Like all other devoted House of Cards fans, I find Frank Underwood’s shady political maneuvering fascinating; I can totally see how anyone interested in politics would be drawn into the intriguing, Machiavellian career of America’s favorite fictional politician (sans murder, of course).
As unrelatable and distant (and even fictional) as this romanticized, big-time political lifestyle seems, it apparently just takes a student political party to make (a more tempered) version of it come to life right here on campus.
Anyone familiar with UCSB’s Open People’s Party beyond their rows of oversized signboards knows it’s a political machine. And being a part of a political machine is no doubt a lot of fun: it’s the closest any student will probably ever be to holding the romanticized position of a string-pulling, backdoor-utilizing politician, immune to punishment.
I have no doubt that our student leaders are nice folks who legitimately want to make UCSB better for their peers, but being part of a political machine seems to make the allure of this romanticized politician too enticing and demonstrably drags our campus political system into territory only real politicians need ever go. The Bottom Line’s investigative “Guilty By Association” series looked into some of the strong suspicions people familiar with our political system had about shady party activity, such as slating more Greek students while giving that subculture more attention in order to win that voting bloc. Passion for the ethically gray area within big-boy politics may come in handy in winning (and dominating) student elections, but unfortunately, it can spoil the campus political process.
And, if there’s anything a political machine can make more enticing or imperative than being this romanticized politician, it’s winning. OPP’s candidate for External Vice President of Statewide Affairs dropped out of a Lobby Corps conference—arguably prime EVPSA-related work—to focus on campaigning when it appeared he was trailing. The most minor of potential election infractions were called out unreservedly by the party in the days leading up to last week’s election, when races seemed to become uncomfortably close. In 2011, OPP was investigated for handing out Jell-O shots at Greek parties to court votes. (That strategy might’ve worked—they swept the elections that year—but four of their newly elected representatives were forced to resign over it.)
Though their colors, nominating processes, and campaign tactics may differ, political parties here tend to be particularly similar in their platforms and goals. Fiscal responsibility, protecting student services, promoting safety, student empowerment, and fighting unfair UC budget cuts or tuition increases are all common themes between OPP and the defunct Democratic Process Party. Both parties’ self-proclaimed track records include measures of financial responsibility, calls to tackle sexual violence, promoting student services, and voter registration.
With the constraints imposed on parties’ goals and achievements by the governing process—from compromises on bills to financial limitations—the differences between them shrink even more. We’re all students, and we all know what issues and goals are most important and pressing for us; there’s no point in dividing us into two camps as if the concrete results that we can expect from our representatives will be significantly different depending on who’s elected. The 2013 election results demonstrated the devastation and animosity that a landslide victory by one party over another can generate in those who don’t come out on top.
But political parties—and even machines—do have their advantages. Of them, according to AS President-Elect Jimmy Villarreal, “[f]irst and foremost is the outreach”—they do a considerable amount of the grunt work that goes into encouraging students to turn out to vote. Additionally, Villarreal says, parties provide a structure for continuity for large projects that require more than a single senate term to see through, and make it so our representatives don’t “have to reinvent the wheel every year,” providing up-and-coming students the opportunity to learn from older, more experienced representatives in the process.
Project continuity, voter outreach, and new student preparation are all undoubtedly important and valuable, but they’re not going to disappear without parties. But as long as there are parties, there will be the opportunity to taint ambition and the desire to affect constructive change with the desire for victory and power. What campus parties can do for us is not worth the shady and fraught AS political climate they have fueled for us. We have elections and officeholders with proper titles and a legitimate political system, but this is still a university—the focus should be on students and their issues, not winning and trying to be a politician. The questionable enticements campus political parties provide mean they won’t be going away any time soon, but the students who elect their members can and should still call them out when these enticements become a little too realized. When we’re all concerned about student issues, we should not be dividing ourselves into separate camps.