Earlier this week, I noted this article, which offers an account of a conflict between long-time residents of Statesboro, Georgia and the Georgia Southern University students who temporarily reside there.
Well, preliminary results are in, and it looks like the merchants who mobilized the students to promote their businesses didn’t do quite as well as they needed to, coming up just short of a city council majority.
I brought this up today in the context of a talk I gave to colleagues--"Tocquevillian Reflections on Teaching Civic Engagement" (copies of my notes available if you send me an email). Had I been on the Georgia Southern faculty, I would have regarded this as the proverbial teachable moment, raising a number of questions with my students about the quality and value of their civic engagement. Most of them are recent and relatively short-term residents of Statesboro, a community in southeast Georgia on that long stretch of I-16 between Macon and Savannah. Absent the modern Georgia Southern (created in the 1980s when the university rode extraordinary Division I-AA football success to statewide prominence, becoming a destination of choice for students who wanted relatively bigtime college football, but couldn’t get into or didn’t want to go to the state’s flagship university), Statesboro would be a fairly sleepy smallish south Georgia town. The University is, for the most part, its lifeblood. There are merchants who want to cater to the wishes of a party-oriented student body (largely, I’d bet from the Atlanta suburbs), building for them the sort of commercial scene relatively affluent suburban kids want--big box retailers, Abercrombie & Fitch (ugh!), and bars, bars, bars! These merchants would use the political support of a transient population to alter tremendously the character of a town whose permanent residents have something on their minds other than the weekly sequence of happy hour deals. As they’re protrayed in the press, and as the merchants hope they voted, the students seem to be thinking like consumers, not like homeowners and heads of households, i.e., not like responsible burghers. Student engagement in Statesboro politics, however justifiable by Georgia registration laws (which, like registration laws everywhere, make only the most minimal civic demands of potential voters), doesn’t necessarily promote citizenship and community, but rather runs the risk of being destructive of it.
I wonder what my students would have said to me, if I’d spoken like this to them, raising questions about the relationship between politics and community, about the conditions of responsible voting, about the role of different sorts of interests deployed in the electoral process, and about the deliberative nature of politics.