Frenemies David French and Erwin Chemerinsky battle over politics and culture without getting nasty

David French and Erwin Chemerinsky

David French, left, smiles wryly as Berkeley Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky makes a point during debate Wednesday in Sibley Hall. (Photos: Megan Lee)

To watch cable news, or really any news, these days, is to bathe in anger, conflict and misdirection. Wednesday at UC Berkeley, two men long on opposite sides of political dialogue disagreed in ways that suggested there might be another way to go.

David French, a lawyer and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, looks at things from the perspective of the right. It’s safe to say Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, comes down on the left side of the spectrum.

In an hour-long debate moderated by UC Berkeley junior Manu Meel, a political science major and leader of the Berkeley chapter of BridgeUSA, French and Chemerinsky agreed in some areas, disagreed in many more and did it all without rancor, vitriol or exasperation in the second of Berkeley’s series of Conversations Across the Divide.

French, who has long been in the Never Trump camp, opened by answering the question “Is doomsday coming?” by saying, “It might be … it’s a real threat.” He softened the moment by saying that Chemerinsky, with his 2016 warnings of what awaited the United States should Donald Trump be elected, “came closer than anyone else to getting me to vote for Trump. I didn’t though.”

Chemerinsky, given a whack at the same question moments later, countered with, “I don’t believe our constitution is in danger” and pointed not to 2016 but to last week’s midterm elections to support his case. He said some folks were elected, some were defeated and some elections are as yet unresolved.

“And that’s the way it should be,” he said.

Chemerinsky didn’t give the American systems of elections a pass, though, saying “the United States is the only country the world where you can lose the popular vote and become president” and noting that George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016, both Republicans, pulled it off. That led into a discussion on just what Republicans and Democrats want from their country.

French said that while Republicans currently hold all the political power at the federal level until January when the House of Representatives moves to Democratic control, they would rather control the culture, a culture in which conservatives seem to feel as if they are always under attack, that free speech somehow works against them.

“There’s a widespread feeling that there is a risk to your job if your (conservative political) point of view is known,” French said, adding that the current climate “has both sides feeling aggrieved.”

“Some conservatives say “we have the government but we don’t have the culture,’” he said, adding “that is a path to feeling quite isolated and under siege. And that’s deeply corrosive.”

Chemerinsky countered that free speech isn’t an absolute, that it is designed to let citizens say what they want about their government. So, while Chemerinsky is free to say what he wants about Donald Trump, if he were to attack his boss, UC President Janet Napolitano, who isn’t part of the government, he would expect there to be consequences.

“I’d gladly give up culture (for political power),” Chemerinsky said.

To which French immediately stretched out his hand as if to shake Chemerinsky’s and shouted, `Deal!’” — bringing hearty laughter from Chemerinsky and just about everyone else in Sibley Auditorium.

Once the chuckling had subsided, Chemerinsky took conservatives to task for the ways they attempt to manipulate free speech.

“I don’t see a chilling of the conservative viewpoint,” he said. “But free speech can’t be used to spread the conservative viewpoint and then (have conservatives say) reacting to that is wrong.”

The debate, cosponsored by the Berkeley chapter of BridgeUSA, the National Review Institute and Berkeley Law, later veered to the makeup of the Supreme Court, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and what the court is likely to do.

“The Supreme Court’s five conservative justices will override Roe v. Wade,” Chemerinsky said, referring to the 1973 ruling that affirmed Americans’ legal right for access to abortion. “That will have a devastating effect, particularly on the poor.”

He called the Supreme Court “the most conservative since the 1930s,” said the current court would make life difficult for gays and lesbians and suggested it would be complicit in allowing the Trump administration to ignore the impact of climate change.

“I’d give up culture to save the planet,” he said.

French wasn’t having any of that, particularly when abortion rights became part of the conversation.

“I am pro-life,” he said. “I want zero abortions. There are no prospects for that, even if (Roe v. Wade) is overhauled. That won’t happen without a cultural change. California would immediately protect a woman’s right to choose.”

Culture vs. politics. Often those conversations get nasty. On Wednesday, this one didn’t.


You can view the first in this series, between Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor and Carmel P. Friesen Chair in Public Policy, and former Secretary of Labor and Stephen Moore, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Project for Economic Growth, Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, at