One sentiment has been a constant in the undergraduate student government for the last 10 years: Until the politics get vicious, the stakes are too low.
This year’s Undergraduate Students Association Council election has only 17 candidates running for 15 offices. Three positions received zero candidate applications. There is only one slate featured on the ballot.
That’s a stark difference from previous ballots. Last year, 39 candidates ran for 14 positions. The year before, 21 people ran. Never in this decade, and maybe multiple decades before it, has an undergraduate student government position at UCLA received zero candidate applications.
It’s hard to pin down why this year’s candidate pool is desiccated. Perhaps it was the election board’s upheaval and later mangling of the candidate application process. But candidate interest has ebbed and flowed over the years alongside USAC’s major controversies. Increased controversy is often correlated with increased interest in student government participation – something that was missing this school year.
This makes one thing painfully clear: USAC engagement runs on the unsustainable fuel of outrage politics. Take out the outrage, the pettiness and the controversies and student body interest evaporates.
We can see this in recent history. Heightened debates at American colleges, especially at UCLA, over divesting from Israel and the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict meant USAC saw more interest from the student body that year. Thirty candidates ran in that year’s election and 25 would run in the next – many more than the 16 candidates who ran in 2012.
Interest in USAC subsided again once the divestment debate settled down and the 2015-16 council passed a constitutional amendment restricting the council from passing resolutions about nonuniversity matters. Just 19 candidates ran in the 2016 election, with only three contested positions, while 21 ran in the next year’s.
The next drama-boost to USAC’s engagement was supplied by Danny Siegel, a Bruins United candidate and 2016-17 council president, whose infamous invocation of a gang symbol in a leaked photo outraged the student body. Organizations of students of color assured Siegel they still had political power despite having moved away from USAC. Sure enough, Bruins United suffered major losses in the 2017 election.
With the usually dominant Bruins United weakened, potential USAC candidates smelled blood in the water. Unsurprisingly, 39 candidates ran in 2018, one of recent history’s largest candidate pools.
The ebb has once again followed the flow. This year’s council has steered clear of any major partisan controversies. Add in that the election board has been, to say the least, a mess and it’s no wonder interest in USAC is at an all-time low.
The troubling implication is that students don’t run for USAC to make UCLA a better place, but instead because they want to join faddish political movements or are upset about their elected officials.
That’s an unsustainable way for a student government to function. It generates ill-equipped, reactionary candidates. And the perennial peaks and nadirs in student engagement mean numerous university issues seasonally fall by the wayside.
And despite the lack of outreach from the election board, students legitimately interested in running for USAC – even just to pad their resume – wouldn’t need it advertised to them.
Vicious and divisive politics are too steep a price to pay for student engagement. Drama sells, but USAC should be more than a scrappy form of entertainment for Bruins.