Being a Conservative at SIPA

By Jeenho Hahm

As far as I know, I might be the only person at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) who attended Donald Trump’s inaugural ball on January 20th, 2017. It was my first time present in the same room with the new president, celebrating his first evening in the most powerful office on Earth.

It was surreal to see all the figures, whose images and sound bites had been digitally omnipresent for the last two years, finally emerging into physical form right before my eyes. I even found myself in the crowd that was urging President Trump to keep tweeting; the rest is history.

Most of my education has been in the so-called elite liberal setting. I attended prep schools in New England, an international school in Paris, and a private university in Los Angeles. I have voted for a Democrat before and still know influencers in the Democratic Party. I am sure that some conservatives would perceive me more as a moderate or even liberal. But within SIPA, I would be considered more as a right-leaning conservative.

The labels get confusing because much of what I consider as conservative values such as individual freedom, the market economy, and creative destructions are in fact, the tenets of classical “liberalism”, although the latter term has come to mean left-leaning views in American politics mostly. I will focus less on criticizing the liberals and more on what it is like to see things a little differently.

Above all, the Constitution of the United States is the only thing I have sworn to protect, and my loyalty still lies in the Constitution over any particular group of people, place, or ideology. I always try to take a nonpartisan approach first to all issues.

For me, witnessing how the aforementioned conservative policies have transformed my ancestral land South Korea from an impoverished autocracy into an advanced democracy within a generation has had a lasting impact, and the contrast with its totalitarian and isolated neighbor in the north cannot be starker. Furthermore, Republican leaders have shown a stronger commitment to the defense of South Korea against North Korea by providing more military resources and objecting to international agreements that would let the North exploit the South.

The Republican Party has changed, ironically, due to the unintended consequences of the agenda it had championed, including free trade. So far, the benefits of the open information economy had gone disproportionately to top income earners. As the nation became more demographically diverse, the social and cultural differences were not reconciled. When public institutions became ineffective at helping people to adjust, many began to see the changes as threats to their way of life. The philosophical clashes within the Republican Party began before President Trump, and will continue after his term ends.

Despite the nostalgic “Make America Great Again” mantra, Trump is a trailblazer for the digital age politics. First, by using unconventional methods of communications, Trump can dominate the news cycle and shape the policy debate in a way his predecessors could not. Trump’s commitment to delivering on his campaign promises, bold national security decisions, and steadfastness against pressures from special interests also embolden his credibility among his followers who are tired of career politicians, since the latter are typically seen as overly cautious and easily manipulated by special interests. There have been many populists, but Trump stands out by successfully rewriting the rules of politics.

The question now is whether Trump can harness his political capital to produce sound policies or waste it with divisive rhetorics and scandals. Trump will face the consequences if he does fail at his duty. The Trump and Obama administration’s policy records even on civil rights weren’t much different in their first two years, with their respective party controlling the congress. But the Trump administration must act faster to form a fully functional governance team. 

Just as much as the Republican Party needs to resist the far-right extremism, the Democratic Party faces a similar challenge with the far-left. The conservative leaders in other countries including Chancellor Merkel of Germany and President Macron of France are showing that the center-right is well-positioned to lead the future. I will wait and see what the Trump administration and the Republican Party end up accomplishing.

We now have reached another chaotic point in which the founding fathers had anticipated, and the constitutional republic they had designed is being put to test again. All of these changes may only be the early symptom of the unparalleled technological and societal transformations about to come in our lifetime. There is no better time to be a policy grad student than now to prepare for the changes.

I feel lucky to be at SIPA and honored that my favorite historical (and musical) character, Alexander Hamilton, is also a Columbia alumnus. I also find being a conservative to be an advantage here because expecting opposition to my views can further sharpen my analytical and communication skills. I gradually become more comfortable with challenging my views and questioning conformity.

I hope that SIPA, the world’s most global public policy school, is the place where everyone can overcome identity politics. In line with Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, I try to value one’s character over tribal identities such as race, gender, religion, or nationality. I know that one’s heritage is important, but achieving something new on their own can be even more meaningful.

I believe SIPA needs to do more to prepare students for real-world challenges. If anything, this is the time we need to be tested to the limit before we are given any public responsibility. Therefore, the school must prioritize teaching how to make sound judgments and handle adversity, not just how to brand oneself. We should be most comfortable with dealing with the least pleasant issues.

I am cautiously optimistic because I do see many of my classmates and faculties actively getting out of their comfort zones to learn from one another, and we are all passionate about solving global issues together.

This is all I have to say for now. I welcome any discussion or criticism...after I am done with my finals.