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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Grassroots Organizing and Clean Elections

    Our nation was founded on grassroots political organizing — and I’m not just saying that to be quixotic and inspirational. One of the basic principles of being American is this idea of “regular” people sticking it to the man and people outside the government banding together to make a difference.

    The tradition is certainly still alive. The Progressives did it in the early 1900s, the women’s suffrage movement kept it strong throughout the teens, in the 1950s and ’60s we saw the civil rights and anti-war movements. Perhaps it has died down since then, but there are certainly still a gamut of issues people could be protesting about, if you’re into that sort of thing. Luckily for all of us lazy Americans who like to complain, there still are lots of people who are into that sort of thing.

    One of the bigger issues getting attention from activists nowadays is the recent push for publicly funded elections. The idea here is that politicians, in order to run their campaigns, need to accept donations from rich people. The politicians are then indebted to the rich people who fund their campaigns rather than their constituents. I’m a politician, you’re the CEO of an oil or pharmaceutical company. I call you and ask you for money and you say, “What are you going to give me in return?” And I say, “Well what do you want in return?” There’s a great Family Guy episode about it, except that in Lois’s case it’s more of a bribe. This is kind of like a bribe, except that it’s perfectly legal. I kid you not.

    Some people out there see this as a problem, apparently because politicians now care about the people who give them money rather than the voters who they’re supposed to be representing. Groups like the non-profit political organization Democracy Matters argue that if these campaigns were fully funded with public money, rather than private donations, politicians wouldn’t have to spend 80 percent of their time fundraising and would be able to focus instead on the needs of their constituents rather than the needs of their funders. Okay, fair enough. So how do you actually get a public funding system?

    The presidential election already has one. State offices in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut also have it. The thing to remember, though, is that it’s always optional: if you want to take public money, you can; if you want to fund your campaign privately, that’s fine.

    The problem is that politicians are in a bind. If you’re a congressman deciding whether or not to support public funding, on the one hand, you really don’t like spending all that time on the phone or at cocktail parties begging rich guys for money. On the other hand, you already know all the rich guys who funded your previous campaign, which means your opponent is at a disadvantage. Offering him the option of public funding will level the playing field, which means you’re more likely to get voted out of office.

    So being that politicians have stalled on the issue, political activists have decided that the best way to affect change is to create a grassroots movement in favor publicly funded elections. If people support clean elections, they’ll pressure their representatives to do the same. It’ll be just like the women’s suffrage, civil rights and anti-war movements.

    The problem is that the push for clean elections is nothing like any of these other movements. If I was trying to convince you to support women’s suffrage, I could basically sum it up in one sentence: women should be allowed to vote. The same for the Civil Rights Movement: minorities should have equal rights. No more war. We’re here, we’re queer get used to it, etc. But for whatever reason, people just don’t have the same emotional reaction to the slogan “We need to legislate in favor of creating an optional publicly funded campaign system. Yeah!”

    Even if that somehow got people’s attention, they would inevitably proceed to ask for some details on how a program like that would work since no one wants to throw their support behind something they don’t understand. So go on, go try to explain the issue of public funding to someone and watch them ask you for every minute detail of the plan, details that will inevitably bore them until they want nothing to do with you. I’ve been trying to organize around this issue for some time now and believe me, absolute boredom is a pretty popular response.

    Other popular responses are: “The problems associated with private money in politics are overrated,” as well as, “Publicly funded elections are an unrealistic goal because Congress will never go for it.” In my mind, there are three kinds of people who are interested in politics — people on the activist side, people on the academic side, and the people who work for the politicians themselves.

    Academics tend to say that none of what I’ve just discussed is actually a problem. Crazy activists and conspiracy theorists made the whole thing up in order to complain about something. People who work in government tend to see it as a problem but don’t think there’s much of a solution. The funny thing is that I’ve sat down with politicians, I’ve talked to their aides, I’ve debated with professors and many of them quickly realize that this is kind of a problem and, according to Main, Arizona and Connecticut, there is a reasonable solution. The best part is that, since these people are already interested in politics, they have the attention span to hear me out.

    Now, instead of focusing their efforts on people who are into politics, activists are concentrating on the throngs of Americans who really couldn’t care less. They mostly target colleges (Stony Brook, among others) telling students about the injustices of private campaign donations, hoping to start the sort of student revolts we saw in the ’60s.

    The essential reason for this is that these activists truly believe that a grassroots movement is possible here because they truly believe that this issue is just like women’s suffrage and civil rights. To find out how the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Movement affected your life, all you had to do was look to a friend, a neighbor, a relative who had been killed in combat or oppressed because of the color of his skin.

    To figure out how the corrupting influence of private money in politics affects your life, you have to be a bloody policy expert. When clean elections came to Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, they didn’t come by popular demand, they came because it makes sense. What we need to do now is put aside these feel-good, populist tendencies and develop a realistic strategy for change. What we need to do now is reform how we reform.

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