Citizenship, community and Student Government

By Daniel Stratford

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It is that time of the year again: colorful foliage, cooling temperatures and the return to a fast-paced, classroom-centered college life. However, another event is upon us; the Student Government Association’s fall elections. Numerous positions in the SGA Senate and House Councils are yearning to be filled. As I elucidated in a previous column, the SGA isn’t exactly looked upon with amicable eyes. Its actions are often scorned by the student body. However, participation in something as supposedly mundane and inimical as student government, especially with regards to voting and running for the myriad offices available, is not only personally fulfilling, but essential to effective citizenship and the proper functioning of that esteemed body.

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes asserted in his seminal work “Leviathan” that, “The finall [sic] Cause, End, or Designe [sic] of men, in the introduction of…restraint upon themselves, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby.” “Common-Wealth,” as Hobbes envisioned them, was established to liberate humanity from the “State of Nature” – One of chaos, disorder and inhumanity that would exist without a shared set of values and responsibility. In a sense, this is why our very own SGA exists. It provides and advocates for students. For example, it lobbied for the textbook rental program at the UMass Textbook Annex. It allocates funds to various student groups and imbues in those groups a sense of shared responsibility and community.

Humans are, by nature, communal and tribal creatures that have possessed a proclivity for community and community action since time immemorial. Student life does not diverge at all from that time-honored principle. Our diverse and inveterate system of Registered Student Organizations, club sports teams and Greek life can attest to that. Politics is, in this sense, no different at all, for politics is an intrinsically communal enterprise in which we all are key stakeholders, and from which we are unable to extricate ourselves.

Consequently, it is unequivocally important to participate in SGA; from voting in the fall elections this week to running for office in that oft-henpecked body. In a broader sense, participation in the SGA is the key to participation in and the effective functioning of the American Republic at large. Those who are politically active at a relatively young age tend to remain so for the lion’s share of their lives (even if that only means voting once a year). A thriving political culture at the UMass and at institutions of higher education across the Republic is essential to the existence of the Republic at all.

In addition to its responsibilities of allocating Student Activity Trust Fund money to student organizations and regulating its own internal Constitution and By-Laws, the SGA serves a more critical function: educating the future politicians and other public servants in the unequivocally fine art, as Edmund Burke put it, of politics and political action. The skills required to participate in America’s political class are the greatest emolument that the SGA has to offer, far surpassing the dispensation of titles and financial compensation. In this sense one of the greatest crimes that one could commit against the future of the United States is to not properly subject those who aspire to lead it to the trials and rigors of public life. The body politic is, after all, but one-half of the great equation of governance – the populace at large is the other a populace which must be filled to the brim with civic virtue in order to ensure the effective functioning of the aforementioned Republic by counterbalancing those who rule with those who are ruled. It is for this reason in which, if there is some dissatisfaction with the allegedly termagant and mercurial nature of the SGA, it is much more effective and of far greater consequence to subject it to the asperity of the ballot box rather than the asperity of apathy. The belief that simply not voting and not participating in politics at all will act as a panacea for our collective political woes is not the product of a virtuous citizenry seeking change, but an attempt to entreat disaster and autocracy. Perhaps this tyranny will not manifest itself so dramatically on the university level, but if the political interest and activity of our youth is nonexistent, then the prospect for a “little-r” republican future is truly bleak. In short, do yourself a favor – go vote this week, even if you don’t have much time to do research on the candidates or their platforms, and have to rely merely upon the paltry information posted on the Campus Pulse elections page, or a flier you came across. Start voting now if you haven’t already, but don’t just do it for your personal gratification. Do it for your fellow students, friends, and compatriots. Do it for UMass. Do it for the American Republic.

Dan Stratford is Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]