Bipartisanship at UC Berkeley: Can we just talk?

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“The one certainty out of this election is that the country is extraordinarily divided, and we’ve got to tackle that head-on,” said Manu Meel. He is the CEO and co-founder of BridgeUSA, a national organization that seeks to combat political polarization and enable young people to tackle contemporary challenges through open dialogue. BridgeUSA has chapters on many college campuses in the country, including UC Berkeley. I was watching a livestream of its Burst Your Bubble event, held in conjunction with A Starting Point, or ASP, a “video-based civic engagement platform” that seeks “to create a bipartisan channel of communication and connectivity between Americans and their elected officials with the goal of creating a more informed electorate.”

Burst Your Bubble, a post-election student forum, was held over Zoom on Nov. 10 and attracted 397 students from across the United States and internationally. During the event, students heard from former governor John Kasich (R-Ohio), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), as well as congressional representatives Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota). They also had the opportunity to participate in moderated conversations in breakout rooms. Topics covered included student debt, voting in the 2020 election and the Electoral College.

“We wanted to have that discussion about the election, and that’s because we wanted to diffuse tensions that we feared would be arising on campuses in the wake of the election,” said Amanda Shafer, executive director of BridgeUSA’s Bridge Institute, member of BridgeUSA’s executive board and campus alumna.

I spoke with Claire Rider, a member of BridgeUSA at Berkeley who moderated a breakout room during the event, about her experience.

“Everyone was also very respectful to each other,” Rider said. “We didn’t want to upset each other, and we wanted to have constructive dialogue, so no one posed really aggressive, provoking views. They just tried to fairly represent their own opinions.”

Watching the livestream, I thought that the thrust of my piece would be fairly simple. In the wake of the 2020 election, the United States faces unprecedented division. Bipartisanship is good and important. The campus community is hugely left-leaning, and we should be more open to conservative viewpoints — so let’s talk.

There is, however, a lot more to the issue of bipartisanship than the simplistic argument I had built up in my mind. I came to see that all three seemingly straightforward prongs of my hypothesis were problematic or debatable in various ways.

 

1. “In the wake of the 2020 election, the United States faces unprecedented division.”

It might be tempting to pin the partisan split we see today entirely on modern phenomena, including social media algorithms, news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC and, indeed, for some, the 45th President of the United States himself. However, divisions along party lines have actually been developing for decades.

“It’s been a gradual process,” said Eric Schickler, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. According to Schickler, this began in the 1960s, when both parties shifted their positions on matters of race.

“The Democrats started being more racially liberal and that led a lot of socially conservative and, particularly, racially conservative whites to flee to the Republican Party,” said David Broockman, campus associate professor of political science.

“As the South went from being the most Democratic to the most Republican part of the country, that helped turn the Republicans into a much more clearly conservative party and the Democrats into a more clearly liberal party,” Schickler told me. “As each new issue came to the fore, instead of cross-cutting the parties, they got absorbed. And so it’s become this self-reinforcing process where once Democrats are clearly the liberal party, everybody who’s liberal on any issue — that’s where they go, and vice versa for Republicans.”

Schickler believes that this has led to party identities becoming linked with faith, race, gender and region, and it has caused partisanship to become — citing Lilliana Mason, University of Maryland government and politics professor — a “mega-identity.” Thus, differences today are harder than ever to reconcile.

That is not to say, of course, that present-day circumstances have not exacerbated the problem. “Add to that changes in the media where it becomes possible — and social networks where it becomes possible — to just talk to and hear from people of your side. That just furthers this kind of polarization,” Schickler said.

Broockman largely agrees with this assessment. “I would guess that if you looked at any period in American history, people would say that there are deep divides in society and people are not listening to people on the other side,” he said.

At the same time, he raised an interesting alternative interpretation of recent developments in politics. “Now, as people are getting more and more information about politics, they know how to sort themselves correctly,” he said. “The increasing ideological consistency in the public might actually be a reflection of the fact that people are open to information and are getting more of it, not that somehow, people are closing themselves off in some way.”

There are, of course, those who dispute this idea. “People definitely have more choices, but it’s very easy to be selective with where you get your news,” argued Elizabeth Grubb, president of Cal Berkeley Democrats, or CalDems. “In the past, that wasn’t really an option because with cable TV, you only had a few channels, and they weren’t nearly as specialized as MSNBC and Fox News are.” She confessed to only consuming news from two to three sources herself.

Further complicating matters, Broockman also warns against conflating being consistently liberal or conservative with being extremely liberal or conservative. Talking to me about his paper, “The delegate paradox: Why polarized politicians can represent citizens best,” he raised the idea that party lines might be hardening but not pushing further left or further right. While politicians and voters might argue more along party lines, they are not necessarily becoming more radical than before. Recognizing that many, if not most, people remain moderate has a great impact how achievable bipartisanship is.

Whichever way you see it, most would agree that the two-party split has been becoming increasingly entrenched for the past 40 years. In the face of such deep-seated dissension, therefore, surely a united, bipartisan front is the answer.

 

2. “Bipartisanship is good and important.”

Perhaps it is not.

It can be argued that party identification and partisan politics, to some extent, carry significant benefits. Schickler told me, for instance, about how party identification not only provides a sense of solidarity and belonging but can also simplify the process of developing political views for voters by allowing them to align themselves along party lines. “It’s like an informational shortcut,” he said.

He also believes that the two-party system helps to structure debate and ensure that interests are represented and issues are not left behind. That said, Schickler noted that partisanship becomes “unhealthy” when one party views the other as a threat to the country.

Others claim that the U.S. political system might have bigger problems to concern itself with. “The problem in our system is that the party that is out of power still, especially because of the Senate filibuster, has the power to block whatever it is the majority party wants to do. This leads to a situation in which the minority party has every incentive to block what the majority does and the ability to block it, which is very rare across political systems across the board,” Broockman said.

“What I worry about is that these features baked into our political institutions might not be ready for a world in which the everyday person knows enough politics to demand that their side stands firm and never compromises with the other,” Broockman added.

Perhaps most significantly, it is argued by many that pushing for the idea of bipartisanship and “listening to all sides” can come dangerously close to allowing for false equivalencies in which viewpoints that run counter to American values are accepted as part of the legitimate national conversation.

“From a purely operational standpoint, it would benefit the American people the most to have some level of bipartisanship. However, I don’t think bipartisanship matters in the sense that we should be listening to all sides when one side has elected QAnon supporters and Holocaust deniers,” Grubb said. “A debate over economic policies can be worthwhile, or a debate over what is the best health care for our country, but debating over things like QAnon and, like I said, denying basic human rights, I don’t think that has any place in politics.”

However, others, such as Schickler, disagree. According to him, while the discord surrounding “basic aspects of the political system” is a “problem,” the solution to disputes on fundamental issues and ideas is debate between the two parties. People in each political party should make persuasive arguments that would win the support of voters or even bring the other party to see from their perspective. He avers that issues are better debated, debates are better structured, and discussions better lead to legislative solutions because of party politics.“When there’s a real disagreement, that is the place for parties to fight it out,” he said.

“Not having something as a partisan issue, just getting along, sometimes can be premised on suppressing legitimate grievances,” Schickler said, pointing out that the United States was viewed as a stable democracy that agreed on fundamental issues, such as the electoral process, despite Black people being unable to vote. A lack of debate was not a sign of stability or of agreement across the board but rather of oppression; with that in mind, perhaps we should not seek to “get along” at all.

Campus junior and BridgeUSA external officer Parker Spoo, who identifies as a moderate conservative, also believes that bipartisanship is important, especially when it comes to fundamental issues such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration and national security, because hard line party politics give rise to political gridlock. This, in turn, hinders legislation, which he believes can “become very dangerous, and it can become very detrimental to the country as a whole.”

“That is something we have to figure out, is what are the lines that we’re going to draw for when something is going to be unacceptable to talk about,” said Sarah Ampalloor, President of UC Berkeley’s chapter of BridgeUSA. “The first step to anything is just to have a conversation with everyone involved.”

In short, American society has not yet come to a consensus on the issues that should be discussed in the political sphere, those that should be debated along party lines and even the extent to which bipartisanship is a sociopolitical good.

 

3. “The campus community is hugely left-leaning, and we should be more open to conservative viewpoints — so let’s talk.”

I thought that there would be a little more consensus on these contentious issues on campus — after all, UC Berkeley, in my mind, was overwhelmingly liberal (see: this New York Times article titled “Life and Combat for Republicans at Berkeley”), and this was naturally a bad thing given the importance of diversity and discourse.

However, even that supposition ended up falling through — it turns out that there are many who do not perceive the campus community as being problematically left-leaning.

“Berkeley is not as bad on that dimension as a lot of people assume,” Schickler said. He told me that he has colleagues on the political right, and UC Berkeley has, in the past, offered a class about conservatism taught by a conservative professor.

Furthermore, Schickler argues that partisanship simply does not feature as heavily on campus as some might think. “Most Berkeley students are not that political these days,” Schickler said.

“In a class setting, I don’t see those types of people [conservatives] speaking up too much, but in the few instances that has happened, my peers have been very respectful,” Grubb said. “I was taking this “Ethics in the Age of Trump” class, and we were put in breakout rooms and one of our peers was a Trump supporter. He told us his perspective, and it was a really engaging conversation, and I held my tongue and no one was unkind to this individual.”

Grubb also told me about a debate in recent years between CalDems and Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, that was moderated by UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ herself. “It was very civil and very professional,” she said, telling me that guidelines and debate topics were provided in advance to facilitate constructive conversation.

“It’s undeniable that the UC Berkeley campus does have a left-leaning student body, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the two partisan parties are fighting over basic human rights, and I think students just aren’t willing to compromise on those things,” Grubb opined.

Ampalloor, however, was hesitant to make the same generalization. “I don’t want to put us in this category of saying that we’re all liberal, because that’s not true and I think that alienates a lot of people,” she explained. “And speaking from experience, in our events, people have spoken about whatever their conservative views, but they come to me and said, ‘Oh, I was not totally comfortable speaking to the full extent of my beliefs,’ because they think that it may not be accepted, and I think that’s sad because we want to hear from all of them.”

She urges us not to make assumptions of others’ political inclinations. “You may never know what someone has been through and you can’t assume anything, and I think a lot of times at Berkeley, people assume different things just because we are all at the same school.”

Spoo agrees with her assessment. He described the left-leaning campus as an “echo chamber” and a “bubble.”

“It can create an atmosphere, sometimes, where people who harbor more conservative or right-wing viewpoints feel like they’re going to be ostracized or are uncomfortable bringing up a conservative viewpoint because they might always be the odd person out,” he said.

Partisanship on campus, therefore, is often not a result of open discrimination or blatant close-mindedness. Instead, even as bipartisan debates are held, classes on conservatism are offered and students are not attacked in class for having their own opinions, it is the entire atmosphere on campus that causes self-censorship and, from there, a highly one-sided expression of political opinions.

The left-leaning nature of campus may not be obviously overwhelming, and it cannot be given more balance simply by resolving to be more receptive to alternative viewpoints — many people already think that they do not fall short in that respect. Instead, a complete culture shift is needed, in which we learn not to assume that we understand our peers’ perspectives and, instead, seek to listen.

Where, then, does this leave this piece — and, indeed, where does it leave the United States of America? While the United States is more divided than ever, this has been a process that has been taking place for decades and is not something that can be solved simply by reversing or mitigating the effects of any recent development. It is hard to agree even on the idea that agreement across party lines is necessary or desirable. Communities like the one on campus make discourse difficult because they are stifling, even if they already try to be open and inclusive.

I have gathered by now that there is no quick and easy way out. There is no single argument to make or policy to enact that could bring people from across the ideological spectrum together overnight. The journey to unity — whatever that looks like — will indubitably be long and, perhaps, quite difficult, but there are steps we can take to begin.

“People need to realize that we are a bubble on Berkeley’s campus, and the rest of America, by and large, doesn’t always think the way that Berkeley does,” said Spoo. “So I would hope that people can be cognizant of that and start to value those conversations with people who don’t agree with them.”

“We need to respect each other’s individuality and respect each other’s opinions, no matter how different they may be,” Rider said. “For me, it’s all about listening to the other person’s lived experiences … I have respect for their political opinions because I have respect for their lived experiences that have shaped them.”

She also stressed the importance of face-to-face conversations. “When you put people face-to-face and it becomes a really personal atmosphere, you’re just human, and I think there’s an innate respect for each other.”

“Even if you’re sure of your position, I think there’s no better way to understand it than to argue with a really smart person who disagrees with you,” Broockman said.

“I … very much hope that people will be kind to each other after this period of time, through, maybe, demystification, and people can see empathy toward each other in how we all are folks trying to live our lives the best that we can,” said Mark Kassen, actor, filmmaker and co-founder of ASP, to Meel at the Burst Your Bubble event.

While that, perhaps, sounds too good to be true at the moment, it might be as good a place as any to begin.

 

Both BCR and the Berkeley Conservative Society could not be reached for comment as of press time.

 

Contact Lee Xuan at [email protected].