Exploring the unfortunate ways in which student government elections are mirroring their national counterparts.
By Patrick Oathout
The Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. (Photo: Yeungb/Wikimedia Commons)
At the University of Virginia’s Law School, a student named Erich Reimer is running a parody Donald Trump campaign for vice president of the Student Bar Association. His motivation: “The ‘Make UVA Law Great Again’ campaign was an idea a few friends at the law school and I thought would add some fun to what otherwise might be a very unnoticeable and stale student government campaign season here at the law school.” Apparently, Trump has rejiggered student government politics as well as the American electoral system.
But to Reich’s point, student government campaigns are, for the most part, stale. There’s not much substantive discussion of issues or platforms. Campaign money is mostly wasted on tchotchkes and giveaways. Debates, if they occur, are usually milquetoast resume recitations.
Student governments are important. They train future politicians, including at least four of this cycle’s candidates for president: Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and Bernie Sanders (in high school). Student governments also coordinate collegiate campus culture and student policy for the more than 10 million college students across the country. They ignite and inform national political discourse by passing condemning resolutions or organizing protests on topics including concealed carry,sexual assault, racism, gender-neutral housing, and alcohol and drug policy. The influence of student government should be matched by a thorough electoral process, not only so the above issues are managed deftly, but also so they train effectively our future presidents, legislators, governors — and voters.
Student governments are important. They train future politicians, including at least four of this cycle’s candidates for president.
There are, of course, obvious differences between student government campaigns and their national counterparts (besides that the winner of the latter gets the nuclear codes while the victor of the former negotiates dining hall policy). On most traditional campuses, every four years a student government has a completely new set of constituents. Transient membership means that many prominent positions in student government are not up for re-election. More often than not, rising seniors are elected student body president, and, once they are elected, re-election interests do not motivate them because they’re graduating.
Student government policies are often resource driven — a new campus bike program, eatery, or arts event are all encumbered by financing and space. This, not policy platforms, drives their elections. The lack of ideological difference is exacerbated when external forces, like state legislatures or administrators, hold ultimate decision-making authority, constraining experimentation and would-be policy entrepreneurs, who, as New America’s Lee Drutman has argued, strengthen responsive governance. At many universities, student governments act more like lobbying organizations to the administration, as opposed to an actual body with decision-making clout. While this may mirror the real world, it certainly does not imitate the one we’d like to see.
Student governments rear many of our country’s leaders. They’re often the first taste young people get of civic efficacy and involvement. They can’t cultivate the type of leadership we hope to see decades ahead if it only takes a viral comedic video to get elected. And at the moment, there are unfortunate similarities between student governments and their national counterparts. Which raises the questions: Are student elections inherently different from real elections, and different in a way that prevents them from being substantive? And if not, why have candidates’ personas and antics driven the national conversation, both on and off campus, more than policy proposals? Why are student governments replicating (and perhaps, in time, perpetuating) some of what are arguably the worst aspects of national campaigns?
The difficulty, at least for student governments, is holding elected students to their promises despite transient membership, and distinguishing candidates from each other despite a lack of ideology. Voters cannot make informed decisions if they can’t compare campaign promises, differing platforms, and leadership styles. Does a model exist on a campus somewhere that resolves these issues? Consider these two cases.
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: Candidate-Centered Campaigns
In the 2011 student body president race at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC), candidates approached the UNC Board of Elections with claims that other candidates had broken campaign rules, seeking to get them disqualified. But while the race itself was very adversarial, with candidates intimidating campaign staff in person and online, the winner of the race, Mary Cooper, was the candidate who stayed out of the bickering. One of the losing candidates, Ian Lee, went on to comment, “It’s sad that this story became about the candidates and not the issues that students are going to be facing…. Mary was able to stay out of the negativity that surrounded this election, and students connected with that.”
At UNC, as at many universities, including Duke University, student government campaigns are candidate-driven. Prominent individuals on campus, in student organizations and in Greek groups, coalesce around personalities they believe will advance their aims best. Candidate-centered elections are attractive because they purge from the political process the stereotypical smoke-filled salons where parties plot, and it’s believed that candidates without party attachments are more independent and thoughtful. Constituents are able to connect with an authentic individual, not the archetype the party wants the candidate to be. Without partisan bickering, and with nuanced focus on leadership style and the candidate’s qualifications, the election appears fair and more evaluative of individual agency and capacity.
But a dearth of partisanship does not yield substantive policy, or even discussion, on the campaign trail. In the Cooper vs. Ingram vs. Lee race at UNC, the candidates had platforms that were sparse and shortsighted. Time was spent calling out campaign malfeasance, so little effort was made by any candidate to distinguish qualifications and background. And since opponents were not campaigning on how they were different, but rather on the recitation of their resume, candidates’ policy weaknesses went unexplored. Cooper won without proper vetting of her platform, and as a result, many of her campaign pledges weren’t completed.
The University of California-Berkeley: Party-Centered Campaigns
Unlike many universities, Berkeley has a prolific and focused student government. Berkeley itself is a very activist campus, so the attention to student politics is unsurprising, but emerging from this long history of student activism is a student government model that is unlike any elsewhere. As covered previously in a column I wrote for the Duke Chronicle, Berkeley’s student government campaigns are party-centered.
Berkeley has three student government political parties: CalSERVE, SQUELCH!, and Student Action. The policy objectives of these parties don’t vary much. Instead, party identity and solidarity is developed through the parties’ ability to organize and rally supporters. Two of the parties are more than 20 years old, and the party controlling the executive and senate intermittently switches. Parties’ spending is tracked and the electorate’s sentiment is surveyed. As a result of these parties’ archived histories, campaigning has expanded beyond facile promises to targeted outreach and actionable policy ideas, generating raucous political enthusiasm at election watch parties and driving turnout that tops 12,000 votes cast. And because political parties carry reputations, transient membership is rectified, as candidates are held to the promises they or their parties pledged. The party system at Berkeley has even led to political satire and commentary, most notably through SQUELCH!, a joke campaign that proved so successful in organizing it morphed into a respected presence on campus.
Student political parties at Berkeley, however, have often taken their power and the need to win too far. Berkeley students have told me stories of candidates being asked to change their clothing and hairstyles as a caveat for endorsement, and some party leaders have asked candidates to stop dating students who are members of other parties. As parties build political legacies, rivalries develop, ratcheting up the stakes for winning, sidelining the standards for acceptable and sportsmanly behavior.
In Order to Form a More Perfect Student Union
There are obvious parallels to UNC’s candidate-centered and Berkeley’s party-centered models in the 2016 presidential race. Trump and Sanders’ campaigns are candidate-centered, bucking the establishment, highlighting their candidate’s persona, and emphasizing vague mantras like “we’re going to build a wall” and “get big money out of politics.” The more party-centered figures, John Kasich and Clinton, have campaigned on their proposals and downplayed their personalities. Despite this distinction, it makes little sense to rule one model better than the other.
Making student government campaigns more substantive is not about finding the best model, but, rather, seeking solutions that improve the model already on campuses. When candidate-centered elections race to the bottom of the popularity barrel, the press and other candidates should point out that promises to ban homework, for example, go further than what’s feasible. Improper party behavior can be resolved through similar transparency via a proactive press — as is theoretically true in the country as a whole. Strong parties comprised of smart individuals are but one facet of a healthy political system. Maybe the best solution is a mixture of models, and what we have presently, at least in theory, in real government: elections for candidates, not parties, but candidates who are endorsed by a party with feasible policy goals.
If debating institutional design of student governments seems highfalutin, then it should at least be recognized that this extracurricular is a classroom for future politicians and advocates to practice their craft. It’s also where many young people learn what it means to be involved in civic life, and we know they’re open to effective government when they participate in it. It’s important that the lessons learned in student government cultivate the type of politicians we want for the public. Candidates in the present presidential campaign haven’t been the best examples — none of us want to see students arguing over who has the biggest hands.
This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.