Bridging the divide: David French, Erwin Chemerinsky talk political division, freedom of speech

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David French, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky sat down Wednesday to discuss the current polarization between Republicans and Democrats.

As part of a speaker series sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor called “Conversations Across the Divide,” the event brought together French, a conservative, and Chemerinsky, who represented the liberal perspective. The two discussed the political division in today’s national climate. The National Review Institute, Berkeley Law and BridgeUSA — a nonpartisan organization whose goal is to bridge the political divide — partnered on this event.

“Our hope for this speaker series is to highlight dynamic conversations across divergent views in a way that will both expand minds and model the notion that people can discuss different viewpoints with intellect, passion, and humanity,” the event website said.

Topics of discussion included the state of American democracy, cultural versus political power and alternatives to presidential nominations of Supreme Court justices. CEO of BridgeUSA and campus junior Manu Meel moderated the event.

French said today’s political climate is representative of “negative polarization,” in which people identify as Republican because they dislike Democrats and vice versa. He cited a Pew Research Center study that found that 82 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable few of Democrats, with Democrats having a similar distaste for their conservative counterparts.

“We are losing a culture of respect for civil liberties — a culture of respect for free speech — even if the law is solid,” French said at the event. “There is a sense of social and economic and career consequences if you speak up that is really damaging our perception that the republic is healthy.”

On the issue of free speech, Chemerinsky and French debated the extent to which cultural taboos limit expression. French argued that conservatism’s insufficient representation in culture affects the types of political debates that can occur among government officials such as legislators.

“We have a Supreme Court committed to protecting free speech,” Chemerinsky said at the event. “(I) can’t feel so sympathetic to conservatives feeling (like) victims in society.”

While Chemerinsky and French disagreed with each other on the issues Meel introduced, the point of the discussion was not to force an agreement between the two speakers, but to show that people can engage in conversation despite their differences.

BridgeUSA and UC Berkeley are in partnership to bring more conversations like this to campus over the next few semesters, according to Meel.

“It went well. … It was received well by the people that were there,” Meel said. “It really demonstrated to us that people want it, and more conversations like this are needed.”

Contact Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.