When Donald Trump first ran for the Republican Party nomination and then the US Presidency in 2016, his campaign was largely founded upon his “outsider status.” Trump asserted himself to be the antithesis to the political establishment which had dominated the White House. For the US presidential race such an anti-establishment stance can be considered radical, but the broader claim made hereby Trump is incredibly common in other election cycles.
Closer to home, within the AMS’s own elections we see a history of “outsider” candidates promising to break the mould and deviate from existing norms. For example, 2017 presidential candidate Jesse Hooton. Hooton openly admitted his lack of student governance experience in his platform and subsequently drew heavily on his background as a varsity athlete, as well as the unconventionality of his extra-curricular history prior to getting involved with the AMS. These were characterized as points of difference which gave him an edge on more typical candidates.
According to Dr. Ian Hill, an Assistant Professor on the history and theory of rhetoric, the appeal of the “outsider” in politics lies in public perception of the institution itself. “If the current government is acting in opposition to the people’s desires or needs then the system will seem broken,” he said in an email interview with The Ubyssey.
While it would be a bit melodramatic to draw comparisons between the political climates of the AMS and US federal government, the low voter turnout rates speak to a lack of engagement and even disenchantment with their representation. Outsiders become powerful when there’s an opportunity to prove they can fix the broken institution, whether by bringing a new audience to the AMS or by “draining the swamp” of the political bureaucracy.
What we witness in campaigns such as these is a desire in politicians to differentiate themselves from what they perceive to be the norms of the status quo. The premise here is something we’re all familiar with — you want to sell yourself as something new. Ironically, candidates in the same race(s) seeking to stand out often end up churning out very similar platforms. Across the candidate profiles for the many vice-presidential portfolios at the AMS, the resounding response to the question “what sets your platform apart from your opposition?” is a promise to focus heavily on student engagement and consultation, and the subsequent objectives of representing the average UBC student by “reaching out to the constituency” and “building and engaging community” can begin to feel like cliches.
Dr. Hill’s warning for these candidates is that promises which seem like cliches “will start seeming empty,” and eventually lead to their platforms appearing to be more generic.
He did underscore that the reason these promises are repeated over time is that the goals behind them have not been achieved. Voters seeking to scrutinize cliched-sounding arguments should ascertain whether the reforms proposed by the candidate are actually needed. For example, do they have a plan for overturning a previous history of past administrations inhibiting student participation and feedback? If so, the promise, in spite of the cliche, might remain cogent, Dr. Hill says, and this is where candidates can really stand out.
Along with cliches, buzzwords such as “engagement” form a central column in any AMS election. Platforms founded on “transparency”, “accountability” and “accessibility” are notably common within the AMS. And while Dr. Hill wasn’t aware of any particular notoriety in campaign history associated with these four terms, he observed that they would all represent, to most candidates and voters, “desirable goals for any government”. The rhetorical function of buzzwords is that they have a broad appeal across diverse electorates and don’t necessarily “require any proof of their advantageousness.” As an example, he cited that "almost any candidate could say ‘freedom!’ and almost any audience will applaud,” thus developing an affinity for the political party, platform, or candidate. Candidates claiming to be more transparent or accountable could be seeking to either aggrandise a weak campaign or obscure more sinister intentions. Dr. Hill noted that the truth often lies in the ethics of each candidate, and one should look to their previous records and the broader context of changes in line with these buzzwords. How have previous AMS election candidates followed through?
Key to our understanding of how political rhetoric shapes campaigns and our perceptions of who we’re voting for is the idea of accountability. When student politicians promise grand changes like “strategic reviews” of governance, we need to be sure that they’re going to follow through.. Dr. Hill agreed that such reviews are a “basic component of policy protocol”, and when it comes to long-term changes it’s important to consider the feasibility of the promise for the position. Term limits within the AMS are just one year, and hence it’s important to treat with suspicion plans which are susceptible to a lack of continuity in governance, where one administrator’s vision might not be shared by their successor, and thus a long-term policy goal might not be truly implementable.
Armed with this knowledge, we should all actively seek to read between the lines of what candidates in the 2018 AMS elections have campaigned for. Do we take what they say for granted, or treat it with the same scrutiny we might federal or provincial politicians, and ask further questions to ascertain the political reality behind the rhetoric?