It’s Calapalooza, and Upper Sproul Plaza is overrun with students looking for new pastimes. Wedged between the tables of Amnesty International and the Cal Berkeley Democrats is a cardboard cutout of former president George W. Bush, thoughtfully wrapped in an American flag — the main decoration of the Berkeley College Republicans’ table.
Some students stop and stare, and a few venture over to talk with the members of BCR. There are students who, well acquainted with UC Berkeley’s political reputation, are shocked to discover that there are young conservatives on campus.
There are others who breathe a sigh of relief to see that UC Berkeley is not completely dominated by liberals, that there is a sizable community of conservatives they can join. To that second group, BCR President Brendan Pinder welcomes them with a smile.
Coming out as Republican
Identifying as a college conservative in today’s political climate can be trying. According to a report released by the College Republican National Committee in March, young voters are increasingly estranged from the GOP due to “disdain” and “mistrust.” While studies show that more millennials are politically disillusioned, the Republican Party has seen its youth coalition take a hit.
Yet UC Berkeley still sees its fair share of young conservatives despite these reports and the campus’s reputation — 58 percent of 2012 freshmen identified as some form of liberal in a survey. But, as Pinder and his colleagues note, there is a bit of pressure to not be Republican on campus.
“People are intimidated to come out as Republican at Berkeley,” said Pinder, a junior majoring in political science and classics. “You can’t directly compare it to (coming out), but it’s somewhat similar in the respect that you have an environment, a culture that’s against or openly hostile to you.”
But this “culture” is one of the chief reasons Pinder chose to attend UC Berkeley in the first place. While he could have gone to a more conservative university, Pinder says he relishes the contentious environment as a forum to strengthen his opinions.
“It’s scary being Republican in Berkeley, sometimes,” said BCR Internal Vice President Hannah Jolly. “When you tell (people) you’re conservative, sometimes they just shut down. There’s no more conversation, and they’re completely silent.”
Students outside of BCR also have noted this atmosphere.
“I’m to the left, but I have Republican friends, and I try to keep an open mind,” said Karina Rodriguez, a campus organizer with the UC Berkeley socialist organization. “It must not be easy being a Republican on campus, because a lot of people disagree with you, and a lot of people think you’re wrong.”
Even so, BCR is a thriving club. Although it is not the biggest club on campus, it has approximately 60 active members, with 30 to 50 students attending meetings each week, according to Pinder. In comparison, CalDems, which declined to comment further for this article, also has about 60 active members, with 40 to 60 participants attending weekly meetings, according to former president Anais LaVoie.
BCR is largely a social organization, but it also holds events such as the annual Republican dunk tank, memorials for Sept. 11 and, in the past, debates with CalDems.
“BCR is great at turning out good leadership, and they’re not exclusive, which has been the key to their success,” said Chris Telfer, executive director of the California College Republicans, who said the UC Berkeley chapter was the largest in the state. “In the past years, they’ve seen immense growth and a very high level of participation.”
Some of that growth comes from BCR’s more controversial events. Two years ago, the club held an “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” in protest of the passage of California Senate Bill 185, which aimed to reintroduce affirmative action admissions policies, by satirically selling baked goods with prices based on race and gender. The event attracted national media attention.
At the time, Pinder and Jolly were freshmen and new members to the organization. The campus reaction to the bake sale, which included large student protests and a letter from administrators condemning the event, gave the two a stark introduction to the political scene.
“It took me a while to build back my respect for Berkeley,” Pinder said. “There were 15 of us and 1,000 people telling us not that we were wrong but that we were hateful, evil and spoiled rich white kids. It made me all the more passionate about being a college Republican.”
The bake sale alienated many students. A multicultural group called The Coalition formed in response to the event, recruiting 250 demonstrators and holding a “die-in.” A town hall meeting meant to provide an opportunity to vent and to promote open dialogue was later organized for students, and members of BCR were barred from attending.
“The bake sale was racist,” said Marco Amaral, a community organizer for The Coalition who graduated from UC Berkeley last year. “Afterwards, the campus climate was very hostile towards students of color. It was an example of the greater and historical racism in UC Berkeley and of a mostly privileged group of people being hostile towards a mostly underprivileged group of students.”
He added that the bake sale oversimplified the need for affirmative action, ignoring the historical and sociological context of such policies.
“It demeaned the movement to a cupcake,” he said, reflecting the sentiments of many students at the time.
Pinder said he is not planning any satirical events during his presidency. Like other college conservative organizations, BCR is focusing on widening outsiders’ perception of Republicans by displaying their political diversity. To achieve this, club members table, host events and make themselves visible to show that “college students can be Republican.”
“I have a lot of people come to us during tabling and ask if it’s OK that they’re conservative,” Jolly said. “In some ways, I have to reassure them that it’s OK, but it is different on campus.”
Her rhetoric seems to work. By the end of Calapalooza, BCR had more than 160 potential new members signed up.