Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It’s probably fair to say that James Madison never went to a frat party. But his famous argument against the “overbearing majority” in Federalist 10 cogently addresses Swarthmore’s current controversy over the Student Council referendum and the continuation of campus Greek life.
As many are aware, several students have approached StuCo with a petition for an eventual referendum on the presence of Greek life at Swarthmore. According to the StuCo constitution, “any student may initiate a referendum with the signatures of at least ten percent of the student body.” From there, StuCo is called upon to oversee a referendum, which will pass if it receives a simple majority of votes, and at least a third of the student body votes.
I don’t doubt the sincerity behind this latest petition. In fact, I find it noble that our classmates are working through institutional mechanisms–namely a referendum–to address their concerns. But the StuCO constitution is itself flawed if it allows for such a petition to go forward, potentially encouraging a simple majority of the student body to take Greek life away from the minority of students who participate. By this logic, disgruntled students could petition against any unpopular group on campus. I fear many of the groups I personally belong to wouldn’t meet the 51 percent threshold.
To be clear, I don’t have strong feelings for or against Greek life, though I do wish to shed light on a few Madisonian principles that should prompt a revision of the StuCo Constitution and the referendum process.
At Swarthmore, we regularly indulge in puffed-up rhetoric about our all-inclusive community, but Madison would rightly see us as a community of factions. When Madison describes factions as constituencies which “are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion,” I naturally picture The Daily Gazette faction, The Phoenix faction, the Phi Psi faction, the DU faction, the newfound Theta faction, and, of course, the anti-Greek faction–along with any number of other competing niche groups. Factions in themselves are not bad, though they are prone to squabbling and annoying others with their presence, as people on various sides of the Greek drama now staged at Swarthmore can surely attest.
However, the only thing worse than factions is their absence. In the Federalist 10, Madison memorably writes, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” Substitute “liberty” with “Swarthmore,” contemporize the language, and you have a statement that undoubtedly rings true about this campus: Swarthmore is to student groups what air is to fire, an element without which it ceases to be a top-notch learning and civic environment.
Just because something is conducted democratically does not make it right or virtuous. Human nature being what it is at Swarthmore and elsewhere, we could “democratically” eliminate any number of unpopular political groups or religious societies on campus. But raw populism is no grounds for moral certainty. Picture the French Revolution, or better yet, The Daily Gazette‘s comment-thread wars. Clearly we need institutional checks and balances to guard against our own opinionated excess.
Some argue that Greek life is a fundamentally different issue because fraternities alter the campus “culture.” This may be true, but don’t all campus groups strive to have a cultural impact? Whether it be on behalf of politics, social life, entertainment, or just plain frivolity? If you believe Greek life is more pernicious, go out and found more factions (i.e. social clubs, dry spaces, club sports etcs) that alter Greek influence over the Swarthmore party scene.
I urge StuCo members to put on their Enlightened caps and revisit their constitution. First, I would recommend increasing the petition requirements so that at least 20 percent of campus must offer signatures. And those signatures must be publicly available. The present Greek life petition offers the option for signers to stay anonymous. I understand that not everyone wants to have his or her name aired across campus, yet this defeats the purpose of a petition–which is to take a public stand on an issue.
Second, simple majorities are dangerously populist and silencing of true diversity. Unfortunately, holding Greek life hostage to our Rousseauian “general will” in attempt to equalize campus life will only have the opposite effect. In the words of Madison, “[B]y reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.” To paraphrase, Swarthmore would suddenly be a repressive, boring place.
If a StuCo petition is successful, a referendum ought to require a two-thirds majority, with at least half of the campus voting. If the campus truly is of an overriding spirit on an issue, that will show itself in the referendum. Otherwise, we’re back to the tyranny of the majority, and we’re not tyrants; we’re Swatties.