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What if DSG had political parties?

On April 11, 2012, the University of California, Berkeley’s student senate met to discuss an executive order issued by their student body president. Her order had overturned a referendum that increased student fees by $2 in order to close The Daily Californian’s budget deficit. After a video of the meeting was posted online, a link to it was sent to me, and I shared it widely with my fellow student government junkies. The meeting was not itself controversial, or even very entertaining, but it was an inspiring example of the way a student senate should operate. In that senate meeting there was substantive discussion from the beginning to the end, discussion that was balanced and determined, but never divisive. It is a video I still discuss with members of student governments across the nation, because I am envious and wish all universities had political institutions that operated with such diligence.

Berkeley is famous for its student politics and advocacy, and this could be a driving factor behind the intensity of their student government. But members of Duke Student Government are also political, capable and fantastic advocates, and they are not flippant about their jobs. Instead, it seems a few institutional factors unique to Berkeley have yielded a student government that is substantively partisan. This partisanship is adversarial, which at times appears uncomfortable on a college campus, but it is a partisanship also committed to results, and it rarely wavers from its task. Could Duke have a more effective student government if we designed ourselves to be a little more adversarial?

What makes Berkeley different? First, students are more invested in their student government. Hundreds of students turn up for election watch parties, around 13,000 votes are cast every year, and hundreds of students volunteer with student campaigns. Despite the large following, the number of student elected officials is small. Most student governments have 50 to 70 members; Berkeley has just 20 senators. A smaller legislative body means that every race is hotly contested and thoroughly vetted by the electorate. Additionally, the smaller Senate provides more intimate and purposeful discussion, giving legislation increased depth and context.

The second unique feature of Berkeley’s student government is the presence of political parties. There are three main student political parties at Berkeley: Student Action, SQUELCH! and CalSERVE. While these political parties do have unique policy goals, it appears that they exist more for the organization, networking and consolidation of political power. These parties are made of students who have experience campaigning together, are united on policy objectives and are further bounded by their party’s camaraderie. The existence of political parties leads to more student outreach, targeted campaigning and actionable policy goals. The most important feature of Berkeley’s political parties is their ability to overcome transient membership within student government. Political parties establish reputations and legacies, so elected students are actually held to the platforms they propose to complete while in office. On other campuses, student politicians are rarely held to their platforms because the consequences are minimal if they will be leaving campus in a year. It becomes easy to promise much and return little.

The final unique feature of Berkeley’s student government is not a part of the student government at all, but rather, the quality of The Daily Californian. Berkeley’s student newspaper covers its student government differently than how its peer institutions cover student politics—stories are issue and events-driven rather than regularly recurring articles. The increased flexibility to cover student government provides more room for investigative journalism. The Daily Californian breaks stories of campaign malfeasance, so opponents do not have to do the work themselves, and it thoroughly evaluates the policy and programming proposals of candidates. Additionally, The Daily Californian has extensive multimedia content—they post videos of student government meetings, thereby heightening the standard for substantive conversation. More than any government structure or norm, the existence of a robust, opinionated and critical press makes Berkeley’s student government enviable.

Berkeley is a very different school from Duke, and some of their practices would not work well here. Their larger student body also gives them a labor advantage when it comes to staffing journalists and campaign volunteers. Unfortunately, after speaking to a few students at Berkeley who are not directly affiliated with student government, I have also learned how student political parties can go terribly awry. Some political parties at Berkeley are rumored to have demanded that their executive and senate candidates change their appearance before an election and end romantic ties to controversial students. Whether or not these rumors are true, they do recall some of the worst characteristics of any political party. Parties often abandon integrity to maintain power—I am reminded of the smoky methods once used in American politics to select party nominees before the primary system was introduced. Nevertheless, Berkeley provides an interesting model to evaluate when we consider the flaws in our own system of government. One wonders what Duke Student Government might be like if there were fewer unanimous votes and more partisanship. We might see more substantive discussion of dining options, tailgate and endowment transparency.

Patrick Oathout is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Patrick a message on Twitter @PatrickOathout.

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