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Princeton students fail at self-governance

<h5>USG Council members vote to confirm new committee members.</h5>
<h6>Caroline Shückel / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
USG Council members vote to confirm new committee members.
Caroline Shückel / The Daily Princetonian

Television shows always seem to perpetuate a myth about Ivy League institutions as hotbeds of scheming, power-hungry students, when the reality is that most students spend their time here just trying to keep their heads above water. If a screenwriter wanted to include a Princeton Undergraduate Student Government (USG) election in a show, there would be campaigns, scandal, intrigue, maybe even murder. We’ve just finished a USG election. Most students probably couldn’t even tell you it happened.

Elections at this school are downright sleepy. They’re uncompetitive, non-substantive, and barely interesting enough to attract a glance from the average student. They serve to elevate the same types of people to office year after year. Even if we accept that USG representatives are generally qualified, the lack of a serious election puts a major dent in their ability and incentive to be as vocal in representing student opinion as they should be.

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The same cycle seems to repeat itself over and over again. A massive field of high school student council presidents with aesthetic posters and bland platforms throw themselves at the student body during election season of freshman year. A few win seats as Senators or members of Class Government and never face a seriously contested election again. Sure, sometimes two people within the Student Government community face off for a single seat, but if an outsider tries to challenge someone, they’re usually swiftly crushed.

It’s not because the insiders have rigged the game to their own advantage. To continue winning, they don’t have to. The rules of campaigning are simply too limiting for an outsider to run a serious campaign. Candidates aren’t even supposed to mention their candidacy before the campaign period, which only lasts one week. They’re allowed to put up posters, but only small ones, scattered among the crumpled graveyard of announcements on lampposts that no one reads. For the privilege of emailing the student body, candidates must include a disclaimer at the bottom, giving students a platform to report if they’ve been assailed unsolicited by their possible elected representative — if, God forbid, that should happen. There was a debate between the two candidates for President last December, but few people watched, and little was done to highlight the differences between the candidates.

None of the USG’s election rules are bad in isolation. After all, no one — myself included — wants candidates to be filling up full bulletin boards or spamming the listservs endlessly. But together, they suck the energy out of the election — forcing candidates to run cookie-cutter, non-impactful campaigns. By going to such lengths to not annoy the student body, the USG guarantees that the student body won’t pay attention. They’re the rules of a middle school student council election — providing the facade of an election without providing for the contingency that anyone might have anything of much importance to say.

This all comes down to a fundamental debate about what the USG should be. The United States spent its founding years in a bitter debate about what the point of elections was. As envisioned by George Washington and James Madison when they wrote the Constitution, elections are meant to choose the best people who will then make the decisions, not to shape the decisions themselves. But Thomas Jefferson had a different vision — one where elections do not just elevate the best people, but rather reflect a desire for certain principles.

In the first version of democracy, elections are dignified and meritocratic. The trains run on time. But the people become apathetic and the chasm between the governing and the governed grows. In the second version, elections are partisan and messy. Qualified people are thrown out in favor of people who are loved only for their loyalty to a certain political philosophy. But, on the other hand, those elections genuinely reflect the dreams and desires of the people.

There is a fair argument that the US has veered too far in favor of the second version — representative but dysfunctional. Perhaps we need to focus our elections more on electing people we trust and less on electing people we agree with. But the USG seems to have fully adopted the first version — effective, but aloof — which makes no sense. The USG doesn’t have any trains to run. It is not supposed to be an efficient governing body. It is supposed to be, at its core, a union for students — a burning manifestation of student anger and desire. And for it to be that, we need more vibrant elections.

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The USG can do a lot to bring about a more active election. Instead of on Zoom or in a remote classroom, debates could be held in the middle of a dining hall. Candidates could be grilled by moderators on past errors of judgment and asked to debate their policies with students who disagree with them. That means political parties, mudslinging, and the perpetual campaign. It means that the qualified candidates are sometimes going to lose to a student who promises to filibuster every meeting with administration by singing a song about divestment. But it’s worth it.

Things can’t go on like this. Look at how the USG has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Each round of regulations is made by the administration in a black box with no input from students whatsoever. As students vent their anger over the ever-changing regulations on social media and in the pages of the The Daily Princetonian, the USG’s job is to provide a platform for the legions of Princeton bureaucrats via a town hall after the decision has already been made. There are genuine divisions among the student body over pandemic regulations: some want us to loosen restrictions and others to tighten them up. Can we judge the popularity of those positions by their representation on Student Government? No, such issues wouldn’t even come up in an election.

I don’t want to say that the USG is ineffective. It isn’t. A lot gets done behind the scenes. If there was a way to preserve the USG’s non-turbulent leadership while also reviving the student voice, that would be ideal. But fundamentally, the student voice is more important than the Community Dining Program. Princeton prides itself as an incubator for future leaders. What does it say about us if we can’t get interested in running our own school?

Rohit Narayanan is a sophomore electrical and computer engineer from McLean, VA.  He is the Community Opinion Editor at the Prince. You can ratio him on Twitter @Rohit_Narayanan or pitch him stories via email at rohitan@princeton.edu.

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