Let Direct Democracy Replace the SGA

By Guest Contributor

Student government at Middlebury is currently based on the principle of representative government; we elect a handful of senators with whom we entrust our decision-making power. Beyond voting every spring, the average Middlebury student does not participate at all in the process of student government. This idea of democratic representation is one of the most common forms of government in the world, so much so that when people today talk about “democracy” they are almost always referring to this representative system. For modern nation-states, this is essential; they are so large that traditional town hall or Greek city-state democracy would be impractical and impossible. But for the Middlebury student body, is this really the case? Are we really so large a community that participatory democracy would not work? Replacing the Student Government Association (SGA) with a government body made up of whoever wants to show up, debate and vote, overseen perhaps by an elected steering committee to provide structure, would not only be entirely possible at Middlebury, but would be beneficial.

In fact, after setting aside my biases of what modern “democracy” looks like, it is quite surprising to me that our student body does not have a directly participatory government. In general, Middlebury touts the degree to which students form an active and involved community, the administration makes an effort to get student input on an impressive range of issues and campus-wide movements like the divestment campaign demonstrate a genuine interest that many students have in affecting change at the College. What’s more, the community in which we live, the town of Middlebury, has a thriving form of participatory democracy. Like towns all across New England, Middlebury has regular town hall meetings where anybody can debate and vote on important local issues. If the town can do this, despite being more than three times our size, why can’t we?

But even if we can all agree it is possible, why do we need to change the SGA? In my opinion, the major flaw with our current system became obvious over our brief election season; there are people who want to participate in government, and who have unique and valuable ideas, who are needlessly turned away. What do we gain from this? If all the interested candidates were just all allowed to participate in government, without any election, would our student government all of a sudden become large, slow and ineffective? Of course not. Then why do we shut them out with our representative system? Even if every student who wanted could show up and be a member of the SGA, would it slow past the point of effectiveness? Probably not. So, what do we gain in shutting people out? Rather than truly representing the interests of the student body, all our current system does is pick a few winners whose views will be represented and ignores the rest. Why? Rather than having to compromise on one candidate’s basket of ideas, some of which we share some of which we don’t, couldn’t we just represent ourselves? I believe that a participatory system would allow our government to consider all viewpoints and, through open discussion and direct democracy, implement the best ideas that most accurately represent the interests of the student body.
It is important to consider, however, several drawbacks of direct democracy and how a new student government system could address these concerns. First, for the most controversial issues on campus, there is a risk of debate deteriorating into useless arguing if enough passionate people show up. This is the most compelling argument for representative government, even though such issues will most likely only come up once or twice a year. The rest of the time direct democracy faces the opposite issue: apathy. If our government is made up of whoever wants to show up, what do we do if no one wants to show up? Or, what about the issues that have only a few passionate supporters? These make direct democracy a vehicle for pet projects that are really not the business of the whole student body, and puts us at risk of having no one to handle the boring legislation that the SGA still needs to handle. However, both the issues of too much involvement and too much apathy have a simple solution: an elected steering committee and president to facilitate productive debate and ensure that at least a few people are accountable at all times. I believe that this solution offers the stability and consistency of our current system while still allowing everyone to participate in improving Middlebury. I hope that the new SGA takes this proposition seriously and takes time to consider why we have a representative system rather than letting students directly represent themselves.

CARTER MERENSTEIN ’16 is from Ambler, Penn.

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