THOUGH Larry Sabato's American Politics 101 class lies seven semesters in the past, I still have the sticker I received from him that proclaims, "Politics is a good thing." Webster defines politics in several ways, among them: "the science and art of political government; political science" and "factional scheming for power and status within a group." The first of these definitions can, with little argument, be considered a good (or at least innocuous) thing. The second, however, has a more distinctly negative connotation.
At the University, the term "politico" seems to refer to those who practice politics in terms of the second definition. Though often used in a derogatory manner, the politico label should not hold such universally negative connotations. Just as politics often are a good thing, politicos aren't necessarily bad.
At the University, those we term politicos often spring from the ranks of Student Council, the Honor and Judiciary Committees and even The Cavalier Daily. The students who work with these organizations are some of the most visible on Grounds, merely as a function of the positions they hold and the types of activities in which their groups engage. Does visibility among a 12,000-person undergraduate population mean you're a politico?
Some who aim to avoid the label would say no. Looking at the first definition of politics, however, applying the term politico to the students in these groups seems appropriate and without negative implication. On the University scale, these students do engage in the art of political government, at least within this isolated community.
At the University, however, we expand the meaning of the term politico to include those in organizations like the University Guide Service, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, Resident Staff and even Madison House. These groups, though not directly connected with any kind of University-wide governing, do provide many students with opportunities to become involved on Grounds.
Groups like these also expose younger University students to older, and often more influential, upperclassmen. Members have the ability to move up through a leadership hierarchy, providing a chance to govern on a smaller, organizational scale.
Sometimes the term politico is used in a negative manner to describe people who seem to participate in University activities merely to pad their resumes. Yes, there are students out there who probably spend several hours a week with an organization just to retain their membership and add it to an exhaustive list of extra-curriculars. But for many who fall under the University politico umbrella, the amount of time they devote to organizations on Grounds far exceeds that of the typical resume booster. These students aren't politicos because they desire a power trip. They're politicos because of their commitment and dedication to an organization they support.
If being involved in University organizations -- high profile or otherwise -- makes one a politico, then so be it. Playing a role in the workings of the University should not be condemned as an attempt to engage in "factional scheming for power and status." As with the term politics, "politico" can be seen in more than one light.
Those who make the wheels of the University turn often are positive role models -- students who care enough about this place to play a role in its time-honored tradition of self-governance, putting in countless hours to make sure its institutions thrive and develop.
Just as some definitions of politics characterize it in a negative light, however, some University politicos do engage in underhanded and manipulative activities. These activities then become associated with and effect use of the term politico itself, just as negative perceptions of politics can influence opinions about its utility. Lumping all those dubbed politicos together to make a categorical evaluation leads to stereotyping and outright erroneous conclusions.
Being a politico isn't a bad thing. Being corrupt is a bad thing. But the two characterizations don't necessarily go hand in hand. In several weeks, University leaders will participate in the Politico Invitational miniature golf tournament to benefit local Salvation Army soup kitchens. Though perhaps a bit pretentious, this event actually does have a philanthropic motivation at its heart, despite criticisms from skeptics who question the motives of the tournament organizers. Give University "politicos" a break. They work hard and often are condemned for the inappropriate actions of a small percentage of their number.
(Amy Startt's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)