I like voting.
I spent a good chunk of my high school career obsessively casting MLB All-Star ballots. After all, Hideki Matsui deserves all the support he can get. (Needless to say, the cap on ballots per voter greatly benefited my high school GPA.)
I should be excited, then, that it’s Columbia College Student Council voting season. But I’m not. In no way is that a tacit criticism of CCSC or its candidates—as far as I can tell, our student government is made up of devoted and talented people who have Columbia’s best interests in mind. Instead, the reason I have never participated in a CCSC election lies more in broader philosophical questions I have about campus politics. Does it make sense to have factious parties and antagonistic candidates in a community like Columbia’s?
For me, All-Star voting is so exciting because it is so empowering. Nobody tells me whom to vote for. There are no candidates. Or, stated otherwise, everybody who plays Major League Baseball is a candidate, and I have the right to vote for anyone I like. Even if a name doesn’t appear on the ballot, I can write it in.
It’s as if I’m rewarded for active participation in baseball culture: even if I don’t know every single person on every single MLB team, the designers of the ballot assume that I have a comprehensive enough knowledge of baseball to make a fair assessment of the talent pool (assuming I don’t vote on team lines).
I have often wondered how this sort of system would work on our campus. Instead of parties and candidates, every college student could vote for any other student. Of course, there would be obvious problems. For one, no matter how hard voters may try, it’s impossible to know all 5000-or-so other students on campus, or even the 1000 others in their respective graduating classes.
But in a way, I believe that’s a good problem to have. After all, my affinity for this MLB-style democracy may be a natural extension of my religious beliefs. The Bahá’í Faith is a religion without a clergy. Instead of an ecclesiastical establishment, there are elected bodies at the international, national, and local levels. In its voting system, there are no nominated candidates, no political parties, and strictly no electioneering. As a participant in this sort of democracy, then, I have the obligation to be an active member of the community. Just as I have to watch a lot of baseball to know whom to vote for on the All-Star ballot, I need to go to community events and make a concerted effort to know as many people as possible in order to cast informed votes. Would having no parties and no candidates for CCSC elections similarly demand a greater sense of community on our campus as well? Perhaps.
Another problem, though, immediately arises. Candidates run for office with specific platforms. They have ideas and issues on which they campaign, and without electioneering, how would the voter know which candidate has the best vision? On TV, you can see who the best baseball player is. It’s harder, though, to identify the most brilliant idea or most innovative thought in a body of 5000 opinions.
Perhaps to resolve this problem we can think of leadership in an entirely different way. Daoist and Confucian notions of governance intersect and diverge in complicated ways that I do not claim to understand, but both philosophies seem to agree that the leader must be a quiet paragon of virtue—the sage, the gentleman, the nobleman who all naturally follow because of his (yes, it was gendered back then) personal goodness.
Maybe, then, Daoists and Confucians would be shocked to see our splashy electioneering and self-aggrandizing fliers posted around dorms. “The great ruler speaks little and his words are priceless. He works without self-interest and leaves no trace. When all is finished, the people say, ‘It happened by itself,’” Laozi wrote. And Confucius taught, “Lead them through moral force and keep order through rites, and they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves.”
If we accept this model of leadership, and if in some “Lost-ian” alternative philosophical reality we assume that Laozi and Confucius believed in democracy, which they probably wouldn’t, then election platforms and constituencies become moot. The voter casts a ballot for the person whom he thinks would, because of personal qualities, do the best job in a position. Voters posit that that person has better judgment and therefore accept his or her decisions even if they aren’t readily agreeable. Whether the voted person wants the job or not is irrelevant—leadership is a higher calling to which everyone in society must respond.
Is this too idealistic, too unrealistic a model for CCSC elections? Perhaps. But at the start of another election season, it’s worth rethinking our assumptions about campus democracy.
Amin Ghadimi is a Columbia College sophomore. He is the former Spectator editorial page editor. He is also a senior editor of Columbia East Asia Review and the secretary of the Bahá’í Club of Columbia University. The Way That Can Be Told runs alternate Mondays.