Courtesy of Isabelle De Brabanter ’19 and Michael Johns ’20

Isabelle De Brabanter ’19, incoming president of Cornell Democrats, and Michael Johns ’20, incoming president of Cornell Republicans, spoke to The Sun about their plans for the year ahead.

May 9, 2018

Incoming Republican and Democrat Presidents Share Contrasting Views on Hosting ‘Controversial’ Speakers

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Isabelle De Brabanter ’19 and Michael Johns ’20 will be the presidents of the Cornell Democrats and the Cornell Republicans, respectively, for the upcoming 2018-2019 school year and shared their thoughts on protesting, student engagement, the parties themselves and their visions for the future of their organizations on Cornell’s campus with The Sun.

Protest and Free Speech

Former Vice President Richard “Dick” Cheney spoke on campus last Tuesday, sparking protests from students and faculty against the choice to invite him. Both De Brabanter and Johns agreed on the right of individuals to protest.

The Cornell Democrats faced criticism for not protesting Cheney as an organization, The Sun previously reported. According to De Brabanter, she believes it is not their job to protest as an organization and the decision to protest should be an individual one.

“In my personal opinion, I believe … that each individual member should have the ability and choice to protest something that they decide to be active against,” she told The Sun. “The role of the organization is to be a vehicle of support rather than a organizational protest group.”

While Johns recognized the First Amendment right of people to protest, he disagreed with people taking away other people’s rights to engage with the speakers. According to Johns, that type of protesting is an example of hostility to both the Cornell Republicans and the mission of the University.

“I really have no objection to anybody protesting any Republican event as long as the right of the speaker to be heard and the right of the audience to listen is being respected as well,” he told The Sun.

De Brabanter noted she would not want to bring speakers that are very controversial because it could potentially threaten the comfort and safety of students. She referred to bringing speakers like Rick Santorum, who the Republicans brought to Cornell in 2016, as something she would refrain from in her presidency.

“To be quite honest, speakers on the Democratic side would probably not bring as much controversy as the speakers that the Republicans have chosen in the past,” she said. “We have seen Rick Santorum, a speaker that marginalizes the LGBTQ community. We would never bring a speaker as controversial as that who would threaten the safety or comfortability of our members.”

Johns, on the other hand, views bringing speakers as an opportunity to engage with different viewpoints, regardless of whether someone is liberal or conservative. Bringing Cheney was important because he was a “really important figure in the conservative movement,” Johns said.

“I think that that experience, encountering different views, and thinking for yourself about how you feel about them is an inherently good experience,” Johns said.

“In the future I want the Cornell Republicans to bring speakers who represent conservative ideas across the spectrum and who give the campus more opportunities to engage with ideas and political positions that they normally wouldn’t in their classes,” he added.

National and Local Initiatives

Although supporting opposite sides, both presidents have similar intentions to influence voter turnout in upcoming elections.

De Brabanter said she plans to rally support within Ithaca and increase voter registration. One goal she outlined is to get Democrats elected during the midterm elections.

“[We will be] holding voter registration tables [and] doing this massive effort to get people in the Ithaca community registered,” she said. “[There] are thousands of voters that might not have necessarily voted in the past. If we inspire them to voice their opinions, it really has the potential to change the outcome [of the] midterm elections.”

Conversely, Johns hopes to continue to help elect Republicans and do work for the local, state and national Republican parties.

“I take our job as college Republicans very seriously in terms of what we can do to serve the local, state and national parties,” he said. “Going into the election cycle, we have begun efforts with the Ithaca Republicans, the Tompkins County Republicans, as well as the RNC, and everyone in between to represent our candidates and especially support Tom Reed going into the 2018 election.”

Collaboration Efforts

Both leaders also expressed their commitment to fostering discussion and open debate within political organizations on campus.

“I am looking forward to next year and I am hoping the Democrats and Republicans can come together to better the Cornell political campus climate and the political community,” De Brabanter said.

“I think there has been a lot of vitriol and angst in regards to that,” she said. “I have worked with Republicans in the past and that is something I can appreciate is that we can sit down and discuss things instead of being emotional.”

She also acknowledged the unique role that conservatives play on campus, stating that it isn’t easy to be conservative.

“Campus conservatives don’t have an easy job,” she said. “They are the mouthpieces for the conservative thought. And for them I completely understand how difficult it is to be the minority. To be attacked, it’s not easy.”                                                                                    

Johns also mentioned wanting to continue the collaboration the organizations have had in the past, especially in terms of holding debates.

“We have worked very well with the Cornell Democrats in the past,” Johns said. “I personally am looking forward to another year of holding debates with them, public debates for the University to consider throughout the semester.”

Engagement and Campus Political Climate

The two future leaders discussed student political engagement and how that has affected the Cornell political climate.

Johns referred to how political hostility tends to be concentrated within a small minority of people. He joined the organization due to his belief that there was a lack of conservatism on campus.

Furthermore, he said defending First Amendment rights and continuing open discussion is one of the central ideas of the Cornell Republicans.

According to Johns, he has received messages from incoming students and community members who are concerned about expressing their conservative views on campus.

“It was my view pretty soon after coming to campus that there was a serious problem with Cornell about open discussion, open debate and especially accessibility of conservative ideas,” he said. “My goal moving forward is to continue making the Cornell Republicans an honest intellectual space for conservative ideas where we defend our views on a campus where not many people understand them.”

De Brabanter wants to get more students thinking about how policies and laws of the President Donald J. Trump’s administration affect them, even if they do not agree with his presidency.

“If you are a liberal person and you see Trump as your president it’s very hard to be engaged,” she said. “In the same vein, if Trump is your president and he is making all these decisions, not even on the national level but on the local level, you should be pretty pissed that these laws are going against your values.”

“In terms of engagement, it’s hard because you can’t force people to care about something but these are real things that are affecting us that people should care about,” she said. “It should be a top priority to work to change them.”