In more ways than proximity, two classrooms are far apart.
The small rooms fill with some of UC Berkeley’s most politically engaged students Thursday nights. On the eastern side of campus, a few of those who made an early trek to B51 Hildebrand Hall watch a video of a mock wall’s construction on Sproul Plaza. Some chat among themselves; others nestle into a corner, tuning out the pre-meeting din.
234 Dwinelle Hall is quiet by comparison. Students trickle in, taking a moment to polish off their takeout dinner or talk intimately with fellow club members. Pins tacked onto backpacks bear political slogans, “I’m With Her” the most familiar among them.
“When you have a campaign between the least popular candidate in American history running against the second-least popular candidate in American history, it’s not a surprise the majority of votes aren’t going to be cast for a major candidate, but against the other.”
Each Thursday, the Berkeley College Republicans and the Cal Berkeley Democrats begin announcements at 7:10 p.m.
The conflicting meeting times lay the groundwork for partition. Students intrigued by the clubs’ weekly proceedings must choose between the liberal standard of campus political life and the apparent anomaly, a large collegiate Republican group that rivals Cal Dems in membership.
The stark separation mirrors a schismatic presidential election and, more broadly, a polarized national electorate. “Lesser-evil” voters abound: According to an August Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters said their vote is primarily against Donald Trump, and 53 percent of Trump supporters said their vote is primarily against Clinton.
Evidently, neither major-party candidate can boast much popularity across the aisle.
“When you have a campaign between the least popular candidate in American history running against the second-least popular candidate in American history, it’s not a surprise the majority of votes aren’t going to be cast for a major candidate, but against the other,” said UC Berkeley political science lecturer Dan Schnur.
Despite certain controversies haunting their campaigns, each candidate dominated an aggressive competition to advance past primaries. And come January, one of them likely will stand on the U.S. Capitol’s inaugural grounds, hand resting on a book — a feat not all BCR or Cal Dems members initially expected for their candidate, or even hoped for.
Irrespective of the two major-party candidates’ faults, club members have each picked one to rally behind, for a variety of reasons.
“General election campaigns are designed to force voters to choose sides,” Schnur said. “Political opinions generally tend to be more intense on this campus as opposed to the world as a whole. The polarization gets more intense, too.”
Growing up in India, campus freshman Rudra Reddy was “like anyone else” he knew. His friends back home were communists, and his natural choice for president was self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“Today, I told new people that I’m a Trump supporter. They asked me, ‘You know he’s going to send you out of the country if he wins, right?’ No, I’m here legally.’ “
Though he cannot legally vote in the upcoming election as an international student, Reddy began to notice a gradual political conversion after watching several GOP debates. He grew disillusioned with the Sanders camp after attacks on Trump supporters — notably a bloody scene that unfolded in San Jose. Trump started to make sense.
“Today, I told new people that I’m a Trump supporter,” he said. “They asked me, ‘You know he’s going to send you out of the country if he wins, right?’ No, I’m here legally.”
One of Trump’s proposals is a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep out immigrants, paid for by the Mexican government. He also has stated his aversion to an influx of Muslim refugees from the Middle East — suggesting instead an “extreme vetting” of immigrants — and previously advocated mass deportations.
UC Berkeley sophomore David Craig, unlike Reddy, still doesn’t like Trump. He was last on Craig’s list of Republican candidates, but he’s voting for him anyway.
“I’d vote for a dog over Donald Trump. I think however bad Donald Trump is going to be, Hillary Clinton would be worse. I am voting for him purely as the lesser of two evils.”
“I’d vote for a dog over Donald Trump,” Craig said. “I think however bad Donald Trump is going to be, Hillary Clinton would be worse. I am voting for him purely as the lesser of two evils.”
Craig mostly finds issue with Trump’s free trade stances, which he referred to as “nonsense.” As president, Trump would aim to withdraw the country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiate NAFTA or else threaten to withdraw from it and bring trade cases against China, among other plans. But Trump, as a businessman, has benefited from existing U.S. trade agreements, Craig said.
Despite having few positive words for Trump, Craig said no third-party candidate, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson or Jill Stein of the Green Party, would receive his vote.
“They don’t have a statistically probable path to victory,” he said. “(By voting for them), you are weakening the candidate of your views who is more likely to win.”
Campus sophomore and BCR Internal Vice President Pieter Sittler’s vote will, in part, be motivated by reprisal. Originally a John Kasich supporter with Trump at third or fourth on his list for the presidency, Sittler embraced Trump once he clinched the Republican party’s official nomination.
Recent activity on Sproul Plaza has tainted the election for Sittler. In early September, BCR’s Trump cut-out was ripped, and the club reported a member was “sucker-punched.”
“I decided that this election wasn’t some election to take the ideological high ground,” he said. “A vote for Trump is a vote against people who are spitting on our tent.”
BCR has not officially endorsed Trump. Neither have more than 160 current and former Republican leaders, some of whom have pledged to vote for Clinton instead.
After a vulgar recording of Trump in a 2005 conversation surfaced and began to circulate Oct. 7, many more Republican politicians pulled their support.
Reddy used to view Trump as a better person than Clinton, but he found Trump’s comments in the recording — including “I moved on her like a bitch” and “grab (women) by the pussy” — indefensible. Now, Reddy feels he can justify his support for Trump based solely on policy, though he acknowledged Trump’s lack of political experience.
To Reddy, that’s not a detriment.
“Hillary Clinton is a politician who is so spectacularly corrupt that her experience disqualifies her from this office,” he alleged. “It is a time to shake Washington up and bring a complete outsider into the White House.”
Differences among Democrats
Like Reddy, campus sophomore Soli Alpert — a founding member of the Progressive Student Association — supported Sanders’ campaign.
The primaries didn’t go his way, though, forcing Alpert to reexamine his options. He decided Trump was a “maniac,” so that was a no-go. He briefly considered a third-party vote but decided against it: Johnson’s economic policies were too slash-and-burn, and Stein was unqualified.
That left Clinton. He supports her, with reservations, and admires her level of experience. This semester, he joined Cal Dems, which has officially endorsed the Democratic nominee.
“It’s possible to support someone who’s running for president and also be critical of them,” Alpert said. “But it’s better to have someone who might do something than someone who definitely won’t.”
While he believes Sanders effectively pushed Clinton to the left, Alpert still isn’t sold on her plans for Wall Street and environmental regulation, areas where he felt Sanders excelled.
“You need to hound (candidates) ceaselessly, relentlessly, to make sure they’re doing the right thing … If she’s not keeping her word, I’ll be the first one to point that out.”
Under her financial-reform proposals, Clinton would impose risk fees on large financial institutions, enforce a crackdown on undeserved executive bonuses and levy a tax on high-frequency trading. She also aims to cut billions in subsidies for oil and gas companies, and expand on clean energy by investing $60 billion to reduce carbon pollution.
It’s not that Alpert disagrees with her policies — it’s that he worries Clinton won’t prioritize them if elected.
“You need to hound (candidates) ceaselessly, relentlessly, to make sure they’re doing the right thing,” Alpert said. “If she’s not keeping her word, I’ll be the first one to point that out.”
Campus sophomore and Cal Dems communications director Divya Vijay, on the other hand, was always more skeptical of Sanders.
She noticed hostility on campus toward Clinton supporters in the midst of her scandals but said they’ve tapered off since Sanders lost the nomination. Vijay didn’t think Sanders’ democratic-socialist ideology would get him far with a Republican-majority Congress and felt he lacked substantial foreign-policy experience. In her mind, Clinton was always most qualified for the job.
“She’s moving in a progressive direction, and she’s doing it in a way that can maybe generate bipartisan support at some point instead of a completely radical platform shift,” Vijay said.
Two of the major scandals shaping the election for Clinton are her role in the 2012 Benghazi attack on U.S. officials and the 2015 email controversy over her use of private servers while secretary of state. Government investigations into these points of contention have concluded she was innocent, though Republicans often question the validity of such findings.
If anything, though, it’s sexism that impedes Clinton’s campaign, according to campus junior Suher Adi, the Cal Dems’ vice president of finance.
She agrees with Vijay that Clinton’s scandals have been blown out of proportion. Adi has also perceived a greater focus on Clinton’s appearance in press coverage of the elections and a general misconception that women on the international front are more ineffectual negotiators than their male counterparts.
Adi doesn’t get it — it’s obvious to her that the range of Clinton’s political resume should speak for itself.
“I would love to say that people are not sexist in today’s day and age, but … I think that plays into Trump’s campaign and why he’s doing so well,” she said. “That shows we are not post-sexism by any means.”
She also acknowledged that Clinton isn’t perfect — for Adi, Clinton’s strong ties to Israel are problematic and taint her accomplishments in foreign policy.
“I would love to say that people are not sexist in today’s day and age, but … I think that plays into Trump’s campaign and why he’s doing so well … That shows we are not post-sexism by any means.”
But Clinton also understands state rights as a former senator, has built relationships with world leaders as a former secretary of state and already has White House familiarity as a former first lady, among other qualifications, Adi said.
“I think all of that encompasses a presidency that is more efficient and effective, rather than a presidency that is alienating,” she said.
‘Polling’ it together
Campus political science department chair Eric Schickler referenced the Civil War when describing the last time U.S. politics reached a similar level of polarity. There are parallels between the antebellum era and the 2016 election cycle, he said — viewing the other side as un-American among them.
“It’s been the most surprising election from start to finish that I’ve witnessed,” he said.
In Berkeley, the small population of Republicans makes polarization a little different, a little more biased toward liberalism than it would be in a more neutral climate, according to Schickler.
Alameda County’s 2016 primary results demonstrate the sharp discrepancy in numbers of Clinton and Trump supporters. Each won the county for their respective parties, but Clinton received 107,102 votes compared with Trump’s 19,951, outnumbering him roughly 5 to 1.
“Trump in particular taps into issues of race, issues of gender, immigration that a lot of people care deeply about here,” he said. “There’s still plenty of disagreement and polarization, but it has a little bit different edge.”
Diversity in opinion can only benefit members of UC Berkeley’s political scene, Schickler said of BCR and Cal Dems’ coexistence on campus — otherwise, he said, people can get complacent in an ideological echo chamber.
“It’s been the most surprising election from start to finish that I’ve witnessed.”
Schnur shared this sentiment, adding that confrontation of opposing viewpoints can help broaden perspectives and strengthen arguments across the political spectrum.
“One of the most valuable things anyone can experience, whether on a college campus or out in the rest of the world, is to have an intelligent conversation with someone with whom they disagree,” he said.