Picking apart the politicking

By Daniel Stratford

Chris Roy/Collegian

There are two things that UMass students harbor contempt for: political parties and the Student Government Association (SGA). The former is perceived as corrupt, monolithic, authoritarian and detrimental to liberty, while the latter is seen as corrupt, ineffectual and a pretender to the throne of political legitimacy. As thoroughly enjoyable as it would be to systematically pick these two accusations apart, it would be much more beneficial to the public discourse to talk about the relationship between the SGA and the concept of political parties. The SGA senate, after all, possesses internal factions and alliances, just like any legislature worth its salt.

A common assertion heard in the SGA today is that all of the members of its leadership, specifically in the senate, are of “the same party.” The oft-mentioned “same party” is that ephemeral commitment to “helping students” – vaguely defined as it is. However, the reality of the situation is that there are multiple factions that call the SGA’s Senate and Executive home.

But this contempt is a trend that transcends the very history of the organization itself. The argument can be made that both preserving and, to a degree, advocating some degree of partisanship in some way not only adds to the diversity and deliberative qualities of the senate, but promotes competitive elections, intra-Senate organization and enhances one quality of the SGA that many are loathe to admit: its purpose as a trial-by-fire for future political stakeholders.

The influence of political parties, or at the very least, enumerated political associations, has been a palpable force throughout the history of the SGA, especially in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. In 1980, for example, there was a group known as the Progressive Student Alliance that ran candidates and proved a decisive force in that year’s Senate elections, despite the postponement of its results, as cited by the October 9, 1980 edition of this venerable paper.

Most UMass students that have followed recent SGA politics – myself included – are well aware of the influence that the coalition of groups known as the “ALANA Caucus” has, and, to some extent, still does yield. This is made evident by the former presence of Caucus-exclusive seats in the SGA Senate.

By this author’s estimation, the Caucus dominated SGA politics for at least the majority of the first decade of the twenty-first century. This primacy can be attributed, by my opinion, to the effective mobilization of campus cultural centers, as well as political organizations such as the Radical Student Union – specifically, the cultivation of a reliable “base” of voters. In short, by mobilizing support in the manner that it did, as well as endorsing charismatic candidates and taking up the mantle of ostensible advocacy for student issues, the Caucus was able to build and maintain political machinery that stood the test of time. It also involved many students in the political process on a large scale, a quality that can be respected by perceptive political observers, ideological inclinations aside.

The endemic problem with Caucus dominance, however, was its singular dominance and the effective one-party system that followed it – a system that ultimately stifled debate and made elections uncompetitive. In a sense, the Caucus’ dominance made the case for the curbing of its influence.

The current generation of senators – at least those who were elected last year – remember the influence of the group known as the Democratic Voice. The author of this column would know: he ran as a Democratic Voice candidate, along with 22 others, and won. Democratic Voice was never intended to have the longevity or the organization of the Caucus and its assorted groups; it was intended to act solely as electoral machinery and not as a governing party. In fact, from my own experience, the nascent Democratic Voice coalition fragmented irreparably after Fall 2009’s first Senate meetings, despite having upset the Caucus’s long-held dominion. Despite having the lifespan of a butterfly, Democratic Voice pulled off a historic victory, permanently altering the balance of power in the Senate, and demonstrating the benefit of multiparty elections in ensuring competitiveness and diversity.

Even in today’s senate, there are still palpable political divisions, though in a state much more amicable than in years past. As the current secretary of the UMass Democrats, I can attest to the fact that many of my Democratic brethren ran for and won Senate seats, as was the case with many members of the Republican Club.

Conventional wisdom would assume that – citing the intrusion of these outside political organizations – the SGA would be deadlocked in partisan cacophony. Though this supposedly “new” senate was incorrectly championed as a “new beginning” for a “post-partisan” SGA, it was a new beginning with regards to a more open and politically balanced Senate. It has maintained the existence of political alignments that serve to give life, character, and competitiveness to any legislature, without avoiding the overbearing dominance that has characterized organizations of years past, such as the Caucus.

In fact, it can be readily asserted that, just as there are at least two sides to any issue, there are at least two sides to any legislature, with the ideal of a completely non-partisan Senate simply impossible to attain. Partisanship will always exist in some form or another. What political parties do and have done – at least for the SGA – is lend a voice, cohesiveness, and balance to varying opinions on the questions of the day.

However, all of the aforementioned organizations have aided in recruiting students and ensuring competitive elections for what many wrongly perceive to be a mundane chore. They also clearly enumerate the true role of a political party: an intermediary between the government and the governed and as a crucial avenue to get the latter interested in the former.

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