“University politics,” Henry Kissinger famously cracked, “are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
There are all kinds of politics at this university and yes, the stakes are usually small (hey, we have to practice for the real world somewhere) and they can indeed be vicious (though no more so than anywhere else). Recent political flare-ups have included everything from protests over war and affirmative action to the pitched battles between student groups on different sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to boycotts of certain publications.
Student politics here take the more conventional electoral form too, but compared to elections for state and national offices, the politics of the elections for the University’s student government, the Michigan Student Assembly, aren’t all that vicious – though they can certainly be dirty. Nary a year goes by without some scandal like the “shots for votes” incident, voting with stolen uniqnames and passwords, or campaigners improperly influencing voting. The infractions are usually discovered however, and the campaigns are relatively civil. The elections can be incredibly competitive though. I’ve seen more student political parties chewed up in MSA election cycles than I can remember. There was the once dominant Students Party, which, after a bad loss to a party created by defectors from their own ranks (the Blue Party) quickly fell apart. Blue itself lasted an impressive 4 years, but with its loss of the presidency in a squeaker last year to the Students First Party and a pathetic showing in the fall elections, Blue has gone the way of its Students Party forbearer.
The disappearance of old parties never means lack of competition because new parties spring up in just about every winter election. They’re often run by those with MSA experience and ambition, but who were left out of office or opportunities for advancement by the electoral success of a party they didn’t belong to. Parties are the vehicles most students use to run and win elections. They’re often driven by a few people who build an organization and slate of candidates around their own candidacies. I imagine this is the reason parties tend to fall apart so easily; without the original energy of founders focused on a goal they were driven enough to take the time and expense to form a whole party to achieve, parties often can’t compete with newer and more motivated challengers.
While it sounds like a preposterous principle for a political party, those parties that do the best in elections are those that purport to be reaching out to and representing everybody and all their views. Niche players don’t usually fare very well, even when the niches appear quite large. Take the University Democrats, for example, a party that, given the political demographics of the student body, might have been expected to do quite well on the basis of its name alone (though it sported an impressive list of student groups backing it as well). Its candidates fared poorly, winning only a handful of seats in two elections before fading from the scene. Another niche player – and the oldest existing party – is the often controversial, often marginal, but uniquely resilient Defend Affirmative Action Party. DAAP has had its ups and downs over the years, but seems to have settled (involuntarily) into the role of being a minor fixture with most of it seats coming from graduate programs.
Aware that broad-based (in name at least) parties do the best and of the problems even explicitly liberal parties have getting elected, a recurring phenomenon over the years has been groups of conservatives forming mainstream-sounding parties to try to get themselves onto MSA. They have had varying degrees of success, from the nonstarting New Frontier Party, to the disgraced and disqualified Wolverine Party, to the relatively successful Michigan Party. One way to pick these parties out is that they usually explicitly campaign against the widely-criticized (though I doubt it moves many votes) practice of passing MSA resolutions on national issues, which are often used to express support for liberal causes.
That would indicate this year’s primarily conservative party is the new University Party; which is merely a hypothesis, though they are running a candidate, Adam Haba, who wrote a bizarre e-mail forwarded widely around campus in which he responded to an invitation to an African American cultural show, by writing, among other things, “I refuse to sit through an hour of ‘I hate whitey’ racial slurs, in your ‘nazi-esque’ attempt to convince me that I am the cause of your oppression, for the sole reason that I am white.” On the plus side, their website does contain the best campaign line I’ve ever seen: “Tracy Bell loves Taco Bell!”
Cunniffe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.