The Undemocratic Style Of The College Dems
The following was published in the Columbia Spectator just before the 2004 Election. It details the problems that plagued the Dems before the sweeping reforms that took place under Seth Flaxman. These same problems are endemic to student organizations, especially at powerful, career-oriented institutions like Columbia. They will never be entirely absent from organizations like the Dems, but concerted efforts on the part of both Executive Board members and General Body members can and have significantly lessened their insidious influence.

The Undemocratic Style of the College Dems
By: Brett Bell
Posted: 10/26/04

I resigned from the Columbia College Democrats this week after the organization convinced me that it was not worth my time or energy to commit to a group with such little transparency or inclusiveness. After serving two full years on the executive board, I feel I have an obligation to voice my opinion in a public forum. I hope that this statement will encourage meaningful change within the Columbia College Democrats, and will be received as a critique with an eye towards organizational change rather than as an attack on any of the individuals elected to serve on the executive board.

Many students, including the editors of this paper, have noted a lack of events planned for the days leading up to the November election by the College Democrats and other political groups on campus. Several events were cancelled or minimized because board members could not take on additional projects. Most organizations would see this as a sign that the group should engage more people in the event-planning process. Indeed, many successful organizations on campus operate with an event-based committee structure, allowing them to plan several events simultaneously and take on extensive projects. Why won’t the College Democrats expand the number of students involved if doing so would allow the organization to act on more ideas?

That’s not the way the College Democrats is set up to do business. This is an organization with a structure and means of operating antithetical to the core values of the Democratic Party or to any organization concerned with accountability, transparency, or widespread participation. Granted, the lack of involvement of non-Executive Board members is an issue with which the Board has wrestled for the past few years. However, the existence of an executive board which is the sole planning, organizing, and decision-making organ in such a group precludes involvement by non-executive members.

The club constitution itself has antidemocratic elements that raise serious questions. Former presidents may retain a vote on the Executive Board; I know of no modern democracy in which former executives or officeholders retain what can essentially be a veto during close decisions. The vote of a former president broke a tie to decide who would fill recently vacated board positions. Furthermore, the club constitution stipulates a process held behind closed doors for filling board vacancies, with no real opportunity for the general body to approve or even give its opinion of the candidates.

Although the College Democrats clearly doesn’t hold a monopoly on political involvement on campus, it can function as a training ground for future political leaders. If Columbia’s future Democratic politicians are currently more concerned about holding onto power than with involving others or engaging in political dialogue, we as citizens should be worried.

But what are my specific reasons for resigning? Why not remain active in such an organization and try to change it from within? Changes have started to take place with an influx of new ideas, especially generated by the Dorm Captain program, in which students plan dorm-specific events such as debate watch parties or voter registration drives. This is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough fast enough. I couldn’t stay in the organization after seeing the exclusive way decisions continued to be made. I hope my resignation and this statement will call attention to the problems within the organization and perhaps spur those remaining on the Executive Board to consider changing the way the College Democrats do business.

All of these problems in the organization might not matter to the student body. Who cares about the internal politics of a bunch of politically-minded nerds? There are a couple of reasons why you might want to pay attention. One, your student activity fees subsidize this organization. The College Democrats receives the largest allocation from the Student Governing Board of Earl Hall, more than any other SGB-recognized group. Two, it is important for a student organization that claims to represent the political concerns of a mailing list of over 1,500 students to involve those students as much as possible in all of its proceedings.

The College Democrats, like any campus political organization, has a responsibility to foster political dialogue and to generate new ideas. The exclusiveness of the Democrats’ executive board and its reluctance to acknowledge the great variety of opinions within the Democratic Party prevents meaningful dialogue from taking place on campus. The College Democrats do this campus a disservice by behaving in ways that narrow rather than expand this important conversation.

The author is a Barnard College junior majoring in anthropology.

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