The rational, principled argument for a Republican or Independent college student would of course be “no”. The theatrics of yesterdays tantrum in a teapot on Capitol Hill (contrasted by the killings at Fort Hood and within the context of Guy Fawkes Day) really obscures how most people feel about government.
People generally don’t care about government, or at least will tolerate the status quo so long as their lives are comfortable, the mail gets delivered, and the trash gets picked up. As soon as effective governing becomes impossible via scandal, ideology, or externalities (like the economy), any politican, regardless of party, is vulnerable. You can see it in the polling data from the 2009 NJ Governors race, based on voting priorities (summed-up by taxgirl):
Despite three campaign appearances by President Obama, Governor John Corzine lost his gubernatorial seat in New Jersey to GOP challenger Chris Christie last night. Exit polls showed that the top two concerns for New Jersey voters were the economy and the state’s high property taxes.
How high are those property taxes? For the year 2008, New Jersey holds the distinction of the state with both the highest property taxes per capita and the worst business tax climate in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation (note: report will download as a pdf). New Jersey residents also ranked highest in the nation last year with respect to state and local taxes as a percentage of income. New Jersey taxpayers paid a whopping 11.8% of income in state and local taxes, more than 2% above the national average.
Of course, this is nothing new for New Jersey. Residents have generally put up with higher taxes because of what they thought it bought them: some of the best schools in the country, for example. But in the midst of a bad economy, that has changed. New Jersey residents increasingly believe that higher taxes buy them very little (ask Robert Flach) except possibly more corruption.
I mention Student Government (in the title) as UPenn’s Undergraduate Assembly moves to democratize the election process, allowing the entire student body to vote for the top two executive positions, and that those candidates need not have prior UA experience. The conversation illustrates that democracy is a messy business, institutions are self-preserving, and that low-information voters are quick prey for predators plying populism. You will find no one comparing student government to Nazis, the Holocaust, socialism, or communism. The UA occasionally tackles the mundane, but essentially exists to address issues which directly effect the student body. This comes down to a balance of electoral engagement by democratic elections and effective governing via republic(an) representation.
The referendum is explained thusly (as reported in the Daily Pennsylvanian):
[It] would rename the chair and vice chair for external affairs the UA “president and “vice president. These positions would be elected directly by the student body, rather than internally by UA members, as currently is the case.
Candidates for both positions would require no previous experience on the UA. However, they would have to attend at least one information session held by the UA and the Nominations and Elections committee to be briefed the functions of the UA and the requirements of the president’s job.
Some have concerns :
College sophomore and UA member Ariella Chivil supports the idea of having the head of the UA be directly elected by the students, but said she thought it would be “extremely irresponsible to allow a non-UA member to run for the position.
Chivil, who was echoed by College sophomore and UA member Andrew Lum, cited the UA’s routine functions and the sense of commitment to the body as something a non-UA member might not grasp.
Populism and an apatheric constituency are also mentioned in an opinion piece by Katherine Rea:
The groups that mobilize their constituencies best will have their interests best represented. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if certain groups are able to raise awareness and voter turnout more so than others, then perhaps they deserve to have their interests more highly prioritized. But the drawback to that system is that it becomes easier to turn the position from a relatively sober policy position ” one with the capacity to cope well with minute details ” into a position better suited for a campaigner with grand, interest-driven schemes. The impartiality of the current UA chairman position redounds to the system’s credit. The UA has no mandate from the students, and I believe its members recognize that better than anyone. They know they weren’t elected as representatives because people agreed with their policies. They were elected for catchy slogans and silly posters, a process Vernon has characterized as “more high school than high school.
I fear many of the political participants on the local, state, and national level will (again) come to the wrong conclusions about the 2009 elections. The ideological circus of the summer’s healthcare townhalls has surfaced a fear of pitchforks, torches, and angry (national) mobs, shaping the actions of politicians and the coverage of the press.
In one sense, these races clearly indicate economic anxieties, as in New Jersey, suffering under the highest taxes in the nation. The extremist tack of NY-23 candidate Doug Hoffman and carpet teabagging likely alienated moderate Republicans. The presence of a GOP-lite candidate in Creigh Deeds failed to engage the Democratic base in Virginia, depressing turnout and reversing a Democratic trend. The few Republicans left are far more determined and much more extreme in their ideology. Low Democrat turnout – an effect of low enthusiasm – and engaged Conservatives was the story of the day, not a rejection of liberalism or Obama. As always, all politics is local.
The punditocracy will quickly state that Democrats were too far to the left of an increasingly right leaning country, without any supporting evidence, and ignoring a small “d” democratic trend. In this sense, the election was all about Obama. The reality is that the millions of voters who were engaged by the Obama campaign were expected to just “show up”, without any of their day-to-day concerns being addressed by the local Democratic parties. The state and local Democratic parties need to hone both public policy and campaign messaging and demonstrate technical competencies, and not just depend on electoral coattails.
I have suggestions, but that’s a post for another day.