My Generation Is Far From Apathetic

By Adonal Foyle, Founder of Democracy Matters

By Adonal Foyle Last weekend while some of my NBA colleagues traveled to Philadelphia for the All-Star Game, I returned to the beautiful village in upstate New York where I had spent my high school and college years. Colgate University, my alma mater, had planned a ceremony retiring the number I wore there as a varsity basketball player. But the weekend had more thrills in store. On Friday evening, I had the honor of introducing Senator Bill Bradley to an overflow audience in the school’s chapel, explaining how he had inspired me to attempt to combine academic excellence, a career in professional sports, and a commitment to civic engagement and social responsibility. But the most gratifying experience was yet to come – spending two full days talking, arguing, and planning with a group of over seventy college students passionately committed to making difference in their world and why defy the stereotype of today’s college students as apathetic and uncaring.

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 Hamilton, from as far away as Texas, Idaho, and North Carolina. During the weekend, they slept on cots, couches, or sleeping bags on the hard floor, all for the opportunity to meet other coordinators and activists. Together we shared our dreams and our frustrations in the battle to deepen the democratic soul of this country.

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.

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