Writing Contest Co-Winner
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 Editors
Yes, I admit I have a dirty little secret: I do not follow politics whatsoever. Who ran during the 2012 elections—Obama and Biden, Romney and who? Paul Ryan, you say? Yeah, I’ve totally heard of him. You can ask me about anything else. Show me any high school math exercise and I will slap a QED on it within the hour. Give me any piece of figurative language and I will polish off an analytical essay in less than twenty-five minutes. But ask me about politics, and you might as well ask me to fly using my teeth. I ignored television for the months leading up to the election. During the debates I was busy falling asleep.
I am part of the underlying problem behind our broken politics: political apathy, especially among the youth. Unfortunately, I am not alone. Out of my 291 Facebook friends, only one actively campaigned for a candidate during the 2012 election. During the 2012 elections, 93 million eligible Americans did not vote, resulting in a turnout rate lower than the past two elections—continuing a nearly consistent plummet in participation since 1964. Even the Youtube versions of President Obama’s speeches fail to reach their targeted youth audiences: Baracksdubs, a channel that features President Obama “singng” pop tunes, receives millions more page views per video than the official White House Youtube channel.
What dominoes fall as a result of our political indifference? The first domino that falls is information accuracy. The only way politics captures public attention is by shocking us: we listen attentively to provocative soundbites, radical declarations and chant-worthy catchphrases. In our busy, busy world, worker bees have neither the time nor energy to keep an ear open for hour-long speeches. Instead, we catch up on politics—if at all—through the snippets served on the news, resulting in an ill-informed or even misinformed public. The 2012 election deluged viewers with catchphrases (“You didn’t build that” and “47 percent.”) For those many who do not fact-check political rhetoric, damning catchphrases without context become entire campaign policies, gaining undue leverage in a potential voter’s rationale.
The second domino to fall is financial morality. Because of an apathetic public, politicians must spend increasingly more money to reach their viewers through a variety of means, ranging from televised ads to Twitter. The 2012 election was the most expensive in American history, surpassing $6 billion and continuing a long trend of money in politics. The need for large campaign funds both during and after races results in two devastating outcomes: politicians splitting their focus between fixing America and fundraising, and “big money” influencing politicians and calling legislative shots. Both corrode our political system, wasting time and corrupting the legislature. Yet we are to blame for the lack of financial morality in today’s politics. The founding fathers meant for the American public to elect our government. Corruption ultimately occurs because we, the apathetic people, fail to police our government properly.
The final domino to fall is camaraderie. Washington is polarized, more so than “any time in the last century.” Editorialization and corruption have fueled congressional gridlock, but the root is the dearth of moderates necessary for cooperation between the two parties. Because apathetic Americans have no voting power, many politicians must tailor their campaigns to the extremes to raise money and to secure support from the most engaged voters. Yet doing so further divides the political atmosphere, to the point where compromise becomes a dirty word and the other party becomes “the opposition.” Bring back the moderates and we bring back the camaraderie to fix our political system.
Dominoes pack a punch: a single ideal domino can topple another that is 200 percent larger, as calculated this year by physicist Hans van Leeuwen. The same physics applies to our political atmosphere. Something as seemingly insignificant as an apathetic American can cause the paralysis of our entire nation. We need to address and redress the unhelpful belief that politics are boring, inaccessible and even unimportant. Backwards thinking results in backwards doing, and if we want to change our political system we must first start with a national attitude adjustment.
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The first to adjust must be our youth demographic—starting with me. I live just an hour’s drive from the White House and cannot explain any of President Obama’s bills. I have not heard a single presidential speech. I cannot even name the speaker of the House. But I still have eyes for learning and ears for listening, and as my final year of high school looms, I have realized that the gridlock today jeopardizes the health of my future. Luckily, we are the architects of our own story. We can choose to let the dominoes fall.
Or we can choose to stop them all.
Student Writing Contest co-winner Jim Nichols discusses the rise of market liberalism in the U.S.