Purple Politics

I do not consider myself especially political. I watch the news regularly and check The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report to get a taste of both sides, but I have not allied myself to a particular party. I am a moderate made increasingly cynical by demonstrations of our failing system. Every question is a talking point, every conversation a moment to campaign and progress another victim of partisanship. Every year someone promises to change the way Washington works, and every year we are faced with “Washington as usual.”

You’d think it would be different at Williams. We don’t have to look out for 300 million people. The neighborhoods do not get electoral votes. And yet at the College Council (CC) debate I saw the 2008 presidential debates all over again, this time starring Ifiok Inyang, Emanuel Yekutiel, Jon Foster and Michael Leon. The cast was different, but the script stayed true: “experience” vs. “change.”

There is no denying that If and Manny are experienced. Both have been working hard since they got to campus, and even if they lose you will see both of them continue working to better our community. If and Manny consume everything this college has to offer, and like a Purple Cow, have four times the stomach for it and reliably produce milk … I mean results.

On the other hand, Mike and Jon are looking to bring “A Million Little Changes” to Williams College. They embrace technology, making YouTube videos for CC, and are looking to have press conferences. In times of economic crisis they turn to FDR (to advocate “fireside chats,” not spending). They are the enthusiastic underdog. They command a crowd and sound great (except when they’re being Waterstreeters). Sound familiar?

Despite their respective advantages, when asked about Adam Falk’s first year or the neighborhood system by the moderator, both tickets dodged the questions. Instead they repeated mantras. And you can’t fault them for it. We exist in a world where politicians repeat talking points instead of solving problems, and while Sunday’s debate was not the best venue for the necessary level of discussion, what I saw felt more like a product of the time we live in than of the time allotted. The problems of modern campaign culture have made their way into our pristine purple bubble, and they will remain because we know what wins elections.

Think back to your high school student government elections: How have things changed? At my high school, there was always this kind of dynamic, the funny guys and the overachievers. It was an annual exchange of personalities, rather than ideas, and too often the winners felt entitled rather than elected. My experience was that these elections are part-popularity contest, part-experience, with little hope that anything major is going to get done.

That should not be the case here. For a college less than .0000067 percent the size of this country, filled with some of the most gifted young minds from around the world, to present in miniature the troubled state of American politics is nothing short of remarkable. The parallels are eerie, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say we were witnessing one of the most intelligent political critiques I’ve ever seen.

But we don’t need a critique. We go to a small school with a finite number of problems. Most people know what the problems are, and want CC presidents with a plan to fix them. CC has such a specific role, a role that has been used effectively, that candidates should be proposing solutions within the confines of CC’s power. The old platform of “communication” and “creativity” (words on the lips of almost all of the candidates Sunday) is ironic in that it’s not creative and it doesn’t communicate anything. As Williams students we should demand more from our leaders.

The question is not who to vote for, but what makes CC different from Washington or the failed student governments of our high school days? We have all voted in these elections, and I imagine seen similar results. We have to escape from “politics as usual” and engage with the specific problems facing our community, not repeat political platitudes. What happens in Williamstown affects us long before what happens in Washington. If the College closes a dining hall, that will change your daily routine before any health care bill comes into effect.  There isn’t going to be a discussion on Capitol Hill about our financial aid policies any time soon. A red/blue divide in Congress doesn’t stop all of us from working together to better our purple home. Why should the way we approach campaigns be the same?
The challenge for both tickets is to make this election relevant and specific – it can’t be a popularity contest or an election parody. Whichever pair wins gets a mandate from the student body to voice our concerns to the administration. The future CC co-presidents may have the starring role in how student government affects our lives, but our community is like an ensemble piece. We all have a part to play in this election.