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Club seeks to bridge political divide on campus

| Monday, September 17, 2018

Editor’s note: Throughout the 2018 midterm election season, The Observer will sit down with various student organizations and professors to discuss political engagement and issues particularly pertinent to students. In this second installment, BridgeND discusses its efforts to overcome the partisan divide on campus.

In an era of political polarization and bitter partisan disputes, BridgeND is seeking to overcome these divisions. The club gathers for weekly meetings to discuss current political topics in an effort to encourage students to understand positions and arguments with which they don’t necessarily agree.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Brown

BridgeND members, pictured, host events encouraging political debate on campus. The group is seeking to bridge partisan divides by hosting debates and other events in which issues can be discussed from a variety of angles.

“We’re trying to bridge the partisan divide on campus,” senior Sarah Brown, president of BridgeND, said. “What that means is that we’re basically a political discussion club for people of all different political ideologies. Firebrand leftists and firebrand conservatives are invited, people in the middle who are moderates and don’t have a political home are invited. Wherever you’re at on the spectrum on any issue, come and share your ideas and discuss whatever we’re discussing that week.”

At every meeting, BridgeND members and attendees discuss a different political issue. Recent meeting topics included the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court justice and a discussion of free speech at Notre Dame in the context of Observer articles. The group also focuses on divisive issues facing the Notre Dame community, such as the debate over contraception coverage that took place at the University last year.

While politics is the focus of BridgeND, the club hopes to attract more than just political science majors. All students, regardless of their political knowledge or major, are invited to attend the group’s meetings, sophomore and BridgeND vice president Kevin Gallagher said.

“We’re really trying to expand to other majors. We want kids who are interested in politics but not necessarily have to be studying it,” Gallagher said.

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Brown said, BridgeND saw an increase in interest from the campus community. However, Brown also said she noticed the increase in interest dropped as it became harder to talk about politics in the more polarized environment.

“There was definitely an uptick directly after the election,” Brown said. “A bunch of people started coming. But after, I think, there was a bit of a drag directly after the election because it’s so hard to talk about politics and I think people are getting back into it as we gain space from the election, because I think it’s become less and less polarized. I feel like the midterms don’t carry as much polarization and weight and anger behind them that the 2016 elections did, so I think people are much more willing to come out and talk about them.”

Regarding involvement in the 2018 midterm elections, Brown said BridgeND has some plans to get students involved in the campaign process. For instance, the club hopes to provide opportunities for students to volunteer on local campaigns. The group is also putting an emphasis on registering students to vote and making sure students know the process for getting an absentee ballot so they can vote even when they are at school.

“We have a couple of things in the works,” Brown said. “We do want to give people the option to work on Democratic and Republican campaigns if they want to — maybe just doing a day of action for each of the campaigns on either side. We also are doing tabling — partnering with NDVotes and student government — to register voters, ’cause a lot of people don’t know how to get an absentee ballot when they need to get an absentee ballot and so accidentally don’t vote. So we’re making all that information as available as possible in the student centers. We’re doing an election watch, partnering with NDVotes and student government.”

On the whole, though politics may have become polarized, Gallagher and Brown both said divisions may not be as intractable as they seem and members of the club will be able to reach an understanding with each other, even if they don’t agree.

“I think a lot of people are level-headed,” Gallagher said. “Even when people have really strong opinions that are completely the opposite of someone else’s, it takes a special type of person to be able to sit down and have that empathy, to be able to try to understand why they have that perspective. We try to attract those types of people.”

Brown cited a debate on abortion as an example of when BridgeND members were able to hold a civil conversation about a heated topic and reach a greater understanding of opposing positions.

“A lot of times people realize they’re coming from the same basic ideas,” Brown said. “We had, last year, a debate on abortion. A bunch of people sat at a table. Everyone who said they were pro-choice said they were pro-choice because they believed in human dignity, and everyone who said they were pro-life said they were pro-life because they believed in human dignity. They were able to respect the place everyone was coming from, even if they disagreed with the end result.”

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a junior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland.

Contact Tom