Writing Contest 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
John Maynard Keynes noted that the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. I would argue that Keynes’s words are as relevant as ever before as we seek a culprit to the political dysfunction facing our nation. Looking around I see direct links to the rise and dominance of market liberalism, an agenda which Keynes battled in his own time. In my own day-to-day life, in both the workplace and political arena, I have witnessed the predominance of market liberalism. I am sure that you too, dear Nation reader, have witnessed this encroachment as well.
The past three decades of market liberalism’s predominance has had a devastating impact on civil society. The transition and return to a more feudal arrangement that Hayek and others of a libertarian ilk have aspired to over the past seventy years is nearing completion. The strains of market liberalism—a utopian project from its very origins, as was noted long ago by Karl Polanyi—have eroded the fabric of civil society. We face a moment in history that calls for us to reflect and revisit fundamental social questions unaddressed by adherents of this ideology, an ideology which commodifies everything into market arrangements to be priced.
From the dramatic rise of food insecurity to the rapid decline of well-paid jobs, from the massive incarceration rate to the student debt crisis, economic and cultural tensions of our times are reaching a point of fracture. The passionate pursuit of deregulation, liberalization and privatization from both sides of the aisles of government and across the boardrooms of corporate America did not just create a cadre of Occupy activists but a much deeper malaise and discontent across our nation that transcends age, race, class and political affiliation.
Not only have we as a society lost many of the principles of popular participation in decision-making that are fundamental to democracy; many of our citizens are completely unaware even of what has been lost. Over the past five years as I worked to finish my degree I would get up every day at 2 am to join many of the working poor in my area to load up big brown UPS trucks. For a large portion of my co-workers, civil society and the social bonds that keep society functioning have completely disappeared—as have the hopes, dreams and aspirations of better days. Far worse, their own capacities to recognize this state of affairs and do anything about it are in disrepair. When a person lacks knowledge of the basic functioning of the political process, when one lacks the economic stability required to engage and take part in building a vibrant political movement, then not only are political questions passed over, but questions of political solutions are totally eradicated from one’s vocabulary.
In 2010, between class-time, I took some union support and some hits to my GPA and beat the Democratic Senate Caucus’ candidate in a State Senate primary here in Georgia. Just like other Democrats in 2010 I got shellacked on Election Day. But the fundamental lesson it taught me was that the political apparatus to acquire political power is still accessible to left-wing candidates. What we lack, and what would be required to pass through legislatures the systemic and anti-corporatist reforms our times call for, is a mobilized and agitated democratic movement. My experience within the Democratic Party tells me we do not need a radical overthrow of political institutions, we need a radical re-engagement by citizens into politics and a willingness to use means which cannot be priced by markets.
In our current crisis we must not seek out the best leaders, we must rebuild a culture that seeks to nurture the best in all of us. “The real question to be propounded is, ‘What can workingmen do for themselves?’ The answer is ready. They can do all things required, if they are independent, self-respecting, and self-reliant,” noted Eugene Debs long ago. Independence, self-respect and self-reliance—three things lacking in many of my co-workers, cohorts in the classroom, and voters I met on the campaign trail.
My campaign experience made me feel that a specter is haunting America, that of our citizens’ inability to see, understand, or act—as autonomous individuals in a collective manner—to challenge their own decline. Now is the time to nurture independence, self-respect and self-reliance within the ranks of American citizens. Market liberalism is nothing short of an agenda to destroy fundamental bonds that tie us together as humans. Eradicate the stranglehold of market liberalism on the political process, and the rest will take care of itself.