Some 50 UC Berkeley students and professors crowded into a dim auditorium in the Hearst Annex Wednesday night to debate some of the biggest issues facing the country: healthcare, taxes and the threat of climate change.
The annual “Great Debate” between the student Democratic club and its rival, the newly formed Berkeley Conservative Society, took on new meaning this year, after UC Berkeley drew national attention for an appearance by conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro and aborted talks by right-wing speakers Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos.
“Events like this bring back political decency and discourse, at this time of vitriol at the national and college level,” said Dan Lindheim, faculty director at the Goldman School of Public Policy’s Center on Civility and Democratic Engagement, which sponsored the debate.
Over the course of the 90-minute debate, the two-person teams of Democrats and conservatives tried to hash out the role government has in providing healthcare, collecting revenue through taxes or stopping climate change. The arguments were passionate, but often blunt and short of specifics.
“What we as the Cal Dems have brought you tonight is the idea that the American people should protected by their government, that no matter where you are in society you should be able to rise up,” Clay Halbert, 19, a second-year physics and philosophy major, said during his closing statement.
Celine Bookin, 19, and the founder of the Berkeley Conservative Society, countered that individuals were often better equipped to determine their needs and future than any government agency. Paraphrasing former President Ronald Reagan, she said, “The nine scariest words are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
Only in America, said Bookin, a second-year political science major, can people with little money or hope make themselves into a success.
“You don’t hear about any rags-to-riches stories in other countries; you don’t hear rags to riches in Venezuela or Soviet Russia,” she said.
Kentaurus Robinson, 18, a first-year ethnic studies major and member of the Cal Dems, countered that only in America do people find themselves in desperate poverty in the first place.
“The reason you don’t hear about the rags-to-riches stories in socialist countries is that they don’t start at the rags,” he said. “We force so many people into these situations, into these rags.”
Throughout the debate, the two sides listened and avoided heated confrontation. The audience applauded both conservative and liberal points. No winner was declared.
“I think it was a victory for civil discourse and decency on campus,” Bookin said. “It just highlighted that there is hope for Berkeley in terms of escalating the discourse and the general concept of free speech.”
The debate was as much about talking about policy as it was about listening and associating with people you disagree with.
Caiden Nason, president of the Cal Dems and a fourth-year political science major, said he’d developed a friendship with Bookin while planning the event, even once calling her to talk about debate logistics before he even visited his girlfriend after returning from a trip to Las Vegas.
“We were talking about that, we were talking about going home for Thanksgiving,” he said, laughing. “I maybe have more Republican friends at this point than I do Democrat friends. I talk to them daily.”
“I think it is a good idea to challenge beliefs and challenge others, and it is something that Berkeley does have, it is just that unfortunately it has been kind of lost in the spotlight of other things over the last year,” Nason added.
The debate wasn’t all serious. The biggest question at the end of the night? Whether the post-debate celebration should happen at Cream, an ice-cream sandwich shop, or Yogurt Park.
You can watch a video of the debate on CalTV’s Facebook page.
Contact Will Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org