This week, I have received four e-mails sent over class listservs asking me to vote for certain candidates for Undergraduate Student Government president and vice president.
My gut reaction to these e-mails was disapproval. Course e-mail groups are meant for academic communications, I reasoned, and were therefore inappropriate places to advertise for USG candidates.
Furthermore, as the e-mails were sent out by the candidates’ friends, the candidates’ ability to reach voters via this medium depended more on their popularity — or at least the size of their social networks — than on their qualifications to lead.
It seems inherently unfair that some candidates could take advantage of this form of free advertising while others’ campaign slogans never even reached my inbox.
Upon further consideration, however, I realized the folly of my initial response.
Every USC student knows that although course e-mail lists are intended for communication about the class, they are often used for other reasons. Nobody likes being invited to take a survey by one of last year’s classmates, but in college, such invitations are a fact of life.
Although the candidates’ ability to take advantage of the e-mail lists can certainly vary, this is really no different than any other form of promotion.
Friends handing out flyers on Trousdale, posters and billboards around campus, and most of all, word of mouth — aspiring USG leaders’ ability to take advantage of any of these is determined first and foremost by the number of peers they have who are ready to take up their cause.
There were some genuinely positive aspects of the e-mails I received. Before reading them, I had no idea what any of the candidates’ positions were. Now I know about proposals to increase off-campus transportation or extend the Campus Center’s hours. Were it not for the friends’ outreach efforts, I would have been an uninformed voter.
These realizations translate into important lessons that can carry over to national, state and local elections.
There are serious problems with the way campaigns are run today in the United States. Campaign finance at best distorts political priorities and at worst serves as a vehicle for today’s equivalent of old-school, machine-style corruption.
The prominence of short television advertisements forces candidates to run on a platform of sound bites, and ultimately leads to dirty electioneering and smear campaigning. The 24-hour news cycle only exacerbates these problems.
I have previously written about the negative impacts these campaigning features have on politics and policy in America. They give too much influence to leaders from the fringe left and right, create a political climate based on personality instead of ideas and make it difficult for politicians to espouse the kind of complex thoughts necessary to tackle today’s increasingly complicated problems.
Just as with the USG elections, however, these corrupting influences can also be viewed as necessary evils in the process of informing a massive electorate eager to cast a vote but short on independent sources from which to learn about the candidates.
The growth of democracy is one of the notably great trends of American history.
Although it has led to a more unwieldy political process and sometimes diluted the quality of public discourse, the positive aspects of popularization and democratization — both moral and practical — far outweigh these negative impacts.
The 2012 Presidential campaign is already under way, especially the ongoing jockeying for the Republican nomination.
There are sure to be innumerable controversies that will be rehashed in 30-second spots which will undoubtedly not do the issues justice. More outrage will be directed toward these “dirty” campaign techniques.
We would be well served at those times to remember the lessons of the USG e-mails.
There might be downsides to the election tactics that have developed over the years, but that is the flip side of the coin of democracy that we cherish so much.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Fridays.