Where are we now? Princeton and Politics Post-Gansa

For two weeks between the debate on divestment and the fervor of Ferguson Will Gansa took over Princeton’s campus. Who is Will Gansa you may ask yourself? Even as one of his campaign managers, I’m still not sure that I know. Some say he is a firebrand leader, some say a sexist; like all things, the truth is probably somewhere in between. At least that’s what he told us in a New York Times article covering the recent Princeton Undergraduate Student Government (USG) election. Regardless of the character he may or may not be, Gansa’s uncanny run for president raised some questions about student life on a college campus.

His platform touted the superiority of waffle fries and a need for greater structural integrity in our fruit. This compared with Ella Chang, who eventually won in the runoff election with a platform calling for policies ranging from more accessible financial aid programs to the establishment a campus pub. The Gansa joke spread like wildfire. Princeton loved it and those who didn’t love it loved to hate it. Like every political maverick, Gansa had his critics. They called him out for mocking the election and propping up an already existent patriarchal culture. A girl could never have pulled off the joke, they said, and the whole ordeal was just evidence of cultural norms: white males win. But whether it was the critics, the Gansa pun-enthusiasts, or those who genuinely wanted to know if he was serious, people began discussing everything about the election, from feminism to the role of USG. Walking through dining halls and scrolling through Facebook or Yik Yak (a geographically focused, anonymous Twitter), USG was a topic of widespread discussion, possibly for the first time in years. Sure, some people were talking about waffle fries, but for most, it was their first time even considering campus politics.

What happened next was honestly, a bit scary. Princetonians didn’t just talk; they followed through and voted. In the 2013 USG presidential election there were 1,981 total votes cast. This year, in the regular election, that number jumped to 2,704. The 36% increase in voter turnout swelled again in the runoff between Gansa and Chang to 3,116. That’s 3,116 out of 5,244 undergraduate students, or 59.4% of the electorate. Compare that to 58.2% in the 2012 Presidential election. Many people have a lot to say, both good and bad, about the past election cycle, but all of that aside, it’s hard to ignore what the numbers say: Will Gansa’s run, if only for two weeks, changed campus politics.

The election was facilitated largely through social media. The candidates did not make public appearances and most information was conveyed through campaign websites. Gansa’s website contained hardly any personal information or details about what he really stood for. How would he get more waffle fries into the dining halls? Or ripen campus fruit for that matter? Bike reform, the third spoke of the platform, was never explained, even in a video purporting to do so. Yet, Princeton students, mostly through Yik Yak, latched on, inventing their own meaning for what seemed to be a totally nebulous campaign. Gansa was a political visionary or genius satirical comedian, with one post even commenting that he would go on to write for Colbert. Everyone seemed to have a theory.

Despite the initial interest, the hype on campus was a flash in the pan. For two weeks it was all we could talk about. It offered up a humorous break in the mundanity of our day to-day routines of class, work, sleep, class, work, sleep… But talk quickly died down after the results were posted and Ella Chang was announced as the next President of USG. The joke was old, washed up, done with and we moved on to the next issue that shook up our daily lives. That new issue just happened to be Ferguson. We protested and demonstrated for another two weeks and then went home for break. We seemed to lose interest in the exact same way. Campus ate up every piece of election news, only to abruptly lose interest.

The engagement with the election was eerily reflective of the general pattern by which we consume information. We get all of our news online. The U.S. is enduring what has been declared ‘the death of print journalism.’ The most recent of these developments was the overhaul of The New Republic just this December. The liberal intellectual magazine’s editor Franklin Foer was forced to leave by owner Chris Hughes. When Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor, and many more staff writers also left with Foer it was seen as a bloodletting that would mean the collapse of the magazine.

Ever since it began in 1914, The New Republic was a bastion of traditional print media. Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann founded the magazine, as Croly put it, “to give certain ideals and opinions a higher value in American public opinion.” The goal was to espouse the ideas of a new American liberalism, a movement based in critiques of the status quo, a call for a better society. For The New Republic such a critique did not exist without principled analytical thinking and deep, investigative journalism.

A century later, however, the business model wasn’t working. Like many other print news sources, the magazine announced in December that it had been forced to cut down on print issues. Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, bought the publication in 2012 and with the early December announcement came the decision to change the magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company.” To many involved, this and other jargon sounded like the rhetorical flourish of start-up movements and Silicon Valley.

It would be too simplistic to say that the conflict at The New Republic ultimately boiled down to what the magazine would prioritize going for ward, digital media or in-depth longform journalism. Hughes had a vision of an online publication complete with pictures, videos, and an active social media presence. The writers who left acknowledged the needs of a business in a digital age, but had qualms about the way that changes were being made. The weeks leading up to the mass exodus were tumultuous and filled with personal politics, but the entire incident is reflective of the crisis for journalism at large: balancing readers and viewership with high-quality reporting.

The way in which we take in information is changing drastically. The internet has made it increasingly easier to access anything and everything and this has forced the media to change its methods. Whatever we want to know is just a few clicks away after we pull up Google on our ever-ready phones and laptops. We can’t get enough. This phenomenon seemed to hit Princeton during the election. We got a hint of Gansa and got hooked. The three videos uploaded to the campaign website were not part of our daily routines, but they were consumed in the same way.

Like most Princeton students I often find myself procrastinating. But that procrastination has evolved from the mindless Middle School years of scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. Instead, I now waste my time getting around the New Yorker paywall (the monthly limit on articles is nowhere near enough) by searching for specific article titles. It is too easy to casually mine through various media sites for hours of my time. Hours…

Maybe this poor time management is reflective of a weakening of my will. Maybe it’s normal. But what continues to drive this activity is an overwhelming feeling of not knowing enough. There is always the nascent sense that more can be read; there is more out there being talked about and if I don’t know about it I’m falling behind. The result is a sort of mass consumption of information.

The digital age has increased the amount of information available and that in turn has often increased the amount we read. Hopefully it’s also increased public awareness of pertinent news issues. But the accidental effect has been oversaturation. Is an environment where we hoard mass quantities of information really conducive to analytical thought? Reading five editorials about the Michael Brown grand jury is not the same as forming your own opinion on the case. The “I read an article” defense used so often in casual discussion is not an argument, let alone an original one.

Any loss of critical thinking is only perpetuated by the feeling of drowning in a sea of news. Our frantic need to read more and more facilitates an environment where media output must focus on competing for our attention. Writing begins to favor time-effectiveness over substance. There’s an odd focus on efficiency, cutting word counts to attract hungry readers. Slate has begun putting “X minutes to read” next to online article titles. X usually being ten or less. Vox, a relatively recent phenomenon, combines the Buzzfeed style of catchy titles and sleek presentation with highly context-focused news. And then there’s whatever Chris Hughes and associates at the new The New Republic meant by “vertically integrated digital media company.”

As a guest on “The Colbert Report” in October, while still literary editor of The New Republic, Wieseltier described the United States as an open and democratic society. Such a society, he said “places an extraordinary intellectual responsibility on ordinary men and women because we are governed by what we think. We are governed by our opinions. So the content of our opinions and the quality of our opinions and the quality of the formation of our opinions basically determines the character of our society.”

Wieseltier’s words are chilling. They resonate, not only because they describe an ideal that America purports to live up to, but also because they may reveal the average American’s deepest flaw, acceptance of uninformed apathy as the norm. Does the change in the way that we engage with information inhibit our ability for civic engagement? Are we forming our own opinions? Can we form our own opinions? Or instead, are we just choosing from the opinions presented to us?

Joseph Schumpeter’s critique of a democratic society at large in Captialism, Socialism, and Democracy describes a society in which “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.” The democratic citizen will always be one who votes and discusses politics irrationally, solely with immediate self-interest in mind. Analytical thought is not involved. The Schumpeterian vision of democracy is the antithesis of Wieseltier’s ideal. It’s a sentiment reminiscent of the electoral truism, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

After the initial hype surrounding the election at Princeton, the same analysis was thrown full force at the Gansa campaign and its seemingly narrow-minded supporters. A counter movement followed the general election that saw many students passively attacking their peers who had voted for Gansa on the grounds that they were adhering to a herd mentality. The “if you care about your school, vote for Ella (Chang)” line was popular across social media. The sentiment that it portrayed was one that reflected deep care for the role of student government and civic engagement. It told us votes should be cast, not for the candidate who would provide the most laughs per capita, but for the best candidate for the campus community. It was an attack on apathy and narrow-minded engagement.

Unfortunately, the sentiment grew dangerously close to arbitrarily belittling a large portion of the student body. Anyone who voted for Gansa had bought into the hype. They had failed to do their due diligence as voters in a democratic system and really come to terms with what might happen if Gansa actually won. The assumption, at times was that any vote for Gansa was a thoughtless move of blind conformity. Critiques were not addressed at the campaign despite numerous issues that could have been raised about the efficacy of a joke candidate. He was talking about waffle fries for God’s sake! Instead, students felt the need to create a moral high ground from which they could belittle each other.

The problem with applying a Schumpeterian critique to University politics is one of scale. Put in the context of an election for President of USG, these attacks come off as a bit self-indulgent. How much does a vote for student government even matter? There is rampant voter apathy on most college campuses and quite honestly, it might exist for legitimate reasons. As alluded to earlier, students have extreme pressures on their time and are more than likely to prioritize that time in a way that favors work and social bonding over USG elections. When candidate platforms border on indistinguishable, offering similar solutions to the same issues year in and year out, is there really that much reason to allocate precious time for analyzing the minute differences?

Furthermore, most of candidates are well intentioned. There is no need to worry about student politicians being co-opted by special interests. One of Schumpeter’s conclusions was that in democratic societies there are “greater opportunities for groups with an ax to grind.” The idea that certain student groups with special agendas might gain some undue influence within the University community is as far fetched as the idea that administrators won’t have a huge say in each and every decision. Its probably safe to say that the vast majority of anyone who runs for USG, or any student government, is someone who wants to do so and will also do a good job. Being honest with ourselves, USG elections don’t have a lot at stake. They are by no means comparable to national, state, or even our local elections.

But this is at a University. Things do change when we look at the larger picture. Politicians are not our well-intentioned, like-minded peers. Voting in a democracy serves the specific function of checking power. Voters have the responsibility to remove from office those politicians who have made poor decisions. They must also work to keep such ineffective politicians out of office in the first place. None of this is news to anyone, but it asserts the necessity of analytical thought and deliberation in the voting process. In national, state, or local politics it is not easy to tell which candidate to vote for and thus, the responsibility of the democratic voter is a heavy one only increased by the influence of special interest groups.

Herein lies the scary piece of what we saw at Princeton in the recent election. The democratic process that we experience at college is not reflective of the same process that exists off campus, on the national scale. The student government electoral system is one in which votes matter little and the system functions in a way that makes it seem as if they don’t matter at all. Couple this with the digital age and consumption of information and the result is the perfect environment to launch a successful satirical campaign for student government. Some students get a little enjoyment out of something different happening on campus. Not a huge problem. But extend this underwhelming sense of civic responsibility to the real world while keeping the same less-than analytic political engagement? It may contribute to an uninformed, irresponsible populace—which is a problem if, as Jefferson told us, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

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