Republicans in Oxford: the US presidential election

Alastair Pearson explores the experiences of American conservatives in Oxford in the days leading up to the US presidential election

The election backdrop

The awareness of the seminal political moment that is the US presidential election, as November 8 approaches with the inexorable pull of historical gravity, is a burden for some American conservatives at Oxford. The date can conjure emotions of both the inevitable dispossession created by distance from home, and, for some, a painful sense of guilt by omission.

The ambiguity of what this November 8 means to the life of this tiny minority at Oxford raises larger questions, about what it has always meant to be an American conservative at Oxford, and how that meaning has shifted this year.

For conservatives like Ben Daus-Haberle, co-president of the Republicans Overseas and the umbrella group American Conservatives Abroad, there may be a feeling – however unwarranted – that the salvos they receive from groups on the left could have been avoided if they had only been back in the US to prevent the nomination of Donald Trump. Their party’s candidate is universally rejected by members of the official US conservative organs on campus at Oxford.

“I feel helpless in a way. I wonder if I could have been home, if I could have done something different in the primary process,” says Daus-Haberle, an M. Phil student at Somerville College.

For conservatives like him, invested as much as US liberals and by virtue of their American citizenship more directly concerned with the election results than their British peers, standing by is palpably disempowering.

Daus-Haberle, like several other US conservatives at Oxford, describes his political beliefs in the language of the political theorist – as the coherent product of his commitment to constitutionalism, pragmatism, a positive US role in the world, and above all what he sees as the exceptional American idea. He loves his country, and the pain of separation is reinforced as each day passes between now and the election.

“I miss the US a little bit every day, and especially around this time because what’s going on is really special,” he says.

Michael Froedge, a conservative visiting student from DePauw University in Indiana, articulates a certain incongruity between the timelessness of studying classical political theory in the Bodleian Library and the influx of news updates during the campaign cycle. Though he does not inhabit the same liberal worldview as most of his American peers, and also does not currently belong to Republicans Overseas, being abroad during the election still evokes loss when he leaves the ivory tower.

“When I step outside of that and I go home at night, there’s a part of me that feels a little disconnected,” he says. “It’s kind of like I’m on the outside looking in.”

Talking about politics

For these conservatives, to study at Oxford at this moment in history is a difficult balancing act. They miss home, but they treasure the immersive isolation of their studies. They embrace the intellectual havens they find in their courses here, but their experiences are colored by a reality of reflexive backlash.

For Daus-Haberle, this tendency can manifest itself in amusing ways, like when a Finnish student in his program asserted that President Obama was far-right, or in the disbelieving gasps of friends who found themselves unable to imagine that the thoughtful Marshall Scholar could possibly be a Republican. Froedge remembers more hostile encounters, though, like when a fellow American stalked out of the room after an emotional conversation. What these conservatives prize about Oxford is the opportunity for intellectual discourse about their politics, and it can be painful when they find that forum denied to them because of their views.

“I’ve had conversations where I’ve disagreed vehemently with certain ideas and people have been so frustrated that they’re unable to kind of hold themselves together,” Froedge says. “And I think as a logical, reasonable person, we’ll have conversations where we’ll disagree and not kind of march out of the room and kind of cry pity.”

The uphill battle to get their voices heard might just be the nature of the game. Jay Fields, co-president with Daus-Haberle of the Republicans Overseas, concedes that being conservative at a school like Oxford in a country like the United Kingdom requires acknowledging basic realities.

“It’s always probably difficult to be a conservative in a majority not conservative sort of institution,” he says. “You have to make your arguments probably ten times better than the prevalent view because you are viewed with such suspicion.”

Arguing on behalf of American conservative views at Oxford in the fall of 2016 also necessitates being forthright about what conservatives are and are not willing to defend. Froedge tends to try to begin political discussions by framing his beliefs in a meta-sense.

“I have to actually define what a conservative is, and then you can make your judgment – I have mine – about whether Donald Trump fits into the brand of what that describes,” he says. He steeps his understanding of his constitutional conservatism in core tenets like the separation of powers, a commitment to individual liberty and a defense of the entirety of the US Bill of Rights. Froedge’s conservatism distrusts power, because he wants to maximize individual autonomy.

“So I usually outline that, and then I’m like, ‘What do you think? Do you think Donald Trump actually fits in that?’”

Core values

But whether or not non-American students at Oxford are willing to accept that other conceptions of the US conservative agenda may exist beyond the vision of the Trump candidacy, arguing on behalf of conservative principles at Oxford remains no easy task. The distinct conception of the world endorsed by American conservatism tends to run into opposition in discussions at Oxford JCRs and pubs on a few key subjects. Froedge says that Trump and the context behind his rise, as well as guns and healthcare tend to be red button issues, in which the values underlying American conservative beliefs run directly into contrasting political traditions in the U.K. and Europe.

Fields says that these differences might just be elemental. His understanding of comparative political discourse at Oxford shifted after listening to remarks at the Oxford Union by Eric Cantor, the Republican former US House Majority Leader.

“He basically said that we just have different cultural assumptions,” Fields says. He explains that he sees the British political spectrum as embodying a different relationship between the rights of the individual and the powers of the government on issues like gun control. His advocacy of conservatism is rooted in entrepreneurialism and economic opportunity, whereas he thinks political debate in the U.K. exhibits a heightened awareness of class.

Froedge says that in the leadup to the 2016 election, it’s these kinds of differences in core values that spark many of his discussions with British students about politics on topics like universal healthcare. Perhaps what he and British students desire and expect from their government is different in irreconcilable ways.

“It’s an idea that maybe Parliament maybe has their best interest at heart,” he says. “Not that the American government doesn’t, but I guess they’re more willing to sacrifice some basic liberties for some of these more abstractions – public good, or general welfare.”

What matters to these US conservatives, as they think about the election and what they hope their party can achieve in its aftermath, are universalizable ideas. Values like integrity, civic virtue, and liberty, which people like Froedge want their peers here to understand they see as more than just cover for nationalism.

“Liberty is a thing that unites us all. It’s this idea of live and let live. If you disagree with someone, don’t try to silence their voice,” he says. He wants to modernize the party, and to expound a message that will help people in the US to see Republicans as standing for a coherent set of ideas that can help average people. Froedge hopes that his party, in the future, will be able to reach out to young people on college campuses, and do meaningful work on criminal justice reform that can help minorities. His conservatism is supposed to be a holistic approach to shaping the growth of a society.

“Part of being a conservative is also, yes, we put a huge value and premium on liberty, but also the idea of community. These institutions and families and churches and religious institutions like that play a huge role in shaping a virtuous citizenry. So that’s definitely the vision I see.”

The kind of American conservative who goes to Oxford seems to desire a renegotiation of the right’s position in the US social order, and how it’s perceived abroad.

“I understand and am sympathetic to many of the more charitable goals of the left,” Daus-Haberle says. “I don’t think any Republican is actually saying ‘I want people to live in poverty. I want people to be sick and to not have healthcare.’”

Translating ideas into practice

The kind of American conservative who wades into political discussions at Oxford also seems to endeavor to support their political arguments with appropriate credentials. Jay Fields worked for his House member, Ted Poe of Houston, as well as his Senator, John Cornyn. He says that because of his commitment to public service and learning from those who think differently from him, he even worked for the Office of Presidential Personnel in the Obama administration, helping to vet presidential appointees.

After graduating from Yale, Ben Haus-Daberle worked for President Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, as his lead researcher. And Michael Froedge worked for Governor Mike Pence in Indiana’s Office of Management and Budget before working for Senator Dan Coats in the Joint Economic Committee. All of them articulate a profound personal commitment to working on behalf of the public. Froedge says that what he believes today was molded by his time serving Indiana and his country.

“Working for both men was an honor, because oftentimes politics can get a bad name,” he says. He frequently thinks back to advice he got from a mentor in Indiana when he began working in politics.

“From the day to day operations, the fundamental principle that you need to live by and internalize is service before self,” he says. That maxim remains an important moral principle for him today. “I’ll never forget that conversation that I had with him because he was the one that recommended me to Governor Pence’s internship. In that kind of way, he was putting the service of helping me before his own self.”

The work that Daus-Haberle and his group are trying to do is intended to uphold that idea of service, and to reach the sort of voters that Daus-Haberle thinks Republicanism has tended to forget. He and Fields explain that Trump voters deserve equal dignity and a voice in politics, even if they have been misled.

They try to take advantage of what seems like a problem – the relative scarcity of Republicans on campus – and use their small numbers as an opportunity to reflect and try to organize a new conservative agenda. By sliding under the radar, Daus-Haberle hopes that Republicans at Oxford can start a new conservative movement.

“What I would love to do is bridge some of the really good, serious thought and the sense of purpose and service that went with the Bush administration, that George H.W. Bush typified, and blend that in with a commitment to serve all Americans including those who have been left behind by the latest round of modernization,” Daus-Haberle says.

Right now, as US conservatives at Oxford weather substantial criticism from other students, whether American, British and international, that future may seem far off. Daus-Haberle still says that he remains optimistic even amidst the present national party infighting.

“The one thing that gives me hope is I think there are green shoots,” he says. Maybe the party will benefit from creative destruction. “I think the fracturing of the Republican Party right now will allow a new age of dynamism and growth.”

Dealing with reality

The dream of a resurgent, classically conservative party, a party that defines itself in terms of liberty and small government but which also has an active agenda for bringing new voters in, might seem far off for US conservatives at Oxford as November 8 nears. It also might seem fantastical to British students used to hearing about US politics in scandalizing reports about crises in the American presidential election. For now, however, conservatives at Oxford can bunker down and reflect, and use their studies to think critically about their ideals. They are convinced that Oxford is a special place to become stronger in their conservatism.

For Froedge, being on the outside looking in has ultimately been a positive experience. Even if he has had a few tense conversations in pubs along the way.

“My conservative positions have reaffirmed what I originally believed, and I believe what I believed before I came here even more now,” he says. He hasn’t refrained from debate, and he thinks that’s made him a better advocate for his convictions. “This constant intellectual tugging and pulling brings together a more holistic, refined perspective on what it means to be a conservative, and I think that’s important.”

Being challenged has made Daus-Haberle appreciate what he thinks is valuable about his ideal of America. “It’s great to engage with people from other backgrounds,” he says. If both parties come to the table willing to participate in an honest exchange of views, he is glad to have a discussion. “Because it helps us highlight what is special about, it’s helped me realize what’s special about the American system.”

Rather than leaving his conservatism behind when he came to Oxford, Froedge believes that his ability to defend his convictions has grown more sophisticated as he has deepened his background in political thought in the classroom. He is grateful for Oxford as a source of intellectual inspiration for determining what a conservative is.

“Because going back to the United States, I feel even more confident in my ability to articulate it,” he says. “The intellectual life here is exhilarating. Truly, God created a place like this for people who are interested in ideas.”