March 14, 2016

FACULTY VIEWPOINT | Tocqueville Comes to Cornell; and Other Thoughts on Democracy

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Ah, democracy! Trump. Clinton. Cruz. Sanders. All eyes are on the presidential election, but there’s important voting to be done right here at Cornell.

“In a well-functioning democracy,” observed Gary Hamel, “citizens have the option of voting their political masters out of office. Not so in most companies.”

Cornell is not most companies. Day after tomorrow, the polls will open for our faculty elections.

This year those elections are critical. We must elect a new Dean of the Faculty, Associate Dean of the Faculty and a Faculty Trustee. We haven’t done that in four years. What’s more, the election is the most competitive we’ve run in recent history. This is a serious race.

What does it mean to vote, or not to vote? And how can I encourage you, dear colleagues, to do it? Many smart people have pondered those questions.

Some, like Rick Mercer, take the high road. “Do the unexpected. Take 20 minutes out of your day, do what young people all over the world are dying to do: vote.”

But appealing to our loftier sentiments doesn’t turn out the vote. That’s why others prefer the low road of shame. “Scoundrels,” quipped William Maxwell, “will be corrupt, and unconcerned citizens apathetic, under even the best constitution.”

Ah, “apathy!” It’s the Greek word for being impassive or indifferent, and it’s a funny thing. The comedians — a class that ought to count among every country’s national treasures, and be supported at public expense — never fail to point out how apathy exposes humankind’s revealed preferences regarding democracy:

• “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.” (Gore Vidal)

• “It is perhaps a sign of the strength of our republic that so few people feel the need to participate. That must be the reason.” (Jon Stewart)

What about campaigning? In my field of Classics — the study of ancient Greece and Rome, not the study of Shakespeare or the Beatles — the literature is rife with shrewd observations on how to get elected:

• “To win the people, always cook them some yummy smell that pleases them.” (Aristophanes)

• “When one with honeyed words but evil mind / Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.” (Euripides, iambic pentameter)

And what about the outcome of voting? Here again, sympathies divide:

• “We don’t vote for people because they are the exact embodiment of our values, but because they are likely to be the most responsive to them.” (Charles Blow)

• “The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.” (George Orwell)

Falsely attributed quotes about voting are gems, too. In all its collective wisdom, the Internet attributes two fine observations to, respectively, Abraham Lincoln and Thucydides:

• “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

• “In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.”

What should we take away from all this?

Tomorrow the five candidates for Dean of the University Faculty will participate in a debate. It’ll take place from 3:30-5 p.m. in 700 Clark Hall. They represent different points of view of, and advocate different approaches to, shared faculty governance. If you can’t make it, the debate will be posted afterward on Cornell Cast.

Like all meetings of the faculty senate, which is hosting the debate, this meeting is open to everyone. If you are reading these words, you are welcome to come and ask them questions.

Meanwhile, the candidates for all positions have posted their bios and campaign statements online here. The five Dean of Faculty candidates have each released separate statements regarding Emeritus Faculty, too. You can find those statements here. I urge you to read all these important documents.

Polls open Thursday. They close Wednesday of next week at midnight. We’ve got a week to do it. It’s important. We’re using the Hare system, which means it’s important that you rank every candidate.

It would be wrong for me to encourage you, dear colleagues, to vote early and vote often. But please, do vote.

Michael Fontaine is the acting Dean of Faculty through June 2016, and is not seeking office. He can be reached at [email protected]. Faculty Viewpoint appears alternating Tuesdays this semester.