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.

Worse, when elected officials do turn their attention from fundraising to floor votes, their loyalty to campaign donors leads to highly distorted policy outcomes—either stifled reform efforts or a complete inability to pass legislation on critical national issues. Obamacare achieved legislative success in part because it carried concessions for big business, while similar proposals for environmental reform have failed largely because of Congress members’ ties to big-spending fossil fuel industries. When Wall Street firms knowingly violated federal securities law, irresponsibly—and avoidably—plunging the country into financial decline, key figures in the collapse largely escaped prosecution. Despite what Timothy Geithner termed the “very deep public desire for Old Testament justice,” it’s not too difficult to discern why politicians eager to fund their re-election campaigns have been slow to push for accountability from a banking lobby that spent more than $251 million in 2010. More recently, massive financial support from the NRA has privileged a minority opposed to meaningful gun control legislation over a staggering 98 percent of Americans in favor of reform.

Money’s grip on Washington clearly violates our notions of democratic representation—so why does it persist? In large part, campaign finance reform faces an inherent and well-funded conundrum: the highly competitive nature of contemporary electoral politics, and the corresponding cost, serves wealthy interests well—a problem exacerbated by the Citizens United ruling. On both sides of the aisle, those seeking office (or hoping to stay in it) are forced to reckon with the influence of dollars in political races. Accordingly, special interest funding has become so ingrained in Washington politics that elected officials are no longer serving those of their constituents without millions to pledge.

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Money in politics not only corrodes policy; it has a pernicious impact on how citizens view and participate in their government. In 2012, over 63 percent of Millennials agreed that “people like me don’t have any say in what government does,” with 82 percent articulating concern over the role of business in politics. Despite this disaffection, the infusion of money into politics often doesn’t look like the most urgent cause, especially for young activists passionate about the Keystone XL pipeline or the minimum wage. Crucially, however, the sway of deep-pocketed corporate donors and lobbyists bars progress on pressing social, environmental and economic problems; the very ones Millennials care most about.

Unlike some other issues that contribute to political gridlock, the ability of wealth to distort equality at the ballot box is a problem we can work to solve. Public funding for elections, stricter corporate giving regulations, and greater lobbying oversight have proven effective on the state level in creating a more transparent and equitable American politics. For now, though, while high school civics might have taught us that each vote counts, having a voice in politics comes with a very high price tag.