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The Carletonian

The People

<ng the most popular diatribes against politics today are those about the corruption of Washington, and the damning influence of money in all things politics, be they elections, legislation, appointments, or judicial decisions. So called straight talkers on TV love having conversations about Washington dysfunction, all of which inevitably circle back to greedy politicians and corruption. Liberals decry the Supreme Court decision on the Citizens United case that reversed many of the tough McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms. Now the inflow of money into political advertisements will be unprecedented; corporations and other rich special interests will be able to single-handedly sway elections! The right conversely makes it an issue of free speech and privacy. It’s in that sacred document, the Constitution; gotta love everything in there to be a patriot! I can easily weigh in on this specific debate: I don’t think money should be viewed as political speech and I think politics should be viewed as sacred, with its protection from economic interests paramount.

However, I don’t think this debate is very useful, because it leaves out an essential factor in all of this: the people. Where are they? What part do they play? Implicit in the Washington discussions about the influence of money in elections is the assumption that voters are essentially incredibly vulnerable to manipulation. Most citizens are not well versed on political issues or have poorly conceived notions of how things work. The outcome of an election, therefore, is based on who has more money and thus who can most effectively hammer home the nicest sounding and most easily digestible message. It is easy to say in theory that money buys elections, but today it buys it not in the way of outright fraud, but rather by slanting issues and misinforming voters so they’ll agree with the messenger.

Phrased like that, the debate about money is really incredibly abhorrent. There is, however, much truth to its conceptions. After all, if the exposure and messaging that money buys didn’t matter, money would not be that big of a deal. If misleading ads didn’t work, they would not be used.

This is the status quo, and while many agree it is unacceptable, the debate needs to focus on the people, and not only on the system, which is very much a reflection of the population at large. The real leadership challenge is not, therefore, to figure out how to pass the DISCLOSE Act to discourage corporate and foreign money from flowing into elections, but rather to figure out how to engage citizens so they know why they have a stake in government. We need not so much a change in the system, but a rebirth of the citizen. People are fond of complaining about unprincipled politicians who will do anything to get elected, but in a way, this isn’t such a bad thing. In an economic sense, a politician who will do hold any view to get elected is really just a service designed for his or her market. Politicians would not change their opinions if they didn’t think their constituents would agree with them. Spineless politicians are really just reflections of the demands of the electoral marketplace.

Yet, most agree this isn’t optimal. Where do we go from here? People need to be challenged to understand issues and question their assumptions. This takes leadership from the top and bottom. It will take politicians who spend a comparable amount of time with constituents who disagree with them as they do with supporters. Out of government, we need civic leaders taking to communities to get people involved and thinking about the issues. In the short term, it means engagement that pushes people to understand why they need to have some skin in the game. Or rather, they need to realize that they’ve got skin in the game, and need to start understanding how that skin is really affected by policy decisions. In the long run, the answer is education, education, education. People need to grow up with an understanding of how the political system affects everyone, and that they have a duty as citizens to be engaged.

Of course, it would be really easy to read this as just another government loving liberal whining about how people do not care about government, or even just as a political science major thinking his subject matters the most. Both of these readings would be wrong. I understand that politics and public policy is something I get off to, and I don’t expect that from ninety-nine percent of the population. The reality though, is that politics are an essential aspect of society. It has real implications for every person. Until we start thinking about how we can re-engage the citizen in everyone, the political system will hardly change. And if there is something on which people of all political persuasions do agree, it is that the status quo is simply unacceptable.

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