Friendly Fire: Do the Elections Matter?

Student Government is Inconsequential

In the satirical 1980s British sitcom Yes Minister, a little girl interviews a high-ranking government official for her school magazine. She innocently asks him about his contributions to society: “As a cabinet minister with all this power, what have you personally achieved?”

Misreading her question, the minister confidently replies: “Well, I’ve achieved all sorts of things. I’m a member of the Privy Council. I’m a member of the Party Policy Committee…”

Everybody is entitled to at least one joke about politicians, so this is mine. At the national level, it is easy to poke fun at the deeply-compromised politicians who populate too many seats in Congress and the White House. At the same time, at the school level, we sometimes manage to catch glimpses of the outside world. In real government, we see 50-year old candidates expressing their desire to serve the people. In student government, we see 20-year old candidates claiming that their only motive in running is to serve the student body. For many reasons, despite the impressive list of candidates in the upcoming ASSU elections, I sometimes feel tempted not to vote.

Despite its role as a symbol of student democracy, the ASSU lacks real power. Most of the important decisions made at Stanford come from the likes of Hennessy, Bravman, Etchemendy, and Shaw—the authority figures in high places who decide what they think is best for us. Although many students would prefer a more democratic approach, I believe that it is impossible to run a top-class university on that basis. We could conceivably end up doing a lot of controversial things in a more democratic Stanford, where decision-makers are the multitudes of youthful students instead of experienced adults in their fifties and sixties: divesting from companies that invest in Israel and drastically increasing contract workers’ salaries in the name of a “living wage” (“We feel sorry for them, so why not pay them $25 an hour?”). The price of democracy would be high: tuition fees would increase by double-digit percentages, or else our university would be running huge losses. It seems that the ASSU’s usefulness rests precisely in its lack of power.

Student government, despite its numerous debates, meetings, and resolutions, is inconsequential in many respects. Consider last year’s ASSU executive elections. According to The Stanford Daily, the central promises of the “Heng with Graham” slate, which won a landslide victory, were to “make Dead Week dead” and to “revive the defunct Mausoleum Party.” Although these proposals were nice things to have, I doubt any of them would make an earth-shattering impact on the average student’s Stanford experience. Back in high school, my classmates organized plenty of parties with plenty of underage drinking, and we didn’t need a student government to do that.

What about the funding proposals on the ballot? My Review colleague Ryan Tracey wrote of the 2006 ASSU elections: “Due to the nearly blanket approval of funds, students can expect to spend nearly $290 on student activities fees next year.” To be sure, as a fiscal conservative, I agree with Tracey’s point that it is not nice to tax students collectively to pay for special interests. But in a university where annual undergraduate school tuition exceeds $45,000, why waste your breath fighting to save a mere $290—especially when by doing so, you risk offending your friends at any of the 600 groups that benefit from the ASSU’s million-dollar budget?

Like most Stanford students, the ASSU candidates are a talented, intelligent, and energetic bunch. They generally have stellar resumes, good grades, and all the other badges of elite students. As a self-selected group in one of America’s finest colleges, most (if not all) of them would probably be able to handle with ease the responsibilities of being ASSU senators, secretaries, or presidents. At the same time, this general competence also lessens the implications of voting—or not voting. Even if the Chappie slate wins the ASSU presidency—as they have done twice since 1990—our lives will remain largely unaffected. As humor columnist Navin Sivanandam wrote of last year’s ASSU elections: “What’s true of real elections with actual consequences doesn’t necessarily apply to the little games played here on campus. Student politics is vaguely entertaining (in much the same way that animals dressed up like people are entertaining), but that’s no reason to encourage such behavior by voting.”

There is nothing wrong with voting for one’s friends, or for the funding that your student group desires. Almost every normal school has a student government, and we largely accept that even if the ASSU didn’t exist, we would probably create one for the sake of having one. At the same time, for the majority of Stanford students who don’t vote in the elections—51% of undergraduates in 2006—the outcome of the ASSU elections is a matter of indifference.

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