Our View: We must revitalize student democracy at UA
At the climax of Douglas Adams’ inimitable science fiction satire “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox learns that he’s only a puppet ruler. He’s taken to a planet in a distant corner of the universe, where he meets the real president, a simpleton who lives alone and spends most of his time amusing himself rather than running the galaxy. It’s explained to Beeblebrox that having a president who really wanted the job would be a disaster: we’d all be led by a ruthless, calculating and ambitious individual. An idiot was chosen instead because “it’s a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, the least suited to do it.”
It’s hard to read Adams and not be reminded of the University of Alabama’s Student Government Association. Our campus political culture is dominated by the Machine, a secret society that seeks to control campus politics and exclusively represent the interests of certain Greek organizations. The Machine represents everything bad and cynical in politics. They elevate the wealthy, the privileged, the mediocre and the cunning over the idealistic and intelligent.
To make matters worse, the Machine’s power is so great that students think it’s impossible to beat them, so they disengage from politics completely. This year, the six candidates for the Executive Board positions other than president are running unopposed. This election will likely result in a Machine supermajority in the Senate.
When students throw up their hands and give up on politics, that only allows the powers that be to maintain control. What we need on this campus is a political revolution – a revitalization of student democracy from the ground up.
Above all, students must vote. Participation in SGA elections is appallingly low. Though it may not be exciting, students must spend a bit of time doing research into presidential candidates, as well as the senators that represent them, and vote in their own interests.
Going beyond this, students must be willing to run for office and participate in political campaigns. The fact that there is no political party that acts as a counterweight to the Machine to represent the interests of non-Greek students is a testament to how broken and ossified democracy is on this campus.
Greek students must be willing to reject the corrupt organization that claims to represent them, because the Machine’s overwhelming influence actually hurts the Greek voices the seek to advance. Is the broad community of fraternity men and sorority women benefited by being represented by unvetted candidates running on unambitious platforms? The Machine also suppresses qualified Greeks who might be interested in running for office in favor of toadies who will obey their party line. Fighting the Machine isn’t about fighting the Greek community, it’s about getting rid of an unelected cabal.
It’s easy to be apathetic about student government. Many people don’t know what the SGA does, and don’t think that it’s actions don’t have any bearing on their lives. In the grand scheme of things, it may not seem like it matters who is the president of our SGA.
However, student governments are proving grounds for the future of American democracy. Many former Machine politicians have gone on to get elected to state office in Alabama. Students who learned to get involved in politics at the University level could stay engaged citizens for the rest of their lives. People, after all, should be opposed to the liars and cynics at every level of government.
A Student Government led by a candidate who represented the interests of both Greek and non-Greek students, and one who didn’t answer to a clique of basement-dwelling rich kids, could do a lot of positive things for this University. But the only way to stop the Machine is through people power, and that requires engagement with SGA politics on every level. Otherwise, we’ll remain ruled by the people least suited to do it.