FUNT: Candidates: Spare Us the Circus
Published: Friday, February 21, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 21, 2014 03:02
During GUSA election season on Hilltop Farm, sometimes it’s hard to tell pigs and humans apart.
For students who once hungered to pursue public office, the stench of sausage-making inside the Beltway is not what’s so unappetizing, but rather, it’s the road required to get there.
“Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates,” James Madison warned, “every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Those who thumb their nose at American electoral politics would have a hard time defending the tone and tenor of Georgetown University Student Association elections, in which superficial campaigns and apathetic voters are mutually reinforcing. GUSA races are like a game of political dress up — the real question is why that’s a costume anyone would want to wear.
At 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 13, the GUSA executive race was officially underway. Unofficial preparation had begun months earlier — years, in some cases — and eight thoroughbreds were ready for a race that will likely go down to the wire. The first test — which ticket claims the best real estate in Red Square to hang its poster — occurs just seconds out of the gate. These signs feature the running mates’ first names and their campaign slogans: “Together With Georgetown,” “Building Your Georgetown,” “Connect to Georgetown” and “Working for You.”
GUSA candidates work to dispel the perception that elections are popularity contests decided by name recognition. What, then, is achieved by these posters? With so many serious campus issues at stake, it’s symbolic that the campaigns begin on such a remarkably uninformative note.
As expectations for campaign hoopla grow higher and higher year after year, fewer students are motivated to run. Nowadays, candidates don’t just need leadership experience and a detailed platform that caters to the needs of Georgetown students; they also need a website builder, a graphic designer, a video producer and an army of volunteer supporters. One could say this reflects the ability to form a coalition; others see it as empowering insiders and enabling the machine-like influence of big clubs and secret societies.
Qualification for office is now measured by the quality of messaging. A shabby poster, unattractive Facebook campaign or poorly edited video is a knock against legitimacy, and students who can’t produce a cosmetic campaign are dismissed as fringe candidates. But blaming candidates for those expectations is like blaming attractive politicians for elections that come off as beauty pageants.
In a poll of nearly 800 students conducted by The Hoya last year, 74 percent of students said they primarily learn about GUSA candidates through social media, flyers and posters or word of mouth, compared to just 11 percent who base their judgment on candidate debates, campus media reports or campaign websites. Candidates adjust to voter preferences, and if students resent GUSA elections for being superficial popularity contests, they have no one to blame but themselves for rewarding that focus.
The theatrics of GUSA campaigns distract from the leadership these candidates have demonstrated. Yet voters are less likely to learn about those accolades than they are about who has the cooler Facebook following or more intricate website.
When more than 3,500 students cast their ballot next Thursday, how many will base their vote on free speech reform, sexual violence prevention or any of the challenges facing GUSA? Candidates respond to voters, but they also must lead them.
A GUSA ticket that wanted to demonstrate real leadership would pull its goofy campaign ads and sit out the YouTube video contests that divert attention from the issues that inspired them to run.
They’d have my vote.
Danny Funt is a senior in the College. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Hoya. CALLING MY SHOT appears every other Friday.