"D minus" for Democracy
The first time I encountered the idea of a class president was when I entered junior high school in the 7th grade. The institution of student presidents probably came about because some well-meaning school faculty members wanted to teach their students about the nature and processes of representative democracy. It must have been a pretty big success because the idea of a class president and other student offices is ubiquitous.
It strikes me that the use of such democratic methods is an effective way to instill in the young mind a respect for democracy. In this way, it is somewhat propagandistic, serving the needs of the State rather than the needs of the students. But that is somewhat irrelevant.
The first class election I participated in was a mess. There were three candidates for president. One put posters up all over school, saying “FREE MONEY! ok, now that I have your attention, vote for me for president.”
There was an assembly during which each candidate gave a speech. The second candidate stood up and began making outrageous promises, which he knew he would never be able to deliver on. He promised an end to homework, a doubling of lunch period, and even promised to lower the prices in the vending machines.
The third candidate got up and explained that, if he won, he was going to pay off each person who voted for him. It’s not clear how he would verify that who voted for him, but it didn’t matter anyway – he lost.
I don’t know how the votes were counted; I doubt that there were any kind of controls or safeguards on the process. Certainly there were no audits or third party certifications. There were probably no records kept.
The winner was the one who had made all the promises. Of course, in reality, the only purpose of the class president was to sit in meetings (I shudder to think how horrifyingly boring those must have been), to act as a figurehead, and to be the patsy of the school administration. Any time they instituted a new policy that they suspected might be unpopular, they made the class president get up in front of everybody and explain how great the new policy was, and how benevolent the administration was for enacting it.
The next year, there were all sorts of new rules concerning the election. The candidates weren’t allowed to offer money, and they weren’t allowed to make promises that they couldn’t deliver on. Of course, that didn’t stop the madness. The loser of the first election ran again but didn’t offer to give out money. Instead, he offered to distribute candy and other treats to those who voted for him.
The year after that, I entered high school. They already had an extraordinarily complex and bureaucratic system of rules dealing with student body elections. But, as is always the case, enterprising students were able to find loopholes to exploit for their benefit. It was clear that this cat-and-mouse game had been going on for some time. Each year, there would be additional rules, and the following year the students would find new ways around them.
One year, someone promised to allow every student to throw waterballoons at him if he was elected.
Another year a student printed thousands of photocopies of paper money and distributed them.
Anything to attract votes. The candidates used all manner of clownish schemes, none of them based on anything with any meaning or value.
Despite what I’m sure were the best intentions of the elected students, none of their presidencies had any kind of meaningful effect on anything in particular. Things went on the way they always did. The unelected, bureaucratic school administration had all the power and the elected students were nothing more than puppets, to be used to pacify and manipulate the student body.
As I was going through this travesty, my general opinion was that it was a total failure and a mockery of democracy. It seemed like the principles behind student elections had little to do with those behind actual elections.
It was only recently that I realized my impressions were wrong. The student elections weren’t a mockery of representative democracy; they were representative democracy itself. The freakish displays exhibited by the candidates were not perversions of the electoral process, they were predictable and inescapable features created by the very nature of democratic governance.
In the end, the process of student elections taught me more about representative democracy than I think even the originators of the practice could have imagined, or intended. It displayed the exact nature, at a microcosmic level, of all democratic institutions. The perceived failures were failures not specific to the school’s implementation, but rather failures intrinsic to the idea itself, failures which cannot be remedied without abandoning the whole system. Perhaps my experience at school is one of the reasons why I now favor such abandonment. And abandonment as soon as possible.