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Brown Democrats, Republicans debate election topics

Political groups discuss health care, gun control, immigration, free speech

The Brown Democrats and Brown Republicans engaged in a respectful but heated exchange of ideas at the No Labels 2020 Election Debate, covering topics such as health care, gun control, immigration and free speech.

The discussion, hosted by non-partisan student group No Labels, was mediated by Bob Hackey, adjunct lecturer in international and public affairs.

The event began with the topic of health care, and both parties agreed that the current system has serious problems but disagreed on the government’s role in the solution.

“Economics is the study of human choice, however, health care is not a human choice — it’s a right,” said Michael LeClerc ’20.5 from the Brown Dems when defending the government’s role in providing health care for all.

Adam Shepardson ’22, treasurer of the Brown Republicans, countered by defending the private sector’s role. “I don’t think the government is capable of innovating in the same way as the private sector, and if the health industry was more open to deregulation rather than putting more and more red tape on doctors, we could spur more innovation and also close the gap in supply and demand that’s plaguing the industry and driving up the prices,” he said.

When the debate transitioned into gun control, Ben Lipson ’22, political representative of the Brown Dems, emphasized the need for background checks to decrease the number of homicides. Shepardson refuted, stating that the need for gun control cannot be justified solely by statistics because they often include suicide numbers. He added that gun control would actually prevent people from protecting themselves.

Lipson responded that gun control could also be used to prevent suicides. Shepardson countered, stating that the government should not play a role in preventing suicide, as this should be the families and the communities’ role.

Zoë Mermelstein ’21, president of the Brown Dems, removed her driver’s license from her wallet during this portion of the debate. “It took six months to get this. There is a consensus that when there are objects that could pose a threat not just to yourself but to other people, there is an obligation as a society that there are appropriate training and regulations to ensure that those items can be used safely,” she said, comparing the process of getting a license to the process of obtaining a gun.

On the topic of immigration, the Brown Dems and Republicans both acknowledged that the country’s immigration system is broken and that a legal pathway to citizenship must be accessible.

When Hackey asked the panelists for their opinions on the Trump administration’s family separation policy and the effectiveness of physical borders, the discussion got intense.

President of the Brown Republicans Julian Haag ’20 supports building a wall as a physical border. “ I do believe in a nation of laws and nation of borders and I think the wall is part of that,” he said. He also described a desire to protect DACA students “because they are Americans,” and reiterated the need for general “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Mermelstein responded that resources for a wall should be redirected toward addressing other issues such as combating domestic terrorism and mass shootings.

Haag stressed that border patrol agents say they need a wall to protect the country, and he disparaged criticism from “this comfortable progressive environment. … We should give deference to the border patrol agents that have something to say.”

During the final sequence of the debate, both sides spoke on the value and complexity of free speech.

Shepardson said that when all ideas can be expressed, “the best ideas will rise to the top, and the members of the community can decide what is valuable to hear, and what they simply don’t agree with.”

“The type of dialogue that we’ve had here has been absolutely fantastic, because it’s been all about the ideas, all about the policies,” Lipson said. He differentiated this kind of dialogue from speech that can incite harm: “If a speaker, for example, has a history of making homophobic remarks, we should not have him on campus, because they’re going to make remarks that could potentially make certain members of our community feel unsafe.”

During Lipson’s last remark, Haag picked up his microphone to interject, but LeClerc interjected first.

“As a homosexual, I have been harassed on the street,” LeClerc said. “I don’t think that … it should be acceptable to call across the street to me at 2 o’clock in the morning and yell some sort of epithet at me and threaten to kill me because that is a direct threat to my safety,” he said. “To allow these ideas into the discourse is to give them some sort of salience and some sort of validity — that it is okay to harbor these kinds of views.”

Later, Haag made a passionate statement to defend free speech. “That speech, especially hate speech — it can be very much subjective, and I think that we need … to support free speech, even if it’s hateful speech, because at the end of the day, you may want to outlaw hateful speech, but it’s not going to go away,” Haag said. “By trying to outlaw speech, all you’re going to do is create an underground, a black market — these people will find a way to meet. … The idea that we’re going to create a society in which only tolerable viewpoints are allowed, that’s inherently un-American.”

Haag referenced his own experiences as a conservative and a Trump supporter at Brown. “I have to sit here every single day, and I have to hear ‘Nazi, racist, sexist, I’m against immigrants,’’’ he said. “I’m marrying an immigrant,” he added.

President of No Labels Aidan Brice ’21 considered the event a success in bridging the gap between both parties in a respectful manner and attributed some of the heated moments to the nature of a debate like this. “They did get very passionate about their views. I think that’s a great part of the discussion because it’s what’s real, and I think it’s really excellent that they had points of agreement,” Brice said.

After the debate, Haag agreed that the debate “went well. I think it had the right amount of banter and the right amount of ideas.” But he felt “very uncomfortable sitting up there knowing that everyone in the crowd doesn’t like what (he has) to say minus a few exceptions.”

Audience member Michael Tan ’21 said, “It’s very interesting to see the political diversity at Brown as opposed to the rest of the country.” At Brown, debate centers around “talking about ideas as opposed to specific policies by Trump.”

Mermelstein urged more representation in the debate panel, noting that there were no people of color present and that she was the only woman on the entire panel.

Each side was asked to pick their own participants for the debate, Brice said. He agreed that representation is "a big concern,” and the group “is trying to aim for a bigger inclusion, and part of that comes from different lived experiences.”

Hackey applauded both parties and stressed the need to have difficult conversations in a respectful manner. “That’s what we need to encourage here at Brown,” Hackey said.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that No Labels President Aidan Brice ’21 acknowledged a critique that the debate lacked representation. It is more accurate to say that while Brice acknowledged representation as an issue, No Labels did not decide the individual participants of the debate — each group chose its own participants.


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