When one thinks of democratic institutions and voting procedures it is often within the context of national and local governance. In other words, the societal apparatuses in place that allow citizens of a particular society to have a say, often through representation, in wide-reaching social and economic policies. However, this will not be the main subject of this post. Rather, the central focus will revolve around a surprising origin of democratic drama: Brown University’s most recent Undergraduate Council of Students’ (UCS) student body election. In this election, the UCS constitution was horrifically violated, populist rhetoric was espoused, and voting procedures were undermined. One might be tempted to assert that this election and constitutional debacle was a direct consequence of broader American democratic erosion. In other words, the degradation of American democracy has now impacted the ways in which other non-governmental elections are handled. While this would make a striking headline, it does not seem entirely accurate. At most, the UCS scandal is an interesting look into how populist rhetoric has trickled down into unexpected facets of our lives.
To begin, what exactly happened at Brown University? The problem seems to find its origins in the formation of the Student Government Association (SGA) after two referendums made the Undergraduate Finance Board and Class Coordinating Board equal branches of student government. In short, the SGA sought to standardize election procedures across UCS, the UFB, and the CCB. Many of the justifications for these changes, for instance the lowering of the number of signatures needed to run for office and the shortening of the campaigning period, were on the grounds of lowering barriers to entry and making the process more approachable for students and candidates alike. This would eventually lead to the SGA ending the traditional runoff procedure because they “felt that (these referendums) gave [them] the authority to run the elections…”. However, this action violated the UCS constitution and election bylaws which clearly states that, “Elections for these positions shall be by majority vote. In the event that no candidate for a position obtains a majority vote, a run-off election will be held…” This decision to contradict the constitution was seemingly done without the approval of UCS or any of the proper amendment procedures, as asserted by a number of UCS members. This blunder would eventually culminate in the recent UCS student body election. Three candidates split the UCS Presidential vote leading to the owner of the widely popular “brownumemes” Instagram account being declared the winner with only 34.5% of the vote. In response, the runner-up appealed the result, citing the constitutional violation, and urged for there to be a run-off. The appeal was accepted, eventually leading to a reversal of the original results, with the runner-up winning the run-off with over 60% of the vote. In the midst of this controversy, other constitutional violations were uncovered. For instance, UCS was supposed to form both an election board and election appeals board to handle voting procedures and complaints filed against the UCS and election board. This, as pointed out by both candidates, never happened. The election board did not have as many members as it was supposed to and the election appeals board was simply never created.
This debacle is revealing of Brown University’s student government’s broken and mismanaged democratic institutions. In many ways, it seems to be in line with global trends of democratic erosion. For instance, some of these events and decisions seem reminiscent of concepts like stealth authoritarianism. Stealth authoritarians rely on various mechanisms to undermine democratic institutions, often within the bounds of the very institutions they are eroding. Rather than arresting journalists that criticize the government, stealth authoritarians may instead sue said journalists for libel. In this case, the SGA made changes to voter procedures on the grounds that these changes would help democratic institutions. For example, ending the runoff procedure was justified with the claim that it made the election process simpler and easier to manage. As mentioned earlier, other changes were done with the claim that they would make the voting process more accessible. In practice, however, the lack of a runoff resulted in poorer representation of students and the transparency and accessibility that was promised never came to fruition. While on its surface, this claim might seem appealing, it paints the SGA in a far too malicious light. Rather than the SGA being a byproduct of modern democratic erosion or stealth authoritarianism, what is more probable is that these university students made shortcuts to save themselves time and effort. Not having a runoff means less work to be done. Many of the other promises and reforms made either were implemented or simply didn’t happen. These shortcuts and violations of the constitution are less a result of authoritarian tendencies and more so general incompetence.
In contrast to this, some of the rhetoric espoused by the brownumemes candidate and the reactions to the call for a runoff fall in line with strikingly populist language. In his effort to get elected President, the brownumemes candidate ironically asserted that students needed to fight the elites in office in UCS(these assertions have been taken down from social media). This language paired nicely with the candidate’s platform, an instagram account with over ten thousand followers that posts relatable memes for Brown University students. On top of this, when it was announced that the brownumemes candidate lost the runoff, many Brown students alumni commented on social media that the election had been “stolen” or that certain details of the election were suspicious. Others pointed to the “administration” claiming that they were the ones pulling the strings behind the curtain. These comments gained traction and are not easily dismissed. While the SGA’s actions were not necessarily a byproduct of broader democratic erosion, some of the rhetoric used election and students does have a populist strike to it, demonstrating the pervasiveness of populism in our lives culturally. Having said that, it should be noted that it might not be entirely accurate to assert that the brownumemes candidate is a “populist”. As individuals like Jan Werner Muller have argued, populism requires more than critiquing elites. One must also evade accountability and have a distaste for pluralism. They evade accountability, specifically argue their opposition is illegitimate and an immoral elite. These characteristics are not present in the brownumemes candidate’s platform.
Ultimately, while the UCS election controversy may have had symptoms of democraticerosion, it seems unlikely that they are a direct result of broader problems. Instead, this case is revealing of the ways populist rhetoric has entered many facets of our lives.