The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
Referendum No. 3, which called on the University to cease using Caterpillar (CAT) construction equipment given the Israeli government’s use of CAT products in the demolition of Palestinian homes, passed under the provisions of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Constitution. However, on Wednesday, April 20, the USG Senate announced that after an agreement was reached in a closed executive session, they would uphold an appeal that objected to the certification of that victory.
Other op-eds have already explained why this appeal to throw out the constitution in favor of a small group of students’ interpretation of a set of private text messages is ludicrous. Nevertheless, the senate chose to uphold this objection by a 15–5 vote with 4 abstentions. While USG will admit the referendum passed, they “will not make a statement on behalf of the student body in favor of or against the referendum.” Instead, they will send the administration a paper on Referendum No. 3 and will not call for the divorce from CAT products as the student body requested.
In doing so, the USG Senate has capitulated to an antidemocratic campaign through an antidemocratic process. To begin with, the vote on the appeal took place in an executive session, closed to the public and the press, so while we do know the final results and tally, we do not know which senators voted which way. President Mayu Takeuchi ’23 justified her decision not to reveal her vote choice to The Daily Princetonian, saying executive sessions “are designed as closed sessions so voting Senate members can fully and honestly deliberate without any external pressures, and out of respect for my fellow members of the Senate.”
If the USG President is concerned about external pressure during voting sessions or outbursts from audience members, that is understandable, but those concerns do not apply to allowing reporters in, recording the executive session, or publishing individual voting records. These are essential tools for holding our representatives accountable. What is the point of having representatives if we can’t know how they voted on the most contentious campus issue that has emerged all year? These deliberations may be honest, as USG claims, or they may not be. We will never know because of USG’s decision to hide them from us.
Moreover, in muddying the results of the election, USG has vindicated disinformation put out by outside groups and the Princeton Tory, which either outwardly declared victory or intentionally misreported the results of the referendum in order to build the narrative that it failed — despite the fact that, once again, the constitution suggests it passed. Even the Center for Jewish Life contributed to this confusion by sending an email triumphantly highlighting that “a majority of Princeton students did not vote in favor of the campus resolution,” omitting the central fact that it passed according to the constitution. By giving in to this campaign, USG has made a statement that if a motivated group of students with powerful, well-funded outside allies is unhappy with the result of a campus election, all those students have to do is apply enough pressure, find a technicality to complain about, and not let up until they’ve won. Rest assured, USG won’t put up much of a fight.
The responsibility for this failure lies not only with USG, but with us as a student body. Clearly, we need to be doing a better job of holding USG accountable. Their actions demonstrate that they believe they can throw out the will of the students with impunity without facing consequences — and apparently, they can. Several of the USG senate members ran uncontested this year (including the member who submitted the appeal), and we should not let that happen again.
But most importantly, USG’s actions matter for what they portend outside of Princeton. Our own democracy is facing a crisis of democratic decline, as the Republican Party has given up on winning majorities and is instead engaged in a strategy to hold on to power through structural advantages, gerrymandering, and outwardly stealing elections. For better or worse, what happens on Princeton’s campus influences what gets normalized in the real world. This debacle contributes, in its own small way, to the eroding of democratic institutions on campus and beyond. As we all know, many of the same Princeton students involved in this election through USG will likely go on to be actual politicians, and many of them have just shown us that despite their professed dedication to democracy, these commitments will be abandoned when convenient.
As in national politics, the problem lies not only with authoritarians who will not accept losing, but with those more concerned with maintaining a facade of reconciliation than actual democracy. Authoritarianism may not be an immediate threat to our campus, but it is threatening American democracy, and it can only succeed when elected officials let it run rampant in the name of procedure, as USG has done here.
Princeton students are asked to take USG seriously as a truly representative body, but they have now thrown out this legitimacy in favor of appeasing a small, angry group of students. Going forward, it will be on them to earn our trust back and on us to hold them accountable.
Ben Gelman is a junior from Houston, Texas concentrating in Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.