, especially during a presidential election year like 2024.

“It’s a problem if we only have one side of our political system, broadly speaking, represented on this campus. We have the opportunity and the responsibility, in a big election year, to rekindle a group of students who are organizing to represent another side of the political spectrum,” Toro-Ferrari said.

Asplin recognizes the challenges ahead of him in a political climate with what he sees as increasing hostilities and the ascendance of political hatred across the spectrum. Asplin said that those who consider themselves conservative may have particular views that may upset those who consider such views hateful and intolerable. He gave the example of conversations about abortion access, saying that if a particular view is perceived as hateful, it should be debated, and urging that people explain why such a view is harmful, instead of simply condemning the view.

“Bad ideas are best shut down, not by censorship, but by cold, hard truths. No one’s going to believe a really stupid idea. If you can openly debate it, and prove that it is stupid. Otherwise, they go underground and they spread,” Asplin said.

Toro-Ferrari also encourages open discourse around different opinions. Although some may view certain opinions as intolerable, she said, there needs to be a civil debate to change minds.

“What I know is that the way that you influence and even change people’s beliefs isn’t to make them feel [bad]. It isn’t to shame them. It isn’t even necessarily to try to argue with or debate them. It starts with finding ways to bridge and build relationships with them,” she said.

Asplin said that while the Bowdoin College Conservatives may have heterodox views, they are intellectually diverse. Members are drawn from the right-leaning political spectrum, from libertarians to monarchists.

Associate Director of the McKeen Center Tom Ancona advises the new club, though his role as an advisor is separate from his work at the McKeen Center. Ancona said he believes in the need for more viewpoints to be represented on Bowdoin’s campus.

“We want students to be able to be comfortable having challenging conversations and know that they can exchange perspectives and learn from one another without feeling like they’re being completely judged as a person based on one viewpoint that they have,” Ancona said.

Ancona also believes that to have a thriving intellectual life on campus, students must be prepared to engage in civil conversation with those who disagree with them. He hopes that by being an advisor to the College Conservatives, he can build those skills and encourage that discourse at the College.

“I think the current atmosphere makes it really hard to learn what half of the country actually thinks. We are just such a polarized country now and that makes it challenging to hear, let alone understand, another perspective,” Ancona said. “Here at Bowdoin, if you’re not having these perspectives represented in your class or just in your regular conversations that are happening day to day, that makes you miss out on something important.”

Like Ancona, Toro-Ferrari believes that what she sees as a culture of intolerance toward those with differing political views harms discourse on campus and forces some individuals to avoid sharing their views.

“I would love to see us move toward a culture that forgoes condemnation and orients toward ‘generous enthusiasms’ and ‘cooperation with others for common ends,’” Toro-Ferrari said.

Yarbrough also recognized the irony that a British citizen, Asplin, is the one to create a conservative group on campus.

“I find it amusing and very sad that we have to get a Brit to revive the College conservatives on campus you know. Maybe he’s just more spirited. Maybe Americans have lost their spiritedness with regard to these things,” she said.

Despite support from College administrators and Yarbrough, Asplin said he faces a profound challenge in changing the culture on campus.

“People are too willing to judge based on your political views and hate based on your political views. They assume the worst, as opposed to actually listening. People assume that because you’re a conservative, you’re immediately on the very far right and that’s not the case,” Asplin said.

Several students identifying as conservative were approached for this report, but none were willing to speak on the record besides Asplin. Logan Smith ’26, who doesn’t identify as a conservative, believes the club will provide conservatives with a space on campus, but doesn’t plan on joining the club himself.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s good for conservatives to have an outlet on campus,” Smith said. “Let them have their echo chamber.”

For Asplin, this silence signals what he sees as the dire state of public political discourse. However, he remains determined to change this.

“Sure, I’m naive. I believe in the best in people, and I believe in the best in this campus. I think if I come forward, and Bowdoin College Conservatives put forward a friendly and positive and helpful face to conducive public discourse on this campus, then I think the Bowdoin community will react positively to it,” he said.

Editor’s note on 1 March 2024 at 8:25 p.m.: Tom Ancona was misquoted in a previous version of this article. His quote has since been fixed.


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One comment:

  1. Friendly progressive '26 says:

    I know Zak well and disagree with him on virtually everything but am quite proud of him. He’s gotten a lot of hate from people who don’t even know him. That’s hard for a first year starting out college in a foreign country. Takes a lot to keep your head up. Wishing BCC all the best.

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