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Davis

Davis, California

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Column: Civic education

When I was but a youngin’, a first year Aggie, I was not terribly optimistic about the state of our student government. You could say that I drank the kool-aid by denouncing the corruption, inefficacy and self-righteousness of the Associated Students of UC Davis. Of course, I couldn’t tell you what ASUCD did or who served on it, much less identify an underground blue book smuggling operation, cash embezzled in Coffee House freezers, insider class scheduling or some other kind of Aggiegate.

But the point wasn’t to have my unfounded characterizations vilified. With a little backward-looking introspection, I would argue that my skepticism was thinly veiled signaling. To write off student government as a gaggle of blowhards and tryhards was a positional statement meant to illustrate to others that I was neither blowhard nor tryhard myself. You might be able to tell that I don’t feel the same way anymore. From anecdotal observation, though, it seems to be the case that my former skepticism is not uncommon among the student body. There are two problems with this.

First, a skeptical attitude to ASUCD is an attitude of disengagement, one of low (or worse, no) expectations. In this way, the skeptics’ view of student government welcomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The consequence of this issue is manifest in the previous and current election. In the former, we saw disengagement incarnate with six senate seats contested by seven candidates.

In the latter, while we have many more candidates, I would argue that the expectations of such candidates are lower. Here my own (lack of) experience may be worth noting, but at least a few of candidate platforms could be readily accomplished without a senate seat — to me that means they should be done without a senate seat. In other words, I want something more from the current spate of campaign promises.

Second, a skeptical attitude to ASUCD today is apathy toward government tomorrow. In the future, it’s less likely that someone skeptical of ASUCD will project the same blowhard and tryhard characterizations onto federal or state politicians. But because their formative adult years habituated a negative association with governance, they’re less likely to vote, less likely to hold politicians accountable, less likely to care.

Let me be clear, I’m not calling for undue praise of ASUCD. For the purposes of this column, there’s a difference between skeptical and critical. Where skeptics dismiss ASUCD, a critic could aggressively engage with student government precisely because they hold elected officials to a high standard. To be a critic, you need to be informed. Skeptics predicate their cynicism on willful ignorance. Critics are in the business of busting chops.

So what do we do about it? In some sense, much of the change we need calls for a collective paradigm shift. Some of that change can come from running or elected candidates themselves if they decide to pursue an ambitious agenda. That kind of change cannot be enforced.

Because my own skepticism was fueled by a vague, uninformed set of opinions, I think what we need is some good old-fashioned ASUCD civic education. Entering students ought to know what ASUCD has accomplished (or even failed to accomplish) in the past, how things get done in student government and what the potential of senate or executive offices holds for possible change. At the present, most of us don’t possess this knowledge because we don’t need to — with or without our understanding, people will continue to run, bills and resolutions will continue to pass and nuances will continue to get scrutinized over six hour meetings.

As for me, I’ll keep looking for that Aggiegate.

You can wish RAJIV NARAYAN a final undergraduate birthday today at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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