Student election theatrics mirror national politics

Campaign posters blanket the walls each election week at the high school where I teach. This year, some posters reflected a more unscrupulous election than usual.

“Bob has no friends, he’s flunking all his classes and he got dumped by the ugliest girl in school,” taunted the posters of Beatriz, a candidate for student school board member. Beatriz’s signs encouraged student voters to avoid this human disaster zone “Bob” by electing her instead.

Robert, Beatriz’s opponent, complained that her posters identified and humiliated him, though Beatriz claimed her “Bob” was merely a fictional character she created. The school forced her to remove the signs and apologize to the entire student body.

Vote-fixing also marred our election, as student delegates at our nominating convention altered counts from primary ballots to support Athena, a late entry in the race for student body secretary. Our student activities director, who counted the ballots beforehand to guard against just such conniving, detected the discrepancy and overturned the doctored vote. Athena was allowed to pursue a write-in candidacy but her name did not appear on the ballot.

These scandals made the campus buzz for a few days and provided great copy for the student newspaper, The Olympian. They probably didn’t change the outcome of either race. Beatriz won her race despite the controversy, as did Athena’s opponent, Stephanie, who enjoyed the advantage of appearing on the ballot.

Kids being kids, I thought. But as I reflected on these events in the slower, saner days of summer, I realized the opposite was true. The students in both scandals acted much like many of their adult counterparts, in accordance (whether they knew it or not) with the advice of master strategist Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese general, authored “The Art of War.” As my political science professor emphasized, his writing about principles of conflict applies to politics and elections as much as to armies and battlefields.

“He who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven,” Sun Tzu wrote. Translation: attack politics are mandatory as long as they are effective. “All warfare is based on deception… The skillful fighter puts himself into a position that makes defeat impossible.” Translation: why not commit election fraud? Do you want to win or not?

American political candidates and their followers have always observed this code. Bigots and the intolerant have used poll taxes, literacy tests, physical threats, and the Constitution itself to thwart the suffrage of others, to say nothing of the 2000 election debacle in Florida, in which both sides tried to manipulate the vote-counting process. The student delegates’ efforts to support Athena, however illegitimately, pale in comparison.

In the current campaign, supporters of both major presidential candidates have tried to link their opponents with the Nazis. Republican and Democratic camps exploit Sept. 11 and terrorism for political purposes. In the coming months, campaign officials and the candidates themselves will sling enough mud to bury our campus and put to shame Beatriz’s crack about “Bob” and “the ugliest girl in school.”

Kudos to the school for protecting fairness and honesty, because running for student office should not scar teenagers for life. But it’s hard and perhaps wrong to tell young people that democracy is about fairness and honesty when adults so often model the opposite principles. The kids won’t change until their role models do, and to their role models, winning trumps all other considerations.

Los Angeles Times, 2004