By Zane Silk
In a time of dramatic political events on the national level, two first-year students are shaking up campus politics by reviving Grinnell’s Republican club. Russell Abernathy ‘20 and Pete Zelles ‘20 hope their chapter of campus Republicans will increase political diversity and provide a platform for like-minded students.
In high school, Abernathy was involved in a small Republican club, while Zelles’ school lacked any similar opportunities. Given that both were looking to college as a chance to become politically active, it may seem counter-intuitive that they chose as school with a well known leftward tilt. However, for Zelles, the ideological makeup of Grinnell was actually a reason to attend.
“One of the big reasons that drew me here is that I wanted to have my opinions challenged…. I don’t want to be just with people who believe the same things I do, just preaching to the choir. Grinnell certainly isn’t the choir,” Zelles said.
The pair has received some pushback from their peers, which has varied in intensity. However, both are staying committed to welcoming those who fundamentally disagree with them.
“I received a few comments, like people calling us racists or bigots, and that’s something … I have encountered a fair amount. And to those people … we are always open to discussion,” Abernathy said.
Perhaps surprisingly, the co-founders have also received plenty of positive feedback from those who disagree with their viewpoint. One such example comes from the recent Posse Plus retreat.
“The vast majority of people I talked to were very supportive, if not of our ideologies… of us being able to express our viewpoints in a very far-left college,” Zelles said.
The response, unsurprisingly, has been warmest from fellow conservatives. The club’s private Facebook group has about 40 members just one week after the group began hanging posters, a number which suggests there may be a surprising number of conservative students at Grinnell. It is those students that Zelles and Abernathy say that the club is first and foremost here to serve.
“We wanted to create a more permanent political club that represents traditional conservative ideals, represents the constitution … to allow students that otherwise felt alienated based on their political affiliation or ideological viewpoints, to give them a space to express their ideas,” Abernathy said.
Both Abernathy and Zelles are adamant that the Campus Republicans do not support any particular politician. However, as Trump pushes the Republican Party towards white nationalism and economic protectionism, the co-founders’ commitments to the individual rights, constitution and free markets may leave them increasingly far away from the GOP mainstream. And yet, for the time being, they are sticking with the Republicans.
“Because our main point of view is to support the group of people that best uphold constitutional ideals … if the time comes that the Republican Party no longer meets that we will reevaluate … the club’s standpoint,” Abernathy said.
During the period between when the club was founded in late November and its first public meeting on February 1, Abernathy and Zelles have been focused on getting things up and running. Alongside launching the club’s weekly meetings, the pair is currently applying for funding from the Student Government Association (SGA) and getting ready for “Learning to Lobby” on February 5. The event, which aims to provide students with tools for political advocacy, is being organized by SGA with involvement from both the campus Republicans and their Democratic counterparts. Looking further down the road, the co-founders have many ideas.
“In the works, we have some panels for people to come and ask questions about our club, the party, our ideology … So that’s really to open the communication lines to a lot of people that otherwise might not know much about what we stand for,” Abernathy said.
“Starting either late this semester, or early next year, we’d like to starting bringing in speakers to campus. Then, we’re looking to host more policy focused events, maybe one or two every semester,” Zelles said.
While they know the club’s increasing visibility will lead to further pushback, both Abernathy and Zelles believe strongly in the value it will contribute by adding to Grinnell’s political diversity and by creating a space specifically for students on the right.
“It’s a place for people of like-minded ideologies to discuss their opinions without ridicule from people that do feel extremely angry against the Republican Party,” Abernathy said. “It’s a place for those to come and talk about their opinions without being shamed or attacked.”