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Representative democracy and the Student Union Senate’s failure to uphold it

Editor’s note: As an independent news source for the Brandeis community, The Hoot and its editorial board support publishing all opinions of our students, faculty and staff. As such, The Hoot does not serve as an arbiter on the sensitive topics herein. The views expressed within are not necessarily reflective of the beliefs of The Brandeis Hoot or its editorial board.

I found the Student Union Senate’s decision to reject the resolution condemning Hamas’ actions in Israeli territory on October 7 to be deeply troubling. For the purposes of this article, my contentions do not lie with the outcome the Senate reached, but with the procedure it used to reach its decision. The Senate voted on this resolution anonymously, meaning the student body does not, at the time of writing, know which senators voted for or against the adoption of the resolution. This is disturbing because a representative body, which the Union claims to be, governing in accordance with democratic principles, which the Union professes to do, cannot be representative nor democratic in anonymity. Votes that are cast by representatives anonymously obstruct the transparency constituents are entitled to in a democratic scheme and makes holding elected officials accountable to their actions nearly impossible. In what follows I ask readers to leave their identities and the views that those identities carry at the door (or rather, at the top of the page). This is not about particulars, this is about principles. This is about whether our Union can legitimately claim to be democratic and whether it indeed represents this student body. 

Before I build on the claims I advanced above, allow me, as I have asked of you, to leave my identity at the top of this page. I shall do this by initially positing that yes, of course, I have my view on whether the Senate should have adopted the resolution. However, the purpose of this article is not to express that view. If you want to know my view, you are welcome to ask. I’m around and am easy to get a hold of. Secondly, yes, I’ve made and will continue to make moral judgements about Hamas’ actions on October 7. Given that I do not write in anonymity, by mere virtue of my last name, you can discern where my loyalties lie. If you are unsure of where I stand on this issue and want to find out, you have a plethora of avenues to explore which will provide you with an answer. I’m not famous on this campus but am known well enough. Though, and this is crucial, if I do a fair-enough job writing this article, these two factors should not affect the validity of my argument. My identity and personal opinions on all of this do not pertain to what follows. In fact, no one’s opinions about the resolution or its subject matter should affect the validity of this argument because my argument is concerned with the procedure the Senate used to vote on a resolution, and not the ethical status of the subject matter of that resolution. 

Now that we’ve dealt with preliminaries, I’m going to move to the substantive details of this article.

Let’s begin with establishing what the Union is as a body. The preface of its constitution states that the Union is comprised of undergraduate students who aim to “provide meaningful address of student concerns.” Fundamentally, the Union is an association of undergraduates who serve to ameliorate discontents that the undergraduate body, writ large, has with the University and its processes. The Union serves as a formal mechanism to uniformly voice disgruntlements the student body possesses. 

Now that we have established what the Union is as well as its mission, we must now understand how the Union sets out to satisfy this mission. The preface of its constitution claims that the Union seeks to address the subject(s) of student concerns, “through the principle of democratic representation.” I will dissect this principle by first providing a definitional basis for ‘democracy’ as it is conceived of in literature authored by democratic theorists. I will follow this initial discussion with one of the same nature to explain the principle of ‘representation’ as it has been constructed by scholars of political theory. 

Historically, the term ‘democracy’ has been used as a kind of ‘umbrella term’ to encompass anything and everything, of political nature, that an association desires for itself. This has led to a kind of “bloating” of the term such that, in the common lexicon, it paradoxically means both everything and nothing simultaneously. In response to this, a school of political theorists, known colloquially as Democratic Minimalists, gained notoriety in the mid-to-late 20th century by writing extensively on what they believed democracy is at its core. Their goal was to strip democracy of all the normative bells and whistles generations of theorists, activists, and laypeople attached to it. Although I have my own philosophical contentions with this approach, the conception of democracy forged by this group of theorists is useful for our ends. According to the Minimalists, democracy is simply elites competing for the votes of an electorate in regular elections (Przerworski 1999, 23; Downs 1957, 137). I know this definition probably feels unsatisfactory: many of us may believe that democracy is so much more than simply regime change without bloodshed (Przerworski 1999, 23). Yet, for our present purposes, let’s suppose this definition is enough. 

Having established a definitional base for our understanding of democracy, I will now do the same for the notion of representation. The Concept of Representation, the seminal work by Hanna Pitkin—a mid-century American political theorist—provides us with a spectrum depicting the different conceptions people have of what representation ought to be. On one end, we have the strict mandate camp, wherein believers stipulate that true representation demands that a representative must act only in accordance with their constituents’ explicit instructions (Pitkin 1967, 146). Mandators argue that any deviation from these instructions violates the representative’s duty to their constituency. While, on the other end of the spectrum, we encounter the independence theorists who argue that such a criterion is much too stringent, and that the whole point of electing a representative is to select a capable, free-willing agent who ought to be able to call the political shots (Pitkin 1967, 147). Independentists argue that a constituency does not always have a view on every topic that will inevitably come before a representative, and thus, preserving the discretionary power of the representative is essential. 

Importantly, the positions sketched above are merely the extreme ends of this spectrum. There are many conceptions of representation that lie in between these two poles (Pitkin 1967, 148). Pitkin herself holds a kind of median position on the question. She provides us with a simple definition: representation means, “making present something which is nevertheless not literally present” (Pitkin 1967, 144). Essentially, a representative must act in the interests of their constituency and in accordance with their wishes. To the trained philosophical eye, I know this understanding of representation requires further explanation, but for the sake of brevity, let’s assume the definition I have provided above is complete for all intents and purposes. 

Having provided a theoretical foundation for democracy and representation, I will now move to discuss the voting procedure the Senate used and why I find it so disconcerting. I ask that, in all that follows, my criticisms not be taken as an attack on senators as individuals, but rather, that these critiques be understood in light of the definitions that I have flushed out above.

We, the undergraduate student body of this university, participate in regular elections to select members from our “polity” to serve as representatives of our interests. We elect these people—let’s call them elites—with the understanding that they will carry out our will and do what is best for the student body as often as they can to the best of their abilities. We trust these elites with our interests, voices, and collective power as an association with many weighty stakes in this university to do what is in our interests. That is why we think and refer to them as our ‘representatives.’

The anonymous vote, taken by the Senate, to reject the resolution condemning Hamas’ actions Oct. 7 is a grave violation of this trust. As circumstances currently stand, members of the student body do not have an impartial way to know whether their Senator voted for or against the resolution. Put differently, undergraduate students do not know whether their Senator acted in their interest or in accordance with their wishes. Moreover, how can undergraduate students be “made present” under conditions wherein the vote to adopt or reject a proposed resolution is taken anonymously? They, quite literally, cannot because their representative is not even present, in full view, on the mechanism used to tally the vote. So, firstly, our Senators have failed in their capacities as representatives. 

However, this is not where the egregiousness of this vote ends. Even the most minimalist conditions for democratic governance demand that accountability play a key role in the workings of government. Presently, the student body—which is comprised of many students with a plethora of views regarding the subject matter of the resolution, the resolution itself, and the fact that it went before the Senate—has no way to hold the Senators accountable to their actions. Why? Because the vote to adopt or reject the resolution in question was anonymous. Without a record of which Senator voted to adopt or reject, students cannot judge for themselves whether their Senator represented them or their interests on this vote. And in the event that such a student would not, in fact, feel represented by the vote their Senator cast, they have no way of holding them formally or informally accountable. Thus, secondly, our representatives have failed to govern in accordance with democratic principles, which their constitution guarantees to undergraduates. 

Now a Senator, seeking to save whatever semblance of legitimacy is left of their institution, might claim that Senators chose to make the vote anonymous as they feared publicizing this vote would endanger the safety of voting members. To this Senator, I retort firstly, to make a vote on a resolution pertaining to among the most contentious issues on this campus anonymous, and not even consult the student body on whether it should be public is illusory at best and deceptive at worst. We, the undergraduates who put you in this position of power, deserve and are, in fact, entitled to a say on this. Make an emergency referendum, conduct an Instagram poll, get creative, whatever—the least you owe us is a say. Secondly, you all, senators of the Student Union, have enormous resources. If you seriously fear for the physical safety of your voting members, get in touch with Public Safety. I’d venture to guess that Ron Liebowitz’s office would be happy to provide you all with personal bodyguards. Safety is not the real fear here. In fact, and this is my final rejoinder, it’s not your physical safety that you all fear, it’s losing your positions of power

The only way to assure you all get to keep your positions, no matter which way you voted on this resolution, is to make the vote anonymous. As, when voting is done in anonymity, undergraduates cannot hold you accountable to your actions. Formally or informally. They cannot sanction you; they cannot move to remove you from your position; nor can they even expect to pressure you socially because they do not have the information required to do so. 

So, what are we left with? We are left with a body of elites acting as so-called “representatives” who govern “democratically,” and yet, in fact they neither represent us or do so democratically. We are the constituents of a body of elites who chose to cowardly hide behind anonymity instead of facing up to the consequences of voting for what they may have (rightfully or wrongfully) believed to in the interests of their constituents or in accordance with their wishes.

Let me be very clear here: if you fear accountability, democratic politics is not for you. If you fear having to answer for your decisions—whether they be good, bad, informed or ignorant, passionate or disinterested—being a representative will not be a fruitful vocation for you. Politics is not for the fearful or the risk-averse. My trust, and the trust of all your constituents, dear members of the Brandeis Student Union Senate, has been shattered. This is not representation. This is not democracy. And the worst part is, there is no way to repair this appalling mishap because you all were too fearful of carrying out what your role, which we put you in, demanded of you.

We, the undergraduates of this university, deserve better. We are fundamentally entitled to information about our Union. Making this vote, of all votes, anonymous was neither in our interests, nor in accordance with our wishes. It was undemocratic and amounts to a serious violation of the student body’s trust in its Union.

Sincerely, a very disgruntled constituent, GDN.

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