Last September, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak to Mount Allison students as part of the MASU’s Fall General Meeting. When I was a student leader, that type of direct engagement with students was the best part of the job. Near the end of my time at Mount Allison, I did some writing in a blog that a lot of people liked and a lot of people hated called MTApathy (feel free to look it up) about another favorite part of student politics: elections. In the spirit of passing along some wisdom – if you can call it that – I figured I’d give it one last kick at the can.
You’re lucky enough to be voting for the leadership of your student union this month. It’s an exciting time: ambitious folks wanting to make a difference, putting themselves and their ideas out there, and taking a risk to try to make student lives better. To all candidates for all positions, you have my gratitude and congratulations. If you see these folks around, thank them for their effort and maybe sneak them a meal hall cookie.
More importantly, though, ask them questions. Ask them tough questions. Ask them the toughest questions you can think of, even if you think they’re stupid questions. Because here’s what’s wrong with a lot of student union candidates, straight from someone who’s been a bad candidate himself: they think they can win you over with platitudes and promises. They think they can point out problems that everyone and their dog has noticed, claiming they’ll fix them by some magical combination of “lobbying” and “working with [the administration, government, the town, some company, etc.],” and earn your vote that easily. In short, they think you’re idiots. They think voters will hear buzzwords and promises related to hot topics on campus and tick their name faster than Pavlov’s dog could drool.
No, what you want are candidates who are willing to treat you like children. Anyone who uses Reddit regularly enough to know what ELI5 means will understand. If you’re not as Internet-savvy as I am – with Urban Dictionary open in front of me, mind you – that acronym stands for “explain like I’m five.” This is the standard to which you should hold your candidates: if they really know what they’re talking about, they should be able to explain what they’re telling you in a way that a five-year-old would understand. Ask them the 5 W’s – and, most importantly, how – about all their platform points. If they make a commitment that hinges on someone else making a decision, ask them precisely how they’re going to convince that person, department, administrator, politician or company to do what they want. Hell, if you were as annoying a 5-year-old as I was, you can just keep asking “why?” over and over again and the best candidates will be able to keep answering.
When I spoke to students last September, I remember saying that ideas are infinitely more powerful than plans at every juncture but elections. Here’s your chance to show your candidates you won’t be taken for fools. If a candidate tries to convince you that the promise they’re making you will come true because “it’s just the right thing to do” or “students really, really, really want it,” they probably think you’re an idiot. If a candidate can’t give you a viable answer whenever you ask “what makes you think that will work?” about any of their platform points, they probably think you’re an idiot. If a candidate ever says anything that seems to be persuading you to not worry about the details, they probably think you’re an idiot. If a candidate clearly hasn’t prepared themselves for your tough questions and thinks they can get away with it, don’t let them. After all, you’re no idiot.