An Occupy Wall Street demonstrator holds a sign challenging the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
Writing Contest Finalist
We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here. —The Editor
In classrooms across the country, high school students learn a version of US history that celebrates American democracy precisely because each citizen’s vote carries equal weight.Yet in an era where corporations are people and dollars, not ballots, are the currency for political voice, this historical narrative is played out. Increasingly—and dangerously—money is shaping the interests and institutions that our government caters to, diminishing the power of individual votes and, in the process, discouraging the next generation of citizens from participating in politics. The resulting political landscape more closely resembles a plutocracy than the populism of eleventh grade civics.
Electoral politics has an ever-increasing price tag—$2 billion for the 2012 presidential election—but the story of that money doesn’t simply end with inauguration. Rather, large donations distort the responsibility politicians have to faithfully and equally represent their constituents, concentrating political power in the hands of a few and gridlocking action on pressing policy issues. Moreover, in a nation where economic inequality continues to grow, this diminished attention to democratic governance further marginalizes the most vulnerable.
The sheer cost of congressional races (Senate seats cost an average of nearly $10.5 million in 2012) means that elected officials spend a substantial portion of their time in the business of fundraising, not governing. Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker made headlines recently for live tweeting while a freshman Congress member solicited reelection funds (“They told me I have to raise $3 million. It’s ugly.”), and freshman senators received instructions from the Democratic Party to spend at least four hours a day raising money—twice the amount of time allotted for committee hearings and votes. Time spent on actual governance, then, is severely limited. And while gains in seniority are generally accompanied by a reduced need to hunt for funds, more entrenched members of Congress and the executive branch have an equally entrenched loyalty to big-ticket donors.