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 This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue of Election 2012.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 here. —The Editors
Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented that British citizens were truly free only on election day, when they were able to choose their masters. It follows then that they were in fact bound up in a system over which they possessed very little real control. This observation still holds, though. It forces us to examine the state of American democracy. Do elections ensure the continued realization of our democratic ideal by empowering citizens to check the excesses of elected officials? Or have elections themselves evolved into an institution that not only props up but also actively legitimizes minority rule by a modern-day propertied aristocracy? Are we limiting ourselves and our political power by operating solely within the Electoral College model of democratic action?
For me, the biggest issue of the 2012 election is neither a policy issue nor problematic party rhetoric. Perhaps radically, perhaps idealistically, I take issue with a more foundational element of the election: that many of us continue to see it—and the electoral system at large—as the only form of political expression, deliberation and change. I think that rather than view the election as the sole site of policy discussion in the coming year, we must create new spaces for deliberative dialogue that combat the corporatization of American politics, campaign fundraising that devalues individuals’ political voice and the lack of descriptive representation among officials.
To begin, it is already clear that the 2012 election will offer nothing new to the American electorate in terms of direct political engagement. While grassroots efforts may well register hordes of new voters or knock on a pre-set quota of doors, efforts to promote deliberative democratic discourse that truly advances the needs of average American citizens are missing.
With the rise in infotainment and exponential growth in corporate campaign spending, it is becoming increasingly easy, if not normal, for Americans to disengage from frequent political discourse and adopt heuristic markers of whom they ought to support. Likening candidates to ‘brand’ images is not befitting an “advanced” democracy.
Also, Congress itself is nowhere near representative of the United States as a whole. As a body of 535 individuals, Congress never served as a demographic microcosm of the American electorate. Gender equality is far from realized, with ninety-one female-bodied elected officials outnumbered by 448 male-bodied officials. Representation of communities of color within both houses is dismal; Latina officials represent approximately 5 percent of Congress, whereas the Latino community represents around 16 percent of the electorate. Shockingly, Congress also remains around 87 percent Christian, with next to no religiously unaffiliated members, at a time when upward of 16 percent of Americans self-identify as secular. While it is reasonable to assume that some of our elected officials no doubt act in the interests of these marginalized groups, it should be shocking that these groups continue to be kept out of the political process.
Additionally, the concentrated power of corporations within American politics is increasingly marginalizing the voices of low- and middle-income American, creating asymmetrical conceptions of political liberty determined by the size of one’s paycheck. 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC ruling in favor of corporate personhood opened the floodgates for corporations to donate to SuperPACs, advocate on behalf of politicians, which act in their regulatory interest, and orchestrate the victories of slates of candidates who agree to their terms. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a cooperative venture that brings together corporate lobbyists and conservative elected officials, used this windfall to author model state legislation that advanced Stand Your Ground gun laws, voter suppression bills, racist immigration policies and anti–collective bargaining measures.
Hence, the most significant problem I see facing the United States as we move toward the 2012 election is more than a policy prescription and encompasses the ways in which we as a demos relate to the politics. We cannot abandon electoral organizing in order to confront these issues; we must pursue democratic legitimacy alongside our electoral work this fall. Change must transcend electoral vote-gathering and expand into rational and respectful deliberative dialogue that builds bonds between participants, sows the seeds of community power and brings traditionally marginalized folks to the decision-making table. It must liberate queer folks, communities of color and differently abled, low-income and undocumented people. The challenge in 2012 is not for Democrats to elect a Democrat and for Republicans to elect a Republican but a collective challenge for us—Democrat, Republican or independent—to reclaim our political voice during all four years of a presidential term. We must choose to move towards a shared conception of justice and social solidarity that differentiates itself from Capitol Hill’s petty electoral games.