Earlier this week I had lunch with a friend who asked me what I thought about the recent attempts to block conservatives from speaking at UC Berkeley. Earlier in the year the school had canceled an event featuring conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos and just this week Ann Coulter announced she would not deliver a speech on campus after two of the groups initially sponsoring her appearance cited safety concerns and fears of violent outbreaks as two of the reasons they withdrew their support. My answer to him was that if we as a society cannot listen to dissenting views then how do we challenge our own ideas? How do we become better thinkers and better leaders? “[T]he practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship,” President Barack Obama said of similar student protests when he was in office. “It's essential for our democracy.”
The silencing of dissent has been a topic of discussion among my friends as well as in the media – part of a national debate on the polarization of politics today. Take for example the recent battle in Sacramento to pass SB1, the largest gas tax increase in state history. The only Democrat in the Assembly to vote against the legislation was Rudy Salas of Bakersfield, who represents parts of the Central Valley. He stated in an opinion piece:
“The families I represent drive too far to jobs that pay too little. Families have to drive further to buy groceries; further to take their kids to school and drive even further to get to work. Driving is not a choice but a way of life for us because we do not have the mass public transit options that exist in other parts of the state.
We know that families in the Valley make less and travel more than people in other areas of the state that have higher wages and access to subways, light-rail and mass transit systems.
I truly believe that I stood up for the single mom working two jobs to get her kids through school, the hard-working men and women who are trying to make ends meet to raise their families and for the seniors and the disabled who live on fixed incomes.
Because SB 1 imposes rather than asks Californians how and to what extent we should invest on our roads, I could not in “good conscience” to my heart and to the families I represent, vote for a life-altering measure that does not at least ask them to weigh-in.
I know sometimes the unpopular thing is the hardest thing to do. But, I believe we must give a voice to those who are voiceless and I must put my faith in our democratic process.”
For his reasoned and thoughtful dissenting vote, Assembly Speaker – and fellow Democrat – Anthony Rendon, stripped Salas of his position as chairman of the Business and Professional Committee. A former Assembly member from that same community told their local news outlet, that the punishment is “…another example of an independent legislator paying for a principled vote.” Salas agreed in a tweet, “Some days it’s hard to keep your commitments. Today is one of those days. #KeepingyourCommitment #Repercussions #RemovedfromCommittee.”
In March I attended an event hosted by UC Riverside’s School of Public Policy and featuring Speaker Rendon and Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes. The pair’s budding “bromance” had been the topic of several newspaper articles and they fielded questions from the audience on how the leaders of the opposition parties are working together to solve the state’s problems. Mayes said it’s time for civil debate. “Instead of focusing on winning,” he explained, “we must work to build a basis of understanding.” I guess Speaker Rendon forgot that he agreed on that point.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, Americans are more comfortable listening to opposing views if their political perspective is the strong majority. Clearly the Golden State is not like the rest of America. President Harry Truman once said speaking on “the principle of silencing the voice of opposition,” that it has only one way to go. And that way is oppressive, tyrannical, and undemocratic.