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Saturday, February 21, 2004
Common misconceptions of the ASUC
I had always thought that student complaints about the ASUC were related to specific problems: fiscal mismanagement, jockeying for power, and simple incompetence. But recently I found out that many students have complaints about the ASUC that reflect a basic misunderstanding of A) Democracy and B) Berkeley.
1. The underlying problem with the ASUC is that they're pursuing their own narrow interests instead of the interests of all students. Unity would solve everything.
Kevin thinks this is stupid because:
A) There is no 'United Students Policy.' The very fact that Senators are opposing certain policies demonstrates that 'all students' don't support them.
There isn't much that the entire student body would support wholeheartedly. Sports? No. The ASUC Ball? Not really. Israel's existence? Hardly. The ASUC's primary responsiiblity is allocating funding, which is inherently a partisan process. Either someone gets the money or they don't get it. There are no groups that can be funded that are pan-student. Even groups that get closer then others-- SUPERB, or the Squelch-- still exclude large parts of the student population. Who gets the last $500? the Jewish Student Union or Hardboiled?
Funds are limited, but demand is insatiable. In this case, the only possible solution is a representative government, with the understanding that the legislative battle will be vicious. But the compromises that emerge and the majority votes that allocate money are as fair as funding battles can be. What's the alternative? A clueless University Committee? No funding? Representation is the only accountable and representative method possible. A Senator elected by a constituency, if everyone represents their constituency, will do the best for all students by getting the best share of the pie they can from the budgeting process. 'Narrow interests lead to compromise' is the cornerstone of Democracy.
B) Any policies that are pan-student, the ASUC already wholeheartedly supports. The few student-friendly policies that are most reasonably inclusive are already the province of the Executive Branch, where there is no partisanship. Everyone is on board with lowering student fees. Everyone would love more lights on campus, and a Class Pass for BART, and superior DC options. But there's either nothing the ASUC can do about it, or they're doing all they can already.
Every year students complain that the Senators they elected don't fulfill their promises. True! But typically their promises are to push for student housing or get the University to do this or that. And the ASUC can't fulfill those promises.
Even more ironic is when Senators from weaker groups complain about 'narrow interests' stopping them when their proposals are shot down. Hello, if your idea couldn't get 11 votes out of 20, I doubt students as a whole support it. Your problem is not the Senators being partisan. It's that your friends didn't get enough votes last Spring. True, your proposal to spend $11,000 on volleyball courts at Soda would benefit students. It's just that that $11,000 could also go towards rebuilding Heller Lounge. And since you lost, your view is less popular, unless you believe that....
2. The Senate is not representative of all students
A) The Senate is surprisingly representative of students, demographically. Take a look at the constituences of the Senate and most will conclude that most groups are reasonably well represented. (Greeks... Engineers... Republicans.. Asians... Progressives... Indians...)
But even if they aren't representative of all students, it's not the Senator's fault. Many students didn't vote. If they had, they would be better represented. If you don't vote, I'm under no particular obligation to represent you. I worked my ass off to get elected on a 'Pro-Squelch' platform. I intend to fulfill those promises. If the anti-Squelch people had bothered to vote, they'd be able to get their side shown as well. That's basically why it's important that you vote.
B) This hard-hearted view of Democracy aside, almost all Senators do try to represent all students. It just so happens that there are many different visions of what 'serving all students' actually means. Maybe it means strictly following Senate finance bylaws. Maybe it doesn't. I doubt any Senators are actually thinking "Man, I think I'll really bone all students in favor of my narrow group." It's just easier for the losers to claim partisanship instead of acknowledging that their view of what 'all students' means is less popular.
3. Parties are the root of all evil and partisanship, formed by ambitious Senators to perpetuate their own power.
A) This is more possible then most. But the important thing to understand is that parties are not an aberration in our political system, one that can be rooted out with one ballot measure. They're an inevitable consequence of competition for a limited number of spots. Parties are superior at getting people elected to Executive positions and filling up the Senate. If you want to win, the best way to go about is to start a party. And if your opposition starts a party, you owe it to your constituents to do the same, if you want to be able to compete. It's no wonder that every anti-party group in the Senate ends up either starting a party or dying out.
It's very possible to weaken parties; for instance, banning party names on the ballot. That might be a good idea. But remember that it's not Senators fault they're forming parties. They aren't doing it to grasp at power. They're doing it because they have no choice, should they want to compete. All the evils that come from parties-- and there are very many-- are just a consequence of this basic fact of electoral competition.
I was really surprised by how many of these complaints are really complaints about the logic of Democracy. In Democracy, representing constituencies takes precedence before representing 'everyone.' In Democracy, parties are a consequence of competition, not ambition. Everyone seems to jump on the explanation that represents Senators as evil liars before the explanation that requires some knowledge of bargaining theory.
Cooter's 'Strategic Constitution' goes over it in detail.
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