The Cal Berkeley Democrats and the Berkeley Conservative Society met Wednesday evening to debate health care, taxation and climate change.
The student organization, founded earlier in the fall by campus sophomore and political science major Celine Bookin, was formed in an effort to “bring back political decency” and foster civil bipartisan discourse after Bookin left the Berkeley College Republicans. The debate with Cal Dems was the society’s first event of the year.
BCR has been in the national spotlight several times this year after inviting controversial right-wing speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter to speak on campus, inciting protests and riots.
About 45 people were scattered across the 220 seats in Hearst Field Annex. BridgeUSA at Berkeley and the Center on Civility and Democratic Engagement sponsored the debate, which was moderated by campus rhetoric professor Nadesan Permaul.
Campus freshman Kentaurus Robinson and sophomore Clay Halbert spoke on behalf of Cal Dems, while Bookin and freshman Mary Carmen Reid represented the Berkeley Conservative Society.
Although the debate was split into three different policy topics, the arguments boiled down to ideological differences. While Cal Dems members argued for more government involvement in climate action and health care, the conservatives stressed the power of the individual and the free market in solving today’s problems.
Both sides, however, found common ground on several points, including the importance of addressing climate change and making affordable health care available for all.
After the debate, campus freshman Ray Mosko said he was personally upset by “indifferent” comments Reid had made, particularly that “there’s nothing wrong with being poor. … They’re still living, working, dreaming beings.”
“We can see on the streets of Berkeley how being homeless takes a toll on people’s lives,” Mosko said.
Several students said they were impressed with the civility of the debate.
Campus freshman Genevieve Slosberg, a member of Cal Dems, said she thought the discussion was “civil” and “poised,” adding that she was surprised by the conservative side’s respect and substantive arguments.
“I really admired the Republicans for distinguishing themselves from the ‘alt-right’ leanings of the (U.S.) administration right now,” Slosberg said. “There are Republicans that are not crazy.”
Cal Dems President Caiden Nason also said he thought it was nice to have a civil discussion compared to previous debates with BCR in which, he said, hecklers in the audience would stand up, yell and confront people after the debate.
“I found myself clapping for both sides,” Nason said. “We all came to discuss things, not to fight.”
Bookin also made an effort to distinguish her club from BCR during the debate, in response to Permaul’s request for a definitive stance on President Donald Trump’s administration’s tax plan.
“We’re the Berkeley Conservative Society, not the Berkeley College Republicans, so we’re not here to defend everything the Trump administration does,” Bookin said during the debate, prompting snaps and applause from the audience.
Bookin said she was also excited about the success of the debate, commenting that it was “intellectually grounded” because of the focus on values, not partisanship.
“I think it was a victory for free speech,” Bookin said.