The campus commentariat has spilled more than enough ink on SMD-gate, so I’m not going to burden you with yet another column lambasting Mr. MacGregor-Dennis’ bizarre online antics, condemning the mysterious “Senator Palpatine” for his ignominious descent from the Olympian heights of brilliant nonpartisan humor to the inglorious muck of conventional politics or furiously speculating as to the identity of the ironically named “Justice.”
Instead, I’d like to take a step back and take a look at the broader political landscape illuminated by last week’s colorful fireworks show. With our gaze fixated on the spectacular explosions and scintillating gossip emitted by what somehow managed to be simultaneously the least competitive and most bitter electoral campaign in recent memory, I think we may be overlooking a more important but less visible story: the story of the deep malaise that has gradually infiltrated politics on this campus.
Let’s start by looking at the data.
Voter turnout was abysmal this year across the board. Among the electorate as a whole, turnout was an astonishing 20 percent lower than in 2011. It would be tempting to attribute last year’s numbers to the high turnout sparked by the controversial ROTC referendum, but that would be a mistake: voter turnout was even higher in 2010 and 2009, and Elections Commissioner Adam Adler reports that turnout this week was the lowest it has been in at least five years.
Only 18 serious candidates ran in the Senate race this year, down from 38 in 2011, 33 in 2010, 37 in 2009, 39 in 2008 and 50 in 2007. This all-time low number of candidates had it good: since not a single current senator chose to seek reelection, they weren’t forced to confront any powerful Gao-esque incumbents, and since the current Senate seems to want to resign two weeks early, they’ll get to enter the corridors of power nicely ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile, the only incumbent in this year’s race — current ASSU Vice-President Stewart MacGregor-Dennis — was buried under a colossal avalanche of protest votes, barely garnering more support than the Chappie joke slate and losing in a landslide of unprecedented proportions to ASSU outsiders Robbie Zimbroff and William Wagstaff. No ASSU Executive Race in history has ever seen a result so lopsided, at least since the Elections Commission started keeping electronic records 13 years ago. Even in the famous 1999 Executive race, in which Mike Levin and John Mills ran entirely unopposed, more students (25 percent) voted for “none of the above” than chose Macgregor-Dennis last week.
Collectively, the numbers suggest a dismal reality. The Stanford student body is more displeased than it has ever been with its representatives in student government. Even worse, however, it seems we don’t really care enough to do anything about it, either by exercising our prerogative as voters or by running for office ourselves; even the angry voters are voting less. And worst of all, a growing number of Stanford students seem to have lost faith in the system altogether, preferring to consign our democracy to the historical dustbin of failed states and useless experiments in representative politics.
Given the dysfunctional Weimar Republic the ASSU occasionally appears to have become, I can’t really blame them. Some voters, as former Executive candidate James Mwaura pointed out in an eloquent op-ed, see a student government hopelessly dominated by the influence of special interest groups like SOCC. Those who don’t interact with the ASSU on a regular basis see no reason for its existence, while those who do bemoan its byzantine structure and bureaucratic waste.
In short, ASSU politics are rather like real-world politics. And that similarity alone should send a ray of hope bursting through the clouds of the gathering storm.
Democratic politics is an ugly, messy, bitter sort of business, even in paradise. But the real question we should be asking is: what’s the alternative?
We could continue the downward spiral of apathy, underperformance, cynicism and dismissal until the ASSU eventually performs so poorly that is becomes, for all intents and purposes, defunct. We could throw democracy out altogether, resigned to the sad fact that we are unfit to rule ourselves. History suggests that both options have serious consequences.
Or we could do what successful democratic polities have always done: work to fix our problems through slow, incremental, unpleasant, contentious reform.
That’s my vote. What’s yours?
Send Miles your vote anytime at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.