Classroom Advocacy

My university (Rutgers) is fairly actively encouraging students to register to vote. And I’ve occasionally done a bit to help, hosting students who do a spiel on voter registration and personally encouraging students to vote.

Now I think this is all a good thing. Voting is a good thing, and a healthy democracy requires a decent turnout of voters, so doing our little bit to help democracy is being on the side of the good. It’s not exactly related to the courses we’re teaching, but spending 45 seconds before class is officially scheduled to start encouraging voter registration, or putting voter registration ads on course management software as Rutgers has done, seems far from an abuse of official positions.

Still, voting isn’t the only good thing in the world. It seems to me that voting in the upcoming election for Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin is pretty close to a moral requirement. (For those who are eligible to so vote. I of course won’t be voting for Obama, because that would be illegal, and undemocratic.) But it seems it would be seriously wrong for either Rutgers, or for me, to use our positions of authority to promote voting for Obama. And I think this isn’t a particularly controversial position.

But it’s a little hard to say just exactly why it’s OK for Rutgers (and me) to do what we’re doing, and not do what we’re not doing. (Mike and Ross in the comments to the previous post were pushing just this question, which led to me trying to think about it a little.) Below the fold I have a few thoughts on this question.

We are actually helping Obama.
It’s worth noting that there’s a degree of bad faith in all of this. We don’t think that we should be advocating Obama’s election. But we all know that encouraging more college students to vote will, on net, boost Obama’s vote totals. Indeed, given the possibility of a backlash against explicit advocacy of Obama, actively encouraging voter registration might be the best thing we can do in the circumstances for Obama. So if it’s OK to encourage registration, but not to encourage voting for Obama, this can hardly be on narrowly consequentialist grounds.

This generalises to state entities
If the state of New Jersey spent millions of dollars advocating for Obama’s election, that would seem like a violation of some plausible democratic principles. Part of what it is to have free and fair elections is to minimise the advantage the incumbent party has merely by virtue of being the incumbent. Elections where the incumbents use their position to tilt the electoral results are not free and fair elections, and hence not fully democratic.

To be sure, this kind of thing goes on all the time in America. It’s a commonplace observation that Obama’s chances are much better than they would be were there not so many Democratic administrations in swing states. To a non-American observer this suggests something very unhealthy with the state of American democracy, but perhaps that can be something best fixed at a later date. In any case, even the most corrupt states don’t normally advertise directly for one candidate using state resources, and that’s a good thing.

Since Rutgers is a state university, it seems rules that apply to the state should apply to Rutgers. And since I’m at the head of a class in virtue of my position in Rutgers, those rules should apply to me too. So that looks like a good reason that partisan advocacy in a classroom is out of bounds.

It even suggests a reason why partisan advocacy is different to voter registration work. It is a legitimate state interest to have as many people as possible (legally) voting. So it is legitimate for the state to try to have as many people as possible registered to vote. If the state went about this by, say, blanket advertising registration promotions on TV channels whose demographics had a pronounced partisan bent (e.g. young black women, or old white men) that would be bad. But if the state encourages everyone to vote in a non-discriminatory manner, that’s a good activity. And it’s good even if, as is actually the case, the newly registered can be expected to favour one candidate.

Since neither Rutgers nor I are trying to channel our message exclusively to Democrats, it seems we aren’t doing anything wrong in encouraging registration. Of course, our only possible audience (or at least our only possible audience as state actors) is college students, who are a fairly pro-Obama demographic group. But I don’t think this is any worse than the general position the state finds itself in when doing voter registration.

It’s not all about the state
I’m not sure that can be all the story. If my friends at Princeton ran pro-Obama ads before class started, that would seem to be an abuse of authority as well, even though they aren’t state actors.

I don’t have a good story here to match my intuitions however. If an individual Princeton professor uses her position to promote Obama, she might be guilty of misusing the authority that Princeton gave her. But if Princeton as an institution decided it was supporting Obama, and explicitly authorised professors to make pro-Obama speeches before class, I would still think that’s a bad thing. Universities aren’t the kind of institutions that should be in the partisan business. But I don’t really know why I think that’s a bad thing, and maybe I’m just being too squeamish about politics here.

Are elections different to referenda?
I don’t think it’s undemocratic for the state to take sides in referenda. That is, I don’t think that the state openly supporting one side in a referendum is as undemocratic as supporting one party in an election. (This is subject to two provisos. First, the referendum can’t be a quasi-election; for instance a referendum to postpone the next due election. Second, it would be undemocratic for the state to support one side if there were legitimately passed laws saying they shouldn’t do just this. Assume those conditions are not met.)

So, assuming this is legal, it isn’t obvious to me that it would be wrong for the state of California to campaign against the referendum attempting to overturn its own marriage laws. In fact, given that the laws are morally preferable to the alternative proposed by the referendum, it might be morally wrong for the state to not campaign against it. And if the state does this, the argument above suggests that any professor who wishes should be allowed to make anti-referendum speeches in class, the way I’ve had students make pro-registration speeches.

I’m not sure I quite buy that conclusion. But my intuitions about the wrongness of taking sides on a referenda are nowhere near as strong as my intuitions about the wrongness of taking sides on an election. And the arguments here seem to support that.

But none of this is very decisive. I’d be very interested to hear everyone else’s opinion.

4 Replies to “Classroom Advocacy”

  1. I’m decidedly anti-Obama, yet I think there is a way for you to feel better about your registration drive. The military is overwhelmingly Republican and hosts similar, non-partisan voting drives. While individual groups may skew one way or the other, in theory the net result of all the country’s groups ought to be roughly representative. Now this doesn’t reflect people who aren’t part of any such groups, and perhaps a labour union organises more than a Republican-leaning group of den mothers, but nothing is perfect. In any event, I think there is a public good in providing people an opportunity to vote, less so in trying to coerce the most idle among us to vote as ignorantly as possible.

    Oh, and I live in Europe right now and the EU does heavily fund the pro-EU integration side in referrenda. It’s severely undemocratic.

  2. Brian, I think that writing an entry on Thoughts Arguments and Rants amounts to using your position of authority. More grad students (and undergrads) will read what you write here than the total number of students you have taught. And many of these students probably value your opinion more than they value their own professor’s (that’s why they read the blog, presumably).

    So, if you mean what you write about not abusing one’s authority in the classroom, you shouldn’t write things like ‘voting for Obama is pretty close to a moral requirement’.

    Now, I do think that voting for Obama is pretty close to a moral requirement and I also think that you or anyone else should be free to say so in their blogs, but then they should also be free to say so in their class.

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