Q&A: UVM College Republicans Discuss Persistent Challenges on Pursuing the Conservative Perspective


Franklin Cody and Delaney Courcelle campaigning for Republican candidates

Olivia Belrose, Writer

Since the presidential election in 1992, Vermont has always voted for the Democratic party. This is especially true for young Vermonters to a point where next-generation conservatives are considered a minority. 

Delaney Courcelle and Franklin Cody, both from southern Vermont, are in the midst of their junior year at the University of Vermont. Aside from studying in the Grossman School of Business, Courcelle (president) and Cody (vice president) lead the UVM’s chapter of College Republicans. 

For Courcelle and Cody, their earliest political memory stems from the 2008 election, when they were in third grade. While Courcelle remembers watching the inauguration on a smartboard in class, Cody participated in a mock election and debate for Barack Obama and John McCain. 

Courcelle and Cody were raised by moderate-to full-conservative family members where hard work and personal responsibility are valued and achieved. 

While Courcelle has grown up around a moderately-conservative lifestyle, her parents were raised in a Democratic household where politics hardly played a role in their upbringing until after they got married and had children, when they developed a more conservative perspective. Courcelle believes her ideology is rooted in her mother’s background. Courcelle’s mother, a native of rural Maine, had a poor childhood and thrived on the norm of working hard and taking responsibility for your own choices. 

For Cody, who considers himself moderately conservative, his family’s conservative ideology comes from taking personal accountability. In a family with roots tracing back seven generations in Vermont, their Conservative ideology comes from an “austere” upbringing of conserving resources and living frugally. 

In terms of familial influence, both Courcelle and Cody see the importance of honoring family members, having an interest in history and respecting and valuing tradition as leading factors in their affiliation. 

Identifying as conservative has presented many challenges for both Courcelle and Cody as they are college students at a university where politics are commonly argued from a liberal viewpoint. Increased tension, due to our nation’s political climate, especially on college campuses, has left them in a dilemma of choosing to speak up, or listening quietly, to avoid a difficult disagreement. 

Courcelle remembers walking the halls in Rutland High School and seeing posters and t-shirts targeted towards dismissing the conservative perspective, something that has continued both in and outside of the classroom at UVM, where people are not as open-minded towards other perspectives. Some teachers at RHS wouldn’t dare discuss any topics beyond a neutral viewpoint, but in other classes, such as English, History and World Languages, it seemed as if teachers couldn’t help themselves from discussing political opinions. 

Cody, who never experienced targeted signs plastered on the walls of Mount Anthony Union High School, aside from exploring Howard Zinn, an American historian and philanthropist, hardly remembers the conservative perspective being addressed in his high school classes. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  Courcelle and Cody were interviewed together.

How often did you share your perspective in high school and college? Can you remember any specific discussions or debates, or memories of how your history teacher presented social topics? 

Courcelle: In high school, I took a U.S. Literature course with seven other students, and I thought the teacher did a good job of exploring different perspectives. He would ask questions about current events and historical documents we were reading. Everyone had the opportunity to speak openly in class without being invalidated. He would actively listen, paraphrase and continue the discussion, which I have always admired. A lot of teachers have lost the ability to spark political discussions. I think it’s important to talk about politics in high school, but it has to be done in a way that’s inspiring. 

Cody: I had a teacher for AP U.S. History and psychology who was really good about keeping himself composed. He opened up the floor for people to speak, and give their honest viewpoints, which is ultimately very conducive for learning environments. A lot of teachers lack the control to conceal their inner-political perspective, which is part of the problem that lies within our education system today. Students have young, impressionable minds and we need to be open and fair about every single viewpoint. 

Courcelle: Rutland High School has definitely developed a liberal dynamic over the past 5 to 10 years, and there have been some initiatives that have gone through the door. Our school is one of the only schools in the U.S. to host a GIN (Global Issues Network) conference every year in the spring. It always poses much more of a progressive viewpoint. The guest speakers are definitely liberal, and you don’t hear from any conservative viewpoints. The minute a global issue is involved, it becomes a progressive movement. When the student body or faculty pushes one way, administration tends to break down in order to keep the peace. In my class, there were a lot of outspoken Republicans who would regularly voice their opinions, but at the expense of the relationship with their teacher. 

The College Experience 

Cody: I’m a business student, and I haven’t seen a lot of liberal vs. conservative debates. Most of the time, it’s been pretty middle of the road. However, when we talk about business, policy and social issues, you can tell there is a UVM slant. UVM is focused on sustainability, and the core mission of education is lined up with more of a liberal ideology. I accept that there are merits to learning about the effects of climate change, racial issues and how we might be impacted. I value focusing on those topics. When you take liberal arts classes, you can definitely see a heavy slant. I had a professor once who was open to any and all viewpoints, but you can tell they’re not all being explored. I think that’s a bit of shame. 

Courcelle: I’m in the business school too, and I majored in psychology, which is one of the most liberal majors at UVM, up until halfway through my sophomore year. I remember taking a lot of general education classes I couldn’t wait to finish. I was writing papers geared towards a perspective I completely disagreed with. I also started out in the Honors College, which is like politics on steroids. I remember taking a philosophy class, and it was incredible. The professor taught German and Russian literature, and there were probably 815 total students in the class, but I was the only conservative. We focused on a lot of targeted issues, which made the experience very difficult. There were kids who continuously expressed a great deal of hate for this country. As a conservative in liberal arts classes, you have to be very careful with how you word things. It’s hard to have a conversation with another person when they’re disagreeing on a rudimentary level. It’s like stepping on eggshells as you prepare for topics in a mentality of “what if this happens” instead of the truth. There are a handful of conservatives on campus, but it’s the assumption that everyone is liberal at UVM, everything is very one-sided. 

Cody: I would also agree with the academic atmosphere when it comes to taking English classes. Even when you feel confident in the professor’s ability to take your work holistically, I also feel like I’m walking on eggshells. Even if I don’t agree with what the professor is teaching, I want to pass the class with a good grade, but I also don’t want to write dogma. I’m pretty middle of the road in terms of politics, but it still gets in my mind a little bit. This is also true for class discussions. If you make a right-of-center comment, you have to be very careful because the discussion can become ugly fast. I definitely agree with Delaney in questioning whether I should mention that I’m the vice president of UVM College Republicans. 

Courcelle:  In the business school, professors are pretty professional, and the majority of students are independent. Some of the other political groups, like the UVM Democrats and Progressives, who will openly admit how they don’t support conservative viewpoints in the classroom. When I tell people I’m the president of UVM Republicans, they almost don’t know what to say. Republicans are demonized on campus. I’ve walked through and seen pictures with hate speech targeted towards religious and conservative people. I’ve seen posters with the message, “the only conservative values are bigotry and hatred,” or “Catholics are evil.” 

How do you think conservatives are seen by liberals in your community? Have you ever felt judged? 

Courcelle: The fear of being misunderstood is definitely very prevalent. I remember hosting a table during a winter activities festival in the Davis Center. We had a variety of tokens, including pens, bottle openers, stickers etc. There was a girl who picked up a bottle opener, took one look at what it said and threw it back on the table. Kids don’t really understand the Republican Party at all. It’s a complete washout of light that they think we are. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum, we’re all the same. It’s not supposed to be “oh, I disagree with you, and you’re ignorant and evil.” It’s very unhealthy and toxic. I would never make that claim to Democrats. You have to respect different perspectives. Conservatives who disagree on certain issues are not evil, they’re just coming from a different angle; nobody is wrong or right in supporting a specific policy. A lot of UVM students are living in their own bubble, without understanding a large population of the country. If you’re going to label 49-50% of people as evil, take a step back and ask yourself if you truly understand their perspective. 

Cody: We get a lot of nasty comments on our Instagram account, and it’s like we’re a joke to a lot of people. It’s really sad. You can’t even carry on a conversation or carry on a different viewpoint without being attacked. A lot of UVM students have a particular mindset when it comes to politics. If you’re not a progressive, or if you don’t live up to the standards, then you’re the one that’s causing problems in society, and the conversation is shut down. I avoid mentioning my involvement with college politics because I’m afraid of being misunderstood. Other political clubs, like the UVM Democrats, don’t experience the stigma. You say you’re a Republican, and people immediately associate you with Donald Trump. I’m not here for every social issue that’s fundamental to the party, but this is how I’m going to label myself regardless of the flack I get for it. With politics in general, it shouldn’t be one team against the other. 

What are the most important political issues for you and why? Can you connect these issues to specific personal experiences or specific events that you followed in the news? 

Cody: When I think of congress, I think House of Cards because it’s very much like a theater show. Some things are accomplished, but not nearly as much on a local level. I orient myself to a lot of local politics because things get done in Vermont. For example, the level of affordability in the state and the amount we pay in taxes. Our population keeps decreasing and aging, which is something we will have to face with our next generation of Vermonters. We need to push for lower taxes and be mindful of our investments. If we tighten our waist a little bit, make Vermont a more incentive place to live, then I think we can see a stronger place to call home. People vote with their wallet and their feet too. I read an article recently about a Latino immigrant who voted for Donald Trump because she was concerned about her business. Whether people admit it or not, we are looking out for ourselves and our best interest. I think the government has been an inefficient, bureaucratic mess, and the less we can do, everyone will benefit from it. Obviously, there are some situations that require meaningful government intervention spending, but for the most part, not so much. 

Why do you think our country is divided right now? Is there anything you feel needs to happen in order for Americans to come together and solve problems? 

Courcelle: People are apt to have a stronger opinion when they’re constantly surrounded by influencing factors. I was watching a football game on Thanksgiving, and I noticed there were a lot of politically-charged commercials, and some brands are even hopping on to political campaigns. Also, the education system is pushing politics a lot more than in past years. If there wasn’t a lot of exposure to the media and other public outlets, I think people would be more moderate and accepting. 

Cody: Social media is creating our own echo chambers in a sense that we hear what we want to hear. It’s set up for you to view or display content you will frequently access and agree with. Unfortunately, a lot of it comes out to be fake news. There’s a lot of clickbait material out there, which can easily shut down any kind of meaningful conversation. With Vermont politics, if you call someone out, there’s a good chance you or, somebody else, knows that person pretty well. When I think of an open democracy, again, it’s being mindful of what you say to others. 

Courcelle:  I think it’s important to understand the arm of your political opponents. For self-fulfilling purposes, read an article or watch a video arguing the opposite opinion. It’s nice to understand why someone feels a certain way, especially if you’re going to have a discussion or debate. It’s important to expose ourselves to different perspectives. Expose yourself to new opinions in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. You can surprise yourself in what you choose to align with after actively listening to everyone at the table.