On a recent evening at UC Berkeley, liberal and conservative students argued for nearly an hour about healthcare, economic policy and climate change.
There wasn’t a police officer or security guard or heckler in sight. No one waved protest signs. Observers applauded politely.
At the epicenter of the nation’s free speech wars, people who did not share the same views had managed to have a civil political debate.
It was just such a moment that Celine Bookin dreamed of this fall when she launched the Berkeley Conservative Society and invited the Cal Democrats to take on her new group in a yearlong series of debates.
“I wanted to revitalize the focus around decency and political discourse,” said the 19-year-old political science major from Manhattan Beach. “I felt on campus … there’s a high level of vitriol just from a lack of dialogue.”
Bookin used to be a member of the Berkeley College Republicans club, whose event featuring right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was shut down by violent protests in February. The College Republicans later invited Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro — and security for them and another Yiannopoulos visit ended up costing UC Berkeley more than $2 million.
Bookin does not criticize the College Republicans but says she left to start her own club because her priorities are different.
“BCR is more focused on bringing in speakers and advocating for the Trump administration — which is totally fine,” she said, though she did not vote for President Trump. “I honestly think that the more political clubs on campus, the better.”
For her new club’s debates, Bookin enlisted senior Caiden Nason from Victorville, a fellow political science major and a Cal Democrat. In the last presidential race, he backed Sen. Bernie Sanders. She had her eye on Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican. The friends disagree on most every political issue. But both share a deep belief, Bookin said, in the importance of free speech.
Both Nason and Bookin said political tension at Berkeley started surging last year. When College Republicans set up a campus information table, students heckled them, ripping up their signs and destroying their cardboard cutout of Trump.
At a debate between the Republican and Democratic clubs, a conservative audience member stood up multiple times to attack the views of one of the Cal Democrats, Nason said, and unnerved the debater after the event by continuing to berate him and get “in his face.”
Nason said campus conservatives sometimes call him an anarchist. On the flip side, he said, some liberal students think all Republicans are fascists. All of which made it important, he said, to work with Bookin to bridge the growing divide.
At the inaugural debate, the two sides weren’t just respectful to each other, they even found common ground.
When Democrat Clay Halbert said the government needed to tackle climate change because the problem was too urgent to leave entirely to the free market, the conservatives agreed.
“I think you’re right about that in some instances,” said freshman Mary Carmen Reid, who added later that her team also accepted that coal was “really bad for the environment.”
When Reid proposed an end to corn subsidies, Halbert replied, “I don’t think you’ll find any disagreement here.”
Debating those with different views, Bookin said, helps her refine her own thinking. Her political education began young in a Republican family that read widely and launched into lively policy discussions at the dinner table.
“We talked quite a bit about Russian aggression and what Putin’s grand strategy might be,” Bookin said.
At the private Brentwood School, Bookin found “amazing teachers” who stoked her interest in politics and world affairs. She began political cartooning, participated in Model United Nations and organized student debates. She also played varsity tennis, competed in the Science Olympiad and managed to nail a 4.43 grade-point average. Ultimately, she said, she wants to enter public service.
Her family’s experience in small business combined with her own research, she said, led her to embrace free markets and minimal government regulation. Obamacare pushed her grandfather to retire early from his dermatology practice, she said, because it added red tape and lost him patients when premiums rose.
When she argues with others who don’t share her views, she says, she tries to stick to facts and listen with “understanding and empathy.” On abortion, she can see both sides. As for gay marriage, it’s been settled by the courts.
It’s her belief that the path forward for fellow Republicans and for the nation is to “seek out friends and colleagues who may have different viewpoints and engage in conversation with them.”
Nason credits her with easing tension on campus and helping people with different views make connections.
“All of my new friends are Republicans,” he said. “They’re not all nationalists, and they’re incredibly smart.”
Some people don’t like to see different sides “showing we can get along,” Nason said. “They’re more interested in the fights that happen on our fringes. But this is the real story.”