The general election for the Middletown mayoral and city council race on Nov. 5 has garnered an unprecedented amount of excitement from the Wesleyan student body. Due in part to a resurgent interest in local grassroots politics that has captured the zeitgeist of the generation, the buzz around this election has seeped into discussions happening around campus and even prompted students to sign up to canvass for the Democratic mayoral candidate Ben Florsheim. Students’ interest in the election is also in large part due to the fact that Ben Florsheim is a Wesleyan alumnus. However, this isn’t to say that the election hype isn’t without its critics.
The question of whether or not Wesleyan students should be voting in Middletown municipal elections has polarized the student body, with many students feeling like it isn’t their place to influence the politics of Middletown. The argument that the “Don’t-Voters” camp—as we’re dubbing them for the purposes of this article—make goes something like this: Wesleyan has historically had fraught ties with the Middletown community and has, in many ways, actively insulated itself from the problems that the town faces. In disconnecting from the world that Middletown residents operate in, Wesleyan ignores the dynamics of class and race that exist as part of the tensions between Wesleyan students and Middletown residents. Given this socio-political context, many students believe that there is something inherently elitist about the status of students, whose residency in town is impermanent. Telling Middletown residents how to run their local government by voting in a blue bloc—given the campus’ liberal leanings—Wesleyan students only exacerbate the tensions that exist between students and Middletown residents. There are two underlying assumptions that typically motivate this type of argument. One is that Wesleyan voters haven’t been in the community long enough to fully understand the political issues at hand and the nuances of the problems as well as Middletown residents do. Another part of the argument, implicit within the Don’t-Voters’ criticism, is that part of the elitism arises from the fact that the lives of Wesleyan students are affected mostly by the jurisdiction of administration policies rather than city government policies.
While the Don’t-Voters make valid points, this framing of electoral politics, which is what the debate fundamentally comes down to, is ultimately reductionist.
Even though there certainly are many points of disagreement between Don’t-Voters and Do-Voters (the position reflected in this piece), it’s important to note that both sides’ arguments originate from the same premise: Everyone acknowledges that there is an unhealthy disconnect between the University and Middletown that must be addressed, one that students and administrators alike should more proactively be cognizant of working to shift. However, where we, the proponents for voting, disagree with the other camp is that we see engagement in electoral politics as one of the best possible means to bridge political divides in a democratic system. While we start our arguments from a similar consensus about the state of the relations between the University and Middletown, our lines of logic for how to actually go forward with fixing these tensions immediately diverge.
Our argument for voting in Middletown on Tuesday, Nov. 5 is as follows:
We won’t deny that many Wesleyan students do feel disconnected from the city of Middletown. This disconnect, therefore, extends to a feeling of disconnect from the electoral politics of the city. What we posit here is that while there are numerous reasons for Wesleyan students to vote, voting in the November 5th Middletown election is one of the better ways to actively engage with the community Wesleyan is situated within.
Four years is a substantial amount of time to live in a community—especially given the age of the average Wesleyan student. It is likely that most Wesleyan graduates will be moving around for most of their 20s as they seek out opportunities. Therefore, not only may the four years spent at Wesleyan be the most consistent length of time spent in a given place for in the near future, but it also sets a precedent for how, as young people, we operate in the political spaces we frequent throughout our potential periods of impermanent residency. This actual consistency of residency while at Wesleyan presents an opportunity to engage in electoral politics that should not be taken for granted. The experience of being a Wesleyan student is not transient—all the more truthfully, almost every single student lives on campus for their entire Wesleyan careers and spends the majority of their time right here in Middletown.
In regard to a palpable disconnect between Wesleyan and Middletown, both the act of voting and the process of informing oneself about the candidates’ platforms and issue positions breeds connection. Understanding the candidates and measures on the ballot in full requires understanding the issues at stake in Middletown (like the waterfront, public education, the budget, the downtown, and the North End). Becoming informed about these issues, and the candidates’ stances on them, allows for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the greater community of which Wesleyan is a part.
Rather than dwelling on the disconnect that students may feel and therefore not showing up to the polls on election day, voting motivates an active rather than passive engagement in the community that avoids falling victim to the great foil of democracy: complacency. By not voting you are choosing to not have a personal stake in the Middletown community. In turn, this reinforces a cyclical relationship between disconnection and not voting. Students don’t vote because they feel disconnected—and they feel disconnected, in part, because they don’t vote.
That is not to say that there isn’t a bubble that insulates students from certain concerns (including having their basic needs met), however, there is still a degree to which policies do affect Wesleyan students. Shared social services like the Middlesex Hospital and shared public spaces like the Middletown Waterfront, which is a key policy issue for both Middletown mayoral candidates, are issues with which Wesleyan students routinely engage. Similarly, seeing as the mayor of Middletown appoints the Chief of Police, the future of the Middletown police department depends on mayoral discretion.
Engaging in electoral politics allows you to act locally and efficiently. Local electoral politics affect a smaller group of people—therefore the impact of voting in a local election is concentrated and effective. Reforms and change happen at a faster rate than on the national level, and yet, what happens at the local level influences the national level in the aggregate.
If national political issues occupy your mind, voting at the local level is a way to harness this unease and transform it into concrete action. By voting in the November 5th Middletown election, there is also a tangible opportunity to exercise your constitutional right through local engagement. Voting is one of the easiest and most impactful ways to participate in a democracy. National political decisions stem from the decisions made at the local level.
Voting is one of the defining traits of democracy. While the right to vote has been historically and presently denied for marginalized groups, we can’t forget that the egalitarian vision for our democratic system is for citizens to be able to vote wherever they take up residence geographically. Voting is an opportunity that should not be squandered, especially for young people who statistically don’t vote as consistently as older generations. While we may be far from achieving the dream of a truly egalitarian America, voting in your local community is a way to work towards this notion. As soon as you start putting arbitrary restrictions on who and in what contexts you can vote, this egalitarian belief seems to slip further and further from view.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Luke is a member of the class of 2020.
Oriana Tannenbaum can be reached at email@example.com. Orianna is a member of the class of 2020.