Demonstrators protest the second anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. (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

The dewy foliage adorning the slopes of the Hudson Palisades swayed in the calm summer-night breeze. It was July of 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey, a small township just across the river from Manhattan. Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury, founding father of the United States, and founder of the Federalist Party, lay just paces from the rocky bank in a pool of his own blood. Standing above him was his pistol-wielding assassin, loyal Democratic-Republican and sitting Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. The two high-profile statesmen had just participated in a duel, punctuating years of bitter political, ideological, and personal rivalry between them. Hamilton would die the next day, and Burr’s reputation would be forever tarnished. Imagine if Joe Biden had shot Timothy Geithner to death! It would be no different.

There is a lesson to be learned from that bloody brawl between the Vice President and the Secretary: argument and disagreement are a good thing in a republic such as ours, but only if the argument and disagreement are genuine. American democracy is being crippled by a lack of true ideology, not a surplus of it. We have been paralyzed by having too few constructive policy arguments. It has become common practice for Americans to dismiss politicians as hyper-partisan, and too rigidly committed to certain aspects of their respective party platforms. However, the opposite is actually true. Not only has the exchange of ideas dried up in recent decades, but we have also seen on a whole host of critical issues that the government is being run by two parties largely in agreement, and who show allegiance not to their beliefs, but to money and power. This has been the root cause of our governmental dysfunction in recent decades.

On budgetary issues, both parties agree: spending must be greatly reduced, even though we have seen the disastrous effects of austerity in Europe. On gun control, members of both parties fall over themselves trying to prove their support of the second amendment. On entitlements, both parties agree there must be aggressive “reform” of Medicare and Social Security or else the fiscal apocalypse will be upon us. Both parties believe that Israel can do no wrong, that NSA surveillance is necessary to protect the Homeland, and that the legalization of marijuana would be detrimental to our society. Not only do these ideas enjoy broad political consensus, but they are also largely out of step with what the majority of Americans believe. 

Many may say that more partisanship in Washington would be a recipe for continued dysfunction and ineffective governing. Though this concern is certainly valid, the discord in our nation’s capital is less about genuine differences in opinion, and more about an effort by the far right to block the agenda of President Obama. If members of the ultra-conservative Tea Party caucus were actually committed to slashing budgets, they would have taken Obama’s offers to cut entitlements years ago. But instead, we have no real debate in our Legislative bodies. What we have instead are two-dimensional theatrics with no substance. However, the problem goes deeper still.  

In politics, what you believe no longer matters. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in a typical election year the Candidate who spends the most money will win a seat in Congress 90% of the time. How much money a candidate spends in an election is generally the most accurate way to predict who wins in any given race, not party affiliation or core beliefs. Money rules. In a democracy, citizens should choose their representatives based on a set of shared ideas about how to steer the ship of state. Not only that, but the floors of the Senate and the House should serve as the great laboratories of democracy, where debate is carried out, and where ideas are exchanged. Instead, we have one party who would rather engage in political spectacle and obstructionism than provide ideas for the good of the country. Meanwhile, Democrats have refused to show any solidarity with the Progressive movement. Where are the big ideas? Where are the real arguments? The tradition of debate that has always defined American democracy seems to have escaped us.

Before he met his ill-starred fate, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “…The clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism.” In Washington, what many perceive as clamorous debate is, in reality, anything but. Instead, what we have is meaningless noise. Americans should begin demanding substantive yelling matches in the House Chamber and Statuary Hall. It’s time our politicians draw their pistols at ten paces, so that policy—not money or the promise of power—can once again drive our lawmaker’s decisions.