Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

While national democratic politics are generally adversarial, it turns out democratic politics in the context of student governments at American universities are not. Last week, the Duke Student Government held its annual debate for candidates running for student body president and vice president. The presidential candidates had very similar platforms, so the moderator spent most of the debate asking questions about their leadership styles. In a race where candidates differed on personal, rather than ideological, attributes, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. None of the candidates directly criticized the other, and when asked to the name the biggest weaknesses of their opponents, one candidate declined to answer for sake of “constructive conversation.” Interestingly enough, the candidates were willing to scapegoat the school’s administrators on every issue.

Without any conflict, the debate lacked entertainment, for sure—but also substantive value. The platforms of all the candidates were vague and inflated, and they all got away with inaccurate statements. The candidates had plenty of opportunities to go after each other, but none of them did.

Much of this lack of conflict can be explained by the candidates’ relationships to one another. At the end of the campaign, the candidates will inevitably see each other again in class or at a party. They don’t have the luxury of returning to their home states or hiding behind a camera. The candidates have to directly confront each other, and a contention taken the wrong way would make future interactions awkward. On the national stage, it is easy to call your opponent a flip-flopper. On a cafeteria stage in front of a group of peers, a comment with even the slightest contrast can be taken offensively.

In some ways, a government where members are sensitive to conflict will be a government with a lot of mutual respect and cooperation. However, less conflict means fewer substantive policies are crafted on the campaign trail, and candidates win with broad promises without a map to completion. Additionally, voters cannot make informed decisions—without the ability to compare differing platforms or leadership styles, voters inevitably base their decisions on recommendations from peers and name recognition.

At the end of the debate, the uncontested candidate for vice president lambasted the presidential candidates for their remarks about the administration (see it here at 1:00:35), and the audience responded with hoots and applause. The candidates may not like conflict, but the voters sure do.

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One response to “Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

  1. There are several issues that I can see surfacing simultaneously here:
    1. Lack of any real differentiation between candidate positions
    2. Tendency to focus on external actors for blame purposes
    3. Lack of proper moderation in the debates

    (1) has been a problem in politics for as long as I can remember. Major political parties in most westernized democracies tend to coalesce around a very similar set of policies over time. It becomes difficult to differentiate them, so whenever media time is available, party leaders and spokespeople tend to play up (or invent) differences. It is good to see that in this case, civllity won out over childish point-scoring.
    (2) is really classic human nature. Whenever humans feel that they are being negatively impacted by big events, they will always initially blame external actors, especially (as I think might be the case here) they perceive that those external actors have more influence than their own elected leaders.
    Think about what happens every time gas prices rise. One of the classic lines that you hear from everybody is “it’s the fault of speculators”. Note that “speculators” are never usually defined in detail, allowing people to imagine duplicitous enemies scheming and plotting Somewhere Out There.
    The blaming of the university administration by the candidates is exactly what I would expect from people who feel that they are (relatively) powerless. They are really admitting that the university administrators will have more influence over the students than they possibly could.
    (3) is a consequence of the reluctance of candidates to subject any of their records or pronouncements to scrutiny. Studies have shown that debates favour opponents over incumbents, so incumbents tend to try to rig debates to (a) have as few of them as possible (preferably none), b) to get only softball questions in a friendly venue and (c) to place pre-conditions that disadvantage their opponent(s). A classic example of (c) here from Texas is David Dewhurst demanding that one of his debates with Ted Cruz be conducted in Spanish, since he is fluent in Spanish and Cruz is not.
    Since nobody likes having to answer penetrating questions, or have their answers challenged, most “debates” these days in the political arena are not debates in any classical sense (and quite frankly, if most politicians tried to debate in my high school like they debate on television in the USA, we would probably have sent them packing with an admonition to come back when they can be bothered to actually, you know, debate). All modern political debates essentially function as a series of largely unchallenged monologue sound-bites interrupted by occasional cheap rhetorical point scoring. It is tempting to blame the moderators, but usually they are not allowed to be tough with the participants, since the participants want to be able to bloviate without fear of independent contradiction.

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