Bipartisan student group WeListen hosts first annual Fall conference

Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 5:13pm

William Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard and Republican strategist, speaks at the Conversations Across Difference event with Democratic strategist Neera Tanden hosted by WeListen in Weill Hall Sunday.

William Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard and Republican strategist, speaks at the Conversations Across Difference event with Democratic strategist Neera Tanden hosted by WeListen in Weill Hall Sunday. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Students and faculty convened Sunday in the Annenberg Auditorium for the first annual WeListen fall conference, a day-long event focused on maintaining open communication among individuals from different political backgrounds.

WeListen, a University of Michigan student organization aimed at bridging the political divide through bipartisan discourse on pertinent political issues, supports healthy political discussion rather than heated debate.

Co-president of WeListen Nicholas Tomaino, a Public Policy junior, shared the organization's goal for the first conference.

“Since its inception, WeListen has been advocating for a space wherein students from all political persuasions may talk about the things that matter in our civic sphere, ” said. “WeListen's first annual Fall Conference will convene 100 students from the University of Michigan to do just that: engage in dialogue, find common ground and work to bridge the American political divide.”

The keynote event featured a discussion between Neera Tanden and William Kristol — esteemed political analysts from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Tanden, CEO of the Center for American Progress, and Kristol, founder and editor at large of The Weekly Standard, spent an hour publicly engaging in discussion across the political divide.

The two began with a reflection on what unites them in an intensely divided sphere. Tanden discussed what she appreciated in Kristol’s politics, despite their ideological differences.

“There are two areas that — I hope — we have common ground. One is a belief in the core values of democracy,” Tanden said. “There is a nature to our politics and there are visions of our politics that play today that is based on dividing people against each other… I think Bill has been great in standing up for democratic principles but against a kind of politic that tries to turn us against each other.”

Public Policy Dean Michael Barr facilitated the conversation between Tanden and Kristol. 

“I’m going to follow WeListen’s lead and only ask about areas of extreme debate and work through it,” Barr said.

Tanden and Kristol went on to discuss topics that often incur heated political debate, with on topics ranging from immigration, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's hearing, free speech and beyond.

Evon Yao, WeListen Marketing Vice President, an LSA junior, spoke on the benefits of bringing speakers from diverse political to campus.

“We wanted to bring together two experts who fall on different sides of the spectrum and show students that you can work across the political aisle to make change,” Yao said. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell  praised the conference for its overall goal to maintain conversation across the political divide.

“I came because I think that civil dialogue is one of the most fundamental pillars of our democracy,” she said. “I try to work across the aisle every single day… Today was about listening to each other and hearing each other. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason, and listening to each other and respecting each other is really important.” 

The event concluded with closing remarks by University President Mark Schlissel, who reflected on the importance of intergroup dialogue and civilized discourse.

“This conversation wasn’t what I expected… College campuses are struggling with something that really should be second nature, and that is the freedom and comfort to discuss contentious, challenging topics,” he said.

The conversation ended with an optimistic reflection by Kristol on the direction of the nation; despite overtones of great disparity, he sees unity.

“I look at my kids, and it doesn’t feel to me like they are living in a bitterly divided country where they don’t know anyone who differs with them politically," he said. "I’m more hopeful about younger Americans … The more the country can assert a kind of common sense of community and willingness to talk to one another, we can overcome some of the hyper-partisanship.”