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Our Democracy Is Broken, But We Can Fix It

By Daniel E. Backman

What does $6.5 billion buy? For Harvard, it buys House renewal, campus expansion in Allston, a larger engineering school, more common spaces, more financial aid, and new courses on edX. At the Against Malaria Foundation, one of GiveWell’s top-rated charities, it buys 2.6 million saved lives.

For the American people, it buys an election.

Yes, the 2012 congressional and presidential election, the election that culminated in 90 percent of incumbent representatives and 91 percent of incumbent senators returning to the Hill and the same man remaining in the Oval Office, cost $6.5 billion dollars. And that does not even include the hundreds of millions spent by “issue-advocacy” groups, whose political activities and donors go completely undisclosed.

Indeed, in the wake of Citizens United and years of weak campaign finance laws, there is a lot we do not know about how our elected officials reached our TVs, our YouTube videos, and our ballots in the endless campaign leading up to Tuesday, November 6. What we do know is that 61 Super PAC donors, contributing an average of $4.7 million each, spent as much on the 2012 election as the 1.43 million ever-touted small donors to the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns. We know that 132 individuals, giving at least $1 million each, covered 60.4 percent of Super PACs’ $600 million investment. We also know that it would take 322,000 average American families to match Sheldon and Miriam Adelson’s 2012 election spending, assuming each family gave the same share of its net worth as the couple did.

Finally, we the people—the voters, donors, politicians, lobbyists, CEOs, and citizens—know, or at least cannot help but suspect, that all this money has corrupted our political system. When we hear the above facts, the sacred democratic ideal of “one person, one vote” sounds like a sick delusion. When we know that our representatives spend hours each day fundraising as corporations and special interests spend $3.3 billion a year lobbying, our measly marks on a ballot feel like a pittance in the vast economy of influence that runs our political system. And when we know that the president who promised to take back Washington from the “stranglehold” of special interests now has his own issue-advocacy group playing the same old game, we just sigh, disappointed yet not surprised.

But as students and future leaders, those charged with making the world a better place, we cannot let this legalized corruption continue. A vibrant and growing movement has emerged to finally take back our democracy, and this year you can join that movement right here on campus. If this corruption concerns you, and it should, I invite you to join Democracy Matters this fall.

DM here in Cambridge is one of 50 campus chapters throughout the country affiliated with the campaign finance reform advocacy group Common Cause. By building a coalition with political groups of all stripes on campus, DM will offer many opportunities for students to learn about the issue of campaign finance, take on leadership roles, engage with the national movement, and create change at the campus, local, state, and federal level. The goal, publically financed elections nationwide, is simple. Getting there is the tough part.

DM is a home for those of us fighting for our political goals, be it environmental protection or more efficient government, but getting drowned out by those with more sway in Washington. But just as important, it is for those of us so fed up by the absurdity of politics today that following the political debate feels like a complete waste of time.

Like many students here, I have spent countless hours outside of class on activities and causes I care about, and I know how difficult it is to take on yet another one. But I am convinced that our broken campaign finance system lies at the heart of so many problems we devote our time to, and so many others we give up on because they seem impossible to solve.

Campaign finance is not a story of heroes and villains, or of bags of money passed under the table. Rather, it is one of mostly well-intentioned people caught up in a corrupt system. And while it is certainly a daunting task, ending this corruption is possible if we make our voices heard.

Daniel E. Backman ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Mather House.

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