We don’t vote. I get it. We aren’t confident in the system. We don’t think our vote matters. There aren’t any candidates worth voting for. We don’t think congress cares about our problems, therefore we don’t care who is running for congress.
A poll by the Harvard University Institute of Politics recently found that only 26% of young people, ages 18-29, “Definitely will be voting.” The same poll found that 80% of young people don’t consider themselves politically engaged. And 60% of us don’t follow politics closely at all. 43% of us think the nation is “off on the wrong track” while 40% of us aren’t really sure where the nation is going. We disapprove of the president. We disapprove of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. There isn’t much we approve of, really. And we still don’t vote.
The executive summary to that Harvard IOP poll concludes that we are “pessimistic, untrusting, lacking confidence in government and suspecting the motives of the Congress in general and of [our] own elected leaders in particular.” We don’t vote because we think the game is rigged. The candidates are phonies. Our Democracy has failed us.
But we care.
We were the heart and soul of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We recognize huge issues that plague our country, like increasing wealth inequality, astronomical student debt paired with higher job scarcity, and unnecessary government spending. We think poverty is an important issue, but our government is unable to do anything about it. 42% of us think that community volunteerism is the best way to solve important issues facing the country, while only 18% believe political engagement is the key.
The Harvard IOP poll also found that, while we are unlikely to volunteer on a political campaign, 67% of us are likely to volunteer for community service. A Pew research poll found that 50% of us are politically independent. We don’t like institutions. We’d rather get out there and fix the problems ourselves, because big institutions and government can’t get the job done.
So we don’t think our vote counts. We don’t think politics fixes anything. We are tired of political parties. We are tired of the gridlock in congress. And we believe that the best way to solve a problem is by getting out there and fixing it ourselves. Now let me tell you what the real problem is.
Money in politics.
The real problem in American politics is there is too much campaign spending. The election industry in America (yes, I said industry) pumped through nearly $4 billion during the 2014 midterm. In the 2012 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent over $1 billion each, while total campaign spending in 2012 exceeded $6 billion. Why is there so much money spent on political campaigns in America? Because money buys elections.
In 2014, 28 out of 35 Senatorial campaigns were won by candidates who spent more than their opponents. 407 out of 435 House of Reps. campaigns were won by candidates who spent more money. Campaign spending has increased at an incredible rate because politicians, and those who fund their campaigns, recognize how to win elections. No longer does a candidate’s political platform determine his electability. In 2014, Republicans overwhelmingly took back the majority in the Senate and gained seats in the House without stating a clear platform. They did it by making Dems look bad.
Harvard Law School professor, Lawrence Lessig, claims in a 2013 TED talk that the American Republic is broken. He points out that no average Joe in America can just decide to run for public office. (Well, he can–but he won’t get elected). No, in order to run for public office, you have to get funding. This might seem reasonable enough. I’ve given you the statistics. In order to have a chance of being elected in America, you’ve got to at least spend as much as your opponent. How do you get funding? Do you go door to door the old school way and ask people for their support, and maybe a small contribution? You could. But you won’t get very far.
You see, the people who fund elections are a very small minority in this country. In 2014, 0.21% of the population, 670,000 people (less than the entire population of Wake County, NC), contributed a little more than $2 billion to federal campaigns. Less than 1% of the population of the United States contributed 66% of campaign funding. To us young people, that statistic should sound quite familiar. Might this be the same 1% who control more than 80% of the nation’s wealth?
So in order to have a reasonable chance of getting elected, you must appeal to the funders, the 1 percent. Without their blessing, there is no hope. What does this mean, exactly?
Care to provide examples?
Sure! There are plenty of examples. Let’s look at one high profile example which I think is particularly interesting.
In his 2012 presidential Campaign, President Obama raised over $700 million himself. OpenSecrets.org lists “the Blue Team” as having spent $1.1 billion in the election, but this “Blue Team” consists of both the candidate’s own political spending as well as outside spending by SuperPACs and other political organizations.
OpenSecrets.org lists total donations by sector for each presidential candidate. Sectors being things like Agribusiness, Defense, Health, Labor, etc. for instance, Obama received more than $20 million in donations from people associated with the Communications/Electronics sector, while Mitt Romney received about $7.5 million. This is a large difference, which at first glance might seem harmless, but let’s look at things a little more closely.
In 2013, Obama named former cable and wireless industry lobbyist, Tom Wheeler, to head the Federal Communications Commission. As chairman of the FCC, Wheeler oversees the regulatory body for the telecommunications industry in America. According to The Guardian, Wheeler raised more than $500,000 for the Obama campaign, and personally contributed more than $17,000 to Obama’s reelection and to several senate campaigns.
Wheeler is seen as a threat to Net Neutrality by internet activists who believe he will enact policy changes which allow ISPs to charge websites for access to premium load speeds. Although Obama has recently come out in favor of a free and open internet, he hardly has any say over the matter, and it was he who appointed this new Chair. One can speculate as to why he appointed Wheeler to the position. I am inclined to think it’s because he owed him.
More examples? The top contributors to Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign are all major banks. That is, individual members, employees, or owners of the banks, and those individuals’ immediate families, made the most contributions to Romney’s campaign. Of course, Mitt wasn’t elected, so we don’t know what this statistic would have meant. But it sure speaks volumes about what Mitt would have done for the Banks.
Harry Reid (D) received $1 million from lobbyists alone in 2014. Two of the top five contributors to Mitch McConnell’s (R) campaign were big banks. John Boehner (R) received $1.1 million from the Securities and Investment industry in 2014.
In nearly every case, more than 50% of total campaign donations are in the form of large individual contributions. The point is that, instead of being funded by the people, our political candidates are funded by a very small minority, the uber rich.
A study by Martin Gilens, of Princeton, and Benjamin Page, of Northwestern, which made a striking discovery about the influence of public opinion over policy change in America. According to the study, when average citizens overwhelmingly support the adoption of a piece of legislation, it stands an approximately 20% chance of being passed in congress. And when average citizens overwhelmingly oppose the adoption of a piece of legislation, it stands an approximately 20% chance of being passed. Whether average citizens support or oppose a law, it has the same odds of being passed in congress.
This isn’t too weird when we look at how our government was designed to work. There are deliberate checks and balances built into the system meant to make passing new laws difficult. The authors of this study acknowledge this status quo bias and don’t deny that it is to be expected. But they found something quite disturbing as well.
When economic elites oppose a particular piece of legislation, it has nearly 0% chance of passing. Conversely, when economic elites support a piece of legislation, it has almost 40% chance of passing. While both of these numbers being below 50% reflect the same status quo bias we noted above, the stark contrast says something profound about the political system in America. It doesn’t matter what average citizens think. Gilens and Page sum it all up nicely: “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule.” And so it goes.
All hope is lost?
So we’ve identified a major problem in American politics, one that seemingly won’t be an easy fix. How are we supposed to fix a system from which those who make the laws stand to benefit? Americans are all about the status quo. We don’t like change.
Ah, but we–us, the young people–we crave change. We need change. We’re sick and tired of the status quo, so much so that we’ll get out and solve problems ourselves. We occupied Wall Street. We got on Facebook and Twitter and let the world know just how absurd the growing wealth gap in this country really is. We lit up social media with our outrage at the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.
We’ll fight the NSA and our own government who believes that Edward Snowden is a traitor and a spy. We won’t accept it when older generations say they don’t mind government spying because they don’t have anything to hide. We won’t stand for our internet and cell phone data to be collected and analyzed.
We won’t allow Tom Wheeler and the FCC to deregulate the internet. We’ll make our voices heard everywhere so that the internet will always remain free. We’ll protest in the streets and invent new #hashtags. We’ll post YouTube videos to our Facebook feed and comment on articles on HuffPo and upvote Reddit posts and reblog pages on Tumblr, all so that our message can be spread.
We have a collective voice that is growing louder each day, and it’s becoming harder and harder for politicians to plug their ears.
There are solutions to the problem.
Call it Campaign Finance Reform. Call it taking back America. Call it whatever you like. The point is there are solutions to the problem. What we need to do is spread the word. Check out these links, read up on the proposed solutions. Share them on Facebook and Twitter. Do your part to spread the message. This is the most important thing.
OpenSecrets.org is a website run by the Center for Responsive Politics. Their mission is to “Inform, Empower, and Advocate. It is a non-partisan, non-profit organization which “aims to create a more educated voter, and involved citizenry and a more transparent and responsive government.” It is a vital resource for those of us interested in learning just where the money comes from, and where it’s going.
Lawrence Lessig has a brilliant TED talk entitled “We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim” which you can find at www.ted.com. He also proposes one method of Campaign Finance Reform called the Grant and Franklin Project, which he discusses further on his blog here.
The Fair Elections Now Act is a proposed bill which would enable anyone who garners enough popular support to run a competitive election. It seeks to render irrelevant campaign funding by big donors and corporations, or at least limit their influence.
The American Anti-Corruption Act would overhaul the current election system in America. It is a “sweeping proposal that would reshape the rules of American politics, and restore ordinary Americans as the most important stakeholders instead of major donors.”
Not only are these three proposed solutions entirely viable, but they would restore our democracy to the way it was devised by the founding fathers of this nation. We the young people have a chance to save our country from crippling clutches of the economic elite. Fight back. Spread the message on social media. Change the world. That is what you want to do, right?