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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    (To be or not to be) electoral or political?

    On a very general and abstract level, I think most of us would agree that the meaning of “”political”” is characterized by an aim to move society in a certain direction, for a certain purpose and goal. It follows, then, that people, events, even social orders can be deemed “”political”” in one way or another. One could even say that everything done in life is, in a sense, political.

    So when we read, for example, of President Robert Shelton’s memo of Sept. 12, 2007, concerning “”political activity”” – a memo distributed to all UA employees which outlined and prohibited certain actions – we should begin by asking some fundamental questions. Let’s start with what it says, and then continue to its likely purpose and implications.

    The memo begins by saying that the university is a state entity endowed by the public trust, and therefore should not interfere in the outcome of state elections. In the memo, UA employees are “”reminded”” that as individuals they are, of course, free to join a political party, work on a campaign, express opinions, vote, etc. But they may not assume to speak for the university, use its resources, or simply act in a “”political”” manner while on something called “”university time,”” to influence the outcome of an election.

    Now, whatever legitimacy we may assign to specific or implied aspects of the memo, the language is dangerously vague and presumes to constrict political thought in broader terms of recognizing one’s own potential role as a citizen.

    It seems to me that a more accurate, responsible way of parsing the context is for the memo’s authors to distinguish the word “”electoral”” rather than use a blanket context so naturally disturbing as “”political.”” Speaking in broad terms of “”political activity”” while denoting instances specific only to elections, is an irresponsible way of carrying a subject with such grave importance to everybody’s personal and professional lives. It also raises further disturbing questions as to the limits of being “”political”” in daily life. To define “”political”” in such bounded terms, as merely “”joining a party”” and “”casting a vote,”” is akin to saying that any measurable successes we can trace throughout history that have improved some areas of society, were achieved solely by political election – which is very far from the truth.

    Take the abolition of slavery, for instance. It had very little to do with “”electoral”” conventions or leaders. It was often greatly impeded by them, in fact. Abraham Lincoln, the single person in pop-cult history most associated with freeing the slaves and thereby ending slavery, had scant to do with either. Consider Lincoln’s speech in September of 1858, while campaigning in his home state for the U.S. Senate: “”I am not … in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I … am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”” Slavery was not extinguished by Lincoln, but rather by the work of the abolitionist movement over hundreds of years.

    Lincoln, whose repressed moral beliefs resigned as a cowardly subordinate to his own political pressures and pragmatic concerns, at best remained constant in keeping slavery a “”necessary evil”” as long as possible.

    It was “”political activity”” in the broadest sense that ended slavery. The same is true of other cases. Along with slavery, child labor, racial denigration and suppression of civil liberties were long protected by American law, and packaged neat and trim with police and military forces behind them.

    Measurable change in such areas came about by enormous numbers of people, often struggling through many generations, mobilizing outside the marginal assistance of electoral conventions, to force an indecent government to change its laws, while also attaining more culture in the process, for future generations. It is the prevailing doctrine of democracy, which affirms that governments are artificial and constructed only as a means for people to govern themselves. To quote the Declaration of Independence, people have the unalienable right to “”alter or abolish”” any impediment to self-governance and the pursuit of happiness.So, should we be narrowly “”electoral”” or broadly “”political””? At the end of the day, we are talking about the same thing. However, the few minutes it takes to check a ballot box is how one can measure the effect that electoral politics has on our everyday lives. The rest of the time comes from devoting at least some part of one’s life to examining the world around us, and discussing with others ideas for correcting our society’s flaws, however serious or slight. Yes, we should be mindful of elections, but not rely on them to bring change in areas that are most important. And we certainly should be honest about distinguishing between elections and broader political activity.

    – Gabriel Matthew Schivone is an affiliate of Women’s Studies and is conducting undergraduate research at the University of Arizona and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy (where he is also an affiliate). His articles have been published in numerous journals including the Monthly Review and Z Magazine. He may be reached at ( and (

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