Editor’s note: In light of this issue’s “Resistance” theme, we’d like to present part two of a set of profiles featuring various campus political leaders. Especially under Donald Trump’s presidency, many students are realizing that it’s important to pay attention to and engage with politics, especially politics they don’t agree with on a national and local scale.
Columbia has a reputation for being especially vocal and strident in its activism and politics. As seen in Jesse Watters’ recent trip to campus, Columbia has been criticized as a place that shuts out discourse in favor of political liberalism that borders on radicalism.To investigate this, I previously interviewed the leaders of the Columbia University Libertarians and the Barnard/Columbia International Socialist Organization. More recently I sat down with the Columbia University Democrats and Columbia University College Republicans to learn about how their principles and their politics do or don’t conform to the stereotype.
Columbia University Campus Republicans: Annie Ninivaggi
Annie Ninivaggi, a senior at Columbia College and the president of Columbia University College Republicans, is soft-spoken but direct.
Coming from conservative Salt Lake City, Ninivaggi was raised Mormon and considers herself to be “on the liberal side” relative to people back home. She tells me that she was more politically rebellious in high school but that coming to Columbia actually made her more conservative. “I realized my roots and who I was raised to be,” she says.
For her, this means classic Republican principles such as small government and “working hard for what you have.” She is inspired by her step-dad—Ninivaggi thinks he has put these principles into practice.
“My step-dad grew up in a car. His family was very poor. They couldn’t afford anything. His mom had him when she was 16. He didn’t go to college,” Ninivaggi explains.
Eventually, her stepfather was able to read enough books about medical devices to begin his own medical device company. She says that she doesn’t agree with many of former President Barack Obama’s taxes on medical devices because she’s seen how her father pulled himself up to build his own company.
While Ninivaggi says that she didn’t expect just how different other students’ political beliefs would be, she came to Columbia wanting to “experience those different views—respect them, appreciate them, care about them.”
While some Columbia students are respectful of her conservative opinions, Ninivaggi says many have also alienated her because of those beliefs.
She tells me that because of where she’s from, students assume she’s a “hick” or not as smart as them.
While she has faced that judgment throughout most of her time at Columbia, it has escalated recently—especially since last semester when CUCR invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus. The group faced backlash for inviting the inflammatory media personality, who is a vocal critic of feminism, Islam, and “political correctness.” (CUCR eventually canceled the event.)
Although she is now happy that she canceled Yiannopoulos’ visit—in light of his recent public comments in support of pedophilia—she stands by her argument defending the event at the time: “People really need to get out of this bubble we’re in,” she says. “If you have a problem with him, ask a great question and challenge him. Let’s see what he has to say.”
I don’t press her on her opinions about Yiannopoulos’ personal views, but many of her own, such as her belief in the right to choose, are in direct opposition to his.
The Yiannopoulos event notwithstanding, Ninivaggi feels that conservative voices are often “shut down” on campus. While she thinks that some campus Trump supporters were encouraged to come out with their beliefs after the election, she says that many still “feel like if they voice their opinion now, they’ll be called racist.”
Looking toward her graduation from both Columbia and CUCR, Ninivaggi says that she wants to continue making conservative voices heard on campus, and for CUCR to act as a “conservative outlet” for undergraduates.
“Conservatives aren’t all bigots and racists and misogynists,” she says. “There’s a lot of great people who are conservatives.”
Columbia University Democrats: Shoshana Lauter
For Shoshana Lauter, the Columbia University Democrats isn’t just about politics; it’s a “community of friends” that she plans to keep in touch with even after college.
As a pre-med student at Barnard, Lauter personally focuses on health policy, which she says will always be her first priority. She refers to the Affordable Care Act as “her thing” and says that keeping the health care plan alive is her top priority.
Bringing everything back to her first act of political activism, Lauter explains how her interest in politics was born out her experience volunteering at Planned Parenthood when she was 17.
Continuing her focus on health care, she says that the CU Dems prepared for Sexual Assault Awareness month this April by studying Title IX issues linking campus to national policy.
Every year, the Barnard junior’s favorite event is a five-day canvassing trip that the group organizesover fall break, combiningthe community she loves with political activism. She says that the trip usually involves waking up extremely early every day and going door-to-door from “dusk ’til dawn.” At the end of the day, Lauter says, “You do it because you love the work, and there’s nothing better than hearing somebody say, ‘I’m not registered to vote—can you register me?’ or ‘I want to vote for her, but I don’t know how.’”
Lauter brings an almost matriarchal joy to her detailed digressions on policy and her beliefs on political efficacy. Citing the club’s high retention rates of first-year members, Lauter tells me she believes that she has “showed them that they have a lot of autonomy in the way they approach politics—in the ways they approach their own individual beliefs and values and how they want to act on them.”
However, her most recent canvassing trip—which took her down to southern Pennsylvania to campaign for Hillary Clinton—was unfortunately colored by Trump’s victory only a few weeks after the trip.
Lauter says that the last election night was one of the “hardest days of [her] life.” However,rather than despair, she says that it made her recommitted to understanding what's going on in the U.S.”
Acknowledging that “we weren’t hearing conservative voices before,” Lauter believes that it’s important to continue and improve campus discourse, especially now more than ever. .
As the child of a First Amendment lawyer, Lauter has a deep appreciation for the importance of free speech and open discourse. One of her mother’s favorite Supreme Court cases isNational Socialist Party of America v. The Village of Skokie where the court determined that Neo-Nazis could legally assemble and march.
“I was always raised in a Jewish household that taught me to believe that there always needs to be someone who’s going to protect the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie,” Lauter says.
In reference to two recent campus controversies regarding free speech, she says that while one controversial speaker, Charles Murray, was rightfully allowed to speak on campus, she has mixed feelings on the proposed event hosted by CUCR featuring the divisive Yiannopoulos. She says that she had long debates with her executive board members regarding the event when it was announced. Until it was canceled, the board was unable to agree on what CU Dems’ response should be.
“As a political party, we need to hear the other side,” Lauter reasons, “but we also can’t assume that his [Yiannopoulos’] radicalism counts as the other side.”
Although this debate was polarizing and difficult for Lauter and CU Dems, she says that this is precisely the kind of internal, explorational conversation that the group loves to engage in.
As Lauter leads weekly meetings of over 50 students, she says that the election has made them self-reflect and realize that they “can’t just be Democrats because that’s what [they] were raised to be,” but instead have to work toward specific goals.
In order to reflect this new level of self-awareness, Lauter says that she’s finally accepted Trump’s presidency and has moved the club’s efforts away from trying to protest or call for his impeachment.
Ultimately, she wants to share her love for politics with her members and other students—who might not be strictly looking to go into politics—and help them discover the specific issues they are passionate about. She also wants to dispel the stereotype that only people interested in politics join the club.
“I want [CU] Dems to mold leaders that can mold the Democratic party so that one day we aren’t in the situation that we are in now,” she says.
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