A Democracy for Sale Is No Democracy At All

A Democracy for Sale Is No Democracy At All

A Democracy for Sale Is No Democracy At All

STUDENT FINALIST: What is really at stake this November is nothing less than the existence of an American republic.


We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s seventh annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue of Election 2012. We received close to 1,000 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 Tess Saperstein of Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Boca Raton, Florida, and Andrew Giambrone of Yale University. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays today. —The Editors

At a recent meeting of progressive activists, a veteran union organizer broke through the electoral minutiae with a disturbing thought:

I’ve struggled all my life to try to pull this country back towards a just, middle-class economy and a fair, democratic government. But Citizens United scares me more than anything. I don’t know if we, the not-super-rich-people, will ever win again.

Within his words was the recognition that while winning elections and policy battles is important, there is no denying we are losing the war over American democracy. What is really at stake in November is nothing less than the existence of an American republic.

The crisis of money corroding our politics may reach its nadir in 2012 as we witness the first presidential election in the post–Citizens United era. Never before in American history will so much wealth be deployed to bring one individual into high office. If the sound of democracy’s suffocation under the torrent of Super PAC cash wasn’t audible before, the Koch-funded gutting of worker’s rights in Wisconsin should have made it deafening. Karl Rove’s pledge to employ a billion dollars to unseat Obama reaffirms that for the robber barons of this Gilded Age, Wisconsin was merely a warm-up. Unfortunately for us Americans who don’t own a Super PAC, the truth is that common sense appeals to the American values of “liberty and justice for all” no longer stand a chance against the armies of corporate lobbyists who occupy all halls of power.

The collateral damage of a Congress inundated with money is too widespread to recount in full, but among the casualties of this corporate siege lie our failure to address two crises of historic consequence: our post-collapse economy and our near-collapse ecology. Since 2008 our nation has seen both the most severe financial crisis and the most unequal distribution of wealth since the Great Depression. In the same period, the world has witnessed both an unparalleled concentration of climate-related disasters and an unrivaled record of potential environmental destruction by corporations (think BP Oil Spill and Keystone XL).

At the heart of both crises is our wounded democracy, so battered by corporate dominance that we can no longer respond to national and international emergencies. Viewed through the prism of our political process, the twin crises of economy and ecology are alarmingly similar predicaments. In both cases, a clear majority has endured and continues to endure injustice and exploitation. Yet the malefactors, be they Big Oil, Big Gas or Big Finance, have all escaped not only without accountability but also with more political power than they possessed prior to their recent barbarities. Only in an age where big money can buy immunity to justice could such disregard for the public good be possible.

Most distressing about this criminal negligence is that all of it occurred even with Barack Obama in the White House and a Democratic supermajority in the Senate. At no time between 2008 and 2010, when progressive forces had an overwhelmingly favorable political arena, did any representative propose a viable solution proportional to the cataclysmic damage wrought by the financial crisis or the potential collapse of our biosphere. Given this, there can be no doubt regarding the state of democracy: it is in critical condition, swallowed into the maw of the corporate class and drowning in a ocean of campaign donations and lobbying fees. If we could not win financial regulation and economic restructuring after a horrific financial crisis, if we cannot win climate solutions when NASA scientist Jim Hansen has publicly warned of an “apocalyptic” future, then we know for certain that our nation cannot solve our greatest challenges until we undo our greatest mistake: allowing corporations to attain dictatorial control over democracy.

I still believe the arc of history bends toward justice. But a sober assessment of our situation demands that we ask, given an epochal level of corporate power, Will the arc bend fast enough to avert another financial crisis? Or to save the planet? This is not an abstract question. The climate has a deadline. Whether we meet that deadline is not a question of solutions (there are many), but whether we can restore a republic of, by and for the people.

The legacy of the 2012 election will be defined by what kind of democracy follows from it. In 2016 we may remember 2012 as our darkest hour, foreshadowing the dawn of a new day marked by a constitutional amendment banishing money in politics. But if in four years we remember the 2012 election as an introduction to an avalanche of corporate cash, as a mere prologue to the Super PAC–fest of 2016, then our nation—and our planet—will face even graver scenarios than we do today, with a severely diminished chance of ever bending the arc in time.

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