Full disclosure: I ran for senator for the class of 2019 and for the President of the Botetourt Hall Council. I lost both elections. I write now to expose flaws in the electoral system here at the College of William and Mary.
Many say that the founders of our democracy would be appalled at how the current election season is so focused on personality rather than real issues. Donald Trump, with his vague promises and rhetoric, stands as the shining example of this problem. However, there are issues that are important; this allows the campaign to have a substantial quality, beyond bread and circuses. Having been a candidate and a voter at the College, I believe that the flaw of the campus electoral process is that campaigning must be personality-based rather than issue-based. Candidates advertise themselves, not ideas.
What were lacking were actual proposals regarding the issues at hand and credentials to provide qualifications. Therefore, you do not see a candidate; you see a crafted image that could be deceptive.
Take the obvious example: campaign posters. I recall feeling offended at seeing posters condescend to their electorate, as if they were talking to children. There were common elements between multiple posters: a picture of the candidate smiling in what appeared to be an approachable manner, brightly colored art, pop-culture references (including one that referenced Obama’s iconic portrait), the colors of the College, and positive adjectives such as dependable, committed, etc. What were lacking were actual proposals regarding the issues at hand and credentials to provide qualifications. Therefore, you do not see a candidate; you see a crafted image that could be deceptive. I may be jaded after having grown up near Washington, D.C., but when I see images like those I think of deceitfulness, dishonesty and hunger for power. This is what the current system requires for victory, and what the College encourages by extension.
Take another example: candidate meet-and-greets. At these events, candidates must give impromptu speeches filled with buzzwords. Many are in business attire, attempting to evoke an aura of authority. Most striking is the lack of interaction between candidates in a formal setting: they do not write speeches and their ideas are not subject to criticism. This is not a real consideration of ideas; this is a competition in image-making.
Reading The Flat Hat’s editorial page, indeed the whole paper, shows that the campus is abuzz with different ideas about how the campus ought to be run. Despite this, there is no effort to show that the Student Assembly can actually affect change.
The reason for the promotion of this image-based campaign is simple: there is not enough awareness of the issues. Reading The Flat Hat’s editorial page, indeed the whole paper, shows that the campus is abuzz with different ideas about how the campus ought to be run. Despite this, there is no effort to show that the Student Assembly can actually affect change. I know that it does things, but these are uncomfortably vague, explained away dissemblingly. The electorate is therefore ignorant
As a candidate, I had to do these things. An opponent for the Botetourt Hall Council was charismatic and sociable, but his rhetoric was light on actual discussion. I countered with credentials; I did not put my picture on posters. Mine were plain, including descriptions of my qualifications through experience in high school student council, among other things. However, this is image-making, not proposing ideas; it is a qualified image, but it is an image. I could not do otherwise, for the issues were so nebulous I could not comment on them.
In Hall Council elections for freshmen, a deterrent to issue-based campaigning is timing; they are too early for issues to emerge. Freshmen are adapting to dormitory life and an abundance of new and interesting people. Issues take time to develop, as conflicts appear and opinions clash. They are therefore susceptible to image-making, the product of concerted effort of image-building. Hence, images, not ideas, win votes.
The College educated, and was run by, great minds of early America. Knowing that, one could expect a commitment to democracy. Rather, the process is so opaque…
The answer to this issue of image-based campaigning would have to be multifaceted. The candidate meet-and-greets must become national election-style candidate debates, with a neutral moderator with knowledge of issues and qualifications, as well as the ability to dissect insubstantial statements. Candidates should be required to give a pre-written speech detailing their positions and qualifications. Campaign posters must be required to have policy statements. The campaigning seasons should be extended to at least two weeks, to allow both the development and examination of issues.
The College educated, and was run by, great minds of early America. Knowing that, one could expect a commitment to democracy. Rather, the process is so opaque that I find the student council of the elementary school I attended was more issue-based than our system: it allowed speeches to the school. With our system, an onlooker would conclude that the Student Assembly thinks its electorate is stupid. This is not the case; students attending a public Ivy are not stupid. This attitude is not only sad, it is an embarrassment.
Criticize the current national political climate as much as you want, but be aware that it allows for issues to be discussed and used as a basis for voting, something that the College just does not do. Donald Trump may be a bully and a blowhard, but he has a tax plan.
Email Alex Wallace at [email protected]