With apologies to the vast majority of my readers for whom this post will seem like inside baseball, I felt some need to comment on the recent election scandal for the Public Affairs Student Association (PASA) in my graduate school. The election was canceled and restarted after it became obvious that several people had taken advantage of the thing I noticed when I went to vote (once, and once only!): there was nothing to prevent people from stuffing the electronic ballot box with as many votes as they liked.
The aftermath has produced a number of indignant emails from disgusted students and members of the outgoing PASA administration, and has, predictably, earned the nickname “PASAGATE.” (Ugh, ugh, ugh. Can we please retire that obnoxious idiom?) The wrongdoers, presuming they are not soulless blood-sucking vampires, have been thoroughly shamed—unless they simply do not care about PASA and thought it would be funny, which is the most likely reason for this “fraud.”
As a longtime student of international affairs, I’m well-aware of how precious a vote can be, and how much we Americans can take it for granted. Even so, it also bothers me that voting has now become our most sanctified political act. I wondered vaguely how many of the people upset about this election scandal have ever been to a PASA meeting, or have any conception of what it does beyond organizing weekly happy hours and occasional larger parties. Do we have any right to be indignant about the corruption of democracy if we don’t ever act within that democracy beyond a vote once a year?
I include myself in that category; I’m as guilty as anyone. I also recognize the weird status of student government, as it takes on trappings of importance while acting on issues that are mostly very small in the grand scheme of things. As an undergraduate, I served on a student government at one of the most politically-obsessed schools in the country. I’m proud of the work I did there, and admired the efforts of many of my fellow staffers. Still, it was hard not to sigh and groan over some of the posturing and credential-chasing of some people in and around the student government, and even there in Washington DC, the majority of the campus couldn’t be bothered to care about what we did. It was at once both a thrilling political training ground and little league. It’s the nature of student government to struggle with questions of legitimacy, and there will inevitably be people who find it a self-obsessed joke.
An attempt to hunt down and further shame wrongdoers would likely only confirm that suspicion. Perhaps I’m just being my cynical self here, but it’s at least worth asking whether all the righteousness is merited. I want PASA fight on behalf of grad students for resources and encourage inclusivity and get us out into the community more and, yes, throw some good parties. PASA must avoid falling into solipsism. (What does PASA do? It goes after people who disrespect and abuse PASA!) Student governments certainly can do great work, but its members need some sense of perspective about what is really at stake. (Thankfully, the PASA members I’ve gotten to know in my time here have certainly had that sense of perspective.)
Some of the upset emails demand justice. Yes, justice would be nice, but more than anything, I’d hope for a little engagement beyond the election. If we don’t have that, what’s the point of PASA, anyway?