Democracy and Kugel
We live in a democracy and it isn’t America. Our country is splintered into too many different factions, interest groups, and lobby organizations for any single constituency to truly feel represented.
And there are simply too many people voting. Each ballot is drowned out by a deafening cacophony of over 318 million people, each with his or her personal interests and voting preferences.
Even state elections feel hopelessly overcrowded. Almost twenty million people currently reside in New York State; the population had already exceeded two million in 1838 when it elected its first Whig governor. Each person’s vote matters so little that YU didn’t even feel the need to give its students off on election day to allow them to vote. Apparently academic considerations outweighed the remote possibility that YU students’ interests might actually influence the elections.
Because of its vastness, the system has split into two catchall parties. Each doles out an ideology that resembles a bowl of lukewarm porridge: bland, homogenous, and thoroughly uninspiring.
Break with either of the party lines on any of the major issues and you’re booted off the bandwagon, with no other choice but to run as a doomed independent or join some hapless third party. Even as the donkey and elephant exchange punches, they jointly ensure that nobody else enters the ring. Innovation and creativity have no place in national politics.
Ordinary people shy away from discussing politics and speakers apologize for “getting political.” Ask a person who he voted for or which party he identifies with and prepare to be frowned upon as invasive and rude. Why is inquiring after someone’s political dogmas considered a social blunder?
Because we have lost the true common spirit of democracy. The US Government is an impersonal machine, distant from the people it governs. We perform the mechanical voting ritual every November, but the months in between allow for no direct influence on or access to the governing structure. I cannot speak definitively about every county, but the average resident of Teaneck, NJ feels absolutely no sense of involvement in the most critical executive and legislative decisions. It feels as if our government is “for the people” but not “by the people.”
So what democracy do we live in? Well, here’s a hint: this one has Election Day in May and serves kugel at its presidential debates.
In terms of the immediacy of the democratic process, YU student elections are exceptional. First, each candidate is required to collect a certain number of student signatures. This system, irritating as it is, ensures that each candidate interacts personally, even for a brief moment, with a large percentage of the student population. Just imagine if this system were implemented in federal elections.
After the signatures, the campaigning continues unabated. We all noticed Nissan Holzer’s campaign t-shirt because, well, it was bright yellow, and also because he was constantly in the cafeteria presenting his presidential platform to everyone present. Each vote really counts, so it is worthwhile for the candidates to spend time convincing small groups of students sitting in the cafeteria to vote for them. When these candidates came over to my table, it was clear to me that my vote mattered.
The debates are relatively informal and occasionally raucous gatherings where students can directly grill the candidates on all the important (and unimportant) issues. Every interest group gets to make its voice heard. Sefardim, Neo-Chassidim (which one zealous devotee christened “a fire burning in Washington Heights”), pre-meds, Zionists, and students from all four morning programs had the opportunity to confront the candidates and ensure that their interests would be accounted for.
Again, compare this to America where the term “government policy” raises associations with bloated federal agencies and complicated bureaucracies. The phrase immediately reminds me of the despair I felt when, after phoning my local DMV with a simple question, I spent what felt like an eternity navigating the automated computer response system, vainly praying to get through to a human. But such is the nature of our government: convoluted, detached, and impersonal.
What are the ramifications of this disconnect? Well, if we really experienced direct involvement with our government, then we would discuss politics all the time. What should the law be? What should we be allowed or not allowed to do? What is fair and just, and what is oppressive? Discussions of these basic questions would be characterized by urgent immediacy if we really felt responsible for the answers. And each person’s opinion would actually matter if everyone had influence on government policy. Our government would really be ours.
But instead of taking ownership of our government we elect political specialists, people who have been groomed to play the government game. They churn out catchy campaign slogans and dress impeccably while smiling with the perfect number of teeth showing. Doubtless many of them are honest and well intentioned, but most of them are not representative of the common man. The average American worker with a small family and a nine to five job does not relate to or feel represented by classy and polished politicians.
This problem may relate to the widespread anti-police sentiment that is now in vogue. The case of police is slightly different, but perhaps comparable. Policemen are not generally socially elite people, but the police force is viewed as a disconnected machine of enforcement instead of the direct arm of the people. Civilians would be much less likely to riot if they felt that the penal system was representative of the people and directly carrying out our will. This disconnect might be an inevitable consequence of the size of the police force and the policed population. The massive NYPD has no chance of coming across as a personal punitive force, but compare this to the local small-town sheriff who knows and interacts with everyone in the neighborhood.
G.K. Chesterton pointed out that democracy is not primarily “arbitrament by the majority” and not even “arbitrament by everybody” but rather “arbitrament by anybody.” Democracy is, at root, the sense that anyone could be in charge, the sense that governors really are representative of the governed. I suspect that this democratic sentiment existed at some earlier point in US history, but, if it did, it is now entirely extinct. What we have instead are political specialists, an elite class of glitterati whose elite political hobnobbing brings them further away from the people instead of closer.
YU’s system might solve this problem by allowing a small population of students elect regular students, but our system has its own flaws, exposing some of the pitfalls of local democracy. Many students seem to vote with their bellies, choosing the candidate who is willing to provide the largest quantity of donuts, chocolate, or even cholent (for breakfast!). Superficial popularity also seems to play a role; some voters appear to gravitate towards the candidate with the best sense of humor.
There’s also a much more basic problem – no one is really sure how much power or influence our student government actually has. What, pray tell, are the day-to-day responsibilities of the YSU VP of classes? Does the YCSA president have any tangible influence with the administration? As far as we know, our elected officials have little to no clout.
But as it is, we students will continue to treasure our precious elections. Though it sometimes seems like the administration will make academic decisions regardless of the protestations of YCSA and SOY, our elections at least give us the impression that we are in control of our fate, that we are self-governing. Our government might not be “for the people,” but it definitely is “by the people.”