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 This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue of Election 2012.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

Many years ago, an anti-apartheid activist by the name of Steven Biko said that “the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. As Americans draw closer and closer towards election season, his words ring true in my mind.

In January of 2010, a divided US Supreme Court ruled (in the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case) that it was unconstitutional to ban corporations and unions from independent spending towards political campaigns. In just two years this case has drastically changed elections and has severe implications about what lies in the future for our political system. The principle behind America’s representative democracy is that an elected official represents a group of people, and their values. But when America was founded, citizens didn’t have to face politically biased media networks, and didn’t have to combat deceptive attack ads. Most importantly, our founding citizens didn’t have to hope the right people bought the election.

In short, I think the most important issue of election 2012 is the lack of regulations on corporate power over our democratic system. This Supreme Court case all started when the conservative nonprofit group Citizens United took offense with pre-existing laws banning political expenditures by private corporations and unions. It petitioned the Supreme Court, and in the end won with a 5-4 vote. As a student and future voter, I take issue with the court’s verdict. Looking back on the 2008 presidential race, I remember going to see a candidate speak. Back then, she had the right to sling mud at her opponents, and say what she wanted. But if she were to run this year, her entire electronic campaign could be funded by willing corporate donors and a few super-rich individuals, all of whom could stay anonymous.

Fast forward to 2012. After resistance towards controversial Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker culminated in a recall election, Walker managed to retain his seat by a small margin. The election was heavily covered by the news, but the fact that was ignored was that Walker outspent his Democrat opponent seven to one, and that almost all his funds came from out-of-state sources. It’s stories like this that are deeply concerning. Even small, local elections can be swayed by enough positive or negative publicity, and with this Supreme Court ruling, corporations and unions can donate unlimited amounts of money to empower candidates. This tightens large industry’s grip on politics, and makes it easier for candidates representing entities like oil or natural gas development to be elected. 

President Barack Obama himself responded to the Court ruling with anger, saying that it “has given a green light” for “big oil, Wall street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington”.

I’ll be able to vote in two years, and I don’t want to begin in a nation where the bills passed and decisions made are all done under the eyes of a few energy and industry conglomerates that work together to form a veritable “Big Brother”, ready to throw the well-being of the working man under the bus for a higher profit. Since 2006, political donations from undisclosed donors have risen dramatically, while disclosed donations have dropped dramatically in turn.

If we don’t give our president and Congress the power to act against the Supreme Court’s decision, young and upcoming voters like me won’t have the right to information, we won’t be able to know who really donates to the politicians and influences their decisions. If we continue to treat corporations like humans, we make ourselves subhuman.

Just like Steve Biko said, our mind can be the strongest weapon against ourselves. Why do you think rural, working-class citizens frequently vote for politicians who cut taxes for the wealthy? Why do you think blue-collar workers put leaders in power who have long histories of outsourcing jobs?

It’s all about false consciousness. When one candidate can raise over seven time the funds of the other, it becomes nearly impossible to get a nonbiased view of the election! Right now we stand at a crossroads. We can remain passive and get less and less real information, bowing down to candidates that can please corporate donors. Or, we can take action. We can support politicians who will fight the Supreme Court’s ruling, and enact election reform laws. We are not subhuman, and we will not be treated like we are. It’s time to reform our system and win back our minds.