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Why Don’t They Show Up?

How heavily attended should the college Senate be?

December 15, 2015

How heavily attended should the college Senate be?

I’ve been mulling this over lately.  Brookdale has a more robust routine turnout at Senate than I’ve seen elsewhere, but some folks think it should be even more so.  I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have seen great variation in college Senates elsewhere, so I’m hoping to get some sense of what has worked (or not) in other places.

At some level, of course, high turnout is a good thing. It increases the chances that people will know what’s going on, and what the major campus issues are. If the high turnout is evenly distributed among constituencies -- not a given, but if -- it can increase the chances of multiple perspectives being brought to bear on various questions. Ideally, high turnout both indicates and feeds high interest, which in turn leads to the most collective brainpower focused on shared issues. Even better, reasoned dialogue across ranks and roles leads to a better shared appreciation of our commonalities.

And sometimes that happens.

In practice, though, most people don’t attend to be edified. (Some do, but they’re rarely a majority.) Beyond a core group, most people don’t attend unless they’re upset about something. By that point, it’s often difficult to have reasonable discussions, because battle lines are already drawn. If the agenda for the next meeting started with “Resolved: Monetary Pay for All Employees Shall be Replaced by Compensation in Kit-Kats,” attendance at Senate would skyrocket, but I don’t think the overall effect on the college would be a new golden age of deliberative democracy. People who don’t usually show up, would, just to prevent something terrible from happening. Then, after the crisis had been averted, attendance would quickly regress to the mean.

In my poli sci days, we used to study voter turnout and the theories explaining it. One theory -- I remember George Will championing it, among others -- held that non-voting is a sign of contentment. This is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought. It sounds plausible until you look at the demographics of who votes and who doesn’t. For this school to be correct, we’d have to assume that the very wealthy are horribly oppressed, and the very poor are content. That fails the “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck” test.  

Another school looks at mediating institutions, like labor unions or political parties. Robert Putnam got famous by broadening the idea to include all manner of “social capital.” The idea here is that people vote when they’re prodded by people they care about and identify with.  That could mean a union, a church group, or even a bowling league. (Hence, “Bowling Alone.”)  

The strength of Putnam’s position is that it fits the late twentieth century quite well. But it doesn’t do a great job of explaining why voter turnout is higher in national elections than local ones, given that local ties are supposed to matter more. And it doesn’t explain the spike in voter turnout in 2008, when Obama rode a wave of new voters to victory, even as unions and bowling leagues continued to decline.

I was more convinced by the folks who looked at non-voting as a desired outcome of elite policies. Piven and Cloward argued in “Why Americans Don’t Vote” that voter registration rules were deliberately designed to discourage participation. (They wrote it in the 80’s, well before the voter-suppression wave of the last ten years.)  Nina Eliasoph argued in her brilliant “Avoiding Politics” that certain social norms within the culture make it difficult for people to “own” the role of citizen, and that those norms were deliberately reinforced at all sorts of levels. Her argument flipped Putnam’s on its head; in her view, social ties often precluded politics.  

Still, the most persuasive perspective I’ve seen argues that people are likelier to vote against something than for something. This is why David Duke’s run for governor of Louisiana in the early 90’s occasioned record-breaking voter turnout among African-American voters; faced with the prospect of putting the Grand Dragon of the Klan in charge of the state police, folks who had never bothered to vote before suddenly did.  Looking back at most of my own votes for various candidates, more of them were motivated by stopping A than supporting B.  

Given that the campus is unionized, and nobody has to register to vote in the Senate, I don’t think some of the national explanations really apply locally.  But the last one probably does.  Outside of a smallish group of unusually public-spirited types -- in which I include myself -- most participation is sporadic, and occasioned only to prevent catastrophe.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it seems to be a persistent thing.

Wise and worldly readers, are there better explanations? And are there consistently successful ways to make shared governance both more widely shared and a more positive influence on campus?



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