Hello big money, goodbye public opinion politics

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By Erin Delman

As the competition for the Republican nomination chugs along, the issue of campaign finance reform has made its way into debates, articles and features in the Colbert Report. Yet despite the comedic value of Mitt Romney’s mortifyingly uncomfortable assertion that “corporations are people, my friend,” the influence of corporate spending in this nation’s politics is beyond disconcerting.

A narrow margin of conservative Supreme Court justices ruled in the 2010 landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the federal government may not ban spending by corporations during political elections. By considering corporations people and classifying money as free speech, the 5-4 vote thrust campaign finance reform to the forefront of political issues. “Getting big money out of politics and people back in is the most critical issue facing our society today,” asserts Founder of Democracy Matters Joan Mandle. “As long as huge corporate campaign money dominates politics, the voices of students and other Americans cannot be heard.”

Effectively, the fundamental tenets of our democracy, and thus the American identity itself, are under siege. Democracy is meant to be an inclusive process of citizen participation; the system forged by our founding fathers was designed to maintain government accountability to the people.

Today, however, the influence of big-money lobbyists in the system is so pervasive that it discourages the participation necessary to maintain its existence. Voter turnout in the U.S. is surprisingly low, at only around 50 percent for high profile elections. The exorbitant cost of running for president, approximately $4 billion in the 2004 race, prohibits all but the very-wealthy (we’re not talking the 1 percent here; think 0.01 to 0.1 percent) from entering the competition. Incumbent re-election rates top 90 percent in both federal and state races!

Our politicians are spending up to 20 hours per week raising money for their next campaign cycle, time that could better be spent improving our economic crisis or researching solutions to the pressing global problems of our time. As of Sept. 30, 2011, President Obama had already raised over $99 million for the 2012 presidential race; Mitt Romney, the leading Republican front-runner had almost acquired $33 million.

The worst part about corporate monetary involvement in public politics, however, is the undeniable advantage it affords big-money industries. Between 1990 and 2010, the energy and natural resources sector contributed $513,041,065 to federal campaigns. Oil and gas offered $252,941,488. Environmentalists, on the other hand, provided a meager $24,573,566. Gun rights lobbyists contributed $22,357,050; their gun control counterparts did not even reach 10 percent of that value with $1,888,886. Clearly, a discrepancy exists in the resources available to different industries, which facilitates biases that may be disparate from public sentiment.

So, what can be done? A democracy can only be as strong as its elections: we need to boost competition and participation to strengthen our political system. Private money can no longer dominate national or state elections, but rather a public financing option must be established to allow citizens the ability to run for office.

In Congress, the Fair Elections Act will help achieve the goal of giving Congressional candidates the means to run a competitive race without corporate support and wealthy donors. Instead small donations as well as public grants would be allotted to candidates. States such as Maine and Arizona have already seen success with such programs.

By changing campaign finance laws, we will restructure our democracy into one that represents the desires and voices of the people not special interests and corporate agendas. Students who are interested in making a difference should become involved in Union’s chapter of Democracy Matters by contacting Gabrielle Levine. Through grassroots activism, students can change the country. We must, as Mandle stressed, continue to fight for a “government  of, by, and for the American people—not one bought and paid for by big political funders.’

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