On Monday night, the Ford School of Public Policy hosted U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Fred Upton, R-Mich., to participate in an installment of the Conversations Across Difference Policy Talks speaker series. The event was hosted at Annenberg Auditorium in the Public Policy School. Titled “Voices from Across the Aisle,” the event was co-sponsored by the Program in Practical Policy Engagement and student organization WeListen as a means of discussing the political divide in American politics.
The audience consisted of about 200 Ann Arbor residents, ranging from local professionals and community members to University of Michigan faculty members and students. The event concluded with a reception where during which all of the attendees were encouraged to stay and mingle with the speakers as a means of encouraging further discussion in a less formal setting. Michael Barr, dean of the Public Policy School, briefly addressed the audience at the start of the night to introduce the premise of the forum.
“Congresswoman Dingell and Congressman Upton … do represent different parties and different constituencies, parties and peoples with sometimes different ideologies and different policy positions,” Barr said. “This session will look at the manner by which such divergence helps or sometimes hinders the democratic process, in how we can work better together. I think it’s an especially appropriate way for us to spend this afternoon of Presidents Day.”
He further emphasized the importance of the event by highlighting the need for open discourse between members of different parties.
“As you well know, these are extremely challenging times for our nation with fractious political discourse, gridlock and partisanship in our nation’s capital, and an increasing lack of trust in institution everywhere,” Barr said. “The relationship between Representatives Dingell and Upton is the antithesis of partisan politics operating today in Washington.”
Barr’s comments were followed by an interview segment featuring Dingell and Upton moderated by Public Policy professor Brendan Nyhan. Dingell and Upton shared their personal thoughts about bipartisanship in regard to a number of issues such as immigration, the economy, health care and the environment. In all of their responses, they emphasized their intention to work together to find solutions to these issues despite their different political ideologies.
“I made the decision that firstly, every issue I’ve ever worked on has been bipartisan,” Upton said. “I’ll meet you across the aisle. I’ve got a lot of friends like Debbie on the other side of the aisle and a lot of Republicans on my side that want to work together.”
Dingell built on Upton’s point by noting the importance of overcoming party boundaries to preserve American democracy.
“I’m worried about what is happening in the future of this country,” Dingell said. “I think every American’s got a responsibility to stand up to elect people that are going to do what’s right. And we need to worry about this democracy. I think we live in the greatest land in the world — united we stand and divided we fall.”
At one point in the discussion, Nyhan prompted the speakers to explore the possible merits of partisanship using his background knowledge of political science.
“Let me also give a plea for the value of bipartisanship and polarization,” Nyhan said. “Sometimes the parties do disagree and that’s an important part of our democracy, too. We just need to make sure not to lose sight of that. Political scientists think parties are essential to democracy; parties help … Contesting the issues of our days is important to our political systems, too.”
The forum was structured to provoke thought in the audience. Attendees were provided with small pieces of paper upon entry to the forum and encouraged to fill them with questions they would like the speakers to address at the end of the event. Upton emphasized the importance of this interaction.
“I think that part of the reason we’re here today is to talk about what really is happening,” Upton said. “Where is the bipartisan success? And for us to get encouragement from you that we’re on the right track here. … Part of it is an educational experience on both sides.”
Many attendees of the event concurred with Upton’s remarks, expressing a desire for communication as a means of learning more about the views of others.
Abigail Orrick, Public Policy graduate student, explained that she chose to attend the event because she wanted to broaden her own worldview.
“I think that the Ford School is predominantly liberal as (for) the beliefs of many of the students here and so I think that that can sometimes lead itself to … students being in a bubble and not necessarily being exposed to other viewpoints,” Orrick said. “And so I think that having events like this where you are listening to people who are out doing the real-life policy-making in the world working across the aisle, I think that’s really valuable to be able to witness and hear from.”
Toward the end of the event, WeListen Co-Presidents Kate Westa and Brett Zaslavsky reiterated the importance of bipartisan cooperation as pertaining to the efforts of their organization.
“Congresswoman Dingell and Congressman Upton are exceptional examples of what we as an organization are trying to do,” Zaslavsky said. “We’re very thankful to the Ford School for bringing them in and really taking initiative on this event and for letting us be a part of the sort of facilitation of it.”