Letter to the Editor: Divestment without democracy

Sam Kleiner and Aaron Levine

The accountability of representatives to their constituents is at the cornerstone of the democratic process. Constituents can evaluate the voting records of incumbents and then cast their votes accordingly. The secret ballot protects the rights of individuals to freely express their political views, but elected officials, as part of their mandate and duty to serve the people, must publicly record their votes. As President John F. Kennedy chronicled in “Profiles in Courage,” senatorial courage relies on our representatives having the courage to make tough votes and to defend them.

Regardless of what you think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Northwestern Associated Student Government this week betrayed our nation’s commitment to democratic governance. Our Congressional representatives do not hide their votes — especially on controversial matters — but in the vote on the divestment bill, ASG chose to hide how its members voted. Transparency and democratic accountability are more important than ensuring that the representatives are “comfortable.” Democracy is uncomfortable.

This secret voting thus discredits the vote in support of divestment. The resolution calls for greater pellucidity in NU’s investments, but a process that relies on secrecy cannot seriously sustain a critique of NU’s transparency policies.

Before lodging accusations against the United States and Israel, we would implore the ASG Senators to adopt the democratic spirits of their legislative institutions. Both in the Congress and in the Knesset, the representatives of the people make difficult decisions and are then held accountable for their decisions by their constituents. When representatives can hide their position on a resolution, the vote amounts to nothing more than a farce.

In April 2014, a small group of ASG Senators led an effort for a reform to allow for roll call votes, but the majority of Senators would have none of it. The Senate, as one member said, “chose instead to vote for a measure which would allow any single Senator to call for a secret ballot vote on any issue before Senate. This motion would not permit objections or debate and would supersede any other method of voting.” Why have this draconian process? One Senator confessed that having “leadership positions for their resumes could be more important than allowing constituents to know how each Senator voted.”

Who are the 24 Senators who voted for the divestment resolution? We will never know because ASG is fundamentally undemocratic and the proponents of this measure embraced secrecy.

Rather than spending their time criticizing Israel, a lone democracy in a sea of instability, the Senators should begin by reforming their own system of governance. Until they, too, speak as a democratic body, their positions cannot have a meaningful role in our democratic process.

Sam Kleiner (Weinberg ‘09) and Aaron Levine (Weinberg ‘14) attend the Yale Law School.