By Adonal Foyle, Founder of Democracy Matters
By Adonal Foyle Last weekend while some of my NBA colleagues traveled to
The students were members of a new national organization I founded last summer, Democracy Matters, to help give young people a voice in the growing movement to reform the financing of our political system. This was our first chance to get together, and Democracy Matters activists took planes, buses, and trains to come together in snowy
But for me what was most exciting about the intense hours we spent together was that they vividly confirmed the assumption that underlay my founding the organization. Students have the desire to speak out loud and clear on important issues and an incredible ability for new and original thought. Democracy Matters chapters have found creative ways to reach out to their campuses and to link up with campaign finance reform efforts in their communities. The issue of big money in politics is no longer a cause in search of a social movement that includes young people.
What this weekend proved to me is that students aren’t apathetic at all. Of course they are critical of and even disillusioned with the current system of financing elections — as are many of us. And why shouldn’t they be? The revelation of political quid pro quos associated with the Enron scandal is only the most recent demonstration of something that everybody knows and which is the reason students turn away from political involvement. The system that I believe students will lead the charge to change is one in which elected officials depend on and become beholden to special interests that make large financial contributions to their election and reelection efforts. When the phone rings and a receptionist tells the incumbent or the candidate that Mr. Poorman (who does not contribute to the reelection fund) is on line 1 and that Ms. Richperson (who makes substantial contributions) is on line 2, there is no doubt who will get through. Failure to speak to the donor may put at risk the lifeblood of running for political office: the ever-growing amount of money it takes to be a candidate. The upshot is that elected officials and candidates accord differences in “access” based on the level of contributions donated. Politicians today spend huge amounts of their time raising money and are too often concerned more about not alienating their donors than about representing and serving their constituents.
There is nothing inspiring – or indeed democratic – about a politics in which influence is measured by the size of donations. It would be strange indeed if students were not turned off by such a system. But this weekend’s Democracy Matters summit showed another side of student concern. The debates about the kind of financing that would be fair and give every American an equal chance to be heard were serious and nuanced. The disagreements that emerged were not just tolerated, but respectfully seen as sources of insight and fresh thinking. For anyone concerned about student disinterest, last weekend’s intense discussions and planning would have provided an effective antidote.
Americans are proud to be patriots and move quickly to defend the country when it is attacked. It is right for us to do so, but there must be more to defend than just the nation state. We can’t be proud of a system in which elected representatives are sold and policies parceled out to the highest bidder. We ought to be defending the free and democratic content of the country as well as the lives of its citizens and their property. This is what the students’ call for real campaign finance reform this weekend was all about.